Past Reviews
 
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Past Reviews

Zoolander 2

Yes, it’s ridiculous. It’s supposed to be...

Hail Caesar

Why don’t we leave the Coen Brothers’ 1950’s

Hollywood studio comedy walking on air?

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Michael Bay efforts to keep the politics out of this movie, but, really, how can you

keep the politics out of a movie about the terror that happened at Benghazi?

The Revenant

Gorgeous to look at, this romantic survivalist

revenger has the heart of an ice pick...

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarentino’s latest homage mashup hits

a lot of familiar notes, but where’s the fun?

Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens

J.J. Abrams has, for the most part, taken the safe

road, not re-inventing the wheel, but building a solid,

respectful and, at times, darn entertaining reboot...

Joy

It’s awfully hard for me to not find some joy in this imperfect movie about

a daring woman who digs deep and soars. You got a problem with that?

Son of Saul

Son of Saul stands as one of the most extraordinary films ever made about the Holocaust. The fact

that it was made by a first time filmmaker makes it one of the most extraordinary film debuts in years...

In the Heart of the Sea

Ron Howard’s clunky telling of how Herman Melville

researched Moby Dick is an ambitious slog...

The Big Short

Adam McKay has delivered an energetic, highly entertaining

movie that could be titled ‘The 2008 Credit Bubble

Burst for Dummies’. That dummy would be me...

Creed

Don’t go assuming this is just another undercard in the Rocky series. After a

somewhat predictable start, Ryan Coogler digs in to deliver what is undeniably

a hit to the heart: the most emotionally satisfying crescendo of the year...

The Danish Girl

Buoyed by two remarkable performances, this is a film that becomes

increasingly alluring once it puts its (great looking) clothes back on...

Carol

Todd Haynes’ immaculate film sweeps us away, but not for the reasons I was expecting.

Spectre

An action extravaganza of diminishing returns, this Bond chapter

left me a little bit shaken, but definitely not stirred...

Miss You Already

I’m obedient. I cried. But it wasn’t a good cry.

Spotlight

While Tom McCarthy’s beautifully crafted film about the Boston Globe

investigation of the sex abuse in the Church is very much of a

time and place, it also couldn’t be more important now...

Brooklyn

Set in the 1950’s New York borough, this especially charming, beautifully

made story of an Irish newcomer sweeps us all off our sensibly clad feet...

Bridge of Spies

Deliberately not reinventing the wheel, Spielberg and esteemed

company have delivered an absorbing, feel good historical drama...

Room

This remarkable adaptation is unnerving, intimate and surprisingly cool.

You’ll be as moved, curious and safe as you might want to be...

Steve Jobs

It’s fitting, I suppose, that a movie about the complicated man behind

Apple be complicated as well and, in that sense, this adventurous

Danny Boyle/AaronSorkin spin succeeds. But, is that dazzle enough?

The Walk

Robert Zemeckis, retelling Petit’s most famous walk,

creates his own art, with a 3D mastery that is nothing

but depth defying and beautifully sweat provoking...

The Martian

This genuinely thrilling sci-fi thriller about smart

people is also sensational entertainment...

Black Mass

While the whole is less than the sum of its parts, this retelling

of the Whitey Bulger story sure has some magnificent parts...

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Even if it isn’t as much of grabber as the TV series,

Guy Ritchie’s reboot sure gets points for style...

The Gift

This chilly chiller has a lot more on its mind than only getting you to jump out of your seat...

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

You sure get your bang for the buck with this one.

Vacation

Perhaps the funniest thing about this silly sequel is the

shock andhorror some are expressing in its wake...

Ant-Man

If you can hang in there an hour and a half, this latest Marvel installment

does, finally, deliver. But why do we have to wait so long???

Train Wreck

Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck is anything but. Baudy, assured,

realistic and mature this laugh-out-loud comedy is a delight...

Self/Less

This movie is as bad as it looks. Director Tarsem Singh never wrangles

Alex and David Pastor’s mess of a mélange into anything comprehensible...

Magic Mike XXL

Proving it’s not just looks, but heart, the effectively packaged but very

uneven entertainment delivers a few things that are just darn irresistible...

Ted 2

Do you have to be high in order to laugh here?

No, but for a whole lot of this movie it sure feels that way.

Inside Out

There’s no real way to prepare yourself for the flat out marvel

of Inside Out, the Pixar release that not only revives the studio’s

  legacy, but the whole concept of family entertainment...

Jurassic World

Not much happens in this chapter’s first hour or so. And then all hell

breaks loose, delivering exactly what you bought those tickets to see.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Shooting a burst of much needed oxygen into the current

scene, this very lively winner thrives on its unabashed love of

film and innovative yet poignant storytelling...

Spy

This is the movie we Melissa McCarthy fans have been waiting for:

a sweet, silly and stealthily smart spoof that delivers genuine laughs...

Entourage

Boys will be Boys. You were expecting Shakespeare, maybe?

 

Aloha

Aloha is a word with many meanings. In the case of Cameron

Crowe’s latest film, it’s definition can only be “whaaaa?”...

Pitch Perfect 2

It may not be well, you know, perfect, but this harmonious sequel still sings...

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well, hot damn! George Miller’s Mad Max reboot kicks the

superhero action genre in the butt, charging forth with a furious

yet streamlined energy that changes the game for everybody...

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Talk about feeding the beast. Josh Whedon’s never dull chapter in

the franchise is practically bursting at its seams, relentlessly serving

up just what the fans of this brand are expecting...

 

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

This little cream puff might not appeal to the

masses, but it certainly will appeal to some...

10 Cloverfield Lane

If Sam Shepard ever goofed around with the alien horror genre, he might

have come up with something like this surprisingly effective thriller...

Eddie the Eagle

Like its subject, this unpretentious feel good movie aims for

and hits a more generous definition of the term “winner”...

Zoolander 2

Yes, it’s ridiculous. It’s supposed to be...

Hail Caesar

Why don’t we leave the Coen Brothers’ 1950’s

Hollywood studio comedy walking on air?

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Michael Bay efforts to keep the politics out of this movie, but, really, how can you

keep the politics out of a movie about the terror that happened at Benghazi?

The Revenant

Gorgeous to look at, this romantic survivalist

revenger has the heart of an ice pick...

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarentino’s latest homage mashup hits

a lot of familiar notes, but where’s the fun?

Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens

J.J. Abrams has, for the most part, taken the safe

road, not re-inventing the wheel, but building a solid,

respectful and, at times, darn entertaining reboot...

Joy

It’s awfully hard for me to not find some joy in this imperfect movie about

a daring woman who digs deep and soars. You got a problem with that?

Son of Saul

Son of Saul stands as one of the most extraordinary films ever made about the Holocaust. The fact

that it was made by a first time filmmaker makes it one of the most extraordinary film debuts in years...

In the Heart of the Sea

Ron Howard’s clunky telling of how Herman Melville

researched Moby Dick is an ambitious slog...

The Big Short

Adam McKay has delivered an energetic, highly entertaining

movie that could be titled ‘The 2008 Credit Bubble

Burst for Dummies’. That dummy would be me...

Creed

Don’t go assuming this is just another undercard in the Rocky series. After a

somewhat predictable start, Ryan Coogler digs in to deliver what is undeniably

a hit to the heart: the most emotionally satisfying crescendo of the year...

The Danish Girl

Buoyed by two remarkable performances, this is a film that becomes

increasingly alluring once it puts its (great looking) clothes back on...

Carol

Todd Haynes’ immaculate film sweeps us away, but not for the reasons I was expecting.

Spectre

An action extravaganza of diminishing returns, this Bond chapter

left me a little bit shaken, but definitely not stirred...

Miss You Already

I’m obedient. I cried. But it wasn’t a good cry.

Spotlight

While Tom McCarthy’s beautifully crafted film about the Boston Globe

investigation of the sex abuse in the Church is very much of a

time and place, it also couldn’t be more important now...

Brooklyn

Set in the 1950’s New York borough, this especially charming, beautifully

made story of an Irish newcomer sweeps us all off our sensibly clad feet...

Bridge of Spies

Deliberately not reinventing the wheel, Spielberg and esteemed

company have delivered an absorbing, feel good historical drama...

Room

This remarkable adaptation is unnerving, intimate and surprisingly cool.

You’ll be as moved, curious and safe as you might want to be...

Steve Jobs

It’s fitting, I suppose, that a movie about the complicated man behind

Apple be complicated as well and, in that sense, this adventurous

Danny Boyle/AaronSorkin spin succeeds. But, is that dazzle enough?

The Walk

Robert Zemeckis, retelling Petit’s most famous walk,

creates his own art, with a 3D mastery that is nothing

but depth defying and beautifully sweat provoking...

The Martian

This genuinely thrilling sci-fi thriller about smart

people is also sensational entertainment...

Black Mass

While the whole is less than the sum of its parts, this retelling

of the Whitey Bulger story sure has some magnificent parts...

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Even if it isn’t as much of grabber as the TV series,

Guy Ritchie’s reboot sure gets points for style...

The Gift

This chilly chiller has a lot more on its mind than only getting you to jump out of your seat...

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

You sure get your bang for the buck with this one.

Vacation

Perhaps the funniest thing about this silly sequel is the

shock andhorror some are expressing in its wake...

Ant-Man

If you can hang in there an hour and a half, this latest Marvel installment

does, finally, deliver. But why do we have to wait so long???

Train Wreck

Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck is anything but. Baudy, assured,

realistic and mature this laugh-out-loud comedy is a delight...

Self/Less

This movie is as bad as it looks. Director Tarsem Singh never wrangles

Alex and David Pastor’s mess of a mélange into anything comprehensible...

Magic Mike XXL

Proving it’s not just looks, but heart, the effectively packaged but very

uneven entertainment delivers a few things that are just darn irresistible...

Ted 2

Do you have to be high in order to laugh here?

No, but for a whole lot of this movie it sure feels that way.

Inside Out

There’s no real way to prepare yourself for the flat out marvel

of Inside Out, the Pixar release that not only revives the studio’s

  legacy, but the whole concept of family entertainment...

Jurassic World

Not much happens in this chapter’s first hour or so. And then all hell

breaks loose, delivering exactly what you bought those tickets to see.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Shooting a burst of much needed oxygen into the current

scene, this very lively winner thrives on its unabashed love of

film and innovative yet poignant storytelling...

Spy

This is the movie we Melissa McCarthy fans have been waiting for:

a sweet, silly and stealthily smart spoof that delivers genuine laughs...

Entourage

Boys will be Boys. You were expecting Shakespeare, maybe?

 

Aloha

Aloha is a word with many meanings. In the case of Cameron

Crowe’s latest film, it’s definition can only be “whaaaa?”...

Pitch Perfect 2

It may not be well, you know, perfect, but this harmonious sequel still sings...

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well, hot damn! George Miller’s Mad Max reboot kicks the

superhero action genre in the butt, charging forth with a furious

yet streamlined energy that changes the game for everybody...

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Talk about feeding the beast. Josh Whedon’s never dull chapter in

the franchise is practically bursting at its seams, relentlessly serving

up just what the fans of this brand are expecting...

The Forger

I felt a little guilty not liking John Travolta’s pale imitation of a melodrama.

But, as routine reduced to redundant, I got over that...

The Water Diviner

Russell Crowe acquits himself nicely in this overly

ambitious yet still slim historical romantic drama.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The title may have double meaning, but the singular

rewards of this sequel are as rich as the original...

 

 

 

 

 

Boyhood

If I have any quibble at all with Richard Linklatter’s glorious film, it’s the title. Because while the ambitious concept is to follow one boyhood, the movie is just as much about a family and about America.

Filmed over 12 years, with the same cast, Linklater’s story centers on Mason, (initially) a 7 year old whose parents are divorced and slightly older sister drives him nuts. The director got his cast and crew together periodically over that time, shooting with a naturalistic style similar, say, to Truffaut’s in the Antoine Doinel Cycle. Over the dozen years in which we check in to catch up with Mason and his family, we see not just the boy come of age, but his mother find her own strength, sister blossom and even his child-like father become a more responsible man. Set as so much of Linklater’s work is, in Texas, we also witness the economic fortunes of the state, the love of the land and its politics, paralleling that of America itself, a proud country divided by concepts as basic as gifting rifles when a youth reaches the age of 15. Oh yeah, and there are boy friends and girl friends, beer and drugs and some fabulous music, too.

Know going in this is a long film; I luxuriated in the 162 minutes. Ellar Coltrane, who, of course, grows before our eyes, is astonishingly good, remarkably comfortable in front of the camera as a child, shaggily compelling as a teen. So, too, is Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter, who appears throughout as Mason’s pain-in-the-butt-but-still-loved sister. I just loved what Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke pull off here, as the parents who, too, must grow into their roles. Both are simply stellar, delivering wonderful, fully realized performances under what I would think might be challenging and exciting circumstances.

Linklater, along with Hawke, of course, has played with the passage of time already in his work, with the “Before” series. By allowing evolution to flow seamlessly here, the results are almost breathtaking. But neat-trick concept is only part of the wise and heart-rending reward of this independent, but very much embracing film.

 

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

This movie is nuts. I just wish it had to courage to really go with it.

Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s revival of the cult hit from 9 years back takes us into the freewheeling 1980’s, as the San Diego local news team hits the world of 24 hour cable news. Much time is spent setting everybody up here. Ron Burgundy and his wife (voice of reason Christina Applegate) have broken up, thanks to her career advancement and his jealousy. But when Ron is offered a slot at a brand new cable network out of New York, he rallies from his drunken depression, gathers the old gang in the RV and off they go, along with Baxter, the dog.

Much of what happens is what you’d expect for a while. Loud, silly, and sometimes, funny. And then we see what Ferrell and McKay are really up to. There’s a take off/put down of a particular kind of news and a particular news network that’s much sharper and passionate than anything that comes before it, even if it goes on a bit too long. There are a few dandy subplots, involving interracial relations and the influence of big business on the news industry.  And the last, completely loony sci-fi action sequence, along with a riotous handful of cameo’d co-stars, is quite literally, a blast.

Paul Rudd and David Koechner slip into their old, purposely stereotyped news guys seamlessly. And, even if I don’t always get what baby Brick Tamland’s appeal is, I do get an honest kick out of how Steve Carell plays him. Ferrell, as usual, goes full throttle, serving up mainstream chuckles to, I suppose, make the much more interesting stuff go down more easily.

Her

Spike Jonze’s glorious 21st Century love story not only swept me off my feet, but also shot an arrow deep into my heart.

We’re in near-future Los Angeles. Theo, a laid off journalist, now writes heartfelt letters for other people at a busy online service. About to be divorced, he wanders back to his lonely pad in the sky to play 3-D video games and mope. Numb, going through the motions, he does take note of the announcement for the world’s first A.I. operating system, offering a virtual companion. He signs up. And enter Samantha, the lush “consciousness” with an attitude, a seemingly perfect girlfriend who can be everything he needs.

The concept is great: in this world of on-line dating, texting not talking, having a virtual soul mate is a logical tip into what’s coming. We are, of course, set up to question what makes a perfect love, but Jonze isn’t just about big ideas here. In his richest and most profound work yet, he digs as deep as he leaps ahead. In the new L.A., you may be able to take a train to the beach and not wear a belt, but you also will have to deal with your own true emotions, recognize your real needs and forgive the ones you’ve been blaming for your own shortcomings.

And don’t even get me started on the online “Perfect Mom” game Theo’s pal (a lovely Amy Adams) is developing for her company, B Perfect.

Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt and Olivia Wilde provide fine support, but this is really a movie about Theo and Samantha. Joaquin Phoenix gives a simply wonderful performance: too subtle for awards, perhaps, but graceful and winning all the same. And, as the Siri with Soul, Scarlett Johansson serves up a most remarkable piece of acting: embodying Samantha into a new movie icon without ever (that we see) breaking a sweat.  

American Hustle

 

Just because David O. Russell’s take on ABSCAM isn’t what I’d hoped it would be doesn’t mean it isn’t still a damn entertaining movie. In fact, I had a blast watching it.

“Some of this actually happened” reads an opening title card and we’re off. Pot-bellied scammer Irving Rosenfeld (a fabulous Christian Bale) is taking great pains with his comb-over. Like a star in a dressing room, he is preparing to take the stage, this particular stage being a floor of the Plaza Hotel, where he and his soul mate, (Amy Adams’ seductively smart Sydney) are cooperating with Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent Richie DiMaso, coercing, taping and framing government officials. ABSCAM, the 1981 sting operation that ‘actually happened’, brought down 7 Congressmen. It also gave a whole new understanding to the word entrapment.

Russell, who co-wrote the script with Eric Singer, chooses not to spend a whole lot of time on the morality lesson part of the story: he goes, full throttle, for the hustle. The jazz. The polyester, perms and plunging necklines, all rockin to a soundtrack boasting Donna Summer, Elton John, The Bee Gees and Sinatra, to name a few. The pacing’s terrific, the performances, even better. As he did with Russell in Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper strips away all the movie star stuff and this time, gives a wonderfully jittery, yet controlled turn. Jeremy Renner, Robert DeNiro, Louis C.K., Michael Pena and Jack Huston, too, nail every scene they’re in. But, if there’s a standout in this all-star crowd, and there is, it’s Jennifer Lawrence. As Irving’s luscious left at home wife, she, both as a character and the actress, insists her way into the action with irresistible charm. She’s kinda looney, but she’s also a force of nature; we’re hooked and love every minute she’s on screen, whether she’s sashaying over to a bar full of mobsters, sealing a ladies’ room smackdown with a kiss or dusting aerobically.

As a critic, I think it’s important to go into each film fresh, not letting pre-conceived notions color what we see. The fact that I had hoped for more of an ethical punch is really my own issue. Russell has delivered the movie he wanted to: a rollicking, adult, laugh-out loud funny comedy.

Saving Mr. Banks

Resistance is futile.

Even if this occasionally clunky “making of” picture does soften a lot of ragged edges, the trademark Disney charm’s gonna getcha.

For those who did not know, Walt Disney had a tough time convincing author P.L. Travers to let him make ‘Mary Poppins” into the classic musical it, eventually, became. Even though the rights battle lasted some 20 years, this film focuses primarily on the shorter period of time, in 1961, when Travers, needing the money, flew off to Hollywood in order to supervise early adaptation efforts. Honoring the family ties that shaped the novel, there are also several colorful flashbacks, introducing us to Travers’ tough childhood in Australia.

It’s admirable this dramatic comedy takes the pains and time to explain why the reportedly universally impossible Ms. Travers was so protective of Poppins and the Banks family she created for the novels. And, as the alcoholic father, Colin Farrell reminds us of what a fine actor and star he can be: you cannot take your eyes off of him whenever he’s on camera here. Far more fun and irresistible to any movie lover is the recreation of the development process. Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak are dandy as writer/lyricists Don DaGradi and Richard and Robert Sherman. Paul Giamatti’s perfect as driver Ralph and Tom Hanks brings Disney’s sweet business side front and center as the savvy, determined filmmaker.

The heart of it all, of course, is Emma Thompson, who modulates a prim, irritable and selfish Travers with just that spoonful of sugar, making her bitter medicine go down a bit more easily. It’s a terrific, unsentimental performance that wins us over even if the real woman she plays might not.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers’s ode to the early 1960’s folk scene certainly stirs a symphony of emotions.

The easiest? Familiarity. We know (or have seen) this affectionately dirty town, the hungry players in it. There’s scope of the musical genre, so lovingly saluted by T. Bone Burnett and crew. And there’s Llewyn, the angry young man who insists it’s all about integrity. 

More demanding? The somewhat satiric, yet stirringly sad tone. As it is with the best of the Coen’s work, there’s no direct route to the truth here. Llewyn, as wonderfully played by Oscar Issac, is soulful, talented, and a selfish pain in the ass. There’s a loving recreation of Greenwich Village (with a few stops uptown and in the boroughs) that stifles our “hero”. Casual relationships pay harsh results, unlikely looking competitors win, wonderfully wacko diversions (looking at you, John Goodman, in particular) don’t always hang around long. We never quite know who we’re rooting for, or which direction we’re headed for. But that’s the Coens for you.

And I loved the ride. At least for the first 2/3rds of this herky, jerky film. The actors are all terrific, the cinematography exquisite. And, oh man, the music. And then, for me, it began to turn. Well, ok, not the music. And not the performances. It was Llewyn, the character. The grouchy sad sack reveals just one more layer and we meet the real fury he’d been, I suppose, trying to swallow all along. No leading character has to be attractive or even magnetic all the time, but, for me, the sour began to outweigh the sweet in Llewyn. A brave artistic choice, perhaps, but I felt deflated, the exhilarating air let out of an oh-so buoyant balloon.

Philomena

The tale itself is painful, it’s telling here, a delicious mix of sweet and sour.

Steve Coogan, the actor/comedian, co-wrote the fine screenplay here, based on journalist Martin Sixsmith’s book about his efforts to assist a retired Irish Catholic nurse find the son she was forced to give away some 50 years earlier. As a teenager, Philomena was handed over to a Magdalene program in the Church, a home where unwed mothers would give birth, wash other people’s laundry and be allowed short visits with their children until the babies were placed elsewhere. Each girl was made to sign papers, assuring they would never try to find the child they conceived, they were told, in sin. Under director Stephen Frears’ assured direction, we see Martin and Philomena not only do the detective work, but confront their own regrets, fears and beliefs.

I thought quite honestly, Cate Blanchett had Best Actress pretty much sewn up this year until I saw Judi Dench here. In what could have been a treacly mess of a spectacle, Dench never loses control, weighing the adorable with the pragmatic. Coogan does quite the balancing act himself: nailing Sixsmith’s snobby suspicion, allowing it to evaporate, at least a bit, into compassionate outrage. Individually, these are dandy performances; together, they are even stronger. And they make for great company on this terribly sad trip.

Nebraska

There’s a gentle tone to Alexander Payne’s work, which makes his piercing look at contemporary American life all the more surprising. And, perhaps, revealing.

Bruce Dern knocks it out of the park as Woody Grant, a Missouri man who may or may not be “losing it”. But he’s convinced that letter he got, awarding him that million dollar magazine sweepstakes, is the real thing and one way or the other, he’s getting to Nebraska to claim his winnings. Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte gives a lovely performance as the sad sack of a son who agrees to drive Dad on the futile trip; June Squibb is complete perfection as Woody’s frustrated but, ultimately, loyal wife.

Yes, all the actors (let’s not forget Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk and a whole town-full more) are grand, but they are working with some wonderfully potent stuff. Plotwise, screenwriter Bob Nelson packs in a lot over a short few days. Woody may never have talked much about his youth, but it’s some story, revealed in layers as the family winds up back in the teeny town where Woody and Kate were raised. And, fearful, annoyed and fed up as they are, when Woody’s wife and sons smell trouble, their devotion is primal and immensely moving.

You can’t help but feel an American Gothic vibe here: the movie, shot in black and white, lives in dusty Main Streets and plains that seem to go on for miles. Extended families gather to watch the game. Bullies bully. Vulnerable seniors, hopeful for one last shot at it, swallow their good sense and insist on following a promised pot of gold. Or they try to weasel their way into someone else’s. It’s a tough economy out there. It’s a tough world, too. Even in the Heartland. But, as Payne and Nelson, remind us, sometimes love, even in its bumpiest form, can soften it a bit.

Last Vegas

For a movie that packs few surprises, the happiest is that it is such sweet entertainment.

Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman headline, lifelong friends who are called together in Las Vegas, in celebration of the last holdout’s marriage. Back when they were growing up in Brooklyn, the gang named themselves The Flatbush Four. Now, Kline and his wife (a game Joanna Gleason) have retired to aquasize in Naples, Florida. The widowed Freeman is coddled by his well meaning son, after a stroke. DeNiro doesn’t leave his New York apartment much, still mourning the wife he loved. It’s Douglas, spray tan and all, who’s getting married. Which he decides at a friend’s funeral. To a girl who’s 1/3 his age.

Writer Dan Fogelman (of the underappreciated Crazy, Stupid, Love) hits the expected notes, but makes them sing with an understanding of age and expectations amongst friends. What could have been a desperate and sad spin on the Hangover theme is enhanced with just enough of a touch of warmth and  reality. We all know guys like these, even if the characters teeter on the stereotypical. While director Jon Turtletaub doesn’t add a whole lot of shading to the proceedings, he knows enough to get out of the way of his terrific cast. These guys know what to do and boy, do they do it. The screening I attended was packed with young men and women, virtually all of whom took the experience as one of audience participation, aaawwwing and guffawing at every twist, turn and twinkle. They carried the good will out the door, laughing with real appreciation at what the actors pulled off, particularly Morgan Freeman, who was loudly proclaimed “the man”.

Gotta agree. But I would like to add a very special mention for Mary Steenburgen, who plays a 60 something year old torch singer the guys meet in a casino bar. We don’t get to see this Academy Award winner enough these days and, hopefully, her absolutely glorious turn here will change that. Steenburgen sleek and elegantly funny, reminds us all that women “of a certain age” can still be irresistible.

The Counselor

This movie is a hot mess. And it’s damn entertaining.

In his first screenplay, Cormac McCarthy revisits the violent (and apparently sometimes really talky) Southwest American drug world. A local lawyer, lured by the big money, enters into a deal that promises multi-millions. Soon, stuff starts to go wrong. Big time. And, this being a McCarthy script, there’s a whole lot of blood, guts and betrayal to go along with the occasional morality speech.

Even with veteran Ridley Scott at the helm, we get off to a very bumpy start. I’m not sure what to make of several introductory scenes, where we meet the lovers Counselor Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz, the partners Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz, the middleman, Brad Pitt. Of all the actors, only Bardem (who was so sensational in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men) flies out of the gate, truly comfortable with the stagy language and ironic humor. But, after a long and odd set up, the deal sours, we’re off to the oh so gory races.

You might want to close your eyes during all the blood and body part letting, but you would be missing some dandy cameo performances interspersed throughout. And I loved how, after warning us individuals aren’t important in the climbing body counts of drug trafficking, characters we spend considerable time watching are dispensed with anonymously. We watch blank faced cleaning crews scrub off globs and patch up bullet holes, readying trucks for the next leg of their delivery. Cold world this is.

Except for its stars. Pitt gets better in each scene, Fassbender, in the least showy role, manages to keep us as shocked by the amorality as he is. Penelope Cruz may be wasted, but Cameron Diaz sure isn’t. Once she gets going here, she’s a scary hoot. Especially in the scene that is sure to be most remembered from this colorfully uneven movie: one, as wonderfully recalled by Bardem, in which Diaz makes love to the hood of his car. He describes it as unforgettable. That’s about right.

Blue is the Warmest Color

How can a movie this good feel so wrong?

Rarely has any coming of age story been this holistically astute. Filmmaker Abdel Kechiche’s adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel takes us, through about a decade or so of an extraordinary love story. Adele is just 15 when she passes Emma, a somewhat older woman with bright blue hair, on the street, but when their eyes meet, so begins a relationship that is as profound as any first real love can be. Years pass. The schoolgirl earns her teaching certificate. The art student struggles to balance commercial and creative success. They create a home together. Adele rushes home to cook for Emma’s friends. Their initial physical attraction, so overwhelming at first, finds itself in a new place, in a shuffle of exhaustion and mixed expectations. And, as it happens, our lovers face a turning point: do they settle, together, or push the boundaries, looking for something: something more or something else?

I purposely did not read the myriad interviews, articles and gossip items about the schism between Kechiche, Maroh, and his two leading ladies before seeing this film. I like to go into a film with as open a mind as I can; I think that is my job. That being said, ticket buyers may want to know a few things. This movie is 3 hours and 7 minutes long. It is in French, with subtitles. And yes, it is rated NC-17 because of the graphic sex scenes between the two women.

I hope that when other critics rave about the performances of the two leading actresses, they convey the truth here. Both women are so outstanding because the real nakedness of their performances is emotional, not physical. Adele Exarchopoulos is amazing to watch: messy and magnetic. Lea Seydoux, in a stretch from her more traditional film work, is equally compelling.  Together, they are combustible.

And yet, appreciative as I am of the storytelling, I am also very uncomfortable with the disproportionately lengthy, repetitive and explicit sex scenes. Almost all other parts of Kechiche’s movie are wonderfully edited, packing the punch in a direct but evocative way. The sex between the women leaves nothing to our imagination. Not only is nothing left untouched, as it were; being this suddenly explicit feels exploitive. And that was before I read the articles.

Does it matter that the actresses have complained about their on set demands from the director? Does it matter that said director has been reported to be gay, thus precluding a “he was just getting his rocks off” argument? What matters most to me, for the purposes of this review, is the sad discomfort and disappointment I felt watching these misguided parts of what was an otherwise terrific film, spoil it.

12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen’s fact-based film about Southern American slavery is uncompromising, insistent, and one of the most powerful films about the subject ever made.

Tonally, this story of a free man, kidnapped and enslaved in the 1840’s almost an anti-Django Unchained. McQueen, who co-wrote the screenplay, based on Solomon Northrup’s memoir, never takes entertainment short cuts in telling the tale; there are no sweet love stories, no buddy sidebars. Once he is enchained, Solomon learns quickly not only to hide he can read and write, but also that he should not dare become emotionally invested in his fellow slaves. The slavery we are shown here is lonely, fightening and a special kind of hell. Seen through the eyes of a man who had his freedoms stolen away from him makes it all far more acute and harrowing. The few scenes with music, where the slaves are awakened to dance, or gather to bury one of their own, may have similar cinematic cousins, but they’re singular in their sharp, painful catharses.

This is not to say McQueen’s film is not emotionally and artistically rewarding. Chiwetel Ejofor, excellent as Solomon, is surrounded by a fine group of co-stars. Outstanding in the ensemble are Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, and Sarah Paulson. Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard are on board in short bits, too, all showing the occasional near-decency but mostly horrible anguish and fury of the times. As horrifying as much of the film is to watch, it is also, at times, quite beautiful in its appreciation of the land and the local fauna. And when Northrup is finally rescued and brought home to his family, we all go through a rich whirl of reactions.

To me, the most stunning performance is Michael Fassbender’s, as the slave owner so notorious, some Southerners still use the name “Epps” as a derogatory term. By almost underplaying it, Fassbender delivers a man profoundly evil and yet also, in a way, as tragic as any on the screen.

All is Lost

More than a dandy counterpoint to the megahit Gravity, J.C Chandor’s thrilling adventure is also a remarkable existential ride:  it’s man against the elements, facing the consequences of his actions.

It’s pretty nifty that Robert Redford is “our Man”, alone on a sailboat, waking as his craft hits (internationally labeled) flotsam. Water is pouring into the cabin. That scene alone is terrifying. But we’ve only just begun. We have already heard a short, rather cryptic voice over, written, we are told, eight days after the accident, in which our sailor admits all is lost. He apologizes to the one(s) to whom he is writing, acknowledging a failure he doesn’t delineate. So, watching, as storms wreak more havoc, as provisions dwindle, as options grow smaller, we know where we are headed. And yet, as he floats toward the international shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, so do all of our hopes. Our Man has an undeniable will to survive. He faces each new set back with prowess and dignity, determining a game plan, sticking to a schedule of eating and sleeping, he even shaves. We, the audience, can’t help but question our own behavior if placed in similar circumstances. And so, we root for him, our fellow man, a reflection of ourselves, for better or worse.

Of course, we don’t all look like Robert Redford. And few of us have his impact, on screen or off. As a movie star, he’s just great here, holding our eyes against the most furious of fabulous special effect co-stars. But as an actor, he’s just as great in the quieter moments, sticking his fork into a cold can of food, analyzing a star navigation map after he’s lost all electronic support. And he does it all without saying a word. Well, there’s one, but it’s more of an anguished roar than the swear word we probably would have been screaming throughout a less crucial ordeal.

I love the fact that Chandor wrote all this without dialogue. It’s chancy stuff, of course, but as the box office Gods have planned it, you can’t help but compare this movie to its survivalist cousin, Gravity. While Sandra Bullock was made to jabber on throughout, Our Man, also very alone, does not. And whatever his backstory, we don’t get the gory details. Doesn’t matter. There are no dead children here to wrench us; it’s a man who has chosen to go it alone and, consequently, fights to survive. Slim yet profound, this movie’s a knockout.

Captain Phillips

Can an American hero have any greater film tribute than to have Tom Hanks play him?

Here, as Captain of the container ship hijacked off the coast of Somali, Hanks not only gives one of the finest performances of his career, but represents Richard Phillips as an admirable man of strength, dignity and keen intelligence. Of course, per Billy Ray’s screenplay (based on Phillips’ own book), we see he was not the only hero in this true, harrowing story, one which many might remember watching unfold on our TVs back in 2009.

Director Paul Greengrass brings the same kind of honorable but compelling feel here as he did in his superb United 93. This, of course, is an easier film to make, in that we know we’re heading toward a much happier ending. Societal complexities and globalization are explored, giving the pulse pounding action an honest depth. We meet the Somalis on the beach, men desperate to attack passing cargo ships and we find out why they are so driven. And as we meet Phillips, being driven to the airport by his wife, we find out why he, too, keeps returning to a job that separates him from the family he loves. The crew of the Maersk Alabama, we are reminded, was not a group of soldiers; they were union members. And when the Navy Seals show up, well, that’s just awesome.

There are many remarkable scenes throughout and action even more arresting than what’s in those Bourne movies. But the finest and most memorable moments come at the film’s end, once Phillips has been rescued and is being debriefed onboard a Navy ship. I won’t give what happens away, but it is even more impressive to realize these scenes were not in the original script, but were improvizations, inspired when Greengrass and Hanks spoke to some of the actual officers involved in the real life mission. Asked at a recent New York Film Festival press conference what it was like for Hanks to shoot that unscripted bit, he recalled being “loaded for bear”, anxious to do it. What a payoff.

Gravity

 An intimate movie of vast proportions, Gravity is a spell bounding groundbreaker that transforms the movie going experience.

Alfonso Cuaron’s thriller is a technical marvel, taking us in a way no one has before, to outer space. Meshing live action with not just state of the art effects, but also a whole bag of unique new tricks, we’re seeing (and hearing) a technical marvel. What makes it all the more effective, though, is not its newness, but its subtlety. You come out of this experience not marveling at how a tear, spilling from someone’s eye, doesn’t zoom out and make you feel wet, but at how it slowly rolls off the cheek and into unbridled space, its echo, perhaps, living forever.

All of this, of course, would actually mean little were it not for the ambition of the script and its actors. Cuaron, who wrote the piece with his son, tells the story of two astronauts, stranded in outer space. Veteran Matt Kowalsky is pretty smooth; Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission, isn’t. Not the oddest couple, but these two are set up as very different personalities. Because this is, after all, a movie, it’s not totally surprising when those differences jigsaw together under the most impossible of experiences. Initially, I found George Clooney’s Matt almost a cheat, it’s so easy. But, no spoilers here, I was wrong. Clooney hits all the right notes for all the right reasons it turns out. And then there’s Sandra Bullock. In a role that was reportedly written for a man, she’s as much of a knockout as are the cool things floating around her. Lean, intense and open, Bullock’s Ryan is a hero for the ages and the sexes. It might have been even more interesting if Stone’s backstory hadn’t been written as emotionally as it is - cleaner, perhaps, as a single human struggling to survive, but I quibble.

Brilliantly conceived and executed, Gravity’s, in a word, awesome.

Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an auspicious filmmaking debut with this somewhat risky romantic comedy.

The writer, director and star (yes, he’s all three) takes a rather traditional story line, boy meets girl, but is she the “right” girl, and runs with it. Not only is his Don Jon a Tony Manero-ish type of working class lover boy, but he’s also got an issue. Our Mr. Cool has an addiction. To pornography. And even the most beautiful girl in his world can’t rock his world the way his movies on the computer can.

What could have been a one-note movie does go for more than that, though, to mixed results. Ms. Perfect is Barbara Sugarman, played by a splendidly luscious Scarlett Johansson. This character, stereotypical gorgeous, rich, demanding, is made far more appealing by Johansson’s talent than she is by the way she’s written, which is as irresistible bait, offering a real alternative to Jon’s backround. As Barbara’s luster begins to fade in Jon’s eyes, we may intellectually understand the problem, but the script makes far too little of that. Julianne Moore, slipping into the fuzzy role of the older woman in the hippie peasant shirt who understands, handles it all nicely, but haven’t we seen her play this part again and again?

As the lead actor, Gordon-Levitt relies on his considerable on-screen charms, to good results. And his scenes with parents Tony Danza and Glenne Headly are pretty much of a hoot. Even sister Brie Larson, who barely utters a word through the whole movie, gets a moment that packs a terrific punch. Clearly, this is a director who not only loves his actors, but brings out some of their best stuff.

Rush

Do you have to love racing to love this movie? Absolutely not.

Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan deliver a pulse pounding sports movie that thrills and illuminates. Recreating the intense rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, who vied for the Formula One Championship in 1976, this sleek and smart film balances the drive on the track with the one off of it, making us not just get these men’s need for speed, but their need, as well, for one another.

In the flashier of the two roles, Chris Hemsworth does more than have a blast with the legendary playboy James Hunt. Sure, he flashes his smile and whips around his long blond locks, but this James has his own version of commitment. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a short one, where he is spied lying on the ground, intently rehearsing a course in his head, feet pressing imaginary pedals. It’s almost a meditation, and, caught in the act, Hemsworth’s Hunt bounces up, startled and embarrassed, shaking it off. This is a smart, impressive performance, but it’s Daniel Bruhl, as the steely Lauda, who steals the show, captivating all of us, even though none of us really like him. Tricky and great work.

Of course, the costumes, cars and hairdos reflect the 1970’s here, but so, too does Howard’s direction. There’s the lean, economic pacing, somewhat grainy look and an allowance of ambiguity (unanswered questions, no total good or bad guys) that reminds me of what made so many of the films of that era so, well, great. It’s a real change-up for Howard, whose best films have worked on a more clear, clean and approachable level.

Naturally, racing buffs, who know the story and love their cars, will be a sure (and satisfied) audience. But, admirably, Rush delivers, not just for racing fans but for fans of top notch filmmaking, too.

Prisoners

This is one hell of a movie. And yes, you can interpret that in more than a few ways.

We first meet Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover as he is teaching his son how to shoot a deer in the woods. Proud of the kill, he reminds the boy, as they ride back to the subdivision, carcass bleeding in the back of the truck, always be prepared. You never know what’s coming. Ain’t that the truth.

Aaron Guzikowski’s script takes a rather traditional Hollywood story line, vigilantism as revenge for a kidnapped child, and flushes it out with admirable depth. We watch, horrified, as the Dover family, along with their friends the Birches, discover their young daughters have disappeared during Thanksgiving dinner. Our anguish grows as theirs does, seeing Jake Gyllenhaal’s detective have to let a suspect go free, even as the clock ticks away, approaching the hours a starved, dehydrated child might die. Keller, desperate, takes action. The other father tries to swallow his conflicts and assist. And we are left with the obvious question. What would we do if that were us?

What’s most impressive here, though, is not that first reflective puzzle. It’s the ones that come around and after it. Keller, we discover, is a religious man, a loving husband and father, a contractor who’s having a tough time making ends meet. And what’s with the carefully organized supplies shelved up in the basement? The Birches, long time friends who are doing better in this economy, happen to be African American. Suspect Alex Jones appears a haunted young man, loyal to the aunt who took him in. And Detective Loki, quiet and determined, sports some serious looking body art for a play-it-by-the-books guy.

 Director Denis Villeneuve delivers a masterfully made edge of your seat thriller that’s as potent as any drama out there. An all-star cast complements the ambitious intentions. Gyllenhaal gets better and better with each picture: he’s excellent here. Hugh Jackman, though, is sensational, giving the best dramatic performance of his career.

Understandably, this lengthy twister may prove tough going for some; it is still a true achievement in reimagining the popular idea that revenge is sweet.

The Butler

No matter how you look at it, there’s no question this one delivers a strong punch to the gut.

Beginning with the true story of an African-American butler who served eight Presidents in the White House, this ambitious epic strives to recount a nearly hundred-year fight for civil rights, hitting a bunch of key events along the way. We first meet young Cecil as he’s picking cotton, witnessing the murder of his father by the man who had just raped his mother. Later, as our hero works his way toward his eventual remarkable career milestone, we witness Presidents wrestle with controversial legislation, the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King, sit ins, race riots, the birth of the Black Panther movement, the Vietnam War and, yes, the election of the country’s first black Commander in Chief. Most interesting is depiction of the inter-racial schism that divided the movement by the differing approaches to a common goal of equality. All of this is told through the intimate story of Cecil, his wife and two sons. This Zelig-like technique can and has worked beautifully in several films, but it can also feel manipulative and asks for a real leap of faith from the audience. I found myself alternately charmed and dubious this time around. What the episodic storyline lacks is made up for, though, in the telling. Daniels knows how to grab his viewers, insisting on their attention with vivid scenes, star-quality cameos, and a dandy atmospheric sense, all enhancing the fine actors at the movie’s center.

Forest Whitaker is wonderful as the savvy Cecil. Having been instructed on how to play the game, he obeys the rules while never sacrificing his dignity. A fine David Oyelowo is a great foil, the son determined to find his own path. Daniels has surrounded their story with a huge all-star group, which, at times, pulls us out of the moment as we wonder how they got Robin Williams to look so much like Dwight Eisenhower or John Cusak, Richard Nixon. Cuba Gooding, Jr and Lenny Kravitz are spot on, as Cecil’s fellow White House butlers, and even though you can’t help but watch Oprah Winfrey through the prism of her “Oprah-ness”, she does deliver a smartly modulated and ultimately lovely performance.

For those of us who lived through some of what is depicted here, even with its faults, this is a remarkably affecting movie. And yes, I cried. But I also couldn’t help but remember, as emotional as Obama’s election is here, we still all have a way to go to real victory. In the movie’s earliest scenes, we are told back in the 1920’s, a white man could kill a black man and get away with it. Even though the filmmakers swear this was in the script before Trayvon Martin was shot, that one line sure does pack quite a wallop.

Elyseum

Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to the extraordinary District 9 has a bigger budget, bigger stars and lots more references to classic hits, but this visionary filmmaker still isn’t dazzled by Hollywood. In fact, here, he just about blows the place up.

We begin in Los Angeles, circa 2154. As it did in Blade Runner, the place looks like hell. And the proletariat’s simmering: it’s clear class warfare is about to explode. After all, the rich have flown the coop, almost abandoned the place, having created their own clean, beautiful and bright nirvana literally hovering above. Jodie Foster, sleek and simmering, is Elysium’s ambitious defense secretary. When Earthlings invade her strict Homeland Security, even in the desperate search for the health care so easily accessible to her citizens, she commands they be corralled and returned to where they came from. It’s not so easy, though, when Max, an ex-con who’s been surgically transformed into a mutant alien, shows up. He’s not just out to save his own skin (what’s left of it), he’s, to his own surprise, out to change the worlds.

In lesser films of the ilk, some bulked up Dolph Lundgren or even “The Rock” type might have played Max, barking out a little dialogue and cracking a joke or two. Here, however, Matt Damon hit the gym. Sure, he looks amazing, but this fine actor also gives a wallop of a star turn, bringing a humanity that pulls us all in. An international supporting cast is fine, but it’s District 9 alum Sharlto Copley who steals it, giving the best bad guy performance so far this year.

Clearly, Blomkamp has an agenda and the socialist messages do get a bit loud, making sure we Get The Message. Love interests, sick children, sweaty underworld bosses, metal bound heroes and factory worker abuse range from standard plotting to unnecessary film homages. But there’s no denying the magnificent look of the thing, the breathtaking pacing and the undeniably absorbing storytelling, even if we’ve heard most of that story a couple of times before.

The Wolverine

Even though its best scene doesn’t happen until halfway through the ending credits, this sequel is, at least, better than its predecessor.

Hugh Jackman has once again pulled off one of those physical marvels, bulking way up from Jean Valjean to re-rip into the Logan/Wolverine character. We begin with a few set up scenes: one, in which our hero rescues one of his Japanese captors during the attack on Nagasaki, the other, a recurring dream of his beloved Jean. He’s vowed never to kill again, but thank God he gets over that fast or there’d be no movie. After taking revenge on some local game hunters, Logan is whisked away to Japan, on the pretense of visiting the deathbed of the soldier he saved so long ago. Soon, it’s obvious there’s a lot more to it than paying respect.

Jackman has always had a tough assignment here. It’s not just the physicality, it’s the dour nature of Logan’s personality. Try as he may, it feels flat to watch this naturally magnetic star sober it down so low. When he’s allowed a sneaky joke or a sly glance, we’re all a lot happier. Students of these miserable superheroes might enjoy comparing this with the relatively more interesting performances offered by Christian Bale and even Henry Cavill, but, like the rest of the movie, the performance is ok.

Yes, there are some big fighting sequences and samurai swords fly with panache. Director James Mangold takes pains to make sure this movie is great to look at the rest of the time, too, surrounding Jackman with evocative scenery, snazzy Audi sedans and lots of beautiful women. Two models turned actresses dress the set. The very beautiful Tao Okamoto, may not emote much, but she’s got a great face and a figure so teensy, I’m amazed she didn’t slip through Wolverine’s talons. Newcomer Rila Fukushima fares better, bringing spitfire energy to her impressively athletic sidekick.

The 3 D effects are minimal, but make sure you stay to watch the nifty little scene tucked into the final credits. Yep, it’s tantalizing, but also wonderfully acted and a hoot to boot.

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s elegant skewering of a Madoff-ish wife is so precise, so exquisitely brought to sizzling life by Cate Blanchett, the characters, cities and world around her suffer in comparison. Some have written that off to lopsided focus in the script. I’m looking at it a different way. Jasmine is a narcissist. And when you’re that self-absorbed, everybody and everything else shrivels in your wake.

We first meet Jasmine as she is chatting up her virtually silent elder seatmate on a plane. Their cross country trip gives our agitated Chanel clad, Vuitton carrying heroine a perfect chance to reflect on her terrible fate. Why did she drop out of B.U. to marry the dashing money manager? Why did he have to turnout to be such a shit, cheating on her and mismanaging his multi million dollar funds to not only ripped off investors but leave her virtually penniless? And now all she has is that sort of sister, the other one her parents also adopted, who’s offered up a bed in the tiny flat she, now a single mom, rents after said shit ripped her off, too.

Other people come and go in Jasmine’s world. A few who try to help are brushed away like a stereotypical dirty fly. Magnificent venues in New York and San Francisco appear flat. An appropriate suitor, whose new house over looking the Bay does entice, is played like a ticket out of hell. Popping the pills the doctor at the institution prescribed, Jasmine insists Ginger dump that greasy fiancé of hers and, once again, tries to offer her sister a peek into the life Jasmine had and is determined to get in on again.

It’s no easy feat to pull off a picture of what surrounds someone with a very focused tunnel vision. This balancing act doesn’t always work. Yet even with their back burner characters, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K. and especially Sally Hawkins glow. But Blue Jasmine is, after all, a movie about and dominated by Jasmine. It’s clear Woody Allen doesn’t like her very much and writes her a shockingly Greek tragic twist that took my breath away. In the hands of the extraordinary Cate Blanchette, Jasmine becomes a fluttering lioness:  terrifying, captivating and impossible to forget.

The Conjuring

Could it be director James Wan was just a little too reverential? Because just when we couldn’t need a chill down the spine more, this carefully made horror story delivers way too late in the game.

Based on the remembrances of real life paranormal investigators, this is yet another haunted house movie. And that’s ok. The sweet young family moves into the big, creepy house in the woods nobody else wanted to buy. Pretty soon, well, like immediately, they begin to suspect there’s something up. Family dog keels over right where a bunch of dead birds are lying. Odd noises emanate. And then there’s that dusty old stuff in the basement. No, they’re not valuable antiques.

Wan, whose credits include two of the Saw franchise, knows how to set up a story. Carefully, he introduces us to each character, encouraging our emotional investment. His attention to detail, especially as it is memorable (for some) 1970’s period, is impressive and affectionate. We don’t want to see anything happen to these nice people. And yet, well, yeah, we kinda do. After all, that’s what we showed up for.

But, somehow, Wan misses his opportunity. He lets the cool stuff hitting the fan moments start far too late, by the time we get to see all the excitement, we’re already slumping in our seats. Or whipping out our phones to check our e mails and start texting. There was a lot of that happening at the screening I attended.

It should be said some fine actors are on board here: Vera Farmiga’s ethereal beauty is put to good use, as are Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson’s relatable every man qualities. I love Lili Taylor in just about everything but found myself laughing along with the others, who looked up from their apparently more interesting mobile communications just long enough to see her spinning and writhing with committed enthusiasm.

Fruitvale Station

Before there was Trayvon Martin, there was, among too many others, Oscar Grant. His tragic shooting by BART police rocked the San Francisco Bay area on New Year’s Day, 2009. The fact that Ryan Coogler’s film about Oscar is being released just as the nation is gripped by the Zimmerman trial makes this already stunning picture all the more pungent.

A wonderful Michael B. Jordan stars as the charming but complicated Grant. 22 years old, with a family to support, the chronically late ex-con is fired from the only legitimate job he can get. Bills are mounting, his girlfriend suspicious. But it’s New Year’s Eve. Oscar makes a decision. He’s going to be a better person. And it will all start tonight.

History tells us the rest of the story. Riding the subway home from the festivities, a fight breaks out. Transit police pull Oscar and some of his male friends off the train, forcing them down on the ground as they await backup. Shocked and angry, the young men protest. Their remaining friends and fellow passengers watch, shocked and afraid. Some use their phones to take pictures. Soon, a gun goes off. Grant is hit. His is a death that haunts his city and Coogler, who grew up there, wants it to haunt the rest of us, too.

It is not just the death that makes this film so hard to shake. Wisely, Coogler (and Jordan) present Oscar as a complex man, one who loves and enjoys, yet also cannot at times contain his furious anger. He’s a person who might be termed “marginal” by some who look for easy excuses, such as ‘well, he was a drug dealer with a record, he must have done something to get shot’. Maybe people who think in those terms won’t be the type who would choose to go see a movie like this one, but for everyone who does, this spare but powerful film summons up our own morality, compassion and outrage.

White House Down

Director Roland Emmerich throws everything he can into this popcorn blow ‘em up: yes, there is even a kitchen sink.

Channing Tatum stars as Cale, a well intentioned single dad aiming for a job on the President’s security team. Taking his daughter along for his White House interview, the two become immersed in the blasting action when terrorists take over Washington. James Vanderbilt’s script calls for relentless action, peppered with a few political overtones and more than a few attempts at humor. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Like so many of these types of movies, it is what it is. Me? Maybe it’s battle fatigue. After all, there are so many of these kinds of “entertainments”, at least one per week, it seems. I’m tired of watching people, places and things being attacked and decimated in the name of good fun.

Emmerich, who meshed all of the above pretty well in Independence Day, puts his pedal to the metal after a short introductory scene or two, setting up Cale as a good, if kinda messed up guy. We also are not at all subtly reminded that Washington, D. C. is a awe inspiring, magnificent place, a city of such emotional power President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) requests unadvised flyovers just to see the place. So, of course, as the music begins to grow more and more intense (hitting us like a ton of bricks), we are set up to 1, feel terrible as we watch the Capitol and White House explode and 2, worry about those nice people inside.

OK, not everybody’s nice. James Woods does a solid job with the only meaty supporting role, Jason Clarke, who was so fine in Zero Dark Thirty, gets to do little here except snarl and kill people. Maggie Gyllenhaal is ok as the smarty pants security exec, Foxx, too, does ok with what he’s got. Joey King, who’s a terrific young actress, handles her role with aplomb but it’s Tatum who’s the star and, star he does: talking sweetly, brandishing every weapon known to, well, not me, and filling out a sweaty T shirt. If the guys who find it entertaining to go, for fun, and watch our nation’s capital being blown to bits in any way leave this movie trying to channel their inner Channing, I don’t think there are very many of us who mind that a bit.

The Heat

Well, it’s no ‘Bridesmaids’. But, mostly thanks to the game and magically paired Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, a predictable script delivers some real good laughs.

Since it’s already been announced a sequel is in the works, let us look ahead to what can be improved upon for next time. Allow Katie Dippold, who has done some nifty writing for TV, to depart from the formula. It’s been established Bullock and McCarthy are an odd couple pairing of cops: now, let ‘em really rip with a storyline that hasn’t been told a million times before, albeit with men in the leads. Let Paul Feig, a director who clearly loves his actors, have more time to let them shine. I’m not talking running time (The Heat’s 117 minutes is plenty sufficient for a comedy), I’m talking quality scenes with not just the two stars, but also the nicely cast supporting players. Actors like Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans and a wonderful Thomas F. Wilson (Biff from Back to the Future!) have a lot more to give than what they are allowed to here. And Jane Curtin! Her first scene, as McCarthy’s mother, is a speechless hoot: too bad she was rendered practically mute after that. I was practically salivating to see what these two women could do together: please let them give it a whirl!

And, of course, don’t lose Bullock or McCarthy. Alone, both these stars have proven to be smart, gutsy and winning leading ladies. The work that they do together, or should I say share together here is a joy to behold. Although playing competitive characters that are wary of one another, there is not a trace of any ego between the two actresses on the screen. Each not just holds her own, but truly supports one another, bringing camaraderie that not just improves the product, but reminds us what real, selfless friendship can be.

Man of Steel

A Superman for the 21st Century, this sweeping epic soars, bursting with ambition, a keen sense of drama and some knockout special effects.

Director Zack Snyder knows how to stage a mythic grabber (see: 300); here, his awesome visuals are enhanced by The Dark Knight trilogy’s Christopher Nolan (credited both as producer and story) and many from his Batman team. It’s a wonderful mix. As they did with that series, both screenwriter David S. Goyer and Nolan offer a new, deeper look at a legendary character and his story. Plot points and personality issues, dealt with sketchily before, are more fully explored. The film begins with a lengthy, developed explanation of how and why the baby was released from his biological parents, on planet Krypton. This Clark Kent, also known as Kal-El this time, isn’t just a cute boy with special talents, discovered in the fields of Smalltown, USA. Now, those unique strengths truly frighten not just the boy, but also his well-meaning adoptive father, who soberly advises Clark to keep it all a secret. This is not the sweetly comic Superman who dashes into phone booths for a quick change when he sees a little old lady have her purse stolen. This is a haunted hero, possessed of superhuman powers he is told can change the world, at a tremendous cost. There are those who find this kind of exploration a reward onto itself (count me in) but this huge production isn’t just all angst and planetary annihilation.  The fun comes through Snyder’s staging: each and every scene is beautifully, meticulously designed. And the special effects (which have been upconverted for those who insist on 3D) are quality and quantity. I thought, in fact, there’s a little too much quantity. The climactic war scenes could have been trimmed, their impact greater.

An all-star cast weaves in and out (much of the story telling comes though flashback scenes). Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Richard Schiff and Christopher Meloni are quite effective. Ayelet Zurer brings new energy to the term ‘otherworldly bitch’. In the two best-written character roles, Michael Shannon embodies the evil Zod with Shakespearian relish and Kevin Costner, as Jonathan Kent, is simply grand. Even in such illustrious company, Henry Cavill is impossible to look away from. Yes, he’s handsome, but his magnetic performance is well, just super. Unfortunately, Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne are given short shrift. That is one of the few mistakes that will be rectified the next time around. Because we all know there will be a next time and that’s just fine with me.

The Internship

A perfectly amiable comedy, this internship actually pays more benefits than we might expect.

Wedding Crashers’ Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn reunite to co-star as watch salesmen whose time has passed. Unemployed, unmarried, unhappy, these children of the 1980’s find themselves in very much of a 2013 dilemma. How do you create a second chapter when the social economics of the world around you frankly, suck? Vaughn stares blankly into his computer screen. And there’s the answer. Go work for Google. And it just so happens the company is looking. For interns.

Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay, comes up with a cute way around the old internships for college students only problem. Together, the two are accepted begrudgingly into the program and, naturally, find themselves in way over their slightly graying heads, competing with razor sharp kids, all of whom, we soon discover have their own issues, too.

Wilson, appealing as usual, actually gets to romance a lovely partner here (Rose Byrne), and the landscape is dotted with familiar, mostly TV, faces. Among the young stars, all of whom do what they are supposed to nicely, I liked Josh Brener, who also recently made quite the auspicious debut as a recurring character in a wonderful episode of Marc Maron’s IFC series (it’s called Dead Possum….check it out). The moments here belong to Vaughn, who, sporting a Tom Petty T shirt and spouting endless 1980’s pop culture references, still manages to win everybody over, both on screen and in the audience.

Sweetly intentioned and sporadically funny, this not especially surprising story taps not just into the zeitgeist, but also into the same kind of underdog goofiness that made The Revenge of the Nerds so popular. Don’t remember that movie? Google it.

Much Ado About Nothing

If you don’t find yourself happily swept up by this slim yet immensely charming adaptation, maybe you’re not the movie fanatic you thought you were.

Joss Whedon has stepped away from The Avengers to mount a sweet Shakespearian tale of romance and, well, those who avenge its true path. Shot on the grounds of a manor home, in a matter of a few days, this low budget production is as creative in nature as was Whedon’s last critical hit, The Cabin in the Woods. And that familiarity isn’t by budget alone: Whedon has brought along a few of the actors from that film to stop screaming in the dark and now spout iambic pentameter. And yes, you’ll recognize some of the other actors from other of Whedon’s movies, too. It’s like a very cool ensemble company, one which insists on digging into some artistic adventures in between smashing box office records.

A fine, if not necessarily headline cast has great fun telling the twisty love story of Benedick and Beatrice, two adults who’re just so sure love is not for them. Beatrice, in fact, is one of the Shakespearian women young actresses love to play, thanks to her feisty independence and glowing self confidence. Amy Acker does a lovely job, as does Alexis Denisof. The biggest and happiest surprise here comes from a downright wonderful Nathan Fillion, who steals the whole thing with his few scenes as Dogberry, the blustery neighborhood police captain. Most productions gloss over the somewhat comical character, but not this time. Fillion flushes out the deluded but sincere constable and becomes a character of character: a goofy guy we laugh at and can’t help but love.

 

Fruitvale Station

Before there was Trayvon Martin, there was, among too many others, Oscar Grant. His tragic shooting by BART police rocked the San Francisco Bay area on New Year’s Day, 2009. The fact that Ryan Coogler’s film about Oscar is being released just as the nation is gripped by the Zimmerman trial makes this already stunning picture all the more pungent.

A wonderful Michael B. Jordan stars as the charming but complicated Grant. 22 years old, with a family to support, the chronically late ex-con is fired from the only legitimate job he can get. Bills are mounting, his girlfriend suspicious. But it’s New Year’s Eve. Oscar makes a decision. He’s going to be a better person. And it will all start tonight.

History tells us the rest of the story. Riding the subway home from the festivities, a fight breaks out. Transit police pull Oscar and some of his male friends off the train, forcing them down on the ground as they await backup. Shocked and angry, the young men protest. Their remaining friends and fellow passengers watch, shocked and afraid. Some use their phones to take pictures. Soon, a gun goes off. Grant is hit. His is a death that haunts his city and Coogler, who grew up there, wants it to haunt the rest of us, too.

It is not just the death that makes this film so hard to shake. Wisely, Coogler (and Jordan) present Oscar as a complex man, one who loves and enjoys, yet also cannot at times contain his furious anger. He’s a person who might be termed “marginal” by some who look for easy excuses, such as ‘well, he was a drug dealer with a record, he must have done something to get shot’. Maybe people who think in those terms won’t be the type who would choose to go see a movie like this one, but for everyone who does, this spare but powerful film summons up our own morality, compassion and outrage.

White House Down

Director Roland Emmerich throws everything he can into this popcorn blow ‘em up: yes, there is even a kitchen sink.

Channing Tatum stars as Cale, a well intentioned single dad aiming for a job on the President’s security team. Taking his daughter along for his White House interview, the two become immersed in the blasting action when terrorists take over Washington. James Vanderbilt’s script calls for relentless action, peppered with a few political overtones and more than a few attempts at humor. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Like so many of these types of movies, it is what it is. Me? Maybe it’s battle fatigue. After all, there are so many of these kinds of “entertainments”, at least one per week, it seems. I’m tired of watching people, places and things being attacked and decimated in the name of good fun.

Emmerich, who meshed all of the above pretty well in Independence Day, puts his pedal to the metal after a short introductory scene or two, setting up Cale as a good, if kinda messed up guy. We also are not at all subtly reminded that Washington, D. C. is a awe inspiring, magnificent place, a city of such emotional power President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) requests unadvised flyovers just to see the place. So, of course, as the music begins to grow more and more intense (hitting us like a ton of bricks), we are set up to 1, feel terrible as we watch the Capitol and White House explode and 2, worry about those nice people inside.

OK, not everybody’s nice. James Woods does a solid job with the only meaty supporting role, Jason Clarke, who was so fine in Zero Dark Thirty, gets to do little here except snarl and kill people. Maggie Gyllenhaal is ok as the smarty pants security exec, Foxx, too, does ok with what he’s got. Joey King, who’s a terrific young actress, handles her role with aplomb but it’s Tatum who’s the star and, star he does: talking sweetly, brandishing every weapon known to, well, not me, and filling out a sweaty T shirt. If the guys who find it entertaining to go, for fun, and watch our nation’s capital being blown to bits in any way leave this movie trying to channel their inner Channing, I don’t think there are very many of us who mind that a bit.

The Heat

Well, it’s no ‘Bridesmaids’. But, mostly thanks to the game and magically paired Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, a predictable script delivers some real good laughs.

Since it’s already been announced a sequel is in the works, let us look ahead to what can be improved upon for next time. Allow Katie Dippold, who has done some nifty writing for TV, to depart from the formula. It’s been established Bullock and McCarthy are an odd couple pairing of cops: now, let ‘em really rip with a storyline that hasn’t been told a million times before, albeit with men in the leads. Let Paul Feig, a director who clearly loves his actors, have more time to let them shine. I’m not talking running time (The Heat’s 117 minutes is plenty sufficient for a comedy), I’m talking quality scenes with not just the two stars, but also the nicely cast supporting players. Actors like Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans and a wonderful Thomas F. Wilson (Biff from Back to the Future!) have a lot more to give than what they are allowed to here. And Jane Curtin! Her first scene, as McCarthy’s mother, is a speechless hoot: too bad she was rendered practically mute after that. I was practically salivating to see what these two women could do together: please let them give it a whirl!

And, of course, don’t lose Bullock or McCarthy. Alone, both these stars have proven to be smart, gutsy and winning leading ladies. The work that they do together, or should I say share together here is a joy to behold. Although playing competitive characters that are wary of one another, there is not a trace of any ego between the two actresses on the screen. Each not just holds her own, but truly supports one another, bringing camaraderie that not just improves the product, but reminds us what real, selfless friendship can be.

Man of Steel

A Superman for the 21st Century, this sweeping epic soars, bursting with ambition, a keen sense of drama and some knockout special effects.

Director Zack Snyder knows how to stage a mythic grabber (see: 300); here, his awesome visuals are enhanced by The Dark Knight trilogy’s Christopher Nolan (credited both as producer and story) and many from his Batman team. It’s a wonderful mix. As they did with that series, both screenwriter David S. Goyer and Nolan offer a new, deeper look at a legendary character and his story. Plot points and personality issues, dealt with sketchily before, are more fully explored. The film begins with a lengthy, developed explanation of how and why the baby was released from his biological parents, on planet Krypton. This Clark Kent, also known as Kal-El this time, isn’t just a cute boy with special talents, discovered in the fields of Smalltown, USA. Now, those unique strengths truly frighten not just the boy, but also his well-meaning adoptive father, who soberly advises Clark to keep it all a secret. This is not the sweetly comic Superman who dashes into phone booths for a quick change when he sees a little old lady have her purse stolen. This is a haunted hero, possessed of superhuman powers he is told can change the world, at a tremendous cost. There are those who find this kind of exploration a reward onto itself (count me in) but this huge production isn’t just all angst and planetary annihilation.  The fun comes through Snyder’s staging: each and every scene is beautifully, meticulously designed. And the special effects (which have been upconverted for those who insist on 3D) are quality and quantity. I thought, in fact, there’s a little too much quantity. The climactic war scenes could have been trimmed, their impact greater.

An all-star cast weaves in and out (much of the story telling comes though flashback scenes). Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Richard Schiff and Christopher Meloni are quite effective. Ayelet Zurer brings new energy to the term ‘otherworldly bitch’. In the two best-written character roles, Michael Shannon embodies the evil Zod with Shakespearian relish and Kevin Costner, as Jonathan Kent, is simply grand. Even in such illustrious company, Henry Cavill is impossible to look away from. Yes, he’s handsome, but his magnetic performance is well, just super. Unfortunately, Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne are given short shrift. That is one of the few mistakes that will be rectified the next time around. Because we all know there will be a next time and that’s just fine with me.

The Internship

A perfectly amiable comedy, this internship actually pays more benefits than we might expect.

Wedding Crashers’ Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn reunite to co-star as watch salesmen whose time has passed. Unemployed, unmarried, unhappy, these children of the 1980’s find themselves in very much of a 2013 dilemma. How do you create a second chapter when the social economics of the world around you frankly, suck? Vaughn stares blankly into his computer screen. And there’s the answer. Go work for Google. And it just so happens the company is looking. For interns.

Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay, comes up with a cute way around the old internships for college students only problem. Together, the two are accepted begrudgingly into the program and, naturally, find themselves in way over their slightly graying heads, competing with razor sharp kids, all of whom, we soon discover have their own issues, too.

Wilson, appealing as usual, actually gets to romance a lovely partner here (Rose Byrne), and the landscape is dotted with familiar, mostly TV, faces. Among the young stars, all of whom do what they are supposed to nicely, I liked Josh Brener, who also recently made quite the auspicious debut as a recurring character in a wonderful episode of Marc Maron’s IFC series (it’s called Dead Possum….check it out). The moments here belong to Vaughn, who, sporting a Tom Petty T shirt and spouting endless 1980’s pop culture references, still manages to win everybody over, both on screen and in the audience.

Sweetly intentioned and sporadically funny, this not especially surprising story taps not just into the zeitgeist, but also into the same kind of underdog goofiness that made The Revenge of the Nerds so popular. Don’t remember that movie? Google it.

Much Ado About Nothing

If you don’t find yourself happily swept up by this slim yet immensely charming adaptation, maybe you’re not the movie fanatic you thought you were.

Joss Whedon has stepped away from The Avengers to mount a sweet Shakespearian tale of romance and, well, those who avenge its true path. Shot on the grounds of a manor home, in a matter of a few days, this low budget production is as creative in nature as was Whedon’s last critical hit, The Cabin in the Woods. And that familiarity isn’t by budget alone: Whedon has brought along a few of the actors from that film to stop screaming in the dark and now spout iambic pentameter. And yes, you’ll recognize some of the other actors from other of Whedon’s movies, too. It’s like a very cool ensemble company, one which insists on digging into some artistic adventures in between smashing box office records.

A fine, if not necessarily headline cast has great fun telling the twisty love story of Benedick and Beatrice, two adults who’re just so sure love is not for them. Beatrice, in fact, is one of the Shakespearian women young actresses love to play, thanks to her feisty independence and glowing self confidence. Amy Acker does a lovely job, as does Alexis Denisof. The biggest and happiest surprise here comes from a downright wonderful Nathan Fillion, who steals the whole thing with his few scenes as Dogberry, the blustery neighborhood police captain. Most productions gloss over the somewhat comical character, but not this time. Fillion flushes out the deluded but sincere constable and becomes a character of character: a goofy guy we laugh at and can’t help but love.

The Hangover Part III

So, it starts with the decapitation of a live giraffe. And, it goes downhill from there.

I’m always amused, quite frankly, when studios insist we critics see some of their films with a live, large audience, because, apparently, we need to be schooled as to how a movie works for, you know, real people. At the screening I attended of this purportedly last chapter of the trilogy, those real people? They didn’t seem to find that giraffe getting its head clopped off too uproarious. As a matter of fact, the only sound that accompanied that scene was that of an instantaneous group cringe. The real people also did enjoy a short giggle once or so during the rest of the movie and there was a deafening silence, not one appreciative clap of applause from the invited guests, as the credits finally began to role. So there’s that.

As a professional critic/part time real person, I actually got a kick out of the original Hangover. Sure it was silly and over the top, but there was a goofy charm to the thing, a few honestly endearing moments and there was no denying Zach Galifianakis was a star. Then, because it apparently is the law, a sequel was made. It was awful. Now, whether we needed it or not, we have yet another movie, a kind of rehash of the original set up, involving drugs, a heist, Phil, Stu and the other guy having to support odd ball Alan and the pesky Mr. Chow doing all the stuff that Mr. Chow does. This time, though, we don’t have to go through the motions of much normalcy: the wives are handily dismissed after a scene or two. Heather Graham gets an appearance because, I guess, we all missed her so much and Alan’s on-the-verge-of-a-heart-attack Dad is gone, quick, too. The emphasis this time is on, well, you know what? I don’t really know what it’s on, there’s so much running around and not particularly action packed action happening.

Ed Helms is stalwart as Stu, Bradley Cooper looks as if he can’t wait to get all this behind him, reprising his role of Phil when he has already gone on to far better things. Ken Jeong sweats it out as Chow and John Goodman has a few fun scenes. The only moment worth waiting for is the (short) meetup between Galifianakis and Melissa McCarthy, who manage to make something real out of nothing.

Before Midnight

This all-too rare movie elicits myriad emotions: not just from the couple pounding their way as they approach middle age, but from us, watching them. Not the least of which is, “man, do they know how to fight!”

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are back, slipping seamlessly into the roles of Jesse and Celine, created with Richard Linklater in Before Sunrise (1995) and enhanced in 2004’s Before Sunset. We are now on the Greek Islands, catching up: with two young girls of their own, Jesse and Celine also get his son part time. He’s still writing and teaching. She’s considering an offer in Paris that will ramp up her career. But Jesse, fresh from dropping his son off at the airport, might be toying with the idea of moving back to the US, before his son graduates into inaccessibility. Everything looks great, but Celine’s acute radar can’t ignore the shifting winds.

In a series of prolonged, wickedly verbal scenes, we watch as Jesse and Celine spend one of their last days in the paradise of Crete. We travel from the airport back to the writer’s retreat, eavesdropping as the two almost tiptoe into what will become an all out spoken brawl, ripe with the anxieties facing them when they leave the island.

The issues that come up along the way aren’t really anything new: working mother balance, the lack of privacy in a creative household, step parenting, feminism, devotion and patience, just to name a few. What makes this all work, and work it does, is the smart and affectionate presentation of it all. Celine may be a sharp social commentator, but she also pretty much relishes pushing Jesse’s buttons a bit. He may feign exasperation, but, when it really hits the fan, this is a man who figures out how to respect and charm his way out of it.

Hawke and Delpy are terrific, once again. His frisky allure is recognizable and irresistible. And Delpy, with a magnificent self confidence, tackles Celine head on, beautiful warts and all. Watching these two actors (who also are co-writers here) fight it out is quite a ride: funny, scary, familiar. Except for that articulate part: how many of us could be that acutely spot on while blasting out our frustrations? Pretty awesome, I must say.

The Great Gatsby

Audacious, over-long, and, occasionally dazzling, Baz Luhrmann has delivered an adaptation that’s imperfect but also pretty darn fascinating.

Fitzgerald purists have been worrying about this one with the fanaticism of a nervous comic fanboy. How could this filmmaker, never known for subtlety, ever convey the delicate power of the classic and much beloved novel? For a good long while, I was afraid they were right. Like the Roaring 20’s themselves, most of this film is hyper-energetic and devil-may-care. The details of the period are lovingly recreated and then treated to a backseat, overwhelmed by visual tricks and unnecessary 3D. Some of the actors get to shine; others, not so much.   And yet, after all the soaring camera shots, the immaculately dressed sets and the repetitive Baccanalian party scenes, Luhrmann reigns it in, allowing the last, say half hour of the story speak for itself.  We are all left exhausted and, appropriately, sad. This is, after all, not just a love story, but a morality tale, one that could happen in any era. By swirling in some contemporary music, and snappy editing, this Gatsby makes us remember that.

There’s an all star cast here, but a few of them get, frankly, lost in the sauce. Tobey Maguire has a few moments as Nick, too few, though. Joel Edgerton starts off too hot as Tom and Isla Fisher is reduced to, essentially, a one note performance. Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki makes quite the auspicious debut and, I thought, outshines (or at least out-captivates) Carey Mulligan’s Daisy. All take second fiddle though to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby: in what may possibly be his most difficult role yet, DiCaprio is terrific, using not just his eyes, but entire body to betray the reality of this most enigmatic character.

This Gatsby is a wild and uneven ride: For every glorious shot of a New York City windowscape, there are two more that repeat the excess of the day and it’s staging here, insisting we get the point as if we hadn’t already. But when this movie works, it works beautifully. I’m glad that, in a marketplace that seems to almost exclusively demand superheroes, there’s also still a place for an ambitious hero and a movie about him, both of whom may not be so super after all. 

Iron Man 3

Never intending to reinvent the wheel, this high flying chapter happily settles for a big splash into the wheelhouse.

Shane Black, along with co-writer Drew Pearce, know enough not to change the formula. Iron Man (the ever terrific Robert Downey, Jr) takes it upon himself to save the world from the threatening bad guy. This time, though, it’s personal (ok, it’s always kind of personal, but play along, will you?): Baddies Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall and Ben Kingsley aren’t just threatening to terrorize the planet, they’ve also kidnapped Mrs. Iron Man (Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts). Now, Tony Stark must decide where his “heart” really belongs. OOOO! And there are tons of special effects and, if you pay the big bucks, they’re in 3D! Basically, this is the plot line for just about every super hero movie out there so if you’re going to keep relying on the tried and true, you’d better dress it up nicely.

Yes, this movie does look good. The pace is quick, the explosions explosive, the actors  fun. I’m always happy to see Don Cheadle, Kingsley has a couple of really nifty moments, too. Pearce, employing hairpieces, goofy glasses and a body full of muscles, seems to be having a ball. Paltrow dresses the scene with a beauty that does, indeed, make her if not the most beautiful woman in the world, pretty darn close to it. And Downey, even in his third, well, fourth turn at this guy, still finds honest moments amongst the effects, pulling us in to the crazy “reality” of this inventive inventor.

Of course it is just bad timing that this movie is being released so soon after the bombings in Boston (and myriad others worldwide). And it is jarring amidst all the gleeful action to hear Kingsley refer menacingly to himself as a terrorist who is out to terrorize. The fact that a small boy is brought in, to possibly carry on the Iron Man tradition, also might encourage some to think this is a family-friendly film. Rated PG 13, this movie might be zesty escapism for some: then there are those of us who wonder when the whole concept of terrorism as entertainment will finally wear thin.

42

What Jackie Robinson achieved, on and off the baseball field, is the stuff of legend. It deserves to be. This decent, formulaic salute does the job of recounting it, yet never shows half the ambition of the people it depicts.

It is important, both as baseball and civil rights history (not necessarily in that order) to pass the Robinson story on through generations. And yes, Brian Helgeland’s movie does that. We see, in somewhat flourished out bullet points, how Jackie was plucked from the Negro League, warned by his new boss (Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization) he must “have the guts not to fight back” when fans, teammates, even a wary nation would try to stop him. And we watch as they do. Good old boys down South threaten him. People in the stands jeer him. Some teammates sign a petition to get him out. And in one particularly difficult scene to watch, an opposing manager (Philadelphia Phillies’ Ben Chapman) shouts endless taunts, relying not just, but most often, on the “N-word”. Through it all, the player plays. He hits home runs, steals bases and makes himself a player so good, so important to his team, he changes not just the complexion of the game, but American social history, itself.

I was hoping Helgeland, who wrote the exquisite similar-period piece, LA Confidential, would serve up a more nuanced salute than he does here. These were complex, determined men (and woman, as in Robinson’s remarkable wife, Rachel). While the charming actor Chadwick Boseman takes pains to slip a wince or look of disgust into his performance, this Jackie is presented more as a well mannered polite young man, hurt and dignified more than furious and hungry. Couldn’t he be both? The savvy understanding of baseball as a business is also tossed around, but this movie concentrates instead on the father/son relationship between Rickey and his star, as well as metaphoric tricks like the two ten year old boys who show up in the stands, heavy handedly representing how Jackie influenced the future.

There are a few terrific bits of acting to be noted: Christopher Meloni (Leo Durocher), Hamish Linklater (Ralph Branca). Lucas Black (Pee Wee Reese), and Alan Tudyk (as the aforementioned Chapman). John McGinley’s a hoot as Red Barber and Nicole Benhaire is lovely as Rachel. But it’s Harrison Ford who pretty much steals the show: growling, practically unrecognizable, as Rickey, a man who pushed the boundaries of his industry and both his and our world.

To The Wonder

Artistry aside, I do still wonder: for a movie with this much dancing and twirling, how come it still feels like a ton of bricks?

Terrance Malick’s study of love and a few other things is a gorgeous, moody, contemplative piece. Brimming with schizzy edits, hand-held perspectives and subtitles like “what is this love that loves us?” this, like other Malick pieces, is for acquired tastes. I usually am among them.  Not this time.

Ben Affleck appears (almost wordlessly) as Neil, who could possibly be a somewhat autobiographical stand in for Malick. An Oklahoman in Paris, he meets a woman, a single mother who is all lusty laughs, whirling romps and sad reflections on flowers. Am I the only one who smells trouble ahead?

Guess so. Soon, Marina and her young daughter have moved in with Neil, back home on the Plains. Nobody’s happy and, when her visa expires, so does the relationship. Neil picks up with a local, a corn-husking beauty played by the always effervescent Rachel McAdams. Still, he can’t get over Marina and not only takes her back, but marries her.

As always, there is plenty of theory about what hit the editing room floor on this production. A subplot involving a disillusioned pastor (a wonderful Javier Bardem), is tantalizing, but given short shrift. Word is several other actors were cut from the film altogether. Too bad because, as a few key scenes unfurl, especially one where Marina is talking to what seems to be her only friend, we are left to wonder if she’s hallucinating the other woman or just continuing a relationship Malick chose to chop.

The Company You Keep

There’s something wonderfully reassuring about seeing Robert Redford back, directing and starring in a political thriller about the Weather Underground. Redford, whose decades of credits include some great churn ‘em ups like ‘All The President’s Men’ (I could go on, give yourself a treat and look them up) is The Natural (sorry) Candidate (can’t help myself) to deliver an evocative reflection on the modern day ramifications of some 1960’s radicals. Even if the results are uneven, it still feels great to see him back, delivering a finely cast, provocative movie for adults.

Susan Sarandon, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins and Sam Elliott (phew!) wind in and out of what is essentially a story of lawyer Jim Grant (Redford), who is on a race to clear his name, now that one member of his former group has been, after years underground, imprisoned for murderous political acts. A young reporter, a fine Shia LaBoeuf, is on his trail, sniffing out Grant’s secret and trying to make his own reputation grow because of it. Once beautiful Brit Marling becomes part of the story, both men begin to consider their own willingness to sacrifice.

Surprisingly, there haven’t been a whole lot of movies about these real life, hugely controversial home grown terrorists. Sidney Lumet made his ‘Running on Empty’ focus on the intimate family dynamic. There’s a bit of that here, too, but there’s also a wider net cast: in trying to tell the stories of lots of people, we barely get to know any of them.

It is not unexpected Redford takes great pains to enhance the complicated moral side to Lem Dobbs’ sketchy script. That’s smart movie making: adding a more vivid poignancy and color to an otherwise black and white ink drawing. And what a treat it is to see the ever magnetic Redford on the screen, sharing some terrific scenes with, in particular, Jenkins and Nolte. Pushing fine actors, including himself, to say more than what is on the paper, Redford reminds us of what impact can be made without special effects, artsy pretenses and mega million budgets.

Admission

The biggest problem with this movie is that Tina Fey didn’t write it.

Based on a far more nuanced novel, this romantic comedy takes us into the usually pretty mysterious world of college admissions. Fey stars as buttoned up officer at Princeton, living with her boyfriend and deciding the fates of thousands by the numbers. Natch, everything changes: boyfriend bails, another one shows up, wacko Mom’s got issues (cancer being the least of them), there’s the possibility of a job promotion and one of the kids who really wants in is a student who’d never cut it the old fashioned way. But Portia, who takes a special interest in the boy, uncharacteristically, goes to bat for the loser.

Surely, there’s a lot going on here and I haven’t even told you half of it. But what could have been a complex, relatable story of a young working woman never reaches its real potential. Director Paul Weitz, who nailed this kind of thing with the wonderful About A Boy, falters, letting screenwriter Karen Croner’s scenes play out as if they were completely separate from the ones before and after. There’s no continuity of tone. Likeable and capable actors such as Fey, Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin are left to break a sweat, trying all too hard to make sense of it all. It is with real respect that I say Fey should she have handled the adaptation duties. Surely, she would have more penned it all more deftly, even if, Portia does remind us quite a bit of Tina’s TV archtype, Liz Lemon. I can’t imagine Fey writing scenes where deserving college applicants are thrown under the bus as comedic (kind of surprised Princeton went along for that ride, too). And she’s smart enough not to write scenes where people are driving between Princeton, New Jersey and rural New Hampshire as if it takes, like 20 minutes. Just saying.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Not particularly magical, but thanks to its bevy of stars, we leave this mess with a smile on our faces.

We begin back in 1982. Young Burt, a latchkey child, is beaten up by neighborhood bullies. He only finds solace in his magic instruction kit and the other weird kid in school, Anton. Shazam! Its many years later: Burt and Anton have been headlining in Vegas for years. Their act is stale, their friendship waning and they’re losing heat to that street magician who’s shown up. Guess what happens.

No, this is not a ferocious comedy, matching magician against magician, stunt against stunt. At least not really. What we actually wind up with, thanks to the four credited screenwriters here, is a sprawling, but affectionate mess of a story, also involving a lovely but misunderstood assistant, a mentor who’s forgotten the magic of magic and a it’s-all-business casino owner. Burt may lose his joy, but, not to worry: sweetly, he “gets it”, makes amends and aims, along with his allies, once again, for the big time.

Steve Carell, as the adult Burt, tries to be nasty, misogynistic, burned out, but we never really believe what he’s doing, until, that is, Burt begins to soften. Steve Buscemi is game as sidekick Anton, as is the beautiful Olivia Wilde. James Gandolfini and Alan Arkin do stuff we’ve basically seen (and enjoyed) before, but it’s Jim Carrey, as the gritty 21st century illusionist, who steals the show, establishing this guy as the most intense, gruesome and magnetic threat to hit the strip in years. No wonder crowds show up and throw up at his events. Oddly, as Carrey eventually becomes more “family-friendly”, Burt and Co. use a ploy for their comeback that is amoral, at best. It is to the credit of director Don Scardino and the assorted actors we wind up cheering for them anyway.

Jack the Giant Slayer

No, this is not your father’s Jack in the Beanstalk: under Bryan Singer’s watch, this giant reboot is one definitely for the 21st Century audience.

Not to worry: we’ve still got good old Jack, who must not only climb the beanstalk to rescue the princess, but we’ve got a particularly bloody Medieval war, political troubles in the Monarchy, and Giants. Oh, are there Giants. These technical marvels are ostensibly here to reclaim land they once lost, but come on, we know they’re really popping up to wow modern day audiences. And guess what? They do. Of course there’s a team too huge to name behind the creation and performance of the many giants who not only roam the land, but climb the gargantuan stalks that soar, fight off pesky little humans and, of course, fight the good fight. Each creation feels unique, but the two headed guy (who does get the most face time) is a standout.

But as he did in the XMen films, Singer never forgets his human stars. Nicholas Hoult is fine as Jack, as is Eleanor Tomlinson as the Princess (who’s been given a decidedly feminist backbone). But the color comes from the surrounding company: Ian McShane as the troubled King, a wonderful Bill Nighy, who’s the guy inside the aforementioned two headed monster and a dandy Stanley Tucci, who’s having a ball playing (and I do mean playing) the manipulatively evil Roderick. If there’s a soul to any of this, and there is, it comes from the pretty remarkable Ewan McGregor, who somehow makes the part of the King’s loyal knight both funny, swashbuckling and downright moving.

Rated PG-13 for the considerable violence, this may not be an option for the very youngest, but for everybody else in the family, Jack delivers just about everything you’d want and Giants!

Stoker

Once this Gothic thriller stops trying so hard, and lets its natural freak flag fly, this horror becomes quite the entertainment.

Director Park Chan-wook spends a lot of time initially showing us how visually clever he can be. There are all sorts of tricks and treats, set against a cold, clammy backdrop. It’s all impressive, but certainly not a whole lot of fun. Sure, we see India (Mia Wasikowska) is devastated by the untimely death of her father. And her relationship with mother Nicole Kidman isn’t exactly helping. Together, and very separately, they roam their creeky old Connecticut mansion, unsure of just how to go on from here. And then Uncle Charlie, Dad’s long traveling brother, shows up at the funeral. And if things weren’t weird enough already, watch out now. Not only does the story heat up considerably, but Chan-wook himself backs off, letting the story roll along and letting some very good actors do what they do so well.

We can’t help but be pulled in by Wasikowska, as she evolves from pale, bereaved teen into a sexual, hungry and shall we say determined young woman. Matthew Goode, channeling a spin on Anthony Perkins, is quite masterful as the mysterious man, who instinctively, it appears, seems to know just what both mother and daughter want and need. As the plot thickens (no spoilers here, but be assured things get bloody darn thick), Goode’s sleek magnetism makes Charlie all the more confounding. We don’t get to see enough of Dermot Mulroney or Jacki Weaver, but they are both quite effective in their key roles. And Kidman is terrific: once again, committing herself to a possibly thankless role and filling in the blanks beautifully.

A Good Day to Die Hard

A bazillion shots are fired, a gazillion vehicles and buildings are blown up. Oops: sorry! Did I forget to say “SPOILER ALERT”?

It really is a shame this series, unlike its durable star, has disintegrated into a non-stop series of violent assaults. Because the original Die Hard, which debuted back in 1988, was such an entertaining hoot, thanks to a savvy script, nifty directing and a knockout performance from Bruce Willis. Now onto its fifth tapping of the well, John McClane is off to Russia, to figure out just what’s up with his estranged son, who, it seems, is facing a lifetime in prison there.  Jai Courtney shows promise as John Jr., but not to worry: while considerable money and energy has been spent on the firey effects, the filmmakers are almost miserly with such things as a script, story and dialogue. Essentially, there’s some Russian bad guys. They can or cannot be good guys at will. Just like they speak English or Russian, switching sometimes in mid-sentence. For the record, Sebastian Koch and Cole Hauser play the Russians the McClanes must protect/hunt down/kill/make jokes with.

Ah, the jokes. What happened to the sense of humor in this series? Although Willis tries to lighten up a few teensy bits of wordage, there’s very little of the engaging fun stuff to be had this time around. Even the signature “Yippee ki ya (Motherf***ers)” fell flat with the audience in my screening, many of whom, I must report, fled for the exits the second the big final blast up was over. Gee, they missed the miniscule scene of family reunion, a passage that ends so abruptly, it feels as if the filmmakers themselves couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Identity Thief

If this is the best we can offer two very fine actors, we’re in trouble. As an industry and a culture. In other words, Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman deserve a lot better. And so do we.

The idea isn’t all that bad: mild mannered mid-westerner takes revenge on the woman who’s living it up on his credit cards. I’m with you so far. But this fraud of a comedy is nowhere near as ballsy as its heroine. We are introduced to “Sandy” as she is sashaying through a Florida town, charging it up, buying herself some friends with a ‘drinks on me’ offer at a local bar. Once she dives for the chandelier, knocks out the bartender and projectile vomits all over the cops, the real Sandy, minding his own sweet business and adorable family up in Denver is not just maxed out, but also got a criminal record. In case you can’t pick up the difference between the two Sandy’s on your own, she’s the one with the day glo makeup to match the upchuck that spurts from her potty mouth. He’s the one with the Subaru, bare bones budget and not just two cute as pie little girls, but a pregnant wife to boot. Oh. And because of some police technicality, even when they figure out the guy’s been scammed, they can’t do anything about it, unless he brings the suspect to them. And his new boss, who can’t give Sandy the break he’s always deserved unless his name is cleared, can only give him a week to do it.

That’s just the beginning.

What essentially becomes director Seth Gordon’s spin on a Midnight-Run ish road trip takes little detours for such niceties as a booze-infused loud and juicy shtoop with a cowboy sportin widow played by Eric Stonestreet (who also deserves way better than this), a few highway chases and crashes, a trio of Evil Looking Bad Guys shooting at each other, and, perhaps yummiest of all, a chance for our straight as an arrow good Sandy to tap into his inner manipulative ole self, just as bad Sandy tearfully confesses just why she is the way she is, all of which is rudely interrupted by another car chase and a convenient escape from police custody. Don’t worry: it’s all happily forgiven later and everybody turns out just fine. Isn’t that nice?

No. It’s not. If only writers Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten had really gone for it, made Bad Sandy really tough and nasty, both McCarthy and Bateman would have had something to sink their teeth into. As it is, the two very capable stars do their very best, doggie paddling through slop, trying to keep their heads and their work from going down on this very creeky ship.

Side Effects

In his purported farewell to big screen directing, Steven Soderbergh has delivered a salute to some film masters that’s also pretty darn fun.

This zigzag of a thriller captures us the way Hitchcock (and, at his best, DePalma) did: a beautiful young woman is spun into a hazy web of depression, drugs and side effects. She knows she’s a mess, but also desperate to help her loving husband reestablish himself after serving time for insider trading. And while he’s seeing life ahead as a continuation of their previous grand Greenwich lifestyle, she’s sleepwalking through her days and seeing her harshly manipulated reflection in mirrors. Her psychiatrist keeps trying more drugs. Things aren’t getting better. And then, one night, the husband winds up dead. Stabbed to death by his wife whom he surprised while she was sleepwalking though slicing some veggies in the kitchen

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Part two of our story takes place in, primarily, the courtroom. Is our heroine responsible for what she did? Or is the blame really on the doctors who prescribed her meds, and the Big Pharma companies that wine and dine them, not so subtly suggesting they offer up one particular brand, or, better yet, that they sign up as a consultant, and earn some big and very easy money? This is the kind of juicy stuff Altman and Kazan, among others, had a field day with.

Not to worry: we’re all having fun, too. Scott Z. Burns’ story takes place in the glamorous world of New York and Soderbergh takes the city at it’s most tantalizing. We’re all loving that lunch at Le Circe, feeling the downscale sadness of the subway, the brightness of sleek skyscrapers and the claustrophobic darkness of small apartments. Reuniting with a few actors, he also lets Catherine Zeta-Jones purr her purr, Channing Tatum play it straight (with his pants on). It’s Jude Law, as the psychiatrist, and particularly Rooney Mara who have the heavy lifting to do here and they both do it well. It’s too bad the third act lets us down a bit, but up until then, Soderbergh and company offer up some entertaining, skillful suspense.

Gangster Squad

Terrific actors, an irresistible story: so how come this pulpy shoot-em-up never equals the sum of its oh so snazzy parts?

Sean Penn has a ball playing notorious L.A. mob chief, Mickey Cohen. The guy who ran the town back in 1949. Mickey had everybody right where he wanted them. Except for a small group of cops, given a silent ok to do what it took to take Mickey down. An intense Josh Brolin leads the unofficial squad; his ethnically appropriate back ups include smarty pants Giovanni Ribisi, brave Anthony Mackie, newcomer Michael Pena, who is only brought in because his partner, Robert Patrick, took him on because no one else would work with an Hispanic guy. And then, of course, there’s the suave Ryan Gosling, who not only shows up because his favorite shoe shine kid is rubbed out in Mickey’s crossfire, but also because his girl, the sultry Emma Stone, also happens to be Mickey’s girl. Unhappily, of course.

Director Ruben Fleischer makes sure he not only appeals to all stereotypes, but also throws in enough fireworks to keep the most blood thirsty of audiences happy. Probably much of the action here is drawn from historical encounters, but the incessant, in your face rat a tat feels very 21st Century, not 1940’s noir. The pacing of the story bumps along,too. It is ironic, I suppose, to note that this movie was pulled from its spot on the summer release schedule and went through re-shoots (if you pardon the phrase) after one of its biggest shoot’em up scenes involved a gunman taking aim at patrons in a movie theater. An evocative killer scene takes its place, but it’s all nothing in comparison to the final climax, where the two big guns go after each other in a scene so firepowered, they finally run out of ammunition. Arguments can be made as to whether there will ever be a “good” time to release a movie with as much gunfight as this one. We always seem to be too close to another mass shooting to be comfy.

All that being said, each actor gets a moment or two to shine and, after having seen Gosling and Stone in this, as well as Crazy, Stupid Love, I submit that they should be cast in every snappy seduction scene there is.  I’d so much rather watch that than any more uber-violent blood fest. Because those two, and a page or so of decent dialogue, well, that’s entertainment.

The Guilt Trip

Does it give it away where I’m coming from that I “invited” my son to join me at the screening of this mother/son road comedy? I mean, it was demographic research. Really. You know me, anything for the sake of my art.

You shouldn’t worry. We both had a good time.

The concept? It’s ok, based on the “high concept” idea that a 20 something-ish young man would take his mother along, on a road trip across country. So, of course, there are lots of sight gags about East Coast snowstorms, Texas steak houses and Vegas casinos. Director Anne Fletcher keeps it all rolling along, so even the lesser plot contrivances fly by and pretty soon, we’re onto something a little more fun. Like watching the two stars sit in a car and talk amongst themselves.

What makes this comedy what it is, is the terrific chemistry between its two leading actors, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand. Rogen, has clearly widened his horizons since his earliest goof-ball films (he was just wonderful in the little seen 50/50 and Take This Waltz). He takes this opportunity to share the screen with the legendary Streisand and runs with it. His Andy is a bit of a mess, a well meaning scientific inventor who’s trying to make his own way in the world. But Andy’s career, love life and even his relationship with his mother aren’t too good. And Andy’s gonna be damned if he lets his mom know it.

And then there’s Streisand. Stepping into her first leading role in almost two decades, this comedienne seamlessly reminds us she’s not just in control, but in full bloom. Her Joyce is adorable, annoying, intrusive, loving and a little bit on the self-protective side. She sees Andy’s vulnerabilities but won’t admit to her own. At first, anyway.

Honestly, it doesn’t much matter what happens in this movie. The magic is in the telling: allowing us to sit back and enjoy two fine actors bring out the best in one another. And stay for the credits: those improvised spins are just a hoot.

Django Unchained

Expanding on his theme of historical revenge, Quentin Tarentino is at his bloody best here. To borrow a phrase, this one ‘floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee’.

Tarentino adapts the spaghetti western to take on the horror of slavery in the American South. Set right before the start of the Civil War, the action (and boy is there action) revolves around the unlikely pairing of one accomplished White, German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and an innately smart but unpolished slave, Django (Jamie Foxx). We begin as Schultz buys Django from some smarmy dealers. Not caring much for the concept of slavery itself, Schultz offers Django his freedom if the black man will help nab two brothers, whom Django knows and Schultz does not. Turns out, there’s a whole lot more that goes on than just that one good score.

I have always gotten a kick out of Tarentino’s savvy usage of film genre and he sure doesn’t disappoint here. In the simple guise of a standard, low budget shoot’em up, this oh so contemporary filmmaker tells a vivid (and quite horrifying) story of slavery that is honest, graphic and yes, sometimes, very hard to watch. But he also softens his rage with a dandy, slow-build relationship between the two hunters, a love of the land they travel and a smack down, era-bending soundtrack.

As usual, there’s a terrific cast to tell it all. Waltz is glorious, Foxx, smoldering. You can’t take your eyes off Leonardo DiCaprio though, with his full out turn as a plantation owner who may or may not hold the key to Django’s future. It’s a downright hoot to recognize Sam Jackson, Don Johnson and a whole lot more actors who show up, in bit parts or bigger. This isn’t all winking fun and games, though: Kerry Washington gives a beautiful, fully developed performance in a key role, too.

And, as is his part of his trademark, Tarentino curates one hell of a soundtrack. Of course, he relies on several pieces from Ennio Morricone, but also widens the cred with rap, James Brown and 2 Pac. There is a scene using Jim Croce’s I Got a Name which I think will change the impact of that song forever.

Like just about everything else this season, this is a long movie. Two hours and 46 minutes. And it flies by, leaving us not just schooled, but thoroughly entertained.

Les Mis

I feel like one of those reality show judges, sadly grimacing as I deliver the news. Audience boos me. How could I not like this? After all, everybody’s TRYING SO HARD!!!!

Yes, they are. Look: Anne Hathaway went down to eating apple paste or something to lose all that weight! And she let somebody chop off all her gorgeous hair right on camera! And speaking of weight: come on! Look at Hugh Jackman! He didn’t just rely on his terrific musical pipes, he starved himself so much you almost don’t recognize him! And Russell Crowe! Well, he must have done something!

Tom Hooper, after directing admirably tight productions of The King’s Speech and The Damned United, breaks the bank this time. This Les Mis is Big. Running an uneven 2 hours and 38 minutes, quite a lot of this highly anticipated adaptation is good, too. The opening sequence, as Javert surveys what seems like thousands of prisoners, slaving under his watch, is pretty awesome. And as Valjean makes his break, desperately stealing silver from the church that took him in, we all have shivers, watching Jackman break down, defiantly insisting he will change.

It’s then that things begin to waver, diligently setting up the cat and mouse game between the reformed Valjean and the police chief, Javert. But, once Anne Hathaway shows up, absolutely giving it her all as Fantine, we remember how thrilling musical theater can be. Starved, desperate and horrified, when the camera sits still, letting Hathaway do her thing, we are riveted. Her gutsy rendition of I Dreamed A Dream stops the show.

Ah, but, of course, SPOILER ALERT: Fantine dies. So, for quite a while, we’re plodding the plot along again. Until the Revolution starts stirring and two supporting actors, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, appear. That, and they, are downright terrific.

Even when the story takes a turn for the quiet, Hooper keeps up a furious, insistent pace. There’s never a moment for any of us to take a breath or even just sit back and appreciate what we’re seeing and hearing. I think Hugh Jackman, who has the most screen time, pays the biggest price. A veteran of musical theater, Jackman is a talent who shouldn’t have to perform full steam ahead when sometimes, a simple whisper would be far more effective.

And then there’s Crowe. You’ve got to give the guy props: he shows up here, even though, as a rock singer in an operatic world, he looks terrified. To really set up Les Mis right, you’ve got to have equal strength between Javert and Valjean. That simply doesn’t happen here and the movie, as a whole, suffers.

All that being said, many people who pay their money and camp in for the long haul will love it. And it’s great that the passionate sweep of it all will carry them away. They might even find themselves singing the ballads for days afterward. I know I did. I can’t help but recognize the problems that keep this from becoming the movie it could have been, but those looking to just get carried away at the movies will have a ball (and a bawl).

Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s stunning look at the capture of Osama Bin Laden is a tremendous achievement, on many levels. Stark, smart and boy-did-they-get-this-out-fast, this is a film of urgent and undeniable accomplishment.

Told in an almost documentary type style, this ambitious drama takes us through the ten years of intelligence and military investigations. But writer Mark Boal never sacrifices story for fact: he melds the two beautifully by focusing not on the machinations of the process, but on the key players within the organization. We are there as the pretty wide eyed newbie (a dandy Jessica Chastain) shows up, just in time to witness her first water boarding/interrogation. She’s visibly disturbed. So are we. And over the span of the things shown here, we all come to wonder about the efficacy of torture. This is just one of the shady moralities Bigelow and Boal weave into the story line, insuring this is a film that’s not just a kind of you are there docudrama, but a poignant morality piece as well.

Be forewarned: this is not a movie for sissies. Besides the aforementioned torture scenes, there are restagings of some shockingly horrific true life events. People we come to care about may or may not make it, putting (dramatically reinterpreted) faces behind headlines we may or may not have paid attention to over the years. And there is not shortcutting the mistakes and confusion that led to dead ends or worse. It is, though, kind of comforting as an almost overwhelmed audience member when we find out that the “smart guys” (and girls) were, sometimes, just as misled by fake beards and look alike brothers as we are.

Originally, Boal began his script years back, intending to take us to a dissatisfying end where Bin Laden is never found. That, however, didn’t happen and quickly, the filmmakers added a really remarkable re-staging of the amazing raid and capture. In what feels like a real-time reenactment, we find ourselves sitting on the edge of our seats, peering through the darkness with our hearts pounding, watching the Navy Seals pull off what they did.

It is especially rewarding to make note of the fact that this movie is all business. We see Chastain’s agent mature over the years, letting go of vanity to devote completely to the work at hand. It’s subtle and terrific. The whole emotional arc of the film is subtle, which makes its impact even more of a wallop and harder to shake.

 

This is 40

Judd Apatow goes for broke in this supposed follow up to his hit romantic comedy, Knocked Up. You’ve got to admire his zeal, even if the results are pretty uneven.

Again casting his real wife and daughters, along with alter-ego Paul Rudd, the prolific and often sneakily poignant filmmaker addresses the general indignities of middle age. We enter as the couple celebrates their birthdays, he in somewhat denial, she in such serious denial, she lies to her doctors and her birthday cake about turning the big one. We’ve all been there: anybody older than, say, 10 realizes these “big” birthdays are a sign of gravity, responsibility and wrinkles, messing with our long supposed youth.  This is the stuff that should be in Apatow’s wheel house: funny, but affecting.

Often, it is. Rudd continues to be one of the most appealing leading men around, even when he is discovered hiding out from the family for hours on end, playing e-games on the toilet. Leslie Mann is likeable, too, as Debbie, the beleaguered wife, mother and business woman, trying to balance it all while still looking, let’s be honest, hot. The couple’s real life daughters, Maude and Iris, are turning into quite the actresses. The Apatows better be careful what they wish for here. Seeing Maude and her mother rip into each other on screen feels just a tad too “inside” for comfort. We’re in far more secure hands with the estimable Albert Brooks, who, as always, steals every scene he’s in, as the in-over-his-head father in law. The only time he meets his match professionally and impactfully is when John Lithgow shows up for a few key scenes, as the family’s other patriarch.

Apatow could have created something really special here: a warm hearted embrace of the ups and downs of facing the middle of our lives. But, he loses his real goal, going for series after series of long, repetitive sequences, bits which were funny or sad or whatever they were the first time we saw them, but after the nth time around, just become, well, annoying.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Lord of the Rings trilogy behind him, Peter Jackson has begun yet another, this time adapting the Tolkien epic, The Hobbit. Flashing up the fantasy with soaring swagger, a bit of the jolly and some brand new shooting techniques, he delivers a long, but pretty fun ride.

Let’s get that technical stuff out of the way. The film was shot in 3D 48 frames-per-second and is being released in that High Frame Rate, traditional 3D and also in 2D formats. So, you buy your ticket, you take your choice. I, who has had some dizzying effects from earlier standard 3D films, was perfectly fine watching this one, although I have heard others complain. While it was jarring when the few brightly lit scenes took on the look of a TV video game, generally, I thought the look and the 3D effects were pretty cool.

Usually, when I see five writers given credit on a film, I assume we’re in for trouble. However, Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (along with Tolkien’s original story) weave a tale that flows, even when it reminds us of other moments seen previously in the Rings movies. We also are greeted with happy reunions. Ian McKellen has a sizeable role again as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett shows up as Galadriel, Ian Holm as Old Bilbo, Christopher Lee as Sauman, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and don’t blink or you’ll miss Elijah Wood as Frodo. Andy Serkis gets a good chuck of screen time to re-work his magic as Gollum and, in the central role as Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman is a delight.

And, of course, there are effects. Tons of them, along with massive action scenes, and lots of fantasy adventure. And boy, does it move! Even at a running time of 2 hours and 46 minutes, no one will have time to get bored. I wasn’t particularly amused by the very dumb jokes that are spread throughout. Those, while lightening up the tone, seem to be aiming for the little kids who probably wouldn’t be able to follow much more else here.

There’s no question Jackson and company are off to an ambitious start here, with a few bumps along the way. The Rings trilogy grew stronger as it went along; I see no reason why the Hobbit one won’t either.

Life of Pi

And they said it couldn’t be done.

Ang Lee’s mounting of the best selling novel is an awesome movie event: a loving interpretation of the mystical story as well as a jaw dropping, how’d-they-do-that visual feat.

David Magee and novelist Yann Martel have combined forces to tell the tale of a young Indian man, the child of zoo keepers who find they must relocate the family business to Canada. Transporting a few of the remaining animals, the group takes to the sea. There is a terrible storm and our hero, Pi, finds himself alone on the waters, a ferocious tiger his only companion. It’s a lovely to look at narrative, up to that point. And then, when all hell breaks loose, so does Lee’s glorious use of effects and 3-D. Full disclosure: I attended a press conference for the film in which the always charming Lee tried to explain some of how he pulled off the ground breaking stuff. I listened, I still don’t know how he did it. And I kind of like it that way. Because watching Pi is magical: sometimes, you just don’t want to know how they did those tricks, you just want to love them. Yes, those comparisons some are making to Avatar do make sense, in a way: even though this is a far more elegant film, the technical accomplishment, putting stuff on the screen we have never seen before, can’t be denied.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma has been cast as the desperate Pi; his elder self, narrating the memory, is Irfan Khan, of Slumdog Millionaire fame. It is primarily up to these two men to connect us with the spiritualism of the story and, for the most part, those willing to go there will be happy to do so in their care. Because Pi, both the book and the movie, are not for those who like to keep their feet and hearts on the ground. So-called common sense and traditional movie pictures shake loose of their constraints and soar here. It’s a thrilling ride for all of us.

Silver Linings Playbook

David O Russell’s movie to love raises the bar on what has become the traditional rom-com.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat, a schoolteacher just released from an asylum after beating his wife’s lover to a pulp. Under the care of his adoring, but somewhat apprehensive mother and father (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro), Pat moves back into his childhood room, plotting his road back into his old life. It’s when he befriends Tiffany, played by a fabulous Jennifer Lawrence, that Pat is forced to widen his perimeters a bit, to see that he’s not the only one with “issues”.

Under less sophisticated hands, Matthew M. Quick’s screenplay (based on his novel) might have been dumbed down, played for the easy laugh. But Russell insists his actors go for more and the results enhance things considerably. Even American passion for football becomes emotionally profound. But this is a movie about people. We see the dysfunctional, extended family at it’s most harried, but the great affection each member has for one another shines through each scene, and is never added in like an afterthought. Cooper, who has doggedly pursued more serious roles, to counter balance his moneymaking comedic ones, hits the jackpot here. I don’t know if his work is strong enough to make him a factor at awards time, but his Pat is definitely career altering work. De Niro, blending anger issues with a hunger for something more, could have walked through this role like a tiger, but he modulates enough to steal almost every scene he’s in. Except one. And that’s when Tiffany shows up, laying it on the line. Rarely do we see actors take charge of a scene they are sharing with De Niro, but Lawrence not only takes control, she humbles every other actor in the room. It’s a glorious capper to an overall terrific performance.

Lincoln

Often fascinating and beautiful to look at, Steven Spielberg’s latest forms an imperfect union of history and storytelling.

There is no doubt Daniel Day Lewis is marvelous as the 16th President of the United States, a man as beleaguered by society as he was by his very own inner circle. Tony Kushner’s ambitious screenplay, taken in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, reveals Lincoln to have been a master politician, savvy in his manipulations of Cabinet and Congress, insisting his Emancipation Proclamation be adapted into a Constitutional amendment. We see, with no apologies, the political process that reigns today isn’t all that different from what stood during the Civil War: passions reigned, tricks used, a few good men stuck to their guns. And the President pulled a whole lot of strings out of the public eye, navigating his platform with a gritty determination. People who love historical accounts will have a field day, watching this all unfold. Others, looking for a more “typical” Spielberg production, complete with raging battle scenes and emotional crescendos, are going to be flat out disappointed.

Tommy Lee Jones does a splendid job as Thaddeus Stevens and leads a mostly familiar looking all star supporting cast, some of whom fare better than others. I got a kick out of the kind of goofy trio of James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson, operatives who specialized in certain kinds of convincing, but the jolly music that accompanied their scenes made me crazy. And while Sally Field and Joseph Gordon Levitt do their best as the President’s wife and elder son, watching these two self-involved whiners for as much time as we do not only drags the proceedings, but gets downright annoying. Even a late speech from Field, as the depressive Mary Todd Lincoln, explaining the context of her husband’s accomplishments up against such personal odds, only gets in the way of what is otherwise some pretty juicy, if talkative, action.

Skyfall

Outlandishly ambitious, this sure-footed re-boot isn’t just among the best of the Bond series, but among the best movies of the year.

Sam Mendes and company have taken the traditional 007 suave storyline and spun it with threads from the Bible and Greek lit, not to mention a few heavy-duty Mommy issues. Even more profoundly, the whole thing tethers on the question of aging: have M, Bond and even Her Majesty’s Secret Service outlived their usefulness? Perhaps all of these elements have come to play in earlier chapters, but they’ve never been handled so deftly and with such disarming results as they have this time around.

We know we’re into some different territory when, at the end of the signature opening action sequence, M has given instructions to have an agent shoot. She does and Bond, James Bond falls to the bottom of the sea. We all assume he’s dead. M is encouraged to accept a retirement package: she’s screwed up enough, thank you and at her age, she’s told, it’s time to go. Of course there’s more to it than that and soon, both of our heroes, along with the rest of the agency, and quite a bit of the world itself, is battling a former agent gone rogue, spectacularly played (and I do mean played) by Javier Bardem.

Daniel Craig, who at age 44 doesn’t seem that old to be outsourced, brings his usual gravitas to the playboy he’s made haunted. And Dench, allowed out from behind her desk, is her usual terrific self. It’s also a treat to see Ralph Fiennes sneak in to his new part in the series. But, even though Bardem gets to bask in the always flashy role of the villain, no one really steals the show here, because the show meshes so beautifully. Action purists will be happy: fight scenes involve some breathtaking, scenic backdrops as well as a few sentimental props. And I appreciate the fact that, as in most Bond films, the spectacular violence is contained, never really threatening the innocent, as so many other pictures do, in the name of entertainment. But what I got a kick out of most was the sheer ambition of it all: kicking it old school, and making a 50 year old classic shine.

Flight

It’s almost harder to tell which is more frightening: the remarkable crash scenes in this thriller or the self-delusion of Denzel Washington’s heroic addict.

Digging into his juicy role of Whip, an airline pilot who pulls off a brilliant emergency landing while loaded, Washington gives one of the most fascinating performances of his career. Bloated and fuzzy, Whip is a talented man in almost astonishing denial. He’s fine, he thinks: sure he can fly on a combo of drink and drugs. And, he does, not only riskily taking off during a horrible storm, but also landing after mysterious problem seems to virtually doom the plane mid flight. So, of course Whip thinks he’s ok, even when his son, the government investigators and his new girlfriend, a recovering addict herself, try to convince him otherwise. Washington’s watery eyes, slumping shoulders and slack jaw tell the real story, though.

Director Robert Zemekis stages the early in-flight terrors with a sure hand. Anyone who is already afraid of flying is not going to be happy watching these dandily filmed, long sequences. Once the plane lands, John Gatins’ script focuses on the investigation into the crash, as well as Whip’s stubborn denial of his own reality. Sober, Whip knows he’s in trouble. He informs his dealer (a wonderful John Goodman) to take back the Vodka brought into the hospital room. And he promises the only people on his side (Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and Kelly Reilly) he’s clean. For a little while, he is. But, faced with the consequences of his actions, his slips are deep and raw.

There are a few other interesting ideas floating around here: the plane lands in the field of a church, the first people on scene are those praying, wearing flowy white robes. There’s also a lot of mention of God’s will. And the AA meeting, where another addict admits his own pattern of lies, has been seen in many films before, but is especially sharp and potent this time.

A bumpy ride (both literally and figuratively), Flight may not add up to a great film, but it is an awfully good one.

Cloud Atlas

For a movie about big ideas, this occasionally entertaining fantasy sure gets bogged down in the small stuff.

The Wachowski siblings have combined forces with Tom Tykwer to bring the popular sci-fi novel to the screen. Essentially, the concept boils down to this: we, the reincarnated repeat the same patterns throughout history. That point is made, over and over again, as the story is told, over and over again, through the points of view of several characters, in the past, present and future. And it all takes a very long 2 hours and 43 minutes.

It’s not that there aren’t some fun moments here. Even in the film’s first half, when we don’t know exactly what the heck is going on, it’s a chuckle to see veterans such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving wend their way through the ages, playing (and I do mean playing) their roles with verve and a whole ton of makeup. Berry, of course, and her young co-star Jim Sturgess are basically too pretty to mess up with special effects and fake noses so they pretty much look the same throughout but Hanks et al seem to get a real kick out of prosthetics and go a little bananas.

Meandering through the ages, the results are very uneven. I found the stories told in the past or present working pretty cleanly and, for the most part, held my interest. The futuristic ones? Not so much. An actress named Bae Doo Na delivers an essentially wooden performance as a robot-come-to-life-to-deliver-the-message and the action sequences in this part of the movie are very Matrix-esque. In other words, been there, done that. And when Tom Hanks and Halle Berry travel through a desert, out to save a species, they are forced to overact their speech patterns, in order to “explain” what they are saying, in a half-English, half-schizo, twisted around made-up language we are supposed to find cool. Not I did. And that’s the true-true.

Argo

Ben Affleck’s very dramatic, funny, and even timely period thriller just may the most wholly satisfying movie of the year.

Based on the real covert operation to rescue some of the Americans held in the Iran crisis of 1979, Affleck has delivered a fascinating, chilling and unwittingly auspicious movie-movie. As producer/director and star, he insures this is a grab your armchair espionage story, as well as a surprisingly humorous and infectious one, showing profound respect for the real heroes who pulled off one of the few key undercover missions actually allowed by the government to be eventually published and turned into a film.

Affleck stars as CIA specialist Tony Mendez, a quiet, savvy exfiltration expert, who not only planned but pulled off the rescue of the six Americans who slipped out of the American embassy during the notorious takeover and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Inspired by the hugely popular Star Wars movie, Mendez designed a plan to parade the captives out of Tehran, under the guise of filmmakers, out scouting locations for a new sci-fi flick. It’s a lovely, understated performance, supported by more colorful players such as the irresistible tag team of John Goodman and Alan Arkin (as the Hollywood players who create ‘Argo” the Movie’), Bryan Cranston (the CIA boss with a heart) and Tate Donovan (the inherent leader of the captives). Chris Terrio’s screenplay moves along smartly and Sharon Seymour’s set design, featuring those shag carpets and oversized aviator glasses, is an appropriate hoot.

The press notes are careful to note that Argo is “based on real events” and a few of the moments in the piece do feel a tad manipulated, in order to make the movie more of a grabber. Still, you can’t help but be pulled in to this remarkable, pretty much true story, marvel at the real people who lived it and applaud those who’ve told their tale.

The Paperboy

I’m all for filmmakers reaching out of their comfort zone, but what’s with this insistent attraction to scummy, sweaty lowlifes? Does allowing your crotch to be shown in an unflattering position make you A Serious Artist?

Pete Dexter’s screenplay, based on the Gothic novel, takes us into the lurid tale of a 1960’s era newspaperman who returns to his humid hometown, tracking the story of a man convicted of murder. The groupie girlfriend says he didn’t do it. For a reporter out to make a name for himself, this is irresistible stuff.

It should have been for us, too. God knows there have been lots of downright fun books/movies that have played with similar themes. The problem here is that director Lee Daniels seems to be more fascinated by the seamy side than he is with the telling of the actual story. Plot holes abound; there are, however, lots of luxurious shots of mutilation, murder and sexual mayhem. If this is your thing, well, I doubt you’re going to be into watching a top caliber of creative types slumming as they act it out.

I’m not talking about Nicole Kidman’s scene of public urination upon Zac Ephron, either. Actually, that didn’t bother me at all: it is as appropriate to the story as it was when Monica peed on Chandler in a very funny episode on Friends. And Kidman, game as always, pretty much nails her fancied up hairdresser with a fatal attraction to the bad guys. John Cusack really gets into his grotesque prisoner, Ephron is ok as the innocent younger brother and Macy Gray does a nice job in a few key scenes, too. David Oyelowo is wasted in an also ran role and Matthew McConaughey winds up, oh never mind: I’m not going to tell you how he winds up, but what he gets to enact is just one of the scenes that made me not just squirm, but want to race home after seeing it and take a shower.

 

 

 

Looper

 

I knew this was my kind of sci-fi movie when, after spending a bit of time establishing the “rules” for this conceptual thriller, Bruce Willis yells at Joseph Gordon Levitt, insisting that they stop talking about how time travel works and just get down to the business at hand. I often think filmmakers spend far too much time and energy explaining the wacko conceits they’re playing with. Rian Johnson’s got a lot more fun stuff than that to get to, after we can all put aside those pesky particulars.

Since a true part of the fun here is watching the actual story reveal itself, I am not going to give a whole lot away. Let it suffice to say that the futuristic plot very much moves along traditional western storylines. Mysterious Levitt shows up, battered and alone, at single mom Emily Blunt’s Midwestern farm. There’s a bad guy (Willis) he’s trying to head off, he tells her. Whether that’s true or not, none of us really know. After all, there’s a whole lot more going on than just that. Everybody’s got a secret: everybody’s got an agenda.

I’m not saying this all make sense. And I’m not saying the initial first half hour or so isn’t a whole lot of exposition, during which I found myself kind of tuning out. But I am happy to report Levitt carries his complicated acting challenge with great aplomb. Willis is reassuringly terrific. And I love Emily Blunt. Sporting blonde locks and a nifty all-American accent, she nearly steals the movie. In a key role, young Pierce Gagnon makes an auspicious debut. I won’t tell you anything more about that!

While Johnson has souped up the proceedings with lots of special effects and sci-fi detail, he was smart enough to keep the heart of it all very human. We wind up caring about the main characters and the messy plight in which they live. While this is familiar territory for audiences, a lot of Johnson’s technique is not. There are actually a few visuals in Looper I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Sure, they’re tricks. But they work because somehow, we believe them.

Trouble With the Curve

As comfy as an old shoe, this one does nicely enough but could have used a few curve balls of its own.

Clint Eastwood, slipping back into the grouchy old guy role he’s perfected, plays a baseball scout who’s losing his eyesight. His semi-estranged daughter, Amy Adams, shows up once in a while but is much too busy with her impending law partnership to really notice. But, prodded by old family friend John Goodman, our girl takes a few days off and shows up as not so dear old Dad is scouting the kid who will make or break his already precarious career. Just for fun, a nifty Justin Timberlake shows up, one of Dad’s former prospects, now arm blown, scouting the new kids himself.

You know what’s going to happen. You know the Big Corporate Bad Guys back at the Atlanta Braves office won’t value Clint the way they should because the actors in these scenes sneer a lot. And you know Amy’s manfriend, who’s convinced they should take things to the next level because they work ‘on paper’ is a goner. And mostly you know Amy and Clint will come to love one another again, their past troubles can all be explained neatly away, and that the irresistible Justin will prove, well, irresistible. That’s all very nice, as folksy American as well, baseball used to be. Don’t get me started on juicing, corporate mid season trades and the price of box seats. We want it all pretty straight across the plate here.

What works, and works beautifully are the performances. Sure, we’ve seen Clint do this kind of thing before, but nobody can argue he isn’t terrific at it. And Timberlake, as an actor, just gets better and better. But it’s Adams who’s the knockout. Standing up to the Eastwood legend, she more than holds her own in their scenes together, she actually steals them, no trouble at all.

The Master

The buzz words alone: Scientology, Hoffman, Phoenix, Anderson, made even the anticipation for  this film compelling. The finished product, an imperfect, demanding yet extraordinary slice of American history, delivers not just on the promise, but on our hopes for it, too.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, this period drama may draw its roots from the development of the mysterious Scientology movement, but it digs into much more than that. We watch as the alcoholic Freddie, a man who cannot go home again after serving in World War II, is drawn into the welcoming bosom of a new “science”, a developing theory called The Cause. The charismatic leader of the group, Lancaster Dodd, woos, insists and embraces Freddie, setting up a yin/yang thing between the two that is not just parallel to so many leader/follower relationships but, at its heart, primally father/son. And not in the warm fuzzy way, either. These two love, cajole, threaten and fear one another. Freddie’s neediness supports Lancaster’s ego. It’s pretty clear Dodd relates to Freddie’s furious anger, even if he won’t admit it. We aren’t so sure, but have our suspicions about the men’s sexual draw, too.

Yes, Anderson has admitted his screenplay does have similarities to the beginnings of Scientology, but as it’s played here, this could be the story of any cult-ish leader and disciple. As the group finds itself labeled controversial, dangerous and even bordering on illegal, some members begin to question what’s going on. A few leave. But the faithful hang on, traveling from benefactor to benefactor, country to country, desperate to keep their family. Freddie is a full fledged creation in his own right, but his story echoes that of so many “followers” who may need more than they believe.

While the story does move along in a traditional linear way, Anderson enhances it with some more mystical scenes that may confuse some viewers. Probably (I haven’t done it yet), there’s more to savor in a second viewing. And maybe then, the second hour of the film won’t feel as if it sags in a few parts, paling in comparison to the exhilarating, almost breath taking first. But I can’t imagine the thrill of watching the actors, particularly Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, can be any more astonishing than it is the first time you see them. As Freddie, Phoenix is scary good, tapping into the angst, sadness, and out of control energy that makes this man the frightening, yet likeable creature that he is. Hoffman is equally as magnificent as Dodd. And while both men give complete, superb individual performances, it is their scenes together that blew me away. As the characters they play feel like two parts of one whole, so do these two actors, in the way their techniques balance and counterbalance here. Hoffman calibrates, Phoenix (seemingly) improvises. Acting and reacting, these two men create scenes that are glories to behold. And while I’ll be watching  again and again, I’m almost jealous of those who haven’t seen them yet, discovering  joyous work like this for the first time.

Arbitrage

Nicholas Jarecki’s screenplay may remind you of one of those paperback thrillers people devour, but his savvy direction and Richard Gere’s best performance in years make the movie as a whole wonderfully satisfying entertainment.

Taking on the not so pretty world of New York City high finance, we meet Robert Miller, a lion of the hedge fund world, home to Park Avenue just in time to celebrate his 60th birthday with his family. It’s been a tough day: Miller’s company is on the verge of collapse; his savior/lender is threatening to pull out and, oh yeah, that gorgeous mistress of his? She’s not happy, either. No problem, Miller insists. He’s got it all under control. He’ll get the company sold, earn a sweet profit and take said mistress for a ride upstate, like the old days. She’ll come around.

And then there’s the accident.

In a sophisticated turn, Jarecki makes Miller and the rest of the characters here anything but easy to figure out. They aren’t all bad guys, they aren’t all good guys. They believe they have to do what they have to do and it’s thanks to savvy work from wife Susan Sarandon and cop Tim Roth, we kinda believe them. Apparently, the life lessons for the 1%ers aren’t so different than those for the rest of us after all.

But it’s Gere who really makes Arbitrage as fun as it is. His understanding of and compassion for Miller is a treat. And when he finally loses control, in a furious exchange with daughter Brit Marling in Central Park, we are all left shaking. Over the years, Gere has quietly become a more adventurous, interesting actor. He uses all that he’s learned here to make the sneaky Arbitrage a potent but darn good time.

The Campaign

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifanakis’s political satire may not deliver a profound punch but it’s no sucker, either.

Playing two very different candidates running for Congress, these likeable stars make even the silliest, broadest moments at least worth a giggle. Ferrell is Cam Brady, the good old boy who loves the cushy spot he’s been elected to on the Hill; his wife, sensing an eventual VP nod, is willing to overlook the other women, the tweeted scrotum pictures and the publicized graphic phone messages so she can get to Washington, too. Galifanakis, as hometown booster Marty Huggins, is, well, a little different. As awkward as Cam is slick, Marty just wants to help his neighborhood out. The fact that he’s an embarrassment to his wealthy dad disappears, a little, when the notorious Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd, in a thinly veiled spin on the Koch Brothers) show up with a thick checkbook and a plan. A fine Jason Sudekis and an especially funny Dylan McDermott add to the fracas, as the vying campaign managers.

The script is uneven, there’s a heavy reliance on low rent humor and a mass appeal insistence that sells the potentially potent idea short. But, there are funny things in this movie. Ferrell, playing a hard R version of his George Bush on Saturday Night Live, is fun, if expected. It’s Galifanakis who shines, taking a kind of pathetic character and nailing it. Maybe that trick isn’t that much of a surprise either, considering other roles Zach has played before, but it’s always a real treat to watch him do it.

The Bourne Legacy

“How doesn’t really matter, does it?” yells Ed Norton, about half way through this muddled spinoff. I was so relieved, no longer having to sweat the small stuff, like plot.

Here, we are informed Jason Bourne (the very much missed Matt Damon) is still on the lam. But, back at the ranch, well, actually the wilds of Alaska, another injected super guy, Aaron Cross, is running low on meds. Rebounding his way into a fellow soldier’s camp, Aaron finds himself in the midst of an assassination. And if you think that’s bad, wait till you see what’s going on back in headquarters, where Cross and the rest of the big guys check in for check ups.

Somehow, remember “how” really doesn’t matter, Aaron gets out of Alaska, into a car and apparently a bunch of money, and shows up just in time to rescue the doctor who he thought was cute, just as she is getting the crap kicked out of her by government types who showed up at her creepy manse after she somehow escaped the gunman who went “berserk” at the lab. And off they go, Cross and Dr. Not-so smarty pants, trying to get half way across the world to use her key card to swipe their way into a sister lab and get Aaron his blue pills. Or some other concoction that will keep him buff, brave and brilliant.

Oh yeah, and there’s an eons long chase scene. Or two. Maybe it was three. They all sort of melted into one another. The lack of cohesion is surprising here, considering the man behind the story, Tony Gilroy, wrote the other chapters of the Bourne saga. Poor Norton is left to frown and fret and basically spill a bunch of expositional mumble jumble. I liked Jeremy Renner as Cross, who brings as much back story as he possibly can to the otherwise perfunctory proceedings. Rachel Weiss does the same, in the thankless role of the girl, I mean the supremely intelligent Doctor who gave up bragging about her research to serve her country. They, and we, deserve better.

Hope Springs

Just when so many ticket buyers “of a certain age” seem to have given up hope,  here comes a delightful “movie-movie” that’s most special of effects come from its flesh and blood, very human stars.

Written by a surprisingly young Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel (yeah, he’s young too), this is a tricky story of an all American couple, married 31 years. They’ve got a nice home, nice jobs, nice adult kids and two separate bedrooms. He snoozes comfortably watching the golf channel : she’s getting restless. Must be hormones, he informs her. She buys them a trip to a marriage counselor.

Yes, this could be a mess. But, Taylor’s script treads lightly and manages to meld some very real life issues with some really hilarious moments. And Frankel, who stamped his signature on the movie version of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, brings a similar polish here, while never rushing the small stuff, which makes the poignant moments all the more effecting.

Steve Carrel, who is a funny guy, does his most interesting work when he’s not handed the punchline: and that’s what he’s doing here. He plays the counselor, the straight man, as it were, in the sessions with the miserable Tommy Lee Jones and uncomfortable Meryl Streep. Pushing firmly gut gently, Carrel keeps the momentum of the storyline moving along, but its Jones and Streep who make the promise  pay off. Tommy Lee doesn’t always get to play the romantic lead, even though he doesn’t need sweet stuff to appeal. Here, he is downright irresistible as the grumpy husband who begrudgingly does want his wife and his life to be happier. And Streep? What can I say? It’s been such a treat to watch this fine actress loosen up as she ages, embrace her inner comedian and let a few vulnerabilities bounce off the screen. Working with Frankel again (their collaboration in Prada was perfection), she gives a performance that is pure joy. Even if many in the audience can’t relate to the particular circumstances of our heroine’s situation (thank God), we can all feel her desire for a vibrant life. And good news is: we feel a little more vibrant, just walking out of the theater.

The Dark Knight Rises

An antidote to comic book escapism, Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman has never taken the easy road. Now, in the final chapter in the promised trilogy, the going is still tough. And the rewards are great.

We meet again, eight years after Batman (the effective Christian Bale) has crawled into his cave, assuming the blame for the death of D.A. Harvey Dent. Of course, we know how elaborate that cave is, as Bruce Wayne’s fortunes have supplied a gorgeous mansion, complete with treasures to tantalize the savviest cat burglar. And so enters Cat Woman, a lithe Anne Hathaway, who’s out to steal from the rich and give to the poor, with a healthy percentage going toward supporting her “habit”. As Bruce has got his domestic terrorist to deal with, outside the walls of his self-imposed prison, there’s Bane: the masked terrorist who is out to destroy Gotham. Good guys John Blake (a terrific Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Marion Cotillard’s Marion are on the case and both have their appeals to Bruce and his caped alter ego.

If the portent of all this isn’t heavy enough for you, Nolan takes pains to incorporate some real issues of the day into this comic based adventure. Referencing the Occupy Wall Street and Sustainability movements make things all the more contemporary, the threat of having Gotham, i.e. New York blown to hell, all the more terrifying. The gravity of this threat isn’t the thrill ride it is in the Avengers: in other words, Bane looks like he means business and even as we’re rooting for the heroes, Nolan doesn’t give us the comfort of knowing it’s all going to work out ok.

It’s great to see the fine actors Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and the especially beautifully cast Michael Caine back. Tom Hardy has the biggest challenge, to present Bane as not just a physical but psychological threat from behind a mask and, for the most part, he succeeds. Unfortunately, much of his dialogue is muffled because of the signature mouthpiece.

There have been a few times I let some sentimentality take hold while watching these super hero movies. I was surprised at how I felt during a few of JJ Abrams’ sweet Star Trek moments and sure, I even felt a small lump in my throat when we saw the evolution of the X Men in the First Class picture. But I have never actually reached for a tissue until we reached the end of this lengthy, dramatic Batman story. Engaging the audience, not just through special effects, but through actual story telling, is perhaps Nolan’s greatest gift to the Batman legacy.

Magic Mike

To say this is a movie about male strippers is to say Boogie Nights is a movie about porn. Steven Soderberg has delivered a mostly thoughtful, funny, beautifully edited story. And it happens to be about people involved in the all-male revue world of Tampa, Florida.

Based on star Channing Tatum’s reminiscences of his days on the stage (he was young, he needed the money), Soderberg brings not just a pedigree but integrity to the proceedings. Allowing Tatum to actually act for his supper, his lovely, understated performance is matched by Alex Pettyfer, the young kid Tatum’s Mike takes under his wing. And, for the most part, Matthew McConaughey, sashaying into a role he might have been born to play, as the club’s older, but not particularly wiser, owner, is dandy.

The strength of this movie is in its genuine enjoyment of what these men are doing. There are delicious scenes backstage, as the guys “prepare”. And the highly choreographed strip numbers are grandly shot and slickly edited. We get the essence of what’s happening, the athleticism of it, the savvy shimmy for dollar bills, but it’s all cut off at just the right point, leaving the audience (and not just the ladies, thank you) wanting more. It’s a great tease. But then comes the rest of things: Reid Carolin’s script is pretty much by the numbers, the female characters are thinny thin thin and the “dangerous” stuff that we know is coming wouldn’t scare somebody away from this life of sex, drugs and rock and roll for a minute. As if there was almost no other way to end the movie, a hail Mary moment is handed to McConaughey. He does his thing with relish, as if he’s scoring a virility touchdown. If only the script and the director had shaded this into a more interesting, almost pathetic scene, McConaughey would have nailed the best reviews of his career. Because, at least as I saw it, watching a just about middle-aged body building obsessed shirtless wonder take it all off for a group of drunk coeds is pathetic, indeed.

To Rome With Love

Woody lite, this pretty string of short stories is uneven, landing it nowhere near Allen’s best or his worst.

The most familiar of the tales involves sellout success Alec Baldwin, back in Rome and finding himself as a shadowy mentor to Jesse Eisenberg, a young architect who not only reminds the elder of himself, but who also is about to screw up a lovely relationship with Greta Gerwig. Ellen Page is fine, but I thought somewhat miscast as the femme fatale who, obviously in retrospect, leaves a series of disappointed men in her wake.

There’s also a strange little sex tale, involving Penelope Cruz as a lusty prostitute, a relatively poignant story, handled quite nicely by Roberto Benigni, about the merits and demerits of fame, another one of Allen’s go-to themes. For the first time in several years, Woody himself takes an on screen role as a retired opera director who, while visiting his newly engaged daughter, discovers an amazing talent in the new family. Tenor Fabio Armiliato gets to sing some arias that class up the joint considerably; Woody gets to sputter out a few good old reliable jokes.

When you have made as many films, as quickly, as Allen has, there are bound to be some that are better than others. For me, a few of his movies are seminal: glorious works that I hold dear. There are also a few real bummers: movies that feel lazy, undeveloped, sketchy. This movie is nowhere near as ambitious as it could be, but there are moments that delight. I’ve been harder on Allen before, but this half hearted effort left me hoping for more next time. To paraphrase the master, in Annie Hall,  “Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about (Woody’s films); y'know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and... but, uh, I guess we keep goin' through it because, uh, most of us... need the eggs.”

Rock of Ages

A retro rom-con whose aim is true, this Broadway musical adaptation does please a crowd, especially if that crowd loves ‘em some 1980’s rock and roll. It’s Tom Cruise who, momentarily, shakes things up enough to stir everyone else.

A pleasant and capable Julianne Hough stars as the wide-eyed newcomer to Hollywood, newcomer Dakota Sage Grant grew on me as the ambitious rocker who loves her. A considerably more seasoned supporting cast shows up for the more salty parts of the story. Spot on Russell Brand and an underused Alec Baldwin run the club where the lovebirds work, Paul Giamatti dons a short pony tale to authenticate his sleazy manager. Blink and you might miss Mary J. Blige, who must duet with Hough. Catherine Zeta Jones looks a tad shell-shocked but still does the job as the politician’s wife who is morally outraged by the scourge of the music. All perform their musical numbers with the same goofy affection as we saw in, say, Mamma Mia. Not great, but it’s likeable.

And then there’s Tom. Cruise, who I’ve always thought was a more interesting, adventurous actor than he’s given credit for being, takes the slim role of Stacee Jaxx, the washed up legend, and runs with it, creating a real character out of what, on the page, is a caricature. Bringing the kind of full bodied intensity he brought to Magnolia here, Cruise also blends in just enough humor to keep us rooting for his messy machismo throughout.

Men in Black 3

Is there any big movie star performance more genuinely charming than Will Smith’s Agent J? Even when this latest chapter in the series is at its sloggiest, Smith saves the day.

This time, we’re dealing with time travel. An initial, and not very promising slug fest at a Chinatown restaurant, leads to a threat against not just mankind itself, but the life of Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K. Driven by an almost mysterious loyalty to his partner, J visits a guy who knew a guy who got another guy to go back to the year 1969. And so, in pursuit of said guy (the guy who already went back), so does J. And let’s not forget J and K have a new boss on board, Emma Thompson has replaced Rip Torn.

Once we’re back in this pungent period, the movie seems to find its groove and get it on. Sure there are silly hippies and stuff, but J is gently reminded of what it is to have been a black man in Florida back then, Andy Warhol is discovered to be a lot more than we thought and a game Josh Brolin accompanies J, as the 29 year old K. Brolin does a really nice Jones impression, even if he a tad warm and fuzzier than the crusty older version. (It’s all explained later.) Perhaps the sweetest addition is Michael Stuhlbarg, the lovely actor who first came to film prominence in the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man. Even when his character is predictably seeing the future, we’re seeing something irrepressibly fresh.

Dark Shadows

Anemic in parts, this Johnny Depp/Tim Burton reboot is still, often, a bloody blast.

Based on the classic TV series, this “family-friendly” version is somewhat of a surprise, considering the popularity of contemporary, blood-spouting and violent vampire tales. Barnabas Collins, bitten into eternal life and lust by a scorned Angelique (Eva Green), is inadvertently uncovered in the tomb where he was buried alive back in the 1750s. It’s now 1972 and a lot has changed. Much is made of Barnabas’s discoveries of modern day life; his remaining dysfunctional family? Not so much. They’re having their problems, mind you, but this is very much a movie about Barnabas. And some nifty set design. And music that will bring you gratefully back into the day.

Michelle Pfeiffer makes a welcome return as the midi-sporting matriarch; Helena Bonham Carter has some fun with her role as the in-house psychiatrist who can’t help but develop a thing for the mysterious, old fashioned visitor. And who can blame her? Depp is pretty delicious as Collins, even if his take on Barnabas is as soft and fuzzy as was the eventually (and sadly) watered down Captain Jack Sparrow. It is a detour from Burton’s past to see him not go for the gusto in Barnabas’s “hungry” scenes. Most of them are conducted off-screen, which might disappoint vampire fanatics out there.

But. If you accept what is given here, an imperfect goof that could have used a transfusion or two along the way, there are still some real, vivid moments of pure entertainment. Depp always delivers and the effects are eye poppers. And, if not much else, Burton has stretched his technique to play with Danny Elfman’s irresistible soundtrack, swooping the hits up in a crescendo or two that will knock the most dubious off their feet.

Marvel’s The Avengers

This full throttle action extravaganza might have benefitted from an attached ‘Superheroes for Dummies’ cheat sheet, but, hell, who cares? If its 3-D thrills you want, you’ll have a blast.

Joss Whedon has mounted a great looking meeting of the Marvel family of characters. Succinctly, there’s a bad guy (Loki, played by a classically malevolent Tom Hiddleston) who’s out to take over the world. Called into action by leader Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), a bevy of beef converges to save us all. In one corner, we’ve got Robert Downey Jr’s dandy Iron Man, adjacent, the nifty Mark Ruffalo, trying to keep his cool, lest he burst into The Hulk. Diagonally opposite Tony Stark is Chris Evans’ stalwart, if a tad (appropriately) dated Captain America. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has a nice, Shakespeariany moment with his adopted brother. A sexy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) seems to have some back story with an underused (and underexplained) Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and there are various other good or bad guys who show up along the way, too. To be honest, I didn’t realize some of them, fine actors like Paul Bettany and Don Cheadle were even in there, but hey, I did recognize Stan Lee in a short cameo, so that’s cool.

Unlike the splendid J.J. Abrams Star Trek, which took familiar science fiction characters and made them not only recognizable, but relatable, Whedon settles for less. Of course we know our superheroes will make it, and that there will be welcome bits of humor along the way to entertain us, but we never honestly feel for these people, who keep spouting obligatory dialogue about how tough it is to be so special. Considering the relish they, and the filmmakers take in giving it back to the man, it feels as if their talk is cheap.

That’s about the only thing that is cheap in this effect-aganza. Too often lately, producers have slapped in a few 3-D amplifications, bowing to the technical pressure of the times. That’s not the case here: Whedon has a great time playing with swords that reach into the audiences’ chests, creatures that dare to swallow us whole, flying fists and hammers, too. What he does may not be as state of the art as, say, Avatar, but it is a barrel of fun. Maybe next time, and yes, there will be a next time, we’ll actually fall as under the spell of the heroes as we do with their flourish of their superhuman tricks.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Avengers of old age, a team of superhero actors considerably enhance this sweet but slight look at taking life by the tail.

The great Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy (come on, do you really need anything more than that?) lead a fine group of players, as English seniors who, for varying reasons, wind up living in a rundown retirement home in India. We’ve got lonely widows, desperate singles, miserly infirmed and people with long hidden secrets. The usual stuff. And it’s plotted out in a decent, well meaning script by Deborah Moggach. What makes it all shine are 1. India, which is fascinating, beautiful and exotic, 2. John Madden’s compassionate direction and 3. the fact that these smarter than smart actors present their characters as not standards of old age, but as full bodied human beings. These men and women do more with their eyes than Moggach accomplishes with pages of dialogue.

It should also be noted there’s a young love story slotted in, to perk things up and entertain the kids who might accompany their grandparents to see this feel-almost good-er. Dev Patel is adorable and a collection of Indian actors are also quite fine.

The conditions are the Hotel may not be so great, but, for those of us not having to put up with no hot water and questionable ceiling fans, spending time with its residents is still quite a treat.

The Five year Engagement

A bumpy entertainment about a bumpy road to the altar, this overly long rom-com offers up a couple of laughs, a thought or two and a lot more extraneous stuff.

Jason Segal has reunited with his Forgetting Sarah Marshall partner, Nicholas Stoller, to introduce us to an oh-so-modern couple. Emily Blunt’s a Brit living in San Francisco, applying for post Doc jobs in psychology. He’s a nice Jewish boy, a chef who’s about to break out into the big time. We meet just as they are about to get engaged. Nicely set up, we’ve got lots of potential hazards here: career, backrounds, locations. All pop their ugly heads and manage to keep our 21st Century sophisticates from tying the knot one way or another.

There certainly are some moments that make this movie a step up from the average goofball love story. Unfortunately, the movie only flirts with the pungent possibilities. There’s one teeny scene about yarmulkes which suffices to hint at possible complexities of interfaith marriages, but most disappointing to me was the passing glance at the “emasculation” of the man, unfulfilled career wise as his fiancée soars in hers. We see disappointment and a stab at uber-macho (including some really ugly facial hair) but a sub plot about deer hunting never really gels. I am hoping, I guess, that Segal is making a statement here, but if he is, the only real message that gets across is that shooting animals, and the inadvertent human who’s in the way of the forgotten cross bow in the kitchen, is what guys in Michigan do for fun.

Segal, who is one of the most likeable, if unlikely romantic leads in contemporary movies, does a nice job here, as does his stellar supporting cast. Of particular note is Chris Pratt, who effortlessly steals every scene he’s in. Emily Blunt is wonderful, as always. And, if nothing else, we discover she looks really cute in bangs.

The Lucky One

A by-the-numbers romance, this momentarily interesting picture is very much of the Nicholas Sparks brand. You know going in what you’re buying: beautiful young people finding true love against some odd or two, usually in the also beautiful Carolinas. There’s a spunky elder to set them straight, and a comforting sense of Americana. This time, though, Sparks plays with a most contemporary of wounds: the PTSD of a marine, just back from a most harrowing third tour of Iraq.

A quite fine Zac Ephron stars as U.S Marine Sergeant Logan Thibault. After discovering a picture of a (beautiful, of course) woman buried in the rubble of an attack he was lucky to survive, our hero carries the photo through a few other assaults. Returning stateside, Logan is haunted by the fact that he lived when others close by did not. He is jittery, aloof and unable to find his own peace. Taking off on foot, with his loyal dog, Logan finds himself walking toward the woman he doesn’t know.

Too bad Sparks settles for his usual stuff at this point. Naturally, the single mom is gorgeous, available (sort of) and wears high cut shorts to reveal the spectacular legs she earned by running track. The fact that Beth owns a kennel, needs some help on the ranch and has wisened Grandma (the always delightful Blythe Danner) around to set her straight, well, this is all the kind of thing we know is going to happen before we walk into the theater. Even if we didn’t read the book, which, like all Nicholas Sparks books, was a best seller.

Yeah, there is a bit more to it than that, but not much. A bad guy ex (who reminded me of dumb dumb bad guy Biff in Back to the Future) is involved, we figure out the psychic connection involving the photo and pretty Taylor Schilling, who plays Beth, must at one point, wear long pants.

The Cabin in the Woods

A post-Scream scream, this genre puzzle rearranges the pieces to create quite the hoot.

Written by Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard, this horror/sci-fi-er makes sure we’re never too comfy. What looks to be a standard kids-in-the-wilderness set up, is not. What looks to be a standard mad scientist movie, is not, either. Since so much of the fun here is in the revelation, I won’t spill the beans. Let it suffice to say, there are spot on performances from the young cast. In the years since its’ filming, (not their fault: supporting studio MGM went belly up and ‘Cabin’ got shuffled around quite a bit in restructuring, etc.) one of the stars, Chris Hemsworth, has become quite the box office draw, with pictures like Thor Star Trek and the upcoming Avengers on his list of credits. And it’s always great to see Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford do their thing.

Is ‘Cabin’ scary? Yes, there are a few moments that did get me jumping. Is it funny? Yes, I laughed. More than a few times. Is it perfect? No. But this neat little twister is adventurous, inventive, and energetic. As welcome as a hearty breathe of spring, even if that spring has been sitting on a shelf, just bursting to bloom.

Lockout

So it’s the future. And the President’s daughter is being held hostage in an outer space prison. And the only guy brave/tough/smartass enough to go get her just happens to be the ex-government agent who might be a murderer. If this is the kind of thing that floats your personal boat, you might find this Luc Besson creation adequately entertaining. After all, there is a lot of shooting and snarling and sweating going on.

Guy Pearce, the terrific actor whose credits include everything from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to The King’s Speech buffs up to play Snow, the rogue anti-hero. We know he’s an anti-hero because Snow has one name, growels at his old boss, and answers everything with pithy one sentence retorts that are the comic equivalent of “so’s your old man”. Convinced he can clear his own name if he takes the job of rescuing the beautiful blonde in distress, Snow still hates her. She is, after all, representative of “the man”. And Snow hates “the man”. Pretty Maggie Grace, from tv’s Lost, turns out to be a little different than what Snow expected, so there’s that, too.

In typical Besson style (even though the directorial credits go to newcomers James Mather and Stephen St. Leger), the horribler-than-horrible bad guys are almost hilariously over the top. On the excuse that they’ve been induced with a sleeping medication that causes brain damage, they are allowed to act so wacko, they get to slobber, hold various body parts in awkward positions and constantly threaten rape.

Pearce and Grace look good amongst the ruins. And it’s not Pearce’s fault he’s saddled with stupid frat boy dialogue. It takes a special talent to make lines like that work. I found myself aching for Bruce Willis, who could have handled this stuff with aplomb. Like he did in so many vehicles, even Luc Besson’s other futuristic extravaganza, The Fifth Element.

Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman’s college coeds don’t look as if they are distressed at all, as this sneaky little comedy begins. Spying the new kid in town, this trio of togetherness swoop her up, promising not just their tantalizing friendship, but a shortcut to coolness. Who could resist? And, we are off, on what becomes an occasionally uneven but still irresistible treat.

Stillman’s seminal trio of the socially privileged ‘90’s (led off by the magnificent Metropolitan) made him pretty cherished for his modern day, Henry James-ish take on New York. After a self imposed sabbatical of sorts, Stillman has refocused his sharp eyes to a modern day college campus, set in The North, but still, the notes divulge, shot in Staten Island. Now, it seems, the pride is in the dumbness. While we do get an occasional shot of snap (thanks mostly to a very funny Megalyn Echikunwoke), most of what these kids are all about is blandness. Violet, the Queen Bee of the group, is even wide eyed in her ever-pronounced judgments about others and their behavior. Carrie MacLemore’s Heather makes SATC’s Charlotte look like a saber wit. Adam Brody’s Charlie, along with Ryan Metcalf’s Frank and Billy Magnussen’s pitifully funny Thor are all surfacy, too. At least at first. It’s the wonderful Analeigh Tipton’s Lily who appears to bring some salt to the table here. And she does, but even her “edge” is pretty dulled down when compared to what we discover of her annoying new BFF, the surprisingly textured Violet, as brought to fascinating life by the estimable Greta Gerwig.

I could very well document some scenes, even a few silly subplots, that just don’t work here, but these are relatively minor complaints. Watching Stillman subtly dissect these white-bread kids cuts us, too. How happy we all are when they can retreat into their blinders-on innocence.

Wrath of the Titans

The biggest surprise of this mythical swashbuckler is how downright dull it is. Wrath is supposed to be emotional, right? And Titans? Shouldn’t they at least be compelling?

Picking up some 12 years after ‘Clash of the Titans’ (a box office hit in 2010) left off, we now find a war that’s been raging between the Gods is about to surface: because of a lack of interest on part of the real people, plus some pretty serious squabbling between brothers Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, the whole world could crumble. Zeus (Liam Neeson) must enlist the help of his estranged son, the demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington), who has sworn to live quietly amongst the villagers, raising the son he adores. Of course, Perseus must tap his inner warrior, set off to the Underworld, set things right with his father and uncles and save mankind while he’s at it.

Not to make light of these stories from Greek mythology: their multi-dimensional moralities have captivated people for thousands of years. And it’s still pretty cool to watch the legendary Cyclops, Kronos and Chimera come to life, along with characters most of us only think about when we’re filling in crossword puzzles these days. While the first ‘Titan’ film was just a mess, this one tightens things up enough to make the story easy enough to follow, the effects ok enough to make their point. As for the 3-D, I was particularly unimpressed. Very little if offered to make the extra price of admission for that worth it. Why wear those silly glasses for an hour and a half if the snake hissing with his mouth open as if to devour you feels as if he’s 20 feet away?

Played out in a perfunctory 4/4 rhythm, this movie tells a story, sets off some big special effects and goes home. There’s nothing truly bad going on, but nothing truly exciting or memorable, either.

Safe House

A “February” script with a “December” cast, this predictable thriller still manages to get the pulse to race once in a while.

Ryan Reynolds is the central CIA agent here: just starting out, assigned to watch a safe house in South Africa. He’s complaining to the boss (Brendan Gleeson) nothing’s happening, that he wants a chance to really show his stuff. So, of course, guess what happens.

The especially terrific Denzel Washington’s in town, an “off-the-charts” brilliant (aren’t they all?) American spy who went rogue on us. He’s carrying some weird computer chip he had to inject into his stomach to prevent the constant stream of bad guys who’re always shooting at him from getting their scary looking paws on. Seeing no other alternative or something, Denzel (who’s traveling here under the character name Tobin Frost) turns himself into the consulate and, after freaking out the folks back at Langley, our mysterious captive is moved to, surprise surprise, Ryan’s suddenly not so safe house after all.

David Guggenheim’s script feels as if he took the playbook for those CIA guys on the lam action thrillers and slotted in his people’s names in the blanks. We have seen this story so many times before, director Daniel Espinosa has to really rev up the jittery camera and incessant gunfire to wake things up. And his tricks, for the most part, do what they are supposed to. I found myself jumping in my seat, even though, intellectually, I knew exactly what was coming.

The other smart move on Espinosa’s part was to hire on a roster of very good actors. Even though Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and Ruben Blades don’t have much to do, it’s a pleasure to see them bring some real starry gravity to their short scenes. And Reynolds is perfectly cast as the ambitious, wide-eyed newbie who learns more than a few things along the bumpy, if familiar (to us) road.

But the true thrills come from Washington, who is such a treat as the enigmatic Frost. A guy who likes games, Frost loves to play with people’s heads, as well as the more blood-spurting parts of their bodies. Watching Denzel sit back, watch the chaos spinning around him when he just knows the answer, is irresistible fun. More fun than the movie itself, but hey, it’s February at the movies and I’ll take what I can get.

The Grey

Joe Carnahan’s poetically virile Alaskan survival tale offers up some of the most unpleasant moments you can spend at the movies. I guess that’s the point.

Troubled Liam Neeson (when isn’t Liam troubled? Can somebody get this guy a musical comedy or something?) stars as a man, who thinks himself clearly superior to the working slugs surrounding him on a remote Alaskan work site. During an aborted suicide attempt, our hero spots a glowering wolf approaching the camp and deftly kills it. The next day, he and the motley crew is on a rickety airplane, heading for home. You just know this isn’t going to go well.

Carnahan, who wrote and directed, takes great pains to class up what could have been a more traditional and less poignant thriller. Shooting in the real wilderness, the scenery is terrifyingly beautiful. And the arc of the story, allowing us all to discover the humanity of the survivors slowly, makes their journey all the more compelling for us, sitting in the cool and safe darkness. Neeson, always fine, is here, too. I also liked what the smart actors Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo and the terrific Dallas Roberts brought to their roles. But, here’s the thing. This is not a movie about men’s relationships with one another, trudging through snow and making it to Russia (I hear you can see it from there). This is also very much (too much) a movie about Adventure. There are all sorts of smarty pants tricks these guys figure out to make life a wee bit more comfy. In the heat of the moment, are these basically untrained survivalists really going to know how to pull off some of the level, cool headed stuff they do here? And then there are the wolves. These aren’t any old wolves: these are eyes glowing, sharp toothed salivating, huge guys. And they travel in packs. And they’re pissed. Ohoh.

I get it. I see just what Carnahan is going for here and it’s impressive. The results are mixed, as if he (and the people behind this film) are hedging their bets: don’t just go for the masculine mush, make sure there’s lots of blood and guts. Give ‘em what they want: and keep repeating it. Pure gore, up close and personal.

 

Joyful Noise

Don’t let all that corn-shucking gosh-darn-it stuff fool you: this is one canny movie.

Tapping into the Glory and Glee zeitgeist, Todd Graff has delivered a sometimes silly, but ultimately winning little musical. Apparently, Graff took his own mother’s experiences as a choir leader for a Jewish community group and translated it into a Southern, interracial church setting. Dolly Parton, you would think, would lead the group after her husband (Kris Kristofferson) dies in one of the film’s earliest moments, but Pastor Courtney B. Vance turns over the reigns to Queen Latifah, a mercurial woman who’s got more issues than whether or not the group is fighting her traditional leanings.

There’s a lot of plot going on here: vying divas not withstanding. We’ve also got marital strife, children with Asperger’s, runaway bad boys, young teenagers in love (the fact that one is white, the other black is, interestingly, the least of their families’ worries). The town is nearing bankruptcy; the Church and the choir, which may or may not win a national contest, are all the people have left to hold onto. This may sound like a lot and it is. But I dare you to find a town that doesn’t have its share of all of this these days.

For the younger viewers, there’s a savvy focus on two talented young performers, an appealing Jeremy Jordan and star-on-the-rise Keke Palmer, who gets to lead the choir’s stirring renditions of songs from writers spanning from Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, and Usher to Dolly herself. Check for a pulse if you aren’t swept up in the truly crowd pleasing musical numbers.

As actors, Parton and Latifah are asked to get into some pretty low bits here: the producers are actually using an ill-advised cat fight as a promotional spot for the film. These are not the ‘Housewives of Pacashau, Georgia’, thank you. But both actresses are game and handle each scene with movie star confidence. And when they get to sing: watch out! Latifah, in particular, has a stunning solo of ‘Fix Me Jesus’ that knocked my socks and boots off.

Sadly, there are screeching, nails on a blackboard moments here; I suppose there were put into this movie in order to appeal to what the filmmakers think “middle-America” likes. Ever the optimist, I think differently. It’s the compassionate touch of reality and mostly the simply great music that really make this Joyful Noise sing.

 

War Horse

Well, at least it looks great.

Steven Spielberg’s epic drama is technically superb and clearly heartfelt. It is also, I’m sad to say, an odd mix that sometimes soars, sometimes, doesn’t.

Ostensibly, this is the story of a boy and his horse. Against the odds of the times, they conquer. Then, horse (Joey) is taken away, needed by the troops going off to fight World War I. Years pass. Horse goes through hell, boy grows up and enters Army. You can pretty much figure out the rest.

Luckily, Spielberg (and the book and stage play) adds much more to the primary plot. We see the individual struggles against a (gorgeous) backdrop of poverty and then, horrific battle. But it’s almost as if this is two plays in one. The early set up, taking place on a dusty English farm, is told in a chunky almost clomping style, dragging the proceedings down to palatable, kind of family friendly tone. This may be sweetly reminiscent of many early British films for some; for me, it brought to mind what used to be called, and not in a great way, “Disney-fied” fare.

And then there’s the second part: the true heart of the matter. Our horse and his troops go off to war and Spielberg really digs in, reminding us of the power he delivered in such stunning efforts as ‘Saving Private Ryan’. These scenes are emotionally searing and shot exquisitely. Even what could have been a by-the-numbers bit, where an English and German soldier work together to free our equine hero from some barbed wire, works very, very well.

War Horse is such an odd mix of styles, it is hard to narrow down and give the standard critical yea or nay. Audiences who show up for the “war” part of Joey’s tale will grow impatient with the set up. Families trotting along the young ones may love the beginning and fret during the most visceral battles. Spielberg and company have delivered a technically marvelous, but still mixed bag, which is disappointing from a team as fine as this.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

By focusing on the strongest part of the best selling novels, David Fincher and Steve Zallian have delivered a stylish, mesmerizing thriller. In other words, the violent, predictable story takes a back seat to two terrifically drawn leading characters.

Anyone familiar with the Steig Larsson books knows about Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander. He’s a disgraced Swedish journalist, brought in to an icy family compound to track the murderer of one of their own. Knowing he’s in over his handsome head, Mikael seeks the aid of the brilliant detective Lisbeth, a leather-bound lesbian whose issues with men make finding the killer of women a task she just can’t resist. Their assignments, and the way the story proceeds, aren’t anything particularly revolutionary in the genre: the two characters, on the other hand, are pretty darn cool.

Daniel Craig brings just the right warmth and confusion to Mikael, but it’s Rooney Mara who steals the show as Lisbeth. Frankly, this is a great, juicy part for a game actress. Noomi Rapace did a great job with it in the Swedish version of the trilogy and Mara, while different, does, too. It’s not often we see a lead female as (properly) pissed off, vengeful and vulnerable. Not only is this a great breakthrough opportunity for the actress, but it offers a whole new area for the talented filmmakers to explore. Most, not all, of Fincher’s best work has been with men. Zallian, too. With Lisbeth, they get to explore, as do we, a woman who’s undeniable on many levels. It’s to the team’s credit we’re all fascinated by her.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

If Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was too cerebral for you, this movie should make you very happy. It’s a glossy, snazzy, thrill-a-second spy story, filled with lots of explosions, how’d-they-do-that stunts, great looking cars and exotic locales, no thinking required. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Tom Cruise, at his movie star best, is back as Ethan Hunt. His new mission, if he decides to accept it, is to go from lone wolf to team player, all in an effort to save the world. OK, it’s more complicated than that, but really, when you come right down to it, it’s better not to pay attention to the silly script here and to just buy into the idea that this is all a matter of global life and death and concentrate on all the stunts and cool stuff instead. Jeremy Renner shows up as a mysterious bureaucrat, the snappy Simon Pegg is back as techie Benji and Paula Patton, a special effect onto herself, co-stars as Agent Jane Carter. Agent Jane gets a few action moments (along with a great dress to do them in, which never even creases or suffers a stain), but she also gets to walk in a room, looking gorgeous and ask, “Where’s Ethan?” Cruise, who performs miraculous stunts here, still looks great, too. And that’s nice, but, honestly, I was a bit disappointed to see so little of Josh Holloway (Sawyer on ‘Lost’). He looks good, too, by the way. Just sayin.

Director Brad Bird, whose experience has been in animation until now, does a fine job of mixing all the pieces together and moving it along at breathtaking pace. He insures a tower heist, which was filmed on and in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a knockout, but brings respect to each and every stunt, giving the people what they want: a blast. Nothing more and nothing less.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

This is a mass appeal movie that actually appeals. Jolly good.

Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law show up again in the signature roles of the world’s most famous detective and pal Watson, reviving the two parts along with the director who helmed the first Holmes picture to put them together, Guy Ritchie. This time, the two are almost out manned by the evil Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), who is as smart as Holmes but nowhere near as charming. Joining the good guys is Noomi Rapace, who burst onto the international scene with a smashing spin on Lizbeth Salander in the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and, to a lesser by still memorable extent, Stephen Fry, who steps in as Holmes’s older brother. And he calls Sherlock “Shirley”. Gotta love it.

While it is nice to see some of the actors who were in the first of this series getting a paycheck in this movie, it must be said that none of the players, or the decent enough screenplay, or the smart cinematography, or even Mr. Ritchie’s savvy pacing can hold a candle to the true star of this movie: the remarkable Robert Downey, Jr. It was pretty obvious Downey relished playing (and I do mean playing) Sherlock the last time around: this time, he dazzles in each and every scene he’s in, no matter who else is there or what else is going on. The guy can’t help it: he’s a star. And getting to watch him do his thing here is downright infectious fun.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Each scene in this wonderfully mounted production is so near perfect, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John LeCarre’s classic Cold War espionage novel can almost be forgiven for not tieing it all together as well.

Gary Oldman is a perfect choice to play George Smiley, the ousted British spy who’s brought back in when the Agency suspects there’s a mole. Given the opportunity to internalize, Oldman keeps Smiley’s wheels spinning, but reactions tamped down. Isn’t that what a good spy does? Keep it all business? Of course, we discover several of George’s co-workers aren’t as neat about all this. They let their feelings get in the way, and ultimately, it destroys them. A dandy collection of fine British actors, including Colin Firth, Mark Strong, John Hurt, and Tom Hardy bring a lot to the table here: all make their battered and bruised agents full bodied men, even as the movie skips ruggedly around to tell their story.

The many strengths of this film include not just the cast, but also the crisp dialogue and evocative feel. We, the audience, aren’t coddled here: you ‘ve got to pay attention. Bits of information are mentioned and, if you don’t catch them, God help you. And, frankly, even if you are paying attention, you might miss a few key things here and there. I am marking that up in part as a salute to the impeccable set design,lighting and camera work.  Parts of the story take place in other cities of Europe, but, primarily, the story Is set in London, circa early 1970’s. And not the mod, shaggy hip London, either. This is the city that is damp, dank and still recovering from the Big War, all of which makes this Cold War story all the more chilling.

I Melt With You

I don’t know who was more miserable: the characters in this movie or me, watching them.

Not that Glenn Porter’s script doesn’t have some interesting ambitions. The action (and boy do I mean action) takes place during a Big Sur reunion for old college buddies, played by Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe and Christian McKay.  Real Life isn’t going all that well for these guys, so they are more than happy to toast, smoke, pop and snort their time with each other away.  It’s a release supposedly, but we also see it’s a great shield to keep them from having to confront their own miseries and each other.

But,  Director Mark Pellington seems to lose control of all that, just as these guys do.  Jane’s ringleader supplies the house and the booze, Lowe’s prescriptions for sale doctor brings every pill he can get his hands on and McKay supplies the depression. We all know damn well, when he mentions early on, as a recognition to his friends’ support, now he can die happy, what’s going to happen. What we may not know is that Piven, the money guy they all kind of hate anyway, is just as miserable. And misery, it seems here, is contagious. Whee.

The four male stars of the film do the best they can to bring empathy to these losers, but it’s hard to warm up guys who are sweating in their own indulgence. And poor Carla Gugino: as the local law, she figures something’s up in that snazzy house on the bluff, but her character is so undeveloped, she doesn’t even get a first name. She does, however, get to stand alone, gazing over the magnificent landscape, pondering the fates of these men who pull one over on her. Honestly, I’m not sure what she was supposed to be thinking by the end of this self indulgent yuck fest, but I do know that I, too, was far happier just looking at the California scenery.

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s take on the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung is not just a fascinating look back at the developments of psychotherapy, but very much a remarkable love story, one between two men and the woman who drove them apart.

Michael Fassbender is having quite a year, starring here as emerging psychiatrist Jung. Inspired by Sigmund Freud (a fabulous Viggo Mortensen)’s “talking cure”, the young doctor applies the psychoanalytic method in his work with an 18 year old patient, Sabina, a young wealthy Jew (an adventurous Keira Knightley) whose illness is as compelling to him as is her bourgeoning sexuality (ohoh). Consulting his mentor for help in the case, the men forge an early alliance. Yet, we are never allowed to forget that Freud is wary of his young protégé. Jung exploits his wife’s wealth, as well as his patient’s dysfunction. Hungry for fame and influenced by mysticism, he grows tired of Freud’s disapproval. The split between the men allows for the development of two schools of analytic thought of course, but also, here, provides profound drama. While we’ve seen plenty of films tell the story of an ill-fated love affair, not so often do we get to see the demise of an historic relationship between two men.

Cronenberg brings his signature touch of dread here too. It’s interesting to note that when Christopher Hampton wrote the stage play he adapted for the screen, he changed the name of John Kerr’s book from ‘A Most Dangerous Method’ to ‘The Talking Cure’. Cronenberg brings back the ‘dangerous’ big time. Sabina is a terrifying presence, ill or not. Visiting patient Otto Gross (a wonderful Vincent Cassel) teeters on the edge of horror. Jung himself is haunted by ghosts. And Freud, who comes off as the sanest of this highly intellectual bunch, several times forecasts that Jews are in for some very scary times ahead. Those lines, almost sneaked in to the dialogue, are perhaps the most chilling of all.

The Artist

This is a movie that sweeps over you like a warm breeze with a self-assured artistry as undeniable as it’s soulful lessons of love.

Michel Hazanavicius has delivered a marvelous movie: the story of a silent movie star whose glory begins to fade as the talkies take the box office by storm. Told in the fashion of the old silent films, complete with the dialogue slates and orchestrated accompaniment, we are first introduced to George Valentin (a wonderful Jean Dujardin) as he, in a movie proclaims, ‘I won’t talk: I won’t say a word’.  Acting a role, he may be spouting dialogue, but that line is a precursor of what is to come: George is a man who refuses to deal with the future. His fear of the microphone is palpable. He insists on staying true to his art, but we all wonder what is really behind his fear of change. Ultimately, it is his devoted team: the loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) and his young protégé, the woman who loves him, talking movie sensation Peppy Miller, played by a phenomenal Berenice Bejo, who save him.

Yes, anyone who loves film will love this movie. It’s joyous look at the golden days of the screen is pretty irresistible. But you don’t have to be a film historian to appreciate the message here. All of us have a fear of change, to a certain extent. And when times are tough (and Lord knows they are now, just as they were in this Depression Era film), we tend to burrow in. But if we embrace our loved ones and jump into the unknown together, we can face even the toughest of obstacles, and maybe even wind up laughing. And who couldn’t use a reminder of that once in a while, especially when it is delivered as deftly as it is here?

The Descendants

This movie had me the minute George Clooney, as the responsible but not particularly engaged Matt King, describes himself as the “backup parent”. There aren’t too many films, or too many film characters, that will take a chance like that: immediately setting up our hero as maybe not so likeable. Thankfully, Alexander Payne does that a lot. And it’s a fine thing that George Clooney had joined him for the ride.

King is a great role for Clooney: tapping into the angst under the suave exterior. Because by all appearances, Matt’s a guy who has it all: good looking family, nice house in Hawaii, decent law practice and the biggest share of a family partnership that literally owns some very nice pieces of paradise. But, of course, there’s more to it than that and very soon, Matt is letting us know his desire to “fuck paradise”. After all, that is the place where his wife suffered a tragic boating accident, where the doctors can’t save her, where, he also discovers, she was having an affair with a real estate agent whose future might hang on the King family decision about their inheritance. Clooney is so good here, you almost forget he’s acting. And that’s the highest compliment you can pay an actor.

Yes, this is a bittersweet film about many things, but I suppose essentially, it is story about love. Matt loves his two daughters (excellent Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley): he just doesn’t know what to do with them. He also, he finds, loves his wife and, although it seems she was going to leave him, he comes to the realization he wants to do the right thing for her. He even, it seems, loves his in-laws, led by the irascible Robert Foster. Maybe the most interesting revelation, especially these days, is the love King feels for his legacy, the love he has for the land he and his fellow descendants are on the verge of selling off to a hotel developer.

 Payne, as he did in Sideways and the under appreciated About Schmidt, delivers a view of America that is unexpected and more universal than it first appears. While the Kings are literally royalty (or, in more contemporary terms, the 1%), the reality of the lives is as complicated as ours are: harsh, delicate and pretty darn entertaining.

J. Edgar

This is an awfully polite movie about a man who was anything but.

Clint Eastwood’s take on the life of J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial head of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 50 years, is artful and respectful. Shifting from the man’s early days to his most powerful, we see, albeit fitfully, the development of the secretive, fearful leader. Momma (the always spot on Judi Dench) was a strong influence (read shrew). She loved power and hated homosexuals. Not so good as we see John try to woo the young Helen Gandy (a wasted Naomi Watts): he’s so awkward, he can’t do anything but show her his cataloguing system for the Library of Congress. No, it’s not that he’s head over heels: (that’s ok, she’s not either). Real love doesn’t set in until Clyde Tolson (a fine Armie Hammer) walks in the door. Hoover’s partner, both personally and professionally, becomes the next most influential person in his life, but Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black prefer to keep the reality of that relationship oh so mysterious.

As Hoover, movie star and fine actor Leonardo DiCaprio has an awful heavy load. In early scenes, where he is not burdened with tons of makeup, DiCaprio brings a fitful energy to the screen, which seems appropriate and compelling. As the years pass (which we see in a rather schizoid pattern of flashbacks and forwards), his body and enthusiasm seem buried under the startlingly thick makeup. A good actor doesn’t need so much “stuff” to tell us his character is aging: it’s especially surprising that Eastwood, who is just turning a very spry 80, doesn’t recognize that. And isn’t it odd that Black, whose work both on and off screen (he won the Oscar for ‘Milk’ and is a founding board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights and the Trevor Project) has been direct and honest, should choose to present this allegedly closeted cross-dressing homosexual in such an ephemeral fashion? Even a scene where Edgar, in the throws of mourning, pulls his deceased mother’s dress over his head, is presented tastefully. There have been many words used to describe J. Edgar Hoover: tasteful was never one of them.

Tower Heist

Silly and well intentioned, this comic action flick feels like a big overstuffed buffet…boasting a few hearty treats and bloated with a bunch of excessive other stuff.

Ben Stiller stars as Josh, the manager of a swanky New York City condo. His favorite tenant, played by Alan Alda, turns out to be a Madoff-style swindler and counts the building’s staff amongst his victims. Josh is pissed and, feeling responsible, plots revenge. His aides-de-camp? There’s brother-in-law Casey Affleck, the recently down on his luck broker Mathew Broderick, Michael Pena, who says he knows a lot about electricity and a savvy Gaby Sidibe, whose daddy was a locksmith back in Jamaica. Together, they turn to Josh’s old childhood acquaintance, a professional thief played by the irrepressible Eddie Murphy. Oh, and let’s not forget Tea Leoni, who shows up as the FBI agent on the case and Judd Hirsch, who has so little to do, he gets locked in a closet just to give him something!

The premise, tapping into the economic stories of our times, is meaty and director Brett Ratner everything humming along. You might not even realize how much of the air has left the balloon on this one until you’re outside the theater, rehashing a heist plot that makes no sense at all. Still, there are nice moments here: a few good jokes and each performer has his or her turn to shine. But no one shines brighter than Eddie Murphy, who steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not in enough of them.

The Ides of March

What could have been a devastating morality tale is just an entertaining-enough beach book on steroids.

George Clooney has collected a fabulous group of actors to tell what is basically a coming of age story, set in the smarmy world of contemporary politics. A fine Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen, a campaign director on the rise who has hitched his wagon to Presidential candidate Mike Morris (played nicely by Clooney himself). A true believer, Stephen commits thoroughly to his work, insisting he is married to the campaign and assuming his loyalty will pay off. Guess what happens.

It’s not that Clooney doesn’t have the stuff to have made this a far more potent picture: he does include some sharp jabs along the way, but allows them to take a back seat to the tried and true thriller plot. Even though there are superb actors playing it out, they can’t make a tired story fresh and honestly thrilling.

Marisa Tomei gets a few nice moments as a tough reporter; a totally wasted Jeffrey Wright shows up to play a manipulative politician (shocking!). I was aching to see more of Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, both of whom, as usual, make far more of what they’re given.

Ironic: this is a movie about politics that, like most politicians, promises far more than it ever delivers.

50/50

Unsentimental, smart and funny, this dramatic comedy is the best film about illness I’ve ever seen. Honestly. Because Seth Rogen and Will Rieser’s look back at cancer is insistently honest: yes, there’s a vomiting-after-chemo scene (it’s short), but more so, there are wonderful, tricky takes on the interpersonal stuff that goes along with a diagnosis. It’s not so easy being the patient, of course. But it’s also not so easy to be the loyal friend, the not-so-committed girlfriend, or the mother, either.

A fine Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a twenty-something public radio producer who’s told he’s got cancer of the spine. His chances? 50/50. Stunned, he plots how to share his news: buddy Kyle (Rogen), not the most subtle of people to begin with, blurts out a remarkably inappropriate, feel good-ish pep talk, frightened girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) gamely goes along with the role she’s assumed to take, for a while, and Mom (a divine Anjelica Huston) announces she’s moving in. Everybody is trying to do the best they can, but the bottom line is Adam is the one that’s got to go through it. A wordless walk down a hospital corridor betrays his shattering loneliness, even in a crowded room. Some of this is a howl. Some of it is cringingly familiar (who hasn’t known what to do when a dear one is ill?). Some of it is pitiful. All of it hits right to the bone: thank God, much of the time, that bone is the funny one.

Director Jonathan Levine keeps the pace of it all humming along. And every performance (including a messy, shrink-in-training played by Anna Kendrick) is dandy. The two things I liked best about this film though are 1. It’s no bulls**t policy: Adam knows how scared he is, that the platitudes bounced at him by his perky therapist are nonsense, that his unlikely new soul mates, other chemo patients, might not make it. We don’t often see the depth of the fear and anger addressed in a movie that also remembers life does go on around a cancer patient: they want to get laid, too. And then there’s number 2: and that, for me, is the undeniable discovery that Seth Rogen is up to something far more interesting in his career than just stepping into roles that look as if they fit him like a glove. Yes, Rogen has played a laid back slackery guy in a lot of films, and he’s played them to great effect, but here, and in some other pieces he’s also produced and/or written, he expands that persona to greater, more interesting places. It may look casual, but I think there’s a reason Rogen is fast becoming one of the busiest and most surprising filmmakers of his generation.

Moneyball

Like Billy Beane’s 2002 Oakland A’s, this movie may not be a total winner, but it sure offers up a lot of memorable thrills.

Based on the true story of Beane’s remarkable year as the team’s GM, this ambitious drama tries to not just recount the story of how he, along with a trusted aide, molded a (relatively) cheap roster and into one of the most winning teams in baseball history, but also notes the intertwining importance of business, interpersonal relations and the magic of the game. It’s a heavy load and one that, frankly, co-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin handled better in The Social Network, but, even so, the script is, often, right on. Director Bennett Miller, whose best known work so far is the terrific, but far different Capote, shows an impressive, nimble touch here: the best scenes fly by, crackling like the proverbial fast pitch off a swinging bat.

Brad Pitt can’t help it if he reminds us of the young Robert Redford, who, of course, starred in The Natural, one of the greatest baseball movies ever made, and he uses his own natural talents to good effect here. Pitt’s Beane is a smart, frustrated guy: a recruited talent who gave up a hefty scholarship to Stanford in order to play ball. That didn’t work out. As a manager, he’s come close to that Series ring, but hasn’t nabbed it yet. He’s willing to change it up to try, though. And when he sees a young Peter Brand (a fine Jonah Hill) who’s got a math-inspired plan to win on a budget, Beane knows enough to not just nurture the guy, but listen to him, too.

The best scenes in the movie are very “inside” baseball, but are easily translatable to any business scenario. A meeting of the scouts, where a bunch of veterans try to convince the boss they’ve found the right players to replace free agents Damon and Giambi, is a hoot. And, later on, as Pitt and Hill work the phones on the last day of trading, our own hearts start pounding. The two of them, along with some great writing and camera work, deliver what may be the most exciting movie scene of the year, all without special effects, speeding cars or even guns.

Morality tale that it is, Moneyball takes great pains to remind us that, even in an industry that is very much of a bloated budget business, the whole thing doesn’t work if it’s all only about the bottom line. Baseball, we are reminded, is about people, about a love of the game. Beane needs to spend some time with the players before they start winning. And even the programming Brand discovers sometimes you’ve just got to turn off the computer. But, of course I knew he’d have to learn his lesson when, in an early scene, Brand tells Beane that Johnny Damon, based on his percentages, wasn’t worth the 7.5 million the Boston Red Sox paid for him. As we all know, yes, he was.

I Don’t Know How She Does It.

Do you have to be a married, working mom to really appreciate this one? Well, to be fair (one of the basic themes of this comedy), it’s not going to hurt. But even those who aren’t trying to “do it all” can find some fun in this genial, modern day rom-com.

Sarah Jessica Parker stars as Kate, the over-tasking mother of two, wife of one (who’s struggling to develop his own business), and investment banker who is not only good at her job, but loves it, too. She stays up nights, making lists of all the things she must or should do, just to keep all those balls in the air. And while everyone from the snarky class mom (a very funny Busy Phillips, usually seen on the treadmill) to her mother-in-law (Jane Curtin, who must have kind of hated some of the things she was hired to bitterly note) to her perfect assistant (a fine Olivia Munn) are all too aware of Kate’s imperfections, our frazzled heroine is kind of getting a fulfilling kick out of it. Usually. Except sometimes. Like when she misses her son’s first haircut or gets that note about lice in the classroom during a meeting that could make or break her career.

Parker is dandy; Greg Kinnear, as her cutie-pie husband, and the ever suave Pierce Brosnan, the mentor with a crush, do nicely, too. Nobody is set up as a real bad guy, except maybe for Seth Meyers’ Chris Bunce, the conniving co-worker we’ve all bumped into along the way. 

Yes, many of the plot twists or emotional complications that make up this movie (based on Allison Pearson’s best selling novel) are, shall we say familiar. But, as a card-carrying working married mom myself, I can attest, that is because they are true. We do worry (a lot) about our relationships with our husbands, our face time with the kids, our losing pace at work. And yes, we even might kind of appreciate a man who appreciates our intelligence, even if it is fractured by the occasional spit up on the lapel. But most of us, even on those days when we wish we didn’t have to divide ourselves so deep, probably would admit we love our nutso lives. Kate, upon her own reckoning, states, “trying to be a man is a waste of a woman”. I’d love to needlepoint that as a pillow. But, for now, I’ll just have to put that as one more thing on my own to do list. And maybe I’ll get to it. Someday.

Drive

It is with the utmost respect I compare Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive to some of the seminal movies of the 1970’s….because Drive is as heartpoundingly good as it is slim, stark and hard to shake.

Ryan Gosling stars as Driver, a mysteriously quiet Hollywood stunt car driver whose nighttime job is as a getaway driver for robbers on the run. Driver is a cool cat; he does what he does with precision and a clear head. There are just two things he wants: a stock car to race and the married mother down the hall whose husband is currently serving time. As we all discover, driving is not a job you can do with your heart on your sleeve.

Refn’s staging is sparse and his pacing intense. We can’t help but fall for Driver as soon as the opening scene, where he helms the getaway for some thieves whose ineptitude forces a most creative escape. But once we are introduced to Driver’s “real life”, one filled with shady business men and innocent young things, the deal is sealed. We are all rooting for him to win, even if the game he’s playing isn’t a good one.

Gosling is just great here: it’s a beautifully measured performance. Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston are wonderful in support, as is Ron Perlman. But perhaps the biggest surprise is Albert Brooks, whose benevolent kingpin may be the most unexpected and deliciously horrifying work he’s ever done.

Sure, you’ll think of Taxi Driver, Bullitt and even Charles Bronson during this most bloody of contemporary pulp fiction (yeah, you’ll think of that movie, too), but if you can stomach the scenery, you’re in for one hell of a ride.

Contagion

Chilly, but not chilling, Steven Soderbergh’s story of a worldwide pandemic is oddly antiseptic.

A tantalizing handful of stars have been collected to tell what could have been a creepy and fascinating tale. After all, let’s face it: you can have your vampires and other worldly invaders, what can really scare the heck out of us is a world where every doorknob, every coffee cup, is a portal of death. And, for the beginning of this procedural drama, Soderbergh carefully remembers that. Each human touch, leaving behind the most virulent of germs, is noted, wordlessly, but indelibly. It’s enough to make the grimiest of viewers reach for the hand sanitizer.

But that icky feeling is just about the only one that reaches us here. Gwyneth Paltrow, as patient number one, isn’t around long enough for us to mourn her death. And just when we start to ache for her widowed husband (the always fine Matt Damon), the focus turns from his personal drama to that of the scientists on the case. Kate Winslet, sporting the most American of accents, leaves the Atlanta Center for Disease Control for the frosty wilds of Minneapolis, but her clipped demeanor is only notable in contrast to the almost emotionless Marion Cotillard, a doctor from the World Health Organization whose body language is so relaxed, you’d think she was in another movie altogether. Laurence Fishburne has a few nice moments as the strained official with a tad of conscience, as does Jennifer Ehle, who almost has the largest role, as a laboratory scientist. Jude Law, playing a popular blogger who’s out to blow the lid off the story, has the most fun, but the best thing about his part is a moment in which a frustrated Elliot Gould describes the online journalism concept as “graffiti with punctuation”.

The Help

Well intentioned and likeable, I would have loved this one had its take on the women of 1960’s Mississippi been a little less, pardon the expression, black and white.

Emma Stone stars as Skeeter, a college-educated young woman who aims for more to her life than bridge games and handing off the kids to a nanny. Through her gig as a home cleaning columnist for the local paper, our heroine begins to talk, yes, actually talk, to the black women who are “the help”, the ones who clean the toilets, but aren’t allowed to use them themselves. This, of course, not only enlightens but horrifies Skeeter. And all of this gets her in pretty tricky territory with the blonde housewives of Jackson.  Questions abound: Will the women sacrifice to air their plight? Will Skeeter become the big, fancy New York City writer? Will the white trash-y girl earn entrance into the local social hierarchy? Will Skeeter’s cancer-stricken mother ever confess why she lost her own ‘help’? And will Skeeter, amidst the societal shifts and tumultuous civil rights ramifications, ever find an enlightened man who will understand and support her needs? Director/writer Tate Taylor hits all the obvious talking points, but skitters over delicate, more intricate moments that would have made this movie all the more impactful.

There are a few really wonderful performances here. Octavia Spencer, taking the juiciest role of the sassy but abused Minny, bursts forth with work that is sure to make her a star. And I found Jessica Chastain, in a role as different as can be from the internal character she played so well in ‘Tree of Life’, is equally forceful. Bryce Dallas Howard, as the one-note bad girl, Hilly, does nicely, even if her biggest come-uppance is not the pie she mistakenly eats, but the cold sore she develops on her lip. Viola Davis, in the key role of Aibileen, the first of the housekeepers to cooperate with Skeeter, has the hardest work to do here. Much of the beginning of the film has Aibileen, a long suffering woman, moping around. The only times we see even a crack of life in her are when she is playing with the little girl her boss seems to not properly mother or when she, along with a few others, gossips about the white women in the other room. These scenes may not be wrong, but it’s hard to feel great affection for a women with a constantly sour expression on her face. And affection is what carries us through most of this movie. Still, it must be noted, once the script opens up and allows Davis more room, she is terrific, earning for Aibileen not just respect but our hearts.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

This nonsensical tale, by tapping into our most basic emotions, delivers a science fiction movie that makes profound sense, especially right now.

After all, we do have to give up quite a bit of suspension of disbelief here. We must buy the idea that scientist James Franco, huddled in his lab and caring for his Alzheimer-stricken dad, wouldn’t have a girlfriend. Then, when one moves in (the miraculously beautiful Frieda Pinto), the brilliant veterinarian doesn’t figure out he’s been using his pet ape for scientific experiments in the attic for five years. And then there’s that whole talking monkey thing.

But, effectively, none of that ultimately matters much here. This prequel is not only visually stunning, but also morally intriguing. We watch, horrified, as an ape is captured in the forest, separated from her pack. Of course we understand our researcher’s excitement over possibly finding a cure for dementia, but we are also, unlike him, uneasy as he conducts tests on animals. Should or should he not continue his father’s sad existence by pumping him full of questionable medicines? And, yes, we just can’t help but root for the apes, as they turn the metabolic tables on the humans who have purposely or inadvertently hurt them. Who among us has not felt the all too human, or is it animal, pain of abuse and drive for self-defense?

Of course, the balance gets tipped and we are all left wondering just who the heroes are here. But by that time, an extraordinary team of visual masters have taken the reigns and, by digitally mastering the apes as they conquer the Golden Gate Bridge, created one of the most memorable action scenes of the past several years.

A fine chapter of the series, this one serves up the thrills as well as plenty to think about afterwards.

Cowboys and Aliens

Considering its pedigree, I was expecting (and hoping) for more, but, as it stands, the mash up of genres still entertains.

Daniel Craig wakes up on a dusty desert floor, in the New Mexican territory, circa 1875. He’s got amnesia and one heck of a piece of hardware wrapped around his wrist. Making his way back into town, our mysterious hero meets up with all sorts of standard characters, including Sam Rockwell’s wimpy barkeep, Olivia Wilde’s beautiful neighbor-with-a-story, David Carradine’s (nice to see him, by the way) well meaning Sherriff, and, my particular favorite, Harrison Ford’s rich and cranky landowner, who’s used to ruling the roost until things get so out of control, even he needs a hand. It’s not giving anything away to tell you the aliens have landed and these aren’t the warm and fuzzy E.T. types.

We all know it is never a particularly good sign when there are more than, say, two or three screenwriters on a project. Here, there are nine people credited. Some of those people, incidentally, are among the best in the business: Damon Lindelof (Lost) leading the way. And then there’s the almost never-ending list of producers. There are 16 of those, including Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Stephen Spielberg. Director Jon Favreau is the man who made Iron Man such a smash. With a collection of such notable talent, why are there so many lulls in this movie, moments in between action scenes where your mind can’t help but wander to the good old days of Close Encounters and even Cocoon?

Perhaps I digress. If you lower your expectations, this movie offers up tons of action, a lot of good old cowboy dirt kickin and even a few laughs. And while the science fiction scenes may not be the state of the art stuff we saw in Avatar, they do the job. For audiences looking for a diversion from the real life news of the day, these cowboys remind us real tough guys do (or did?) exist.

Crazy, Stupid Love

I love this movie. Crazy, smart, loving and laugh out loud funny, this romantic comedy is the best of its kind not just for this, but for many recent years.

Steve Carell and Julianne Moore have been married forever. Leaving the kids at home with the babysitter, they go out for a nice dinner. She’s dressed in heels: he’s wearing old sneakers. What about this picture doesn’t fit? Guess. She wants a divorce; he’s blindsided. And off we go.

Writer Dan Fogelman has created a multi-generational story that not only speaks to the perils of love for adults, but also to young singles and even teenagers. And you don’t even get the feeling he wrote all that to be crassly commercial: he (and the rest of the people involved) treat each age group’s issues with honestly, respect and a good dose of necessary humor. Some of the lines, well, many of the lines were so dead-on hilarious, I couldn’t write them down to quote them to you fast enough. I suggest you just go and discover how terrific they are for yourself.

Also terrific is the cast, all of whom stand out on their own, even though they are essentially revolving around Steve Carell’s mystified Cal. Julianne Moore’s always good, of course, but especially surprising is Ryan Gosling, a great actor who just may become a top popular draw thanks to his slyly hilarious performance as Cal’s new best friend. It seems no one is hotter than the wonderful Emma Stone right now and her work here is proof the camera loves her as much as audiences do. Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon show up for short, memorable turns and real kudos to young Annaleigh Tipton and Jonah Bobo, who remind us all how gloriously miserable first love can be.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa mount all of this with such assured ease, it makes you wonder why more movies can’t flow like this. Sure, the movie may not be perfect, but it sure is perfectly entertaining.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

This, the final chapter, is a remarkable achievement: as piercingly true as it is astonishingly magical.

Plunging in right where the first half left off, screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates throw in a few short references so we can all get our bearings again. In almost a flash, we know we are about to forge in to the greatest battle of them all, a master showdown between Harry and Lord Voldemort.

You don’t have to be a Potter-head to appreciate this movie. To be honest, as all sorts of legendary references were being tossed about, I found myself blissing out on the jaw dropping sets, the honestly scary action scenes and yes, even the performances themselves. Understandably, everybody who can shows up, if just for a little bit in this finale. How good it is to see Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman and even Tom Felton (Draco) again. I can never get enough of Maggie Smith, John Hurt or Alan Rickman, who is just great here. And while Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (Ron and Hermione) don’t get as much to do, it is dandy to see what a full bodied, adult performance Daniel Radcliffe delivers as Harry. His fear becomes our fear, his courage, our own, too. Real acting amongst the ruins and dazzle. Not an easy thing to pull off, but Radcliffe does it, with aplomb.

Call me sentimental, but I found this particular film the most mature of the series, and also the most infectiously emotional. In other words, I cried. Well, just a little. But to be that drawn in by a fantasy, no matter how fantastic? I’d say that just solidifies this Harry as not only a great entertainment, but a wholly satisfying one as well.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

This clumsy adaptation of Lisa See’s popular novel may not be the biggest problem Rupert Murdoch’s got on his plate, but it sure isn’t going to help things, either.

Producers Wendi Murdoch (Mrs. Rupert) and Florence Sloan, whom, it is carefully noted in the production bio, graduated from college with honors, have gone on record to say they loved this best selling story of two women in early 19th Century China, but felt that “it needed to come to the screen in an alive, contemporary fashion that would be accessible to today’s audiences and across cultures”. In other words, let’s change the whole thing. And so they, along with director Wayne Wang and three screenwriters (Angela Workman, Ron Bass and Michael K. Ray), did. Now this historical love saga is a bi-generational tale, mostly taking place in modern day, as two former best friends, essentially, break up and find each other once again, all while comparing their relationship to one of their ancestors.

The biggest problem with all this is that even with all the shifting of eras, the parallels of rituals and the insistence upon reminding us of women have always been their own greatest allies in this big, horrible male dominated world, we never feel much real emotion between the two best friends. Li Bing Bing is a beautiful young actress, but in dual roles, slogs through each with a dourness that is supposed to stand in for sadness, anger, devotion and maybe even sexual tension. Gianna Jun gets to have a little more fun, playing the more interesting of the two modern day women, and doing her best as the Snow Flower of the title. And, perhaps as a nod to the international box office, a role has been created for Hugh Jackman. He doesn’t get to do much acting, but is allowed a song and dance number, which wakes things up for a short spurt, if only because it’s just so weird. And, since he’s the biggest globally known star in the bunch, it’s even weirder that his name does not appear in the credits. Wonder what that’s all about?

Much is made of the former horrifying practice of binding a woman’s feet: I did get kind of a kick out a teeny scene where our oh so chic heroine kicks off her Leboutians, and rubs her reddened tootsies. Maybe we haven’t come so far after all, baby.

Horrible Bosses

Would I have really enjoyed this trio-in-trouble comedy if I hadn’t felt it was a force feed of the Hangover formula? Sure. But, even if what could have been a dandy dip into the dark side has been pushed and shoved into what was a winning concept before, this starry package still delivers a few good laughs.

Jasons Bateman and Sudeikis, along with their buddy Charlie Day (he’s the Galifanakis here) are basically decent guys, stuck with the worst bosses in the world. Given the juicier roles of the bad guys, Kevin Spacey and an almost unrecognizable Colin Farrell run with them and yes, even if Spacey can do this kind of thing in his sleep, it still is fun to watch. Jennifer Aniston, as the sex crazed dentist who can’t keep her hands off her newly engaged and straight laced hygienist, : not so much. Yes, she does horrible things, but being forced into sex with Jennifer Aniston? My male friends tell me this is not so horrible. And so it is up to Charlie Day to supply the laughs in this specter of the prism and he does that nicely. Even when the trio decides they have to off the bosses, their gang who couldn’t shoot straight feels affectionately goofy, kind of like, say Danny DeVito’s Throw Mama From the Train, which is deferentially referenced.

The best, freshest joke of them all revolves around Jamie Foxx’s sleezy ex-con, who manages to convince the guys to hire him as a ‘murder consultant’.  I’m not going to give it away, but that one line, explaining Foxx’s past, may be the most spot on and hilarious movie moment of the year. Wish there were more of them, but, hey, this one in total, isn’t horrible at all.

A Better Life

Chris Weitz’s light touch has made this incredibly timely immigrant story especially profound.

We have seen several retellings of the “coming-to-a-better-land-for-the-children” theme and certainly none could be more profound at this particular time in America. An astonishing Demian Bichir stars as a Mexican gardener, working to beautify Los Angeles homes as his own is barely sustainable. His wife dead, our struggling single dad is having relatable (no matter what your heritage) problems with his young teenage son (newcomer Jose Julian), a boy who’d rather skip school and show distain for the work ethic so strongly displayed by his father. The ensuing story winds not just around the father/son dynamic, but also that of what is the life of these landscape workers. It’s not just about making things pretty, but about having a truck. And how can you have a truck, if you can’t get a driver’s license? And what happens if the police find you, driving illegally? What happens to the child you risked all to raise here in America?

Veteran Weitz, whose grandmother is Mexican, comes to the passion of the movie naturally and his is a wise decision to not over play the inherent political issues. We may all see what’s coming, but to let our own hearts pound out the message makes the impact of it all so much more real. And personal. Maybe by reaching not just the minds, but also the souls of the audience, the lessons witnessed may change a few votes as well.

Green Lantern

If, indeed, it is true there are only seven original stories in this world, surely the super-hero comic genre’s got a corner on the market on one of them. Now, even the people behind the mounting of this same-old same-old seem kinda bored by it all.

For the blissfully uninitiated, our unlikely masters of the universe (usually men) are plucked from some kind of tragic Earthly childhood. These guys don’t want to be so special, but hey, the Earth needs saving. Their love interests, (who most often need saving too) are initially freaked out by the situation, then, almost bashfully turned on. There’s a small group of buds who deal, one always-an-outsider-anyway who gets his own dose of whatever the potion is and wreaks what he feels is understandable revenge.  Sound familiar?

Here, director Martin Campbell has delivered a perfunctory version of said story: filling in the blanks with the names of the Green Lantern characters. And he has collected a nice group of actors to do so. Ryan Reynolds cuts quite the figure as the dashing pilot Hal who, of course, is The Chosen One. Blake Lively does her best as the girl, I mean the brilliant pilot business brain who loves him. Mark Strong is semi-disguised as a Lantern leader and the wonderful Peter Sarsgaard slips so comfortably into the role of mumbling scientist Hector, he provides the just about the only real spark to this extensively produced production.

Yes, there are tons of effects. Some of them are even good. But they, too, seem to pop up as if on cue, making sure the steady rhythm of the movie is maintained. The biggest disappointment to me was the lackluster artistry of the Big Kahuna, or whatever that billowing bad guy’s name is, who shows up to dominate the universe or something like that at the end. He’s just kind of ugly.

Interestingly, critics were offered screenings in both 2 and 3-D. I went for the 3, not being one to refuse the opportunity to once again, don those lovely glasses. While there were a few nice zoomy effects to be seen, there weren’t a whole lot of them. Perhaps the filmmakers are as tired of having to use this visual gimmick as they seem to be with these stories themselves?

X Men: First Class

Director Matthew Vaughn has shaken the cobwebs off the franchise and confidently delivered this prequel as a first class blockbuster.

After an initial, harrowing set up which takes place in a Nazi death camp, the action quickly shifts to 1962, in an America caught up in a Cold War. Charles Xavier is recruited by the CIA and, tapping in to those mind reading powers of his, he not only gets what needs to be done, but also manages to collect a few more of his own, “special” men and women. There’s a group of young, unfocused people, led by Charles’s sister-y Raven, but the real guts to this group is the difficult friendship between the calm Charles and his polar opposite, Eric, the man whose unique specialty and tortured soul lead him to become the enemy, Magneto. Seeing how the X-Men school developed is pretty cool (imagine watching the founding of Hogwarts!), but it’s this key relationship which gives not just “First Class”, but the rest of the series its most profound punch.

Tapping into the all-too real fears of the time, including the Russians and the Cuban Missile Crisis, is smart: I hope purists won’t get crazy with the obviously revisionist spin here. Of course it’s doubtful World War III was really averted by these mutants, but by allowing this conceit, we sure do get to see some pretty cool special effects.  As a child of the Submarine Capital of the World, I especially got a kick out of seeing what happens to one of them in this scenario. Wheee!

Adding to the first class story, script and effects is the remarkable cast. Maybe James McAvoy doesn’t look like Patrick Stewart (although there’s a pretty cute joke about that), but he’s wonderfully effective as a leader-in-the-making.  All the buzz about Michael Fassbender is well earned: his Eric is suave, pained and pissed.  In the pretty standard role of the bad guy, Kevin Bacon does some nifty stuff. Jennifer Lawrence is appealing as the wanna be normal Raven and January Jones cuts quite the sharp figure as a frosty nemesis.

Perhaps, when fan boys line up the movies in order, there will be mismatches and discrepancies. I hope not. Because watching the early days of the X Men story is great fun all on its own and, hopefully, also as a key part of a newly re-energized series.

The Hangover, Part II

In this world of give-‘em-what-they-want, the team behind the 2009 comedy hit has reconvened to try and do just that. Too bad it doesn’t work.

Part duh, I mean, two, has Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifanakis joining up for yet another wedding. This time it’s Stu’s (Helms) and the gang has to travel to Thailand for the nuptials. OK; so far, so good. Cooper’s Phil is still a party-hungry animal toting his baby to the tame bachelor bash Stu has organized at IHOP.  Alan (Galifanakis), now self-described as a ‘stay at home son’, is anxious to the point of anxiety not to be left out. Begrudgingly, he’s invited along and we await the good times to roll.

Natch, it all goes terribly wrong and the guys wake up in some yucky hotel room somewhere. Doug (Justin Bartha) isn’t there (he got off relatively easy last time, too, remember) and now, neither is Teddy, Stu’s soon to be brother in law. Oh oh. Conveniently, Chow, played by Ken Jeong, is and he fills the guys in on the fact that they’re in Bangkok before apparently dropping dead after hitting the cocaine a little too hard.

Oh no? What will happen now?

Anyone who saw the original, very funny film knows. But it’s not just the unoriginal scripting that’s a problem here. The few initial jokes that start the film give way to long stretches where I, and the audience I sat with, barely giggled. What I missed most was what hooked me the first time: the real relationship between these guys, who were honestly desperate in Vegas because they had lives, wives, something to lose. All of that has just kind of fizzled out here, leaving Ed Helm’s frantic jumping up and down seem weird. Not that those children-smoking-dope fantasies and surprise sexual encounter with a transvestite don’t give weird a run for its money.

The Tree of Life

Ambitious and imperfect, stunning and overwhelming, profound and perplexing, Terrence Malick’s mediation on human life and our place in the universe is one of the most arguably exciting movies to come along in years.

Told in the most of non-linear ways, this drama focuses, pretty acutely, on a family in 1950’s Texas. We watch their everyday joys and see how, one by one, they try to cope with not just set backs, but the worst of experiences. Slit into this continuing story is a flash ahead to contemporary times, as one of the sons, now grown, spends a key day shaken by his memories. But Malick is not content to do things the usual way. He also insists on trying to put all of this into perspective, allowing for how this family tale fits into the life of the universe itself. What, he lets them think, is their relationship with God and why does the Almighty allow bad things to happen? And, in the grand history of the planet, what does all of it matter?

Phew.

Counterpointing his spectacularly filmed human story is a string of meditative series of images, visual effects I don’t think that have ever been used to this effect in film before (although at several points,  Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddessy did pop to mind). We see what Malick and his team (including scientists from all over the world with his veteran special effects people) post as the beginnings of the world. It’s very cool to think of how they accomplished these jaw droppingly exquisite, state of the art pieces, even cooler to sit back and let them wash over you. Of course, that requires patience. And a big time willing suspension of disbelief, which many traditional movie goers are going to have a very hard time doing.

Besides all that, it should be noted that Brad Pitt gives a remarkable performance as the Father; Jessica Chastian, commanding as the Mother. Some scenes may go on too long, some of the allegorical bits may be off-putting. But while the characters in this story are praying for understanding, I, for one, am just thankful there is a place in this world for an outlandishly, outrageously creative and ambitious film such as this.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I don’t usually like to review a movie through the prism of its budget, but, after spending a reported $200 million, shouldn’t this one be more of a wow?

It’s not that this chapter of the ride-inspired ride of a flick doesn’t have its good points. New director Rob Marshall has brought some new life to the sagging (artistically, if not financially) franchise. Penelope Cruz, as a potential love interest for Johnny Depp, and Ian McShane, the infamous Blackbeard, are fun additions. And, tapping into his theatrical roots, Marshall, who remember brought the musical back to the movies with Chicago, offers up a couple of dandy action scenes, most notably an underwater mermaid sequence that is not just beautiful but downright terrifying as well. Wish there had been more of that quality along the way.

But, alas, that is not to be. The set up for this chapter is land-locked. Captain Jack Sparrow and Barbossa, it seems, are in Londontown, and both assigned to separately seek the Fountain of Youth. While Depp and daddy Keith Richards have a cute moment, the rest of this part of the story is decidedly aimed at the kiddies, with slapsticky humor, if you can call it that. We then proceed to a dullish section, good for taking said kiddies to the restrooms. But things definitely pick up when the legend brings in the mermaids and all that silly repetitive swashbuckling meets its match.

The 3-D effects are ok; so, too, is Hans Zimmer’s swirling score. I liked movie newcomer Sam Claflin (hello!), who is added for a Prince-ly effect. More good news: Geoffrey Rush is given moments to shine (if you pardon the movie-pun) and he does. And then there’s Johnny. Like most of the rest of this series, Captain Jack has been watered down to a more perhaps socially acceptable sort. It’s always great to watch Depp and he’s fine here, but nothing more. Frankly, I liked Sparrow best when, in the first movie, I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. Now, bowing to the crowd, we discover, it ain’t much.

 

Bridesmaids

Ask anyone who’s been there: being a bridesmaid is quite the experience. Rich in good intentions, ripe for disaster, I’m amazed no one has centered a movie about it before. But now, thanks to Kristin Wiig, her writing partner Annie Mumolo, Judd Apatow and Paul Fieg, we’ve got a dandy femme-centric, outrageously funny and downright smart comedy that nails one of the most emotionally wrought feminine rites of passage.

Wiig plays Annie, a mid-west woman of a certain age whose best friend forever, Lillian, has just gotten engaged. Suddenly, all those middle of the night booty calls with a marvelously loopy Jon Hamm aren’t so satisfying anymore. And it hurts even deeper that the bakery she so lovingly ran with the ex-boyfriend crashed along with the economy. And who the hell is this new best friend of Lillian’s? The one whose rich husband works with Lill’s intended; the one who can afford to fly the bride off to Paris for the trip Annie always wanted to go on with her BFF? Annie is on a downward spiral. And she’s supposed to be happy Lillian isn’t?

Sure, there’s a lot of over the top silliness here: commercial and too drawn out. But, what makes this movie more than just another fleetingly promising Saturday Night Live skit for the talented Wiig is the wisdom in its very large heart. Real life best buds, Wiig and Maya Rudolph bring an honesty to their scenes that is palpable. Charming Irishman Chris O’Dowd makes Annie’s future seem bright to us, even if she’s a little slow on the pickup. All the women in this movie (including, sadly, the last performance from Jill Clayburgh) are given real characters to play, pretty fully realized even if they are not the center of attention. Outstanding in this regard is the overweight, overbearing sister-in-law, played to perfection by Melissa McCarthy. Even laden with some of the movie’s most potentially embarrassing moments, this assured actress creates a woman to be dealt with and it’s a pleasure.

Everything Must Go

Based on a Raymond Carver short story, this poignant indie has a lot going for it. Not only is there a finely wrought slice-of-life lesson here, but there’s also a wonderful cast playing it out, lead by a surprisingly wonderful Will Ferrell.

Ferrell plays Nick, a sales pro who, in the first moments of the movie, is laid off from his job. After having tried to take some revenge (doesn’t go too well), our hero pulls into his driveway, only to find all his possessions tossed onto the front lawn, the locks on the doors changed. Seems his marriage is over, too. Not a good day. And so he plops into the Barcalounger, slips back, pours himself a few and waits. After all, what left is there to do?

A small handful of people populate Nick’s old and new world, bringing singed memories and maybe even some hope for the future. Essential in this is the new, pregnant neighbor, played with signature elegance by Rebecca Hall. But, while the story is sufficient to keep us engaged and director Dan Rush stages it with a careful lightness, the only real wow here is Ferrell himself. Often, when comic actors, or at least actors who have made their most commercially successful work in comedies, take on a more dramatic role, they over do it, frowning instead of clowning. Ferrell shakes off all that most admirably and gives a performance that quietly, self-confidently pulls us in. His disappointed failure is honest, subtle and at times, even downright dislikeable. Which, of course, makes him ultimately all the more compelling.  Bravo, Will.

Something Borrowed

How annoying is this movie? This watered down chick-flick gives not just chicks, but flicks a bad name.

Based on the best selling novel, what we’ve got here is a cleaned up version of betrayal. It’s a little tacky that 30 year old  buttoned up Rachel would sleep with her BFF’s fiancé on the eve of her wedding, so the ickiness of what made the book more textured than it was sold as, has been polished up for the mainstream movie crowd. It’s ok, you know, because before jumping on each other’s bones in the cab, Rachel and Dex let it slip they’ve been in love with each other since law school. Awww. And come on, we can see Dex couldn’t really love Darcy. I mean she gets drunk (at the surprise birthday party she arranged for said best friend since forever) and wears slinky clothes and well, she kind of looks and acts like, let’s face it, a slut.

The usually terrific Ginnifer Goodwin is swamped here. Not allowed to show the slightest hint of complexity, her Rachel clunks along, sort of romantically holding on in case Dex Does The Right Thing. Or if she and Darcy manage to Rekindle What Made Them Best Best Best Friends. We all suffer through the nonsense, as the gang that seems to loathe one another shares the most perfect Hamptons summer house, eat in fabulous Manhattan restaurants and go for bridal fittings. So fun!!!! Kate Hudson manages to pull out a few nice moments as the Dazzling Darcy, but the only decent charm at all comes from the wonderful John Krasinski, who plays Rachel’s wise man-in-waiting. He’s an actor I probably would enjoy watching in anything. And now I feel as if I have.

 

Green Lantern

If, indeed, it is true there are only seven original stories in this world, surely the super-hero comic genre’s got a corner on the market on one of them. Now, even the people behind the mounting of this same-old same-old seem kinda bored by it all.

For the blissfully uninitiated, our unlikely masters of the universe (usually men) are plucked from some kind of tragic Earthly childhood. These guys don’t want to be so special, but hey, the Earth needs saving. Their love interests, (who most often need saving too) are initially freaked out by the situation, then, almost bashfully turned on. There’s a small group of buds who deal, one always-an-outsider-anyway who gets his own dose of whatever the potion is and wreaks what he feels is understandable revenge.  Sound familiar?

Here, director Martin Campbell has delivered a perfunctory version of said story: filling in the blanks with the names of the Green Lantern characters. And he has collected a nice group of actors to do so. Ryan Reynolds cuts quite the figure as the dashing pilot Hal who, of course, is The Chosen One. Blake Lively does her best as the girl, I mean the brilliant pilot business brain who loves him. Mark Strong is semi-disguised as a Lantern leader and the wonderful Peter Sarsgaard slips so comfortably into the role of mumbling scientist Hector, he provides the just about the only real spark to this extensively produced production.

Yes, there are tons of effects. Some of them are even good. But they, too, seem to pop up as if on cue, making sure the steady rhythm of the movie is maintained. The biggest disappointment to me was the lackluster artistry of the Big Kahuna, or whatever that billowing bad guy’s name is, who shows up to dominate the universe or something like that at the end. He’s just kind of ugly.

Interestingly, critics were offered screenings in both 2 and 3-D. I went for the 3, not being one to refuse the opportunity to once again, don those lovely glasses. While there were a few nice zoomy effects to be seen, there weren’t a whole lot of them. Perhaps the filmmakers are as tired of having to use this visual gimmick as they seem to be with these stories themselves?

X Men: First Class

Director Matthew Vaughn has shaken the cobwebs off the franchise and confidently delivered this prequel as a first class blockbuster.

After an initial, harrowing set up which takes place in a Nazi death camp, the action quickly shifts to 1962, in an America caught up in a Cold War. Charles Xavier is recruited by the CIA and, tapping in to those mind reading powers of his, he not only gets what needs to be done, but also manages to collect a few more of his own, “special” men and women. There’s a group of young, unfocused people, led by Charles’s sister-y Raven, but the real guts to this group is the difficult friendship between the calm Charles and his polar opposite, Eric, the man whose unique specialty and tortured soul lead him to become the enemy, Magneto. Seeing how the X-Men school developed is pretty cool (imagine watching the founding of Hogwarts!), but it’s this key relationship which gives not just “First Class”, but the rest of the series its most profound punch.

Tapping into the all-too real fears of the time, including the Russians and the Cuban Missile Crisis, is smart: I hope purists won’t get crazy with the obviously revisionist spin here. Of course it’s doubtful World War III was really averted by these mutants, but by allowing this conceit, we sure do get to see some pretty cool special effects.  As a child of the Submarine Capital of the World, I especially got a kick out of seeing what happens to one of them in this scenario. Wheee!

Adding to the first class story, script and effects is the remarkable cast. Maybe James McAvoy doesn’t look like Patrick Stewart (although there’s a pretty cute joke about that), but he’s wonderfully effective as a leader-in-the-making.  All the buzz about Michael Fassbender is well earned: his Eric is suave, pained and pissed.  In the pretty standard role of the bad guy, Kevin Bacon does some nifty stuff. Jennifer Lawrence is appealing as the wanna be normal Raven and January Jones cuts quite the sharp figure as a frosty nemesis.

Perhaps, when fan boys line up the movies in order, there will be mismatches and discrepancies. I hope not. Because watching the early days of the X Men story is great fun all on its own and, hopefully, also as a key part of a newly re-energized series.

The Hangover, Part II

In this world of give-‘em-what-they-want, the team behind the 2009 comedy hit has reconvened to try and do just that. Too bad it doesn’t work.

Part duh, I mean, two, has Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifanakis joining up for yet another wedding. This time it’s Stu’s (Helms) and the gang has to travel to Thailand for the nuptials. OK; so far, so good. Cooper’s Phil is still a party-hungry animal toting his baby to the tame bachelor bash Stu has organized at IHOP.  Alan (Galifanakis), now self-described as a ‘stay at home son’, is anxious to the point of anxiety not to be left out. Begrudgingly, he’s invited along and we await the good times to roll.

Natch, it all goes terribly wrong and the guys wake up in some yucky hotel room somewhere. Doug (Justin Bartha) isn’t there (he got off relatively easy last time, too, remember) and now, neither is Teddy, Stu’s soon to be brother in law. Oh oh. Conveniently, Chow, played by Ken Jeong, is and he fills the guys in on the fact that they’re in Bangkok before apparently dropping dead after hitting the cocaine a little too hard.

Oh no? What will happen now?

Anyone who saw the original, very funny film knows. But it’s not just the unoriginal scripting that’s a problem here. The few initial jokes that start the film give way to long stretches where I, and the audience I sat with, barely giggled. What I missed most was what hooked me the first time: the real relationship between these guys, who were honestly desperate in Vegas because they had lives, wives, something to lose. All of that has just kind of fizzled out here, leaving Ed Helm’s frantic jumping up and down seem weird. Not that those children-smoking-dope fantasies and surprise sexual encounter with a transvestite don’t give weird a run for its money.

The Tree of Life

Ambitious and imperfect, stunning and overwhelming, profound and perplexing, Terrence Malick’s mediation on human life and our place in the universe is one of the most arguably exciting movies to come along in years.

Told in the most of non-linear ways, this drama focuses, pretty acutely, on a family in 1950’s Texas. We watch their everyday joys and see how, one by one, they try to cope with not just set backs, but the worst of experiences. Slit into this continuing story is a flash ahead to contemporary times, as one of the sons, now grown, spends a key day shaken by his memories. But Malick is not content to do things the usual way. He also insists on trying to put all of this into perspective, allowing for how this family tale fits into the life of the universe itself. What, he lets them think, is their relationship with God and why does the Almighty allow bad things to happen? And, in the grand history of the planet, what does all of it matter?

Phew.

Counterpointing his spectacularly filmed human story is a string of meditative series of images, visual effects I don’t think that have ever been used to this effect in film before (although at several points,  Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddessy did pop to mind). We see what Malick and his team (including scientists from all over the world with his veteran special effects people) post as the beginnings of the world. It’s very cool to think of how they accomplished these jaw droppingly exquisite, state of the art pieces, even cooler to sit back and let them wash over you. Of course, that requires patience. And a big time willing suspension of disbelief, which many traditional movie goers are going to have a very hard time doing.

Besides all that, it should be noted that Brad Pitt gives a remarkable performance as the Father; Jessica Chastian, commanding as the Mother. Some scenes may go on too long, some of the allegorical bits may be off-putting. But while the characters in this story are praying for understanding, I, for one, am just thankful there is a place in this world for an outlandishly, outrageously creative and ambitious film such as this.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I don’t usually like to review a movie through the prism of its budget, but, after spending a reported $200 million, shouldn’t this one be more of a wow?

It’s not that this chapter of the ride-inspired ride of a flick doesn’t have its good points. New director Rob Marshall has brought some new life to the sagging (artistically, if not financially) franchise. Penelope Cruz, as a potential love interest for Johnny Depp, and Ian McShane, the infamous Blackbeard, are fun additions. And, tapping into his theatrical roots, Marshall, who remember brought the musical back to the movies with Chicago, offers up a couple of dandy action scenes, most notably an underwater mermaid sequence that is not just beautiful but downright terrifying as well. Wish there had been more of that quality along the way.

But, alas, that is not to be. The set up for this chapter is land-locked. Captain Jack Sparrow and Barbossa, it seems, are in Londontown, and both assigned to separately seek the Fountain of Youth. While Depp and daddy Keith Richards have a cute moment, the rest of this part of the story is decidedly aimed at the kiddies, with slapsticky humor, if you can call it that. We then proceed to a dullish section, good for taking said kiddies to the restrooms. But things definitely pick up when the legend brings in the mermaids and all that silly repetitive swashbuckling meets its match.

The 3-D effects are ok; so, too, is Hans Zimmer’s swirling score. I liked movie newcomer Sam Claflin (hello!), who is added for a Prince-ly effect. More good news: Geoffrey Rush is given moments to shine (if you pardon the movie-pun) and he does. And then there’s Johnny. Like most of the rest of this series, Captain Jack has been watered down to a more perhaps socially acceptable sort. It’s always great to watch Depp and he’s fine here, but nothing more. Frankly, I liked Sparrow best when, in the first movie, I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. Now, bowing to the crowd, we discover, it ain’t much.

 

Bridesmaids

Ask anyone who’s been there: being a bridesmaid is quite the experience. Rich in good intentions, ripe for disaster, I’m amazed no one has centered a movie about it before. But now, thanks to Kristin Wiig, her writing partner Annie Mumolo, Judd Apatow and Paul Fieg, we’ve got a dandy femme-centric, outrageously funny and downright smart comedy that nails one of the most emotionally wrought feminine rites of passage.

Wiig plays Annie, a mid-west woman of a certain age whose best friend forever, Lillian, has just gotten engaged. Suddenly, all those middle of the night booty calls with a marvelously loopy Jon Hamm aren’t so satisfying anymore. And it hurts even deeper that the bakery she so lovingly ran with the ex-boyfriend crashed along with the economy. And who the hell is this new best friend of Lillian’s? The one whose rich husband works with Lill’s intended; the one who can afford to fly the bride off to Paris for the trip Annie always wanted to go on with her BFF? Annie is on a downward spiral. And she’s supposed to be happy Lillian isn’t?

Sure, there’s a lot of over the top silliness here: commercial and too drawn out. But, what makes this movie more than just another fleetingly promising Saturday Night Live skit for the talented Wiig is the wisdom in its very large heart. Real life best buds, Wiig and Maya Rudolph bring an honesty to their scenes that is palpable. Charming Irishman Chris O’Dowd makes Annie’s future seem bright to us, even if she’s a little slow on the pickup. All the women in this movie (including, sadly, the last performance from Jill Clayburgh) are given real characters to play, pretty fully realized even if they are not the center of attention. Outstanding in this regard is the overweight, overbearing sister-in-law, played to perfection by Melissa McCarthy. Even laden with some of the movie’s most potentially embarrassing moments, this assured actress creates a woman to be dealt with and it’s a pleasure.

Everything Must Go

Based on a Raymond Carver short story, this poignant indie has a lot going for it. Not only is there a finely wrought slice-of-life lesson here, but there’s also a wonderful cast playing it out, lead by a surprisingly wonderful Will Ferrell.

Ferrell plays Nick, a sales pro who, in the first moments of the movie, is laid off from his job. After having tried to take some revenge (doesn’t go too well), our hero pulls into his driveway, only to find all his possessions tossed onto the front lawn, the locks on the doors changed. Seems his marriage is over, too. Not a good day. And so he plops into the Barcalounger, slips back, pours himself a few and waits. After all, what left is there to do?

A small handful of people populate Nick’s old and new world, bringing singed memories and maybe even some hope for the future. Essential in this is the new, pregnant neighbor, played with signature elegance by Rebecca Hall. But, while the story is sufficient to keep us engaged and director Dan Rush stages it with a careful lightness, the only real wow here is Ferrell himself. Often, when comic actors, or at least actors who have made their most commercially successful work in comedies, take on a more dramatic role, they over do it, frowning instead of clowning. Ferrell shakes off all that most admirably and gives a performance that quietly, self-confidently pulls us in. His disappointed failure is honest, subtle and at times, even downright dislikeable. Which, of course, makes him ultimately all the more compelling.  Bravo, Will.

Something Borrowed

How annoying is this movie? This watered down chick-flick gives not just chicks, but flicks a bad name.

Based on the best selling novel, what we’ve got here is a cleaned up version of betrayal. It’s a little tacky that 30 year old  buttoned up Rachel would sleep with her BFF’s fiancé on the eve of her wedding, so the ickiness of what made the book more textured than it was sold as, has been polished up for the mainstream movie crowd. It’s ok, you know, because before jumping on each other’s bones in the cab, Rachel and Dex let it slip they’ve been in love with each other since law school. Awww. And come on, we can see Dex couldn’t really love Darcy. I mean she gets drunk (at the surprise birthday party she arranged for said best friend since forever) and wears slinky clothes and well, she kind of looks and acts like, let’s face it, a slut.

The usually terrific Ginnifer Goodwin is swamped here. Not allowed to show the slightest hint of complexity, her Rachel clunks along, sort of romantically holding on in case Dex Does The Right Thing. Or if she and Darcy manage to Rekindle What Made Them Best Best Best Friends. We all suffer through the nonsense, as the gang that seems to loathe one another shares the most perfect Hamptons summer house, eat in fabulous Manhattan restaurants and go for bridal fittings. So fun!!!! Kate Hudson manages to pull out a few nice moments as the Dazzling Darcy, but the only decent charm at all comes from the wonderful John Krasinski, who plays Rachel’s wise man-in-waiting. He’s an actor I probably would enjoy watching in anything. And now I feel as if I have.

 

The Beaver

Yes, I was fascinated by Jodie Foster’s new, earnest drama, but not for the reasons she may have intended. Were any other actor cast as the depressive alcoholic, intent on self destruction, it would have been easier, or cleaner, to watch the story unfold and review it as such. But Foster brought in her friend Mel Gibson to play the role and it is quite remarkable to watch him act as an angry, bewildered, out of control man.

Walter Black is a chronically depressed husband, father and owner of a toy manufacturing company. Unable to tap into the root of his problems, Walter pushes everyone and everything away, until he is alone in a dingy hotel room, swigging a few before trying to commit suicide. Attempt failed, our anti-hero literally stumbles across his salvation: somebody’s old puppet, a beaver Mel slips over his hand and uses as a mechanism for expressing his feelings. This conceit can only get Walter so far, of course, but while it works, his family, co-workers and the media are not all that unhappy to play along.

Foster not only directs, but co-stars, as Gibson’s anxious wife. Interestingly, it is she who brings the lightest touch here: getting just a bit weirded out in the bedroom, begging the man she loves to go for professional help. The terrific young actors, Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence are quite fine, too. But all eyes in this movie are on Mel. Sure, his performance is assured and sensitive. Gibson has not been an international superstar for so long just based on his good looks. But I, for one, couldn’t shake the almost overwhelming curiosity of the whole thing I was watching. As filming was taking place, the star was also dealing with his own very public real life domestic drama. And let’s not forget the infamous rage of Gibson’s notorious alcohol infused encounter with an L.A. police officer.(Just as an aside: how did Matt Lauer and Jon Stewart act as interviewers in this movie and not throw down the script and go for what would have been quite the conversation?) Aren’t the lessons learned in this movie ones that might be helpful to the actor, as a man? How can anyone not draw the parallels here?  Could it be that Foster, who has gone on the record as a loyal ally of Gibson’s, made this small, poignant drama about depression and redemption as a gift of love to her friend?

Water for Elephants

Is it damning praise to declare this adaptation a good old fashioned movie? Because director Francis Lawrence’s version of the popular novel is good. And yes, it is old fashioned. And appropriately so.

For those who didn’t read the book, Water for Elephants is a passionate love story, set in the Depression era.  Jacob, a college veterinary student, suddenly orphaned and penniless, finds a new life as he jumps into a passing railcar. Turns out he literally has hopped aboard a traveling circus and he learns quite quickly that world is not all fun and games. Eventually brought in to the “family” and accepted as an intimate of the ringmaster and his animal trainer wife, our young hero enters a dangerous, desperate triangle. Of course, he falls in love with the decent, beautiful Marlena, but he also is all too aware of the power, magnetism and violent power her husband August wields.

Richard LaGravenese’s script strips away some, but not all of the harsh reality depicted in the Sara Gruen’s best seller. The focus here is on love: the love between humans and also between humans and animals. There’s no denying the effectiveness of the performances from the sizzling Christoph Waltz, as well as the quietly magnetic Reese Witherspoon. Robert Pattinson, best known, of course, for the Twilight series, acquits himself very well here, as the struggling young Jacob. But if I, as a viewer, fell in love with anybody, it was Rosie The Elephant, a smart and loyal friend who is often abused by the megalomaniac killer, August. While most of the violence in this story happens off screen, just about no scene ripped into my stomach as the one where Rosie, behind closed doors, is whipped by her furious owner. Psychologists today insist there is a correlation between those who would hurt an animal and those who lash out at people. Never in recent film history has that lesson been made more emphatically than it is here.

 

 

Arthur

Why?

Why remake the air-puffed Dudley Moore comedy? Why sharpen its fuzzy edges to drag Arthur into the 21st Century? Why, if you’re going to cast Russell Brand and Helen Mirren as the billionaire in the bottle and his Nanny, don’t you let them go a little wild in their scenes together? Why would you cast the indie quirkster Greta Gerwig and then mash her specialness into middle class mush? And why, oh why, would anyone put the deserving-better-than-this Jennifer Garner in a poky ribbed bustier and have her magnetized to the underside of a bed?

None of the above is necessary. But I think most of us knew that going in. Except the filmmakers, of course. What is really disappointing there, though, is that had they chosen to chuck the remake concept and just make a movie of their own, the talented people who’re on board here could have made a decent original comedy.

Someday, someone is going to tap the potential that is simmering just below the surface of Russell Brand. Try as he does here, and he does, Brand is no Moore: his Arthur is sweet, too, but when Moore betrayed his anger and disappointment, it was a surprise. With Brand, you can see the steam rising from him in nearly all that he does. That’s a good thing, by the way, and makes him all the more promising as an actor. Helen Mirren is fine as Hobson, but there’s no devastating wit at work here, the way it was with the inimitable John Gielgud. I’ve already mentioned the unfortunate circumstances Greta Gerwig and Jennifer Garner find themselves in here, but it is especially sad to see them handled so bluntly by director Jason Winer, who is one of the people who has given us the multi-dimensional and hilarious tv comedy, ‘Modern Family’ and screenwriter Peter Baynham, who gave us the whallopingly original ‘Borat’.

Yes, there are a few laughs here, and a touching moment or two, too. You’ll enjoy them when you catch this on DVD.

Hanna

Now THIS is kick-ass movie making! With snap and verve, Joe Wright has taken a traditional film genre and stood it on its ear.

A terrific Saoirse Ronan stars as a young girl, living in the forest with her father. Are they refugees, survivalists, or on the run? All we are told is that our heroine is feeling it’s time to move on. And there’s a pre-determined plan, involving a button she can push, that will allow her to do so, even if that means she’s leaving alone. I am so tempted to stop there, to allow you the pure fun of letting this story unspool for you as it did for me, when I saw this movie some weeks ago. Since then, however, some television ads I’ve seen give away some of the most tantalizing parts of the plot. Bummer!  Perhaps the producers are nervous about marketing this thriller as too much of a mystery, but I say, try to ignore the spoilers. Let this one wash over you the way it should: while the roots of this action adventure are familiar, the way it unwinds is not. And it’s a hoot to go along on the ride.

All that being said, I will tell you this is one gorgeously made movie. Crackling camera work, clean-as-a-whistle editing and a knockout score from The Chemical Brothers all make this classic story uber-modern. Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s screenplay takes its time,  gradually revealing what it wants to, when it wants to, but never letting us get bored waiting. In support, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett and especially young Jessica Barden bring just the right touch of intensity and humor. Yes, Hanna is, quite often, funny.

Much can be made of the fact that this is a film about a young female action hero. And why shouldn’t it be? But one of the things I liked the most about this movie is that, one particularly winning dating scene aside, much is not made of the character’s sexuality. She is a fully rounded person: a character with a story and someone we find ourselves caring very much about. And that, especially in the action arena, is a rare enough accomplishment, indeed.

Source Code

A rare popcorn flick that serves up drama you can sink your teeth into, this one confidently opens as a thriller that’s a cut above the rest.

Jake Gyllenhall stars as Colter Stevens, a decorated soldier who wakes up in the body of a Chicago history teacher, riding a commuter train that is about to explode. Eventually discovering he has been “placed” there, by government agents using a special experiment they’ve dubbed ‘Source Code’, it is up to our hero to keep repeating his trip into this other man’s body in order to not only save the train, but, ultimately, Chicago itself from an act of horrific terrorism.

This body visitation stuff has been used before, of course, in tons of sci-fi action flicks. Here, though, the filmmakers are more interested in other things. Even Jeffrey Wright, as the creator of the program, explains it all away in one quick paragraph, laughingly admitting, ‘it’s really complicated’. I, for one, appreciated that. Mention quantum physics and my brain starts to glaze over. It’s juicier to concentrate on what happens to Colter as he zips in and out of this other life and that is what Ben Ripley’s screenplay does, with curiosity and an open heart.

Not that director Duncan Jones has denied us the blood, guts and explosions. Don’t worry: there are plenty of those elements here, too. But as satisfying as they are, it’s the soul of the story and the performances of it that keep Source Code decidedly human. Gyllenhaal brings an irresistible intelligence to his action hero; Michelle Monaghan is really lovely as the woman who’s more than along for the ride. Vera Farmiga de-ices gently as the agent pulling Colter in and out of reality and Jeffrey Wright tries to add a probably unneeded element or two to his genius manipulator.

This is a drama that happens to set in a science fiction arena, not a sci-fi flick that drags up a moral or two at the end. How refreshing.

Limitless

Timing is everything and, in this case, the moral repercussions of this drug-crazed sci-fi-er ring are especially reprehensible.

Bradley Cooper plays a decent, but unfocused novelist. Shaggy and unable to fulfill his book contract, his more together girlfriend (Abbe Cornish) ups and leaves. So, when he accidentally stumbles upon a pill, currently tearing up the black market, which allows him to tap his potential, well, what the hell…he pops it. Within mere seconds, oceans part, nirvana dawns and novel is not just finished but spectacular. Gee, makes a guy wonder what else he could do on this thing. And that stash he stole from the murdered brother-in-law dealer is, after all, just sitting there…

Yes, I know this story has been adapted from a novel. And yes, I see director Neil Burger does keep the enhanced violence humming along. But. Perhaps if the ramifications of this drug dependency were made a tad more realistic, I wouldn’t feel as scummy, rooting for an addict to exploit his next fix. And that’s not all this movie is asking us to do.

Turns out our “hero” doesn’t just make a fortune thanks to these pills, he also gets the old girlfriend back (he’s much more attractive with big bucks in his arsenal) and, after killing off some bad guys (hey, it was self-defense and all easily explained away), he sets down the path toward world domination. It’s OK, though, because in a short sentence or two, we are told this guy has weaned himself off the drug that seems to have wreaked havoc with those “trolls” who, I guess, don’t have his “tiger blood”. And, after having discovered he can’t just make more of the stuff that got him to the big time, this guy is going to put all the other guys who want the stuff in jail, bankruptcy or worse. Winning!

As a science fiction story, where the emphasis is on the concept a pill can tap into the unused potential of the human brain, this all might be kind of, dare I say fun? But the best sci-fi also carries with it a moral: a price is paid or a lesson is snuck in along the way. Here, the upshot is yes, you can use illegal, untested drugs and become all you want to be, bumps in the road to be smoothed over by the drug itself. And then, once you get where you want to go, you can kick it, no problem.

I, for one, couldn’t help but wonder what would happen once our newly clean master of the universe met his first challenge, post-self rehab. That, and how fast could I shower off the scummy sludge I felt watching this so-called entertainment.

Win-Win

 If charm were enough, this slight but very sweet domestic comedy would knock it out of the park.

Tom McCarthy’s newest sets Paul Giamatti as Mike, suburban husband, dad and struggling lawyer. Not wanting to admit his financial difficulties to his wife (the ubiquitous Amy Ryan), he can’t help but take advantage of an opportunity that comes his way: if he accepts guardianship of an elderly client, he can get paid a nice check every month. So what if he puts the guy into a nursing home instead of fulfilling the promise to the court to keep the gentleman at home? Of course, the plot thickens from there. A forlorn grandson shows and winds up living with Mike’s family. And isn’t it amazing the kid’s buried talent is for wrestling, the sport Mike just happens to coach at the local high school?

Leaps of faith abound in this coincidental script. But the actors, to a man and woman, are such a delight, even the most suspicious viewer will begrudgingly go along for the ride. Giamatti is dandy, grounded and calmer than he often appears, and young Alex Shaffer is especially fine. The cast of real character who whirl around them is just great. Amy Ryan, who manages to look different in virtually each role she plays, is a joy here: the local girl who’s matured into responsibility, but never totally abandoned her inner-Jersey. And I loved Bobby Cannavale, as the newly divorced and aimless pal, the guy who shows up at odd hours and manages to not just stay for dinner, but stay in the soul of his adopted family.

With lesser talent mounting it, this slim script would have dissolved into sit-com land. But the winning group of people who’re involved here make this slight sweetie a light, but irresistible entertainment.

The Adjustment Bureau

A romantic action thriller with Inception-like ambitions, this one, sadly, falls short.

Drawn from an old Philip Dick short story, this serious minded science fiction piece has a lot on its mind. Not only has Matt Damon’s New York politician been updated to tap into the wary reputation of so many legislators these days, but screenwriter/director George Nolfi has also taken pains to inject the action with even more profound and pithy moral dilemmas. Seems there’s this Bureau, see, a stern looking bunch who run around in ‘50’s style garb.  They not only manipulate the way the world works, but also how we, as individuals, work, too. Thanks to these guys, there is a plan. Which means there’s no free will.  Accept it, baby. The fact that our pol happens to be madly in love with the “wrong” woman is just one of those pesky details that must, apparently, be “adjusted”. Yet, when the gig is up, and Damon’s onto what gives, he refuses to give in. And that’s when things get a little complicated.

In what is, surprisingly, Matt Damon’s first romantic lead, he, as David, is dandy. Understanding that the way to a woman’s heart is not just through her eyes, but also her sense of humor, Nolfi lets the very funny Damon do his thing and he is pretty irresistible. As his love interest, the always wonderful Emily Blunt manages not just to make us believe she is a professional dancer, but that she is so smitten with a guy she met casually, she’s basically put everything on hold for two years, waiting for him to show up again. Anthony Mackie and John Slattery are forced into weird positions here: they may be in charge, but they don’t seem to have the slick goods to do it all without breaking into an unexpected sweat.

Hall Pass

 Is it redundant to note that this Farrelly Brothers picture is rated R, “for crude and sexual humor throughout, language, some graphic nudity and drug use”? If anything here, the Bros are sticking to their brand. Maybe it’s time they grew up a little bit.

Here’s the set up: Rick and his pal Fred are pretty decent husbands, they think. They don’t cheat on their wives, even though, in their dreams and sometimes, in their actions, they’d like to. But what kind of a movie would that make? So Maggie and Grace, the wives, are driven to the point where they grant the boys a “Hall Pass”, a week off from marriage, where these hot-to-trotters can do anything they want. Wow. What an opportunity.

Sure, this idea has been used before in movies. And to far better effect (Larry David’s birthday present on Curb Your Enthusiasm pops to mind). Here, the adequate idea disintegrates quickly into long, stupid and uncouth scenes, one more so than the other. Now I know this is what the Farrellys often do and they did it quite beautifully in “There’s Something About Mary”.  But compare the hair gel scene in that classic comedy to the supposed “high point” in this one: a young woman, having had one or twelve too many, comes to the guys’ hotel room. Feeling sick, she sits on the edge of the bathtub. She tries to vomit into the garbage pail, but can’t. Relief does come though : in the form of a massive fart, which blows fecal matter all over the bathroom walls. Even the people sitting near me at the screening I attended, if they bothered to look up from their texting, met this denouement with a stony silence.

It should be noted that stars Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate do the best they can with what they’re given. Owen Wilson’s got the juicier role and brings a touch of sweetness where he can. The only real relief is the short spin turned in by Richard Jenkins, almost unrecognizable as the boys’ perpetual bachelor/ inspiration. He’s pretty much of a hoot, albeit mercifully in a small dose.

Unknown

 In this wild and wooly world of “fusion” movies, those that combine aspects of every kind of genre available (in other words, something to attract any potential ticket buyer), this one aims to do it all. And, thanks to a cast far better than the script, it almost succeeds.

Liam Neeson does the best he can in the whirly-bird role of Dr. Martin Harris. We first meet him, en route to a conference in Berlin, traveling alongside his beautiful wife, January Jones. Realizing he’s mistakenly left his passport behind at the airport, Martin hops a cab, leaving her behind, checking in to the hotel. But there’s an accident and when he wakes up in the hospital, beautiful wife no longer admits to knowing him, the conference seems to have another guy (Aidan Quinn) bearing the same name and nobody will fess up as to who this alleged Martin really is.

A dandy cast classes up the twisty proceedings. The also beautiful Diane Kruger has her own reasons for helping Martin out, Frank Langella’s got a short, but fun spin and the great Bruno Ganz shows how the standard role of the older mentor who gets in over his head should always be played.

A nifty enough concept carries us along for a good part of this hybrid action/thriller/mystery/drama.


Even when it all spins into some really silly territory, there’s a certain entertainment factor in watching everybody gamely trying to make sense of it all.

Cedar Rapids

How can a movie so rude and crude also be endearingly hilarious? In the case of this slight and sort of sweet comedy, we can thank a handful of actors far better than their material.

Ed Helms stars, in between Hangovers, as an uber-naïve Midwest insurance salesman, sent to the big state wide convention when the guy who usually represents his company dies in an accidental auto-eroticism accident. (Get ready, this is just the beginning.) Tearing himself away from the once a week affair he’s having with his former school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), he gets on the first plane he’s ever taken and nervously steps into the big time of hotels with pools, collegial insurance brokers who’re insuring their own futures and an odd ball collection of new, unexpected allies. We’ve seen most of what happens here before; my only nagging concern is to wonder when the obligatory influence-enhanced silly scene graduated from liquor to crack cocaine. But, I suppose I digress. What makes even that work, to a point, is the very sweet collection of actors playing it all out.

Helms, who it seems just yesterday left The Daily Show for the Hollywood big time, steps into his first real lead with aplomb. But it is his co-stars who really make this thing sing. Isiah Whitlock, Jr, Anne Heche, Kurtwood Smith and Stephen Root reminded me of the generous comedians seen in Christopher Guest’s ensembles. But, for better or worse, it’s John C. Reilly, as the notoriously boorish boy with a heart, Dean Ziegler, who steals the show. Even when he’s making loud, wistful references to various sex acts, Reilly’s sadder-but-wiser self awareness grounds it enough to make us love him, just a little bit.

 

The Rite

The Rite gets it all wrong. With a lopsided story line, an untested lead actor (no it’s not Anthony Hopkins) and an are-we-there-yet wait for the good stuff to start, this thriller barely thrills at all.

Based on a true story, the movie is actually about a young seminary student, who is played by newcomer Colin O’Donoghue. We see his skepticism about entering the ministry and then, staying there, too. So, off he’s sent to Italy, certainly more fun than the American mid west, to study exorcism. That, we are all told, is supposed to lead young Michael back into the flock. Once ensconced in Vatican City, the lessons broaden to include a tutorial with a legendary exorcist, a priest played with a mix of boredom and relish by Anthony Hopkins. Father Lucas, it seems, has quite the case on his hands. And it’s up to Michael to not just observe, but, ultimately, to save the mentor from his fate.

Certainly, under perhaps a surer hand than director Mikael Hafstrom brings, this could have been a more tantalizing entertainment. There is, after all, the time tested puzzlement of the devil here, plus a handful of good actors (Toby Jones and Alice Braga are among those who show up along the way). And, hey, there’s always Rome. But we spend far too much time on Michael’s back story. I realize the screenplay is based on a book written by Kovak himself, but do we really need to delve so much (or for so long) on his childhood development, his pre-seminary girlfriends, etc? Better for the film that we had entered into the more standard juicy stuff of exorcism earlier on. The day-to-day of Father Lucas’s calling would have been interesting to explore, not just the gory head twirling stuff we’ve seen a million times before. A recent and better example of the genre: the barebones “Last Exorcism”, available now on DVD.

The Green Hornet

Floats like a butterfly, stings like a gnat.

Although Seth Rogan has enlisted many collaborators in this adaptation of the old comic/action series, this mixed bag feels very much like a “Seth Rogan” production. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In his short time as a major movie star, this unlikely-appearing headliner has created a brand that is accessible, entertaining and much more savvy than it looks. Rogan always seems to be bringing a kind of laid back, everyman –ish  touch to his characters. But not every nebbishy guy out there knows how to rise to the top of whatever situation seems to initially overwhelm him. And Seth pulls it out. With an offhanded humor and style that works.

It works here, too, to a point. In the beginning of this periodic 3-D adventure, which has been directed, it should be noted by Michel Gondry, the tone is hip and fun. Even while the super rich young heir to an L.A. newspaper empire is partying it up, he doesn’t seem like a mean guy. And then, when Daddy suddenly dies and our unprepared hero must take the reins, we’re just as nervous as he is, even though we know he’s been pretty irresponsible about it all up till now. And so it happens, Britt (Rogan) allies up with one of his father’s servants, the super smart self trained engineer, Kato (Jay Chou), who, we are also told,  also makes one hell of a cup of coffee. Together, the two create The Green Hornet, a well prepared (or is he?) superhero, out to save Los Angeles from bad guys like Benjamin Chudnofsky, a dated Godfather played with a sneer and a twinkle by Christoph Waltz. Cameron Diaz shows up about half way through, establishing not just some kind of female presence, but also her place for what, I’m sure, the filmmakers are hoping will be the sequel. There are also some nifty little cameos from Edward James Olmos, Tom Wilkinson and, especially, James Franco. Too bad the fun ends there. A series of overlong and determinedly spectacular (i.e. expensive) fights bog the thing down until we’re done rooting for the good guys, and anxiously awaiting for those scenes to be over already.

True Grit

Putting aside their signature funky smart-aleck style, The Coen Brothers have still delivered what is truly one of the best, most polished and entertaining movies of the year.

A knockout young Hailee Steinfeld stars as Matty, a fourteen year old girl out to avenge her father’s murder back in the gritty old American West. Hiring on the craggy Rooster Cogburn, embodied this time by a game Jeff Bridges, our heroine insists on being right there when her man is caught. She wants him to know why he’s gonna die. Cogburn? Well, basically, he’s out for the money. As is Mr. LaBouef, a Texas Ranger who, also trailing bad guy, partners up with Matty and Rooster. Until he can’t take it anymore. Or when he’s left with not a whole lot of other choice. Matt Damon, as the bigger than his britches Ranger, is a delight, but it’s the unlikely relationship between the girl and her aged mentor that’ll tear your heart out.

Anyone who’s ever seen John Wayne in his Oscar winning role as the whiskey slinging Cogburn can’t help but see shades of that seminal performance all over this movie. It’s not just the same eye patch, the dusty hat or slagging accent, it’s the whole idea of conjuring up a Western at all. The Coens, who’s signature is a wacky-brilliantly-smartly-funny slant, leave that stuff on a side burner for this stab at a cinema archetype: the Western is all-American. And the Coens salute that with affection, pride and passion.

Glorious production values add to this love of the genre and of the land. Carter Burwell’s score will leave a lump in your throat. Mary Zophres’ costumes are true grit indeed. But it’s Roger Deakins’ cinematography that is unabashedly in love with not just the dandy performances, but the land on which they take place. The American West looks great.

It will be interesting to see if this big “movie movie” will make the Coen brothers more accessible to larger audiences, people who were perhaps intimidated by some of their earlier, more arch work. If so, you’ve got to hand it to these movie makers. Not only did they resurrect a recently ignored subset of American film, they may also have injected a whole new set of fans for their own, deserving library.

The Fighter

David O. Russell’s slam to the gut is as much about personal dysfunction as it is about the very real story of boxing.

Based on the true story of title winning prize fighter Mickey Ward, this often devastating drama is the child of its star, Mark Whalberg. After nursing this project to the screen (it took reported years of development  and  several industry rebirths), Whalberg takes to the center ring as the younger, talented brother of a former Massachusetts boxer, now serious drug addict. As it can happen with this kind of remarkably screwed up family, the drama, the excitement, whirls around its most screwed up member, in this case, brother Dickey.  And everybody, even the egocentric mother, takes a backseat to his addiction. It’s an interesting dichotomy. The movie is ostensibly about Mickey, but while its points are made, proving the lopsided balance of a family in crisis, this film is also usurped by two of its other stars, the astonishing Christian Bale, as Dickey, and a wonderful Melissa Leo, smoking as mother Alice.

It’s not that Whalberg doesn’t hold his own: he does. Otherwise, why would I have winced so hard each and every time he is punched, both in and out of the ring? And Amy Adams does her best, all tough and Irishy, as the girl who shows Mickey the love he never gets at home. It’s just that the script, like the family itself, I guess, can’t help but be drawn to Dickey’s wildness. And Bale, who gives hands down, one of the best performances of the year here, commands our attention, too. The only time I could take my eyes off him was when Melissa Leo was also on the screen. Almost unrecognizable, in teased hair and heavy duty makeup, her Alice is not just a force to be reckoned with, but also a stage mother/manager nightmare, giving Gypsy Rose Lee’s Rose a run for her money. My money is on these two very fine actors to be rewarded big time for their remarkable work here.

The Company Men

Escapist? Uh, no. Transcendent? Without a doubt. John Wells’ remarkable drama is very much a chronicle of our times. We all know these aren’t the best of times, but, with a sly intelligence, a refusal to wallow in sentimentality and some mighty fine actors, this is a movie that also makes us dig in and figure out an upside.

Ben Affleck, all swagger and sway, slides into his usual department meeting, bragging about his newest golf score. His bravado is so consuming, our boy Bobby doesn’t even pick up on the tension around him. With no warning, it seems, he’s out. Downsized. Don’t take it personal, kid, it’s all about keeping the stockholders happy. Have a nice life. Shell shocked, Bobby returns to his beautiful house, his beautiful wife, his beautiful children. He’ll land something else. After all, he’s  great at what he does.  Beautiful wife knows it might not be so easy.  So do the kids. And they are right.

In the meantime, Chris Cooper is almost visibly shaking at his desk. He can’t afford to get fired. And yet, he does. What’s a man Phil’s age to do?

And then there’s Tommy Lee Jones. The Big Shot who tries to make it all work, to remember the people who work for him and not just the shareholders. Guess where he winds up.

Wells takes us through each family’s own crisis with a savvy eye and compassionate heart. No one, well almost no one, is a bad guy here: everybody has a reason for behaving the way they do. And nobody gets off easy. Their climb toward reinvention is not easy, but, Wells reminds us, it is possible.

Does anybody play a tragic middle aged man better than Chris Cooper? And Jones’ fury, his resigned stare, is impossible to shake. Affleck, the cog in this shaky wheel, gives a terrific performance, an everyman caught up in the naïve confidence of the good old days, only to be humbled back to his roots. Perhaps the best, and most surprising work comes from Kevin Costner who, in a small but key role, gives his best performance in years. Thanks to them all, and fine support from Maria Bello and Rosemarie DeWitt, this is a film that deserves support. You may not buy a ticket hoping to have a good time, but you’ll leave knowing you experienced something far more profound than that.

I Love You, Phillip Morris

The least outrageous thing about this movie is that Jim Carrey plays a gay guy.

Yes, the main characters are homosexual. And yes, it does take a minute or two to adjust when Carrey is seen, sweat pouring from his naked body as he is seen pounding away into another man. But even if Steven Russell, the central figure of this love story, had actually been the straight God fearing husband and father he starts out as in this movie, what he does besides all that is far more shocking than seeing him sport a Rocky Horror type drag outfit, or even soulfully kiss another man.

Steven is a con man. And, based on what we are told in this version of a true story, he was a really good one. He impersonated lawyers, won cases, committed credit card fraud, manipulated himself into a massively high paying corporate job and then ripped it off royally. I’m not even going to tell you about his most amazing scam. It’s just too delicious to watch as he pulls it off.

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (of the underappreciated Bad Santa), this is a movie that relishes its wild side. The victories, be they in court or the arrangement of a wonderfully romantic moment in a jail cell, are as sweet as any you’ll see in a modern day movie. And the performances are a treat. Carrey, who has often impressed with his less commercial efforts, is dandy here, bringing us a very smart man who admits “being gay is expensive.” Equally fine is Ewan McGregor, who brings such a sweetness to his character of Philip Morris, we all fall a little for him.

The biggest buzz about this film has been wondering why it was left, sitting on a shelf, unreleased for over a year. Now that it is finally hitting theaters in at least a few markets, that should change. People will and should now be talking instead about what a nifty little movie this is.

Black Swan

I doubt there’s a woman alive who won’t, at least in some small way, relate to this movie. Because Darren Aronofsky’s psychological drama, set in the hysterically competitive world of ballet, is very much about a woman’s struggle for perfection. And who among us can swear they’ve never had an issue or two with that?

Natalie Portman gives a finely tuned performance as the New York City ballerina, desperate to be cast in the lead of Vincent Cassel’s new version of Swan Lake. Surrounded by women who’ve aged out of the game, or who are equally as ambitious, Nina keeps to herself, barely eating, practicing as much as her body will allow, making other sacrifices she believes are necessary. No one allows her an inch, especially herself. Yet, as we are told from the film’s very beginning, Nina’s icy perfection isn’t long for this world. Just like the Swan Princess she so deeply wants to dance, Nina is doomed.

There are many impressive aspects to this production. All the performances, from Portman’s shattered heroine to Winona Ryder’s washed up superstar, are vivid and haunting. The dancing itself, featuring Portman’s own work, is a treat. And I found Aronofsky’s ambitious conceit: paralleling Nina’s story with that of one of the world’s most classic ballets, inspiring. Yet, I can’t help but fess up. Much of what whirls to a conclusion here is so florid, so overly over the top, I grew impatient and almost put off. Perhaps all the drama is appropriate, given the film’s classical roots. After all, don’t most operas and traditional ballets end with some big dramatic flourish? Whether or not the audience responds to such intensity is often more a reflection of that person than it is the work itself. I’ve never been a big swoop to the finish girl, myself.

Still, I must admire this Swan’s many graceful notes. While the film doesn’t always hit the mark, when it does, it sure makes its point.

The Kings Speech

There are many reasons why this film is so winning: not the least of which is the auspicious timing of its release.

Purposely opening just in time for what the industry deems “awards consideration”, it’s a remarkable coincidence this movie is also hitting theaters just as Prince William has announced his engagement. There’s nothing like a wedding to ramp up attention for England’s Royals and this film, a fine and beautifully made history of that family, is bound to reap the rewards, too. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The wonderful Colin Firth stars as King George VI, the current Queen Elizabeth’s father. A quiet man never expecting to wear the crown (his elder brother was next in line), he was also crippled by a serious stutter, a speech impediment that kept him from succeeding in the few royal duties he was expected to perform. His wife, gloriously played by Helena Bonham Carter, discovers the most unique of therapists, an Australian part-time actor named Lionel Logue. As embodied by the amazing Geoffrey Rush, Logue is a force of nature who becomes not just the key to the King’s confidence, he becomes the King’s confidant, as well. It was a remarkable relationship, told beautifully here.

As it has been with many historical dramas, there’s not a whole lot of surprise to what we witness. We pretty much know the brother will abdicate for the woman he loves, that George will have to lead his country during World War II and that the little girl playing dolls is the eventually beloved Queen Elizabeth.  It’s how it is told that fascinates and dare I say even inspires. Firth’s chipping away at this complex character is great, subtle stuff. Rush, too, has his quiet moments as the more flamboyant counterpart. What they accomplish together is not just the stuff of legend, but also terrifically moving to watch.

Morning Glory

How can a movie so derivative be so genuinely funny? The Glory in this case comes from the bright, sunny cast, including a luminous Rachel McAdams and a sparklingly grouchy Harrison Ford.

McAdams is the pony-tailed morning TV talk show producer, hired by a wary Jeff Goldblum to steer the exhausted fourth place program (there’s a joke about coming in after that CBS show, whatever the name of it is). Pretty ditsy in her personal life, our heroine comes alive professionally, forging through the malaise and getting the show at least pointing in the right direction. But, after hiring on the very reluctant veteran newsman played by Ford to co-host, along with the durable Diane Keaton, our optimistic energizer bunny may have met her match.

Described as “the third worst person in the world” (after Angela Lansbury: ‘she knows what she did’), this been-there-done-that guy is not at home in the fluffy world of morning tv. He’s contractually obligated to showing up and makes everybody feel his contempt. And the script underscores his very real discomfort with playing it light when there’s real news going on. I loved the fact that, whenever there’s a dumb-bunny segment being aired, the crawl on the bottom of the screen we see informs the audience, if anyone’s reading it, of disasters, crises and fatalities. Playing a character that’s not too far from the persona he presents to interviewers (yours truly included with the likes of David Letterman, who recently said to Ford, ‘I get the feeling you don’t like me’), Harrison Ford delivers his best performance in years. He’s crabby, suspicious, one step ahead of you, dryly hilarious and irresistibly sexy. Keaton, in a supporting seat, is no slouch either, and it’s a delight to see the two of them, sword to sword.

Due Date

With more than a nod to the great comedy “Planes Trains and Automobiles”, this odd-couple road picture still delivers a wacko good time.

Much of “The Hangover” team has reunited here, adding the wonderful Robert Downey, Jr. to the mix. He’s Peter, the control freak, the architect who likes to have everything all plotted out, his way. Yet, after literally bumping into Zach Galifianakis (Ethan, a would be actor with the ambition to appearing on Charlie Sheen’s Two and a Half Men) at the Atlanta airport, and, as a complicated result, winding up on the no fly list, the two opposites must drive together, across country, to get Peter in L.A., in time for the birth of his first baby. Even just from the initial look of these two guys, we all know we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Structurally, director Todd Phillips (who also co-wrote and co-produced) sets it up with the same kind of on again off again zig zag that marks these kind of stories. The wild scenes that must occur are decidedly, though, far more Hangover than the far gentler Steve Martin/John Candy version. This time, there’s drugs, swearing, and law breaking, if that kind of stuff bothers anybody anymore.

No matter how you view the morality of the thing, there’s no question Downey and Galifianakis are a wonderful team. Pissed off and panicky, Robert is spot on funny, too. And may I just say he looks great? Zach, who soared to stardom after his phenomenal turn in The Hangover, is dandy here, too. A wounded puppy, who carries a puppy of his own along for the ride, Galifianakis is fearless enough to make Ethan pretty annoying, smart enough to make him endearing, too. There’s a reason why this comic actor is so hot these days. He’s serving up some pretty great stuff.

127 Hours

May I humbly suggest the term “visceral” be retired from any future film reviews? Because after seeing Danny Boyle’s extraordinary, gut wrenching movie, I can’t imagine any other topping it in the slam to the gut category.

Based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a young mountain climber, this is not obviously the basis of a soaring, exhilarating tale. Because Ralston, as we all pretty much know going in, suffered a terrible accident. While exploring an isolated canyon, deep in the magnificence of Utah, a boulder falls on Aron’s arm. He is trapped. He cannot free himself. And he spends 127 hours, unable to escape the most horrific circumstances. Until, that is, he decides to cut off his arm.  Yet, as he did in Slumdog Millionaire, in  telling this claustrophobic and painful tale, Boyle has delivered a film that is bursting with life. By emphasizing Aron’s humanity and his remarkable, insistent road to survival, with loving flashbacks, glorious camerawork and a wow of a soundtrack, we all “viscerally” experience not just the physical agony of what Ralston went through, but we feel the explosive, magical pull of his life, too.

Of course, credit must be extended to Boyle’s co-writer, Simon Beaufoy and A.R Rahman’s score, but none of it would have mattered had Aron not been played by the dazzling James Franco. Playing Ralston as a likeable, but arrogant all-American, it is easy to see how this young man believed he was invincible enough to treat nature like his own playground. Even knowing the trouble that can happen out there, (Ralston was a trained rescuer), this is a guy who takes off on his own, doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going and even leaves some key equipment back in his car when he takes off for his hike. Through the video camera he does tote along, we see as Aron recognizes his faults, regrets the cavalier way he treated his friends and family, and the gritty determination that makes this “visceral” movie not just a singular adventure, but an emotional knockout, as well.

Hereafter

Ambitious to be sure, but this muted exploration of life here and after is one of Eastwood’s rare misfires.

A fine Matt Damon is the most recognizable star in the international cast gathered here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay travels the globe, telling the pretty depressing stories of three people who are haunted by their glimpses of the dead. While George (that’s Damon) sees dead people (he’s a reluctant  American psychic), young  Londoner Marcus is haunted by the ghost of his dead twin brother. And beautiful Marie, a Parisian journalist, can’t shake the near death experience she suffered during the tsunami. None can get on with, or thoroughly experience their actual lives, they are so shattered by what they have seen from beyond.

It’s neat to think that Eastwood has chosen to take on this mystical subject. Mortality is curious to us all, no matter what our age or circumstance. But maybe Peter Morgan, whose earlier and more successful pictures, Frost/Nixon and The Queen were more linear, just isn’t the guy for this kind of multi layered concept. As this movie rolls on, rather bumpily, we all feel a bit hazy. The delicacy of the somewhat similar film, Babel, is missing here, even though Eastwood’s quiet approach tries to engage. It’s nice, but never particularly thrilling to witness these people finally heal their wounds. And the oh-come-on can-you-believe-that happy accidents that lead them to health are a little too pat to wrap up such a sad and profound subject.

The most sparkling element to this ethereal piece of work is the star turn of Belgian actress Cecile de France, a stunning looking woman who wears great clothes and sports an even better hair cut. But maybe I shouldn’t have been paying so much attention to those pretty details, when so much was supposedly at stake, eh?

Life As We Know It

There used to be a plot concept in movies called “meeting cute”. The definition of such has evolved in the past few years to hook several romantic comedies around the wacky world of artificial insemination. Here, the cute boy and girl opposites meet and fall in love after their best friends die and leave them in charge of raising their orphaned daughter. Adorable.

It’s not that director Greg Berlanti has ignored the dramatic implications of such a story line, but, hey, when you’ve got cutie pies Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl cast as your leads, why waste time on tears? Shed a few and get on with it! Have affectionate freak outs over poo poo. Make sure your hunky male lead doesn’t shave and your female beauty wears a pork pie hat. Insist that they wait an appropriate month or two before deciding Mr. and Ms. Wrong could be Mr. and Ms. Right, bake some pot into some brownies and hop into bed. If all else fails, you can always show close ups of the baby.

Heigl does the best she can with such material, but hasn’t she played this kind of role ad nauseum? Duhamel is as nice to look at as she is and plays this yawn of a part as well as his material allows. Josh Lucas shows up for a bit as the man who might spoil the inevitable. The funniest one, or at least the actor with the best timing, is Melissa McCarthy, who manages to steal just about every scene she’s allowed in, as the wisecracking snoopy neighbor who just may have it all figured out. Perhaps they should have let her take a look at the script.

Stone

Not to pigeonhole anyone, but it is hard to imagine the man behind the creative and charming June Bug is also the writer who has delivered the pedestrian and mundane script here.

As has happened before, Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton are far better than their material in this mano a mano story. DeNiro is a prison parole officer, counting the days to his retirement. Norton, sporting a head full of corn rows, saunters into the office with an attitude. Yeah, he knows DeNiro ain’t letting him outta there: this is all a waste of time. Cuz, you know it, who’s gonna let an arsonist, you know, one who killed his own blood, go, like free. Know?

Ah, but does this chip on the old shoulder really believe that? That, my friends, is the twist of this not very compelling drama. Turns out both men have more in common than we are first led to believe. And the man who looks to be in charge just may not be after all.

This is not to deny the quality work of the actors. It’s nice to see Frances Conroy back, even if her appearance here is limited to a few key scenes.  DeNiro isn’t exactly treading new waters here, but even at his most been-there-done-that, he’s still worth watching. Norton, on the other hand, plunges in to his role with verve and abandon. He’s sizzling, even when the story around him is not. Which is all the more surprising, considering the sexy and smart presence of Milla Jovovich, who plays Norton’s shall we say adventurous wife. Twitchy and determined, this is a woman whom we are told is willing to do anything and yes, she sure does. But, hey, it’s all for a good cause, isn’t it? Or is it? Problem is, while that conceit keeps the plot rolling along, we don’t really care. Even if it is kinda fun watching these pros in action.

Nowhere Boy

In contrast to so many other salutes to the Beatles and their legacy, this intimate drama focuses on John Lennon’s turbulent teenage years, not just referencing, but explaining so much of what, later, showed up in his music.

This is a tricky road to take. After all, when we see the young boy leaving his home and sauntering past a sign identifying the park across the street as “Strawberry Fields”, who isn’t going to be pulled away a bit, smiling with recognition? Yet, because director Sam Taylor Wood has delivered such moments with a light touch, we do get caught up in the real life drama of the Lennon family. And that drama is stunning enough to carry a film, even if it isn’t about an eventual icon.

As many fans know, young John’s mother, the haunting and haunted Julia, allowed him to be raised by his aunt Mimi and her husband. As played by a stunning Kristin Scott Thomas, Mimi, who previously had no children, stepped up to the task with a firm hand and loving heart. Still, John found his biological mother and forged his own, secret relationship with her.  In many ways, he was quite the handful. The push-pull between these two remarkable, yet flawed women not only makes its impact on the boy they both adore, but also makes for a pretty interesting movie.

Aaron Johnson does a fine job as John, hitting all the notes of teenage angst and swagger. And what Beatles fan wouldn’t be just a little bit sentimental, watching as he and Thomas Sangster (Paul) meet, harmonize and bond over some pretty tragic stuff? As the ethereal and memorable Julia, Anne-Marie Duff is a dazzler, assuring that Julia not only makes her mark on her son, but on us, as well.

The Social Network

Among this film’s remarkable achievements is that fact that it is thrilling without a single gunshot, in your face without the benefit of 3-D.

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin have created a fascinating and wildly relevant picture, based on Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires. The story of the unlikely creation of Facebook isn’t just amazing in its surprise, but also in its complexity. Brash genius still can suffer the ramifications of society: or does it?

From the crackling first scene, we know we’re into something special. 19 year old Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg (played by a near perfect Jesse Eisenberg) is being dumped by the girl he thought loved him because, she complains, dating him is like “dating a Stairmaster”. We can see what she means: Mark is acutely smart, fast and challenging. And he’s not all that nice. So, when he goes back to the dorm and whips up an online misogynistic co-ed “evaluator”, it’s awful and impressive at the same time. When the traffic to the site crashes the university server, Mark knows he’s on to something. So do his kinder and gentler best friend (a wonderful Andrew Garfield) and the Arian dream team twins who try to team with him. We watch as Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) steps in as a somewhat savvy mentor and as the legal and moral repercussions unfold. This story of the creation of one of the most important social phenomenons of our time serves as a remarkable parable for all times. How much does it cost, in dollars and in soul, to set the world on fire? To think of this as a Citizen Kane for the 21st Century isn’t all that far fetched.

It’s exhilarating to watch the actors go through their paces here: and what paces they are. Playing among the smartest people on the planet, these men (and a few women) are pretty awesome to watch. Sorkin, whose rat-a-tat dialogue keeps right up with them, and Fincher, bringing in a Rashomon-type structure, keeps the pacing of it all so fast and sassy, your heart will race, even though this is not, in any sense of the contemporary definition, an “action” picture. Don’t let that stop you. The Social Network is a knockout.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Just like the Stock Market, this movie suffers from some pretty scary highs and lows.

Oliver Stone has brought his considerable filmmaking skills to this schizoid story of the recent  Wall Street collapse. Perhaps to hedge some bets as to whether audiences would pay to watch this terribly painful story happen all over again, the script swirls around a nice little love story, too. And that’s a problem.

Michael Douglas is back, terrific as ever, as the seminal Gordon Gekko. Just released from prison, where he’d been doing time for the old insider trading trick, Gordon does the inevitable: he writes a book. Wondering now if Greed IS Good, he lectures, autographs, and tries to weasel his way back into the big time. Conveniently, there’s an ambitious young man whose Wall Street godfather has just thrown himself in front of a subway. And, what do you know, the guy is also engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter.

You can do the math from here. What makes this one work, when it does are, the little tricks Stone throws in along the way. It’s no coincidence the big meetings of the New York bankers are designed to look just like the mob meetings in the Godfather films and the Sopranos. And the art work in Greedy Bastard Josh Brolin’s townhome doesn’t just include a lithograph of Jackie O, but also a Keith Haring painting of a foot stomping on people. His lingering camera, ogling the priceless jewels at a fundraiser at the Met is fun, but no match for the movie’s most glittering scene: where Charlie Sheen shows up, to greet Gordo after all these years. Everybody’s heart pounds there.

Shia LaBeouf is offered the rather thankless role of the young not-entirely innocent here. As his good hearted girlfriend, Carey Mulligan is fine. Next to Douglas, the best work comes from Frank Langella, who makes more out of a few key scenes than the kids do in more than two hours.

 

Hereafter

Ambitious to be sure, but this muted exploration of life here and after is one of Eastwood’s rare misfires.

A fine Matt Damon is the most recognizable star in the international cast gathered here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay travels the globe, telling the pretty depressing stories of three people who are haunted by their glimpses of the dead. While George (that’s Damon) sees dead people (he’s a reluctant  American psychic), young  Londoner Marcus is haunted by the ghost of his dead twin brother. And beautiful Marie, a Parisian journalist, can’t shake the near death experience she suffered during the tsunami. None can get on with, or thoroughly experience their actual lives, they are so shattered by what they have seen from beyond.

It’s neat to think that Eastwood has chosen to take on this mystical subject. Mortality is curious to us all, no matter what our age or circumstance. But maybe Peter Morgan, whose earlier and more successful pictures, Frost/Nixon and The Queen were more linear, just isn’t the guy for this kind of multi layered concept. As this movie rolls on, rather bumpily, we all feel a bit hazy. The delicacy of the somewhat similar film, Babel, is missing here, even though Eastwood’s quiet approach tries to engage. It’s nice, but never particularly thrilling to witness these people finally heal their wounds. And the oh-come-on can-you-believe-that happy accidents that lead them to health are a little too pat to wrap up such a sad and profound subject.

The most sparkling element to this ethereal piece of work is the star turn of Belgian actress Cecile de France, a stunning looking woman who wears great clothes and sports an even better hair cut. But maybe I shouldn’t have been paying so much attention to those pretty details, when so much was supposedly at stake, eh?

Life As We Know It

There used to be a plot concept in movies called “meeting cute”. The definition of such has evolved in the past few years to hook several romantic comedies around the wacky world of artificial insemination. Here, the cute boy and girl opposites meet and fall in love after their best friends die and leave them in charge of raising their orphaned daughter. Adorable.

It’s not that director Greg Berlanti has ignored the dramatic implications of such a story line, but, hey, when you’ve got cutie pies Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl cast as your leads, why waste time on tears? Shed a few and get on with it! Have affectionate freak outs over poo poo. Make sure your hunky male lead doesn’t shave and your female beauty wears a pork pie hat. Insist that they wait an appropriate month or two before deciding Mr. and Ms. Wrong could be Mr. and Ms. Right, bake some pot into some brownies and hop into bed. If all else fails, you can always show close ups of the baby.

Heigl does the best she can with such material, but hasn’t she played this kind of role ad nauseum? Duhamel is as nice to look at as she is and plays this yawn of a part as well as his material allows. Josh Lucas shows up for a bit as the man who might spoil the inevitable. The funniest one, or at least the actor with the best timing, is Melissa McCarthy, who manages to steal just about every scene she’s allowed in, as the wisecracking snoopy neighbor who just may have it all figured out. Perhaps they should have let her take a look at the script.

Stone

Not to pigeonhole anyone, but it is hard to imagine the man behind the creative and charming June Bug is also the writer who has delivered the pedestrian and mundane script here.

As has happened before, Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton are far better than their material in this mano a mano story. DeNiro is a prison parole officer, counting the days to his retirement. Norton, sporting a head full of corn rows, saunters into the office with an attitude. Yeah, he knows DeNiro ain’t letting him outta there: this is all a waste of time. Cuz, you know it, who’s gonna let an arsonist, you know, one who killed his own blood, go, like free. Know?

Ah, but does this chip on the old shoulder really believe that? That, my friends, is the twist of this not very compelling drama. Turns out both men have more in common than we are first led to believe. And the man who looks to be in charge just may not be after all.

This is not to deny the quality work of the actors. It’s nice to see Frances Conroy back, even if her appearance here is limited to a few key scenes.  DeNiro isn’t exactly treading new waters here, but even at his most been-there-done-that, he’s still worth watching. Norton, on the other hand, plunges in to his role with verve and abandon. He’s sizzling, even when the story around him is not. Which is all the more surprising, considering the sexy and smart presence of Milla Jovovich, who plays Norton’s shall we say adventurous wife. Twitchy and determined, this is a woman whom we are told is willing to do anything and yes, she sure does. But, hey, it’s all for a good cause, isn’t it? Or is it? Problem is, while that conceit keeps the plot rolling along, we don’t really care. Even if it is kinda fun watching these pros in action.

Nowhere Boy

In contrast to so many other salutes to the Beatles and their legacy, this intimate drama focuses on John Lennon’s turbulent teenage years, not just referencing, but explaining so much of what, later, showed up in his music.

This is a tricky road to take. After all, when we see the young boy leaving his home and sauntering past a sign identifying the park across the street as “Strawberry Fields”, who isn’t going to be pulled away a bit, smiling with recognition? Yet, because director Sam Taylor Wood has delivered such moments with a light touch, we do get caught up in the real life drama of the Lennon family. And that drama is stunning enough to carry a film, even if it isn’t about an eventual icon.

As many fans know, young John’s mother, the haunting and haunted Julia, allowed him to be raised by his aunt Mimi and her husband. As played by a stunning Kristin Scott Thomas, Mimi, who previously had no children, stepped up to the task with a firm hand and loving heart. Still, John found his biological mother and forged his own, secret relationship with her.  In many ways, he was quite the handful. The push-pull between these two remarkable, yet flawed women not only makes its impact on the boy they both adore, but also makes for a pretty interesting movie.

Aaron Johnson does a fine job as John, hitting all the notes of teenage angst and swagger. And what Beatles fan wouldn’t be just a little bit sentimental, watching as he and Thomas Sangster (Paul) meet, harmonize and bond over some pretty tragic stuff? As the ethereal and memorable Julia, Anne-Marie Duff is a dazzler, assuring that Julia not only makes her mark on her son, but on us, as well.

The Social Network

Among this film’s remarkable achievements is that fact that it is thrilling without a single gunshot, in your face without the benefit of 3-D.

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin have created a fascinating and wildly relevant picture, based on Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires. The story of the unlikely creation of Facebook isn’t just amazing in its surprise, but also in its complexity. Brash genius still can suffer the ramifications of society: or does it?

From the crackling first scene, we know we’re into something special. 19 year old Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg (played by a near perfect Jesse Eisenberg) is being dumped by the girl he thought loved him because, she complains, dating him is like “dating a Stairmaster”. We can see what she means: Mark is acutely smart, fast and challenging. And he’s not all that nice. So, when he goes back to the dorm and whips up an online misogynistic co-ed “evaluator”, it’s awful and impressive at the same time. When the traffic to the site crashes the university server, Mark knows he’s on to something. So do his kinder and gentler best friend (a wonderful Andrew Garfield) and the Arian dream team twins who try to team with him. We watch as Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) steps in as a somewhat savvy mentor and as the legal and moral repercussions unfold. This story of the creation of one of the most important social phenomenons of our time serves as a remarkable parable for all times. How much does it cost, in dollars and in soul, to set the world on fire? To think of this as a Citizen Kane for the 21st Century isn’t all that far fetched.

It’s exhilarating to watch the actors go through their paces here: and what paces they are. Playing among the smartest people on the planet, these men (and a few women) are pretty awesome to watch. Sorkin, whose rat-a-tat dialogue keeps right up with them, and Fincher, bringing in a Rashomon-type structure, keeps the pacing of it all so fast and sassy, your heart will race, even though this is not, in any sense of the contemporary definition, an “action” picture. Don’t let that stop you. The Social Network is a knockout.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Just like the Stock Market, this movie suffers from some pretty scary highs and lows.

Oliver Stone has brought his considerable filmmaking skills to this schizoid story of the recent  Wall Street collapse. Perhaps to hedge some bets as to whether audiences would pay to watch this terribly painful story happen all over again, the script swirls around a nice little love story, too. And that’s a problem.

Michael Douglas is back, terrific as ever, as the seminal Gordon Gekko. Just released from prison, where he’d been doing time for the old insider trading trick, Gordon does the inevitable: he writes a book. Wondering now if Greed IS Good, he lectures, autographs, and tries to weasel his way back into the big time. Conveniently, there’s an ambitious young man whose Wall Street godfather has just thrown himself in front of a subway. And, what do you know, the guy is also engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter.

You can do the math from here. What makes this one work, when it does are, the little tricks Stone throws in along the way. It’s no coincidence the big meetings of the New York bankers are designed to look just like the mob meetings in the Godfather films and the Sopranos. And the art work in Greedy Bastard Josh Brolin’s townhome doesn’t just include a lithograph of Jackie O, but also a Keith Haring painting of a foot stomping on people. His lingering camera, ogling the priceless jewels at a fundraiser at the Met is fun, but no match for the movie’s most glittering scene: where Charlie Sheen shows up, to greet Gordo after all these years. Everybody’s heart pounds there.

Shia LaBeouf is offered the rather thankless role of the young not-entirely innocent here. As his good hearted girlfriend, Carey Mulligan is fine. Next to Douglas, the best work comes from Frank Langella, who makes more out of a few key scenes than the kids do in more than two hours.

Never Let Me Go

This is a hard movie to shake. That’s a good thing, by the way.

Not as devastating as Kazuo Ishiguro’s astounding novel, this heartachingly beautiful film still resonates. Three excellent leading performances capture the souls of the three young English people, tied together by their fates. Keira Knightley digs in to give the most interesting performance of her young adulthood; new movie star on the rise, Andrew Garfield (also of The Social Network and the new Spiderman) is compellingly quirky and affecting. But it’s the remarkable Carey Mulligan (she’s in Wall Street2: Monday Never Sleeps, too) who astounds here. Subtly, she makes the key character of Kathy a disappointed young woman who tries to make a moral life out of what is possibly the most amoral of circumstances.

It’s hard not to give away the secret that binds the characters in this legendary story, but its revelation is so important and so interesting, I don’t want to spoil it for the uninitiated. Know going in to this curious love story there is a reason why the whole thing feels a bit off. We watch in wonderment as young people, full of promise as they are, try to lead a natural life in a wholly unnatural world. The ethics of their situation are immense and, even with an all too pat final scene voice over, profound.  And, unlike a movie that plays with remote possibilities, like, say, Inception, the real life ramifications for this one hit pretty close to home. This is the kind of movie you’ll want to tear into with your friends after having seen it. Be prepared.

The Town

Smart, sleek and undeniably entertaining, Ben Affleck’s sophomore directorial effort proves he’s the real deal.

Based on a novel detailing the almost romantic shifting of the Boston social guard, Affleck has collected a top flight group of behind the scenes and acting talent to tell the tale. Starring as a Charlestown based bank robber with legit ambitions, Affleck gives a finely calibrated performance of gall and heart. Doug is willing to do what he was raised to do, but he also doesn’t want to hurt anybody in the process. His home boys? Not so much. A spectacular Jeremy Renner co-stars as Doug’s alter-ego, a local who’s not going down easy.  The relationship between Doug and Jem is what grounds this movie, paralleling the possible love affair push pull for Doug between Jem’s drugged out sister (a knockout Blake Lively) and the bank manager the crew takes as hostage, the glorious Rebecca Hall. Adding a touch of third world morality is Jon Hamm, furious and determined as the Federal Agent on the case.

There’s a lot going on here, but Affleck balances it all with a masterly, commercially savvy touch. The emotional tugs are offset with some pretty nifty chase scenes, including one of the technically most proficient and cool car chase scenes we’ve seen for a while and, an irresistible culminating heist at Boston’s mecca, the venerable Fenway Park. Any fan of the Red Sox or, I suppose any fan who hates the team, will react strongly, one way or the other, to seeing the foundations of that ball park being blown away with abandon.

Highlights include the lean, economical script, and the impeccable casting. Affleck has not only hired on a nearly perfect team of actors, but then encouraged them to do some of their strongest work. Hamm, his hair a bit greasy and needing a shaping, doesn’t rely on his image to do the talking here. His fury builds as the movie goes along, making his civil servant do-gooer a guy who learns to take all this personally. By bringing Rebecca Hall into this basically Hollywood group, Affleck has, essentially repeated the same kind of creative outreach as he did by bringing Amy Ryan into his Gone, Baby, Gone. Hall is, at this point, an industry fave: her infectious, naturalistic work here should earn her fans in the home crowd, too. The two most surprising performances are, on the page, the flashiest. But both Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively, brother and sister and carriers of the Charlestown traditions, don’t just go for the gusto. They also make sure their inner desperation bubbles simmers throughout. When these two are on screen, you just can’t take your eyes off them.

 

Eat, Pray, Love

Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling tome has been dumbed down and glossed up. Fans of the introspective will be disappointed: those looking for decent, escapist entertainment will not.

Julia Roberts takes on her largest role in years, playing the newly divorced Liz. Miserable and disappointed she plunged into a recovery affair (as he’s played by a grinning James Franco, I mean, why not?), the writer takes off, allegedly leaving lots of friends (we only see two) and family (who we never see) behind. She’s going to “find herself”. While gorging on Italian pasta, ashraming in India  and balancing it out  in Bali. Sounds nice.

Ah, but even the best of plans ne’er run smooth. There’s not much wrong with Italy, of course, but things get a little tougher when our girl is supposed to meditate. Facing her real self is frustrating. Enter the wonderful Richard Jenkins, who steals the show as Liz’s straight talking mentor. Once he leaves, she’s off to her next destination: the beaches where she also, as a bonus, will meet up with a wisened seer who she’d interviewed in her “previous life”. He’s very cute, by the way, but hunky Javier Bardem is even better.

Those who worried Roberts was a questionable choice for this role are proven dead wrong. She’s game, glorious and full of the same mega wattage star power she’s always had. You can’t take your eyes off her, which is pretty good, considering most of the scenery she’s got to compete with. Franco, Bardem and Billy Crudup (as the heartbroken husband) aren’t bad, either, although the beauty of all these people reminded me of those Microsoft commercials, where perfectly normal looking people imagine themselves as not only smart enough to come up with the idea of Windows 7, but they’re gorgeous, too.

As written and directed by Glee’s Ryan Murphy, Eat, Pray, Love is nowhere near as navel gazing as it could be, but it also suffers from its lack of real depth. Messages are delivered as Insights. One line of dialogue even refers to advice being served up like bumper stickers. At least bumper stickers stick around for a while, making their point, whether you like it or not.

The Other Guys

How can a movie that can be so very funny also be so very boring?

An odd-couple cop buddy comic action picture (did we leave anything out here?...well, there is a little hint at romance, too; not to worry), pairs Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as the less-than-stellar New York cops. Overshadowed by the dream team of arrogant driven crime fighters (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson), these guys are stuck in the back of the room, doing paperwork and playing computer solitaire. Will’s perfectly happy with that; Mark, not so much. They both have their reasons as we are all to find out as the movie meanders along.

I did laugh out loud a few times at this sporadic goof ball. While the much sneaked Derek Jeter joke does play out as pretty funny, there is a slapped in voice over right afterwards that is even funnier. Ferrell gets to do some very random bits, some of which work and some of which (I’m talking to you, vomit) don’t. I’ve always thought Mark Wahlberg had a hint of funny, even in his most impressive dramatic turns. What he’s asked to do here is basically a spin on his deserved Oscar nominated work in The Departed which, you’ll remember, was often pretty outrageous. No mistake, though, this performance is definitely the “other” one….

Still, it’s nice to see Michael Keaton back, as directly funny as he’s ever been. And the beautiful Eva Mendes does her best with a pretty ridiculous role as Ferrell’s unappreciated wife. And New York City, where this movie was actually shot, looks wonderful.

All that being said, it is especially disappointing to see the whole thing fizzle out in the second half. There’s a segue from comedy to action, along with a foggily written story line. The anger the filmmakers obviously feel toward rich scummy guys is told far more directly and even more entertainingly during the final credits, which, in bold graphics, note some of the more outrageous wrongs behind our current financial crisis.

Inception

It is not that I don’t understand (well, pretty much, anyway) or appreciate the intense ambition of Christopher Nolan’s trip into the world of dreams. But why did a movie designed to blow your mind, leave mine, while originally tickled, ultimately unmoved?

The always terrific Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom, a thief with a twist. This is a guy who’s learned to steal into your mind while you are sleeping.  After exploring this brave new world just a tad too deeply, and with his wife dead, Dom’s been forced out of America, leaving his two young children behind. He’s aching to go home and when he’s offered one last job, involving dense corporate espionage but also the chance to get his old life back, Dom just can’t say no. As we’ve discovered in real life, men who say they just want their life back don’t seem to get there easy these days and so it goes for Dom.

Nolan has written layer upon layer of story in this sci-fi fantasy, bringing the film to a high plane as it plunges into the depth of the dream life. As someone who cares about film, you can’t help but cheer for his intentions and initial success at achieving them. My particular favorite of the wild concepts cooly mounted is the visual of Paris, the town literally folding in on itself, like the pages of a book. Any movie that can pull that off can’t be all bad, but the steam seems to seep out of this balloon just as we pass the halfway mark.

One of the things that made the original Matrix, for example, so much fun was that Keanu Reeves’s character seemed as perplexed by what he was seeing as we were. That doesn’t happen here. Dom’s been there, done that. He gets no joy from what he’s experiencing and, even if we are supposed to feel his terror, pain or regret, those emotions don’t reach off the screen as easily as do the eye popping effects.

A fine collection of actors, including Ken Wantanabe, Joseph Gordon Levitt (who gets to float around a lot), Marion Cotillard and the outstanding Tom Hardy hang in there in support. An oddly cast, or at least underused Ellen Page mostly gets to ask questions, allowing for a whole lot of explanation to go on. At one point, while all the men are furiously plotting and planning all around her, Page, who’s been sitting quietly watching, interrupts, asking (on our behalf?) for a slow down. “Wait!” she demands. “Who’s dreams are we incepting?” A loud laugh of appreciation broke out in the screening I attended.

Dinner for Schmucks

What was once a sharp French satire is now a goofball comedy with a heart of gold.

Francis Veber’s 1998 The Dinner Game has been given the Hollywood polish. As adapted by screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman, and directed by Jay Roach ( of the Austin Powers movies, as well as Ben Stiller’s “Focker” series), this Dinner is now a more accessible and easier film to digest and, at times, even laugh out loud at.

The always appealing Paul Rudd stars as Tim, a decent enough guy who’s on the verge of losing his soul as he sees the potential of becoming a master of the universe banker. Told, in order to secure the promotion,  he must bring a “schmuck” to a dinner designed to entertain the rich nasties, Tim fatefully crashes into Barry, an IRS worker who’s also a passionate part time taxidermist. The fact that Barry is played by the dandy Steve Carell makes all of us have mixed feelings about this BFF from hell. Barry is kind of a schmuck, but, then again, he’s got his reasons.

Even though the initial premise is pretty “messed up” (all probable swear words have been avoided in this carefully produced film), the road we all take isn’t. Silliness and a few sexual spoofs ensue. Interesting that the producers here found it necessary to have the dialogue reflect expressions like “messed up”, which stands out as a shockingly G rated expression, when there is still a pretty randy sex stuff happening, but I digress. It’s all presented as safe, not-so-bad after all stuff and is sure to have you rooting for the schmucks by the predictable end.

What makes this all work are the actors at play here. Rudd and Carell are a wonderful comic pairing. The supporting cast is fine, too, particularly Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement, who takes his plum role as a successful schmuck and rolls with it.

Winter’s Bone

Bleak as hell yet stubbornly optimistic, this low budget knockout is the best picture of the year so far.

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, director and co-writer Debra Granik has already reaped both the jury and screenwriting awards from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. With care, its theatrical distribution should earn this gem-like marvel even more fans and, hopefully, consideration for awards at year’s end, too. Because, especially as an antidote to all the blockbuster bombs out there, this slim, tough film does its job beautifully: it nails a picture of a slice of American life, draws us into an area where most of us probably never thought we’d want to go, and makes us emotionally invested in what happens there.

Ree is a 17 year old with an awful lot on her plate. Her mother too ill to raise the two youngest kids in the house, Ree has had to drop out of high school and, somehow, make a go of things. Then, a bond bailsman shows up. Seems Dad has put up their house up for collateral and then gone missing. She’d better find him or else she and her family will be put out into the not so friendly Ozark woodlands.

The picture of Ree’s struggle is compelling enough: the journey she makes, trying to get beleaguered friends and family to help her, is even more so. As we all go through the twisted discovery of just what happened, we are reminded things may not be what they seem on first glance. Tough lookers may or may not take care of their own, perfectly nice people may be buried under their own terrible fates. And sometimes we are much stronger than we ever thought we could or would be.

A pitch perfect cast is led by young Jennifer Lawrence, who is simply remarkable as Ree. While this actress does have a few fine credits on her resume, based purely on this performance alone, hers is a rosy future.  John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, primarily character actors, are given a chance to shine here and an unrecognizable Sheryl Lee makes the most of her small role, too.

Commercially,  this is not an easy film to recommend.  Artistically, it’s a no-brainer. Anyone who cares about the future of fine, serious filmmaking will be flat out exhilarated.

 

Get Him to the Greek

Designed to capture “The Hangover” crowd, this wild and wooly comedy sneaks up on you. While it’s not The Greatest Comedy Ever Made, this one sure does offer up some pretty darn funny moments.

The improbable star Jonah Hill once again does his befuddled thing as a young a and r guy, loving music and just hoping to impress his boss (Sean Combs) enough to try and revive the career of a former rock God. Desperate (the recession has hit that industry too, we are reminded), our ambitious hero gets the okay and is sent off to get said rock God on a plane from London to an appearance at The Today Show and then to L.A., where he is to perform at the Greek Theater. What a set up.

Enter Russell Brand. With a Sacha Baron Cohen type flourish, Brand makes his iconic rocker a silly, sad and occasionally scary guy. He’s lost his true love (a very funny Rose Byrne), struggles with drugs, knows damn well his last record was awful and has a few Mommy issues. But he’s also looking for a real friend and, once he makes his new record company lackey go through more hoops than he’d ever imagined, we’re at the start of a beautiful friendship.

Hill does a fine job balancing his co-stars, not just the previously mentioned Combs and Brand, but also his committed “other half”, Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss, who shows up, very 2010, thank you, as an exhausted interning doctor, who just wants to move to Seattle. Where they have a great music scene, by the way. She’s adorable in the part and brings out the best in Hill. Brand, who should be a bigger star by now, may just get that box office cred with the success of this movie. And Combs, who I’ve always thought was a terrific actor, gets to go crazy here. Knowing he’s channeling every record company executive who drove him nuts just adds to the fun that carries us along in this gross and decent little comedy.

Solitary Man

Early on in this nifty little film, a young man calls Michael Douglas’ character a “dickwad”. Guy’s got a point.

Ben, a fifty something car dealer, is the kind of guy who cheats on his wife, won’t let his adult daughter call him “Dad” in public and beds the 18 year old daughter of the woman he’s now dating. And, oh yeah, let’s not forget the scam that banished him from the BMW franchise family forever. Not exactly your standup citizen, but, considering what we’ve been hearing about some real life business people lately, Ben is also a creation that’s been ripped from the headlines.

With the dearth of smart films for adults in theaters, Solitary Man serves up a much needed option. Ben may be a very unlikeable man, but, as written by co-director Brian Koppleman and played by a superb Michael Douglas, he’s still pretty darn compelling. Channeling the kind of characters he played in Wall Street and the under appreciated Wonder Boys, Douglas has a knack for finding the inner souls of the  initially soul-less. He taps the same magic this time around: reeling us in and repelling us just the way he does with the people who fall for him in the script.

And what people they are: half the fun of watching this movie is getting to see Douglas play with his top flight group of supporting actors. Susan Sarandon may not have too many scenes (too bad, by the way), but she is vividly wonderful as Ben’s ex-wife. Same goes for Mary-Louise Parker, who brings her signature quirky take to the role of Ben’s used and abused lady friend. Your heart goes out to the long suffering daughter Susan, a sympathetically sturdy  Jenna Fischer and you’ll be fascinated, too, by the English actress Imogen Poots, whose adolescent fury unravels the shaky house of cards Ben thinks is so cool.

 

Date Night

The toughest movies to review are the ones that fall somewhere, safely, in the mid-range of success. They’re neither brilliant or bad, just bland. Date Night is a perfect example of bland.

The usually winning Tina Fey and Steve Carrell play Phil and Claire Foster, a “normal” married couple, living with their rather obnoxious two kids in safe, suburban New Jersey. Threatened after their friends announce an impending separation, Phil decides to ramp up their weekly “date night”, daring to go into New York City and try for a table at the city’s hottest new restaurant. Of course they’re too square to even get into the place  (allowing for the oft-repeated scene of the too cool for school desk person treating the bridge and tunnel types with chic distain), they, living dangerously, snap up someone else’s reservation. When they are handily escorted out, mid-risotto, a seemingly unstoppable night of wildness begins.

Most of the spiraling silliness of the script plows along, thanks to director Shawn Levy’s snappy timing and the lead actors’ willingness to try anything, including the obligatory painful sex dance at an after hours club. (Happy we didn’t have to spend too much time with everybody there!) And a handful of name actors show up and jazz up some cameos scenes. Mark Wahlberg plays a pumped up super-spy, who interrupts his sex session with a hot Israeli girl to help the floundering (i.e. boring old) married couple. James Franco taps into his funny side to steal a second or two as a drug dealer with plans. The supporting star who adds the most sparkle is Taraji P. Henson, who, as a pooped but smart cop, might be giving an audition for the newly available role as Captain on Law and Order.

Still, with all the talent involved, it is surprising this date isn’t more fun. A couple of nice moments aside, this surface-y action comedy feels all to desperate. If you were to see it on an airplane, for free (do they give anything for free on airplanes these days?), it would serve as a middling diversion. Pay for it and you’re going to wish you’d spent your date night doing something else.

City Island

Especially as an antidote to all the awnery big budget blasters out there, City Island is a real sweetheart of a movie.

Andy Garcia stars as a working class New Yorker, still living in the small island off the Bronx where he grew up. Sure, he’s pretty happily married, got two good kids and a decent job as a prison officer. But he just can’t ignore his inner yearnings. So, off to acting classes he goes. Down in Manhattan, where the world, and his mysterious scene partner, are just so much more interesting. Or, are they? Seems like our boy’s not the only one with a secret or two brewing.

Written and directed by Raymond DeFelitta, City Island bears the irresistible charm of the neighborhood in which it is set. A small low key place with great seafood restaurants, this is as close as you can get to a New England fishing village in New York City. But, as I’ve been told by some of the endearingly colorful locals, you don’t want to mess with its people. And that, shall we say strength of character, is the heart of what City Island is all about. While the patriarch may have fantasies of a more glamorous life, we know his dedication to his family. He loves his awkward teenage son, worries about his all too beautiful college co-ed of a daughter (played with obvious chemistry by Garcia’s real life daughter, Dominik Garcia-Lorido), opens his heart to the son he never knew and even is kind of crazy, after all these years, about his screaming mimi of a wife, the absolutely divine Juliana Margulies. He’d better be, or we all know she’ll kick his butt. (Or threaten to: no physical violence here, thank you!)

Emily Moritmer has a nice turn as an acting class friend, but it’s Margulies who takes her role and runs with it. She’s sexy, smart, hot tempered and hysterically funny. While the movie around her is an undeniable charmer, Juliana gives it a dimension that’s really memorable.

 

Greenberg

Noah Baumbach’s newest serio-comedy is many things, but the word that I keep coming back to is brave.

In this artistic/economic environment, of course it is brave to make a small, somewhat sophisticated  film; even more brave to make the lead character a grumpy, vulnerable sort. And, sure, it’s brave for Ben Stiller to take on the role of Roger Greenberg, fresh from the institution, not really ready to take on the job of house sitting for his brother in L.A. And, how brave is it to cast, as his leading lady, a virtual unknown: an actress with some indie cred, but no real commercial track record yet?

Anyone familiar with Baumbach’s work wouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Taking the not so easy road is what he does, paying off, I think, the most with his simply breathtaking The Squid and the Whale. The results of this effort aren’t as much of a solid knockout, but there are, indeed, some really nifty rewards here.

Stiller is quite fine as Greenberg, a could-have-been rocker who’s now better at building things. His job, for now, is to rebuild his life, after suffering a meltdown serious enough to hospitalize him. When his far more together brother heads off to Vietnam to work on some real estate development there, it just makes sense for Roger to move in for a while, take care of the family dog and make sure nothing happens in the house. You just know this isn’t going to go smoothly.

But Baumbach’s subtle touch takes us gently along for the bumpy ride. Even when we expect pitfalls, they surprise us. Roger is a guy who cannot drive, but assumes he’ll find his wings in Los Angeles. When he tries to reconnect with old friends, he slowly unearths truths about his relationships with them that he never expected. And when he meets his brother’s assistant, the somewhat fuzzy Florence, he can’t help but be wary as he’s awkwardly falling in love.

Some of the dialogue is dandy: some is all too psycho-babble. That may be appropriate stuff for the newly released mental patient to spout, but it’s too sticky for us watching him to take as wise and rewarding. And Roger’s revelation is a bit stark, too. He’s, frankly, more fun when he’s being neurotic, but not as neurotic as when he’s high at an impromptu party with some weird young people.

And then there’s Greta Gerwig: an actress whose performance as Florence the Assistant, is so fresh and honest, you have to blink to make sure she’s not just some young intern plucked off the set. Like she does in the movie, as everything swirls successfully or not around her, Gerwig keeps her cool and delivers a star making performance.

Sex and the City 2

The air has left the balloon, ladies.

What started out as a highflying confection, perched steadily on stiletto sharp heels, has deflated into a sad, puffy mess.

The four New York gals about town have pretty much settled into their adult lives. Charlotte is determined to enjoy her perfect family, Miranda’s trying to balance her work and home life, Samantha’s in menopause and Carrie, well, Carrie is still contemplating her navel. I mean writing books about the profundities of life. And her newest tome, reflecting the survival of the first year of marriage, is debuting just as this chapter of the franchise does, too. Because, after all, Big finally said yes. So Carrie got her man, her closet and life must be good, right? Oh yeah:  not so fast.

There is purposely something for everybody in this bloated update. Our gay BFFs tie quite a knot, which gives director/writer/producer Michael Patrick King a promising platform in which not only to support the legalization of gay marriage, but also to stage what could be the most politically correct over the top wedding of them all. Even Liza Minnelli shows up to perform. And yes, she is to die. (Good for you, Liza) It is at said wedding Carrie begins to realize entering the second year of married life MEANS SOMETHING and, suddenly, Big(the ever charming Chris Noth) and his desire to hang out in the gorgeous apartment she’s just about finished decorating magnificently aren’t so much fun any more. Poor baby.

Charlotte does find some relief from her insistently screaming baby when her nanny takes over. But wow: look at the un-bra’ed boobs on that lass. THREAT ALERT. Miranda’s boss is a bastard and Samantha has reverted to Suzanne Somer’s hormones to try and maintain her mojo. And we thought the oil spill in the gulf was serious.

Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and, especially Kim Cattrall, who is given some pretty dicey stuff to say and do, hang in there, doing their best to make these at best uninteresting women something likeable. They’ve got their work cut out for them. With friends like these….

Of course, there was always a strong shot of fantasy injected into this series, which made its counterpoint of life lessons not only easier to take, but also more fun. Here, Samantha lands the quartet a freebie junket to Abu Dhabi which she insists they attend in repayment for all those children’s birthday parties she’s had to sit through. This obviously serves up lots of opportunities for commentaries on the treatment of women the Mid East, the seduction of wealth and money shots of great clothes. All of which are mentioned, but never really explored.  Maybe women won’t flock to this SATC for its moral code, but even Patricia Field’s costumes are mostly disappointing here.

There surely will be all sorts of snickers when the box office receipts are reported for this movie. “What do the critics know, anyway?”they will scoff. It is not my job or intention to deny anyone a good time or a decent chance at success. It is my responsibility to explain my disappointment with what I see and remind filmmakers that next time they can and should make something better.

 

Robin Hood

Think you know all about the legend of Robin Hood? Ridley Scott wants to fill you in on every bloody detail.

Set as a prequel to the fun part of the story, where Robin and his merry band go taking from the rich and giving to the poor, this great looking saga sets out to explain why Robin was so driven. History fans might find all of the detail, including an early run in with Richard the Lionhearted (a short lived Danny Huston), intriguing, but Scott and his writer, Brain Helgeland, amp it up considerably for 21st century audiences, with visceral fight scenes, bringing us up close and personal with the intimate battle strategies of the 1500s. Posing as Knights, Robin and a few friends talk their way on to an England bound ship, in the hopes of getting home and rid of the sitting King. Of course, the course of history ne’er runs smooth: winding up in London, the boys meet up with said young King earlier than expected and, thanks to a deathbed wish fulfillment, take a trip to Nottingham, where Robin is taken in by a formerly wealthy family, desperately in need of a man around the house, in order to keep title to the land they might lose to pay off back taxes. Feminists and tea baggers take note.

OK: all that established (phew), the two hour and twenty minute film settles in to hint at more familiar territory. We get to know (a bit) the goofy guys who make up Robin’s gang, mostly as they woo ye olde wenches and bring up the rear as Robin does his thing. The political and social history surrounding all this is balanced with more lighthearted scenes like lots of singing and dancing, drinking and making merry. It’s the stuff of all those Renaissance Fairs that dot the country nowadays. Fans of these things know who they are.

While solid actors such as Mark Strong and Oscar Isaac turn in strong, serviceable performances, it’s the movie stars showing up along the way who stand out in this muddy crowd. Max Von Sydow shows all the kids how it’s done with a few memorable speeches; William Hurt, who barely gets to do anything at all, still steals the screen whenever he’s on it. Cate Blanchett, as the not-maid-anymore Marion, is just terrific, making the absolute most of every second she’s got, breathing spit fire into each and every scene and mere glance.

And then there’s Russell Crowe. Saddled with the all back history of his beleaguered hero (major Daddy issues at work here),  the usually magnetic actor is hampered by the weight of it all. Only when he’s, at last, flirting with Blanchett does he show the charm that makes him such a special talent. We all know Crowe can sword play and stand tall, lots of other actors in this piece do that, too. If Scott is going to re-team with Crowe to play Robin (and there are some who might question his age for that character in the first place), let Russell be Russell.

Iron Man 2

Big, empty and dying: is it Tony Stark or the Iron Man franchise itself?

Well, yes, Stark, embodied by the dandy Robert Downey, Jr., isn’t feeling particularly great. That gadget in his chest may be saving the world, but it’s screwing up Tony’s blood counts something fierce. So he hands off his empire to Pepper (Gwyenth Paltrow in reprise), tells the US government to suck it and prepares to celebrate his final birthday by destroying his gorgeous Malibu manse. In the meantime, a very pissed off Mickey Rourke is hired  by business archrival Sam Rockwell to build a perfect roboresponse to the previously invincible Iron Man. Oh oh.

Director Jon Favreau has taken great pains to insure Justin Theroux’s script doesn’t get bogged down by silly matters like mortality. Sure, Tony may be facing the end, but that’s not going to stop him from racing in the Le Mans or playing with his incredibly nifty toys. And those scenes, along with an end blow out designed to thrill the video game crowd, are what make Iron Man well, Iron Man. Downey’s gazing soulfully into the mirror ain’t gonna cut it here.

Running a long two hours, there are serious sags in the fun here. But a few twinkling scenes pop things up considerably. Love Garry Shandling as the Senator who’s not afraid to speak his mind, even if it’s quietly. And Scarlett Johansson takes over the archetype female character in this chapter (Pepper has graduated into the big time), which she handles gamely.

In one of this uneven movie’s best scenes, Tony Stark informs us that he, through Iron Man, has privatized world peace. Watching this entertainment mere blocks from where a car almost exploded in Times Square, I’m hoping he’s right.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

If  Alex Gibney’s documentary on the notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff  is a little dense, it’s with good reason. This now convicted felon mover and shaker played his power in a lot of arenas. And his story is not an easy one to tell.

Gibney recounts the complicated dealings of this religious and driven man with almost a comic bent. But this is not funny stuff. Called the most corrupt man in America, Abramoff was the kingpin behind many damaging plots. Ultimately, he was brought down by equally zealous reporters and prosecutors, but not before he brought down, with him, so many others, including (but not limited to) Dancing with the Stars star and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former Congressman Bob Ney.

Interviews with several of the players involved are historically interesting and should serve as a record in trying to avoid such disasters in the future. Ney, in particular, seems convincingly humbled and open to sharing what wooed him toward personal and professional disaster.

It is all about the money. We knew that, of course, but it is remarkable to watch the house of cards Abramoff thought he built grow and, ultimately, crumble thanks to the greed of the hungry here. What Gibney does best is show us why that greed, in some cases, exists. And that’s not as mercenary as we might think.

Congress members are a house divided. Not just politically, but attention-wise. They are elected to do their job of representing their districts. But they also know that, to keep that job, they must always be thinking ahead to the next election. And, most importantly, how they are going to pay for it. Because all politicians need money, and lots of it, to pay to run and it’s awfully tempting to make a compromise with some lobbyist when there’s some big contributions being thrown in to sweeten the deal.

A quick slate at the end of this picture reminds us the Supreme Court recently upheld the laws that allow this kind of corporate/financial influence to continue. While that makes this film all the more relevant, it also makes this spun “comedy” into one of the most terrifying morality tales in years.

Green Zone

Here’s a list of things I didn’t understand about this movie.

Drawn from a non-fiction account of life in Baghdad’s Green Zone, written by the former Bureau Chief from the Washington Post, why did the filmmakers (including the journalist himself) choose to fictionalize things, ignoring all the pithy little details of the original book, shaping things instead around one hell of a soldier, a guy who knows there are no WMDs and who’s out to prove it? This, in case you don’t get it, is a rhetorical question. Of course, the people who made this decision thought no one would want to go see a movie about the hard truths of Iraq. This decision was probably made just as one of the producers of the Oscar winning Hurt Locker was standing on New York City streets, offering free tickets to passersby, just to insure another week’s run in theaters. But, still, why did they choose to dumb down what is a very complex and fascinating real story?

And how did this guy (played by the always watchable Matt Damon) manage to go rogue, slithering away from not just the smarmy government architect (Greg Kinnear), but also the “other side”, the CIA, across the hall and under the leadership of the blowsy Brendan Gleeson? Everybody wants our hero’s help, but nobody seems to be able to find him? Please.

And just what was with that snappy clothing change for our guy? Ushered surprisingly into a palace suite, he finds a dandy, perfect fitting outfit awaiting. Or did he carry that with him, tucked away in a pocket as he was sweating up a storm while grilling suspects on the Baghdad streets, just, you know, in case? Small point, I know, but this kind of Hollywood pretty clothes thing happens all the time and it’s about time somebody said something.

As if all of this suspension of disbelief wasn’t going far enough, this one killed me. Why, at the end of the movie, when the real story is broken, does a duped big time journalist smile? She’s been scooped, baby! Proven wrong, a dupe for the administration, fed a line. And she smiles? Didn’t a real newspaperman write this?

A real director, Paul Greengrass, of the Bourne movies, does jazz all these things up considerably. His hand-held, jittery camera work helps keep things exciting, even if we don’t buy the rest of it all for a minute.

Alice in Wonderland

Like Alice, Tim Burton uses his trip down the rabbit hole to reassert his “muchness”. There is much to look at, as a result, but not much about which to wonder.

Using the classic story as a starting point, Burton and company spin, essentially, their own adaptation. Great (and not so great) directors have been doing the same with, say, Shakespeare, for years. Here, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 and just about to be married off to a wealthy but pretty icky young man. Budding feminist that she is, despite the pressures of her family and Victorian era social structures, our Alice is not too thrilled. So, when a bouncing rabbit beckons, she’s off, falling into what we all discover is a place she has been before.

There’s never been any question Burton is one of our most visually compelling filmmakers .As expected,  his vision of Wonderland is initially tantalizing, and impeccably mounted. The bulbous Red Queen’s froggy court is grand, Tweedledum and Tweedledee are eggishly appealing. But it’s the Mad Hatter, brought to vivid life by the singular Johnny Depp, that’s the centerpiece of this ohso surreal place. Sweetly mad but wonderfully protective of Alice, this Hatter whips up some great headpieces and, when imprisoned, inspires Alice to find her inner mojo.

All of this is presented, in some theaters, in 3 – D, the newest “must-have” for studios to pump up theatrical attendance. The effect here is neat, but occasionally fuzzy and nowhere near as sharp as Avatar. It’s probably not Burton’s fault, but it’s comparisons like this we all knew were coming when James Cameron’s state of the art precision debuted just months ago.

While much of this “Alice” is downright interesting, it is not a whole lot of fun. This is not a fairy tale for children: it’s much too violent for that. And Burton’s signature sense of the macabre doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for emotional engagement from us, either. It’s fine to interpret Wonderland with a lemony twist, but what happened to the tale’s timeless and irresistible sense of awe?

Brooklyn's Finest

Intense. That’s what Antoine Fuqua does best and his fast cutting, depressed cop story is nothing if not intense.

A handful of good actors show up here, playing New York City police officers, stuck in particularly gritty jobs. Ethan Hawke, assigned to a grisly drug bust group, loves his family and can’t help but wish he was earning enough to buy them a better house. Don Cheadle, undercover, questions his own integrity when walking that thin line between good and bad guy. And Richard Gere, bloated and beat up, can’t wait till his last day on the job. We’ve seen all these guys before and in better movies, but these three smart actors manage to inject something inherently watchable to each of them here.

You also, of course, know pretty much what’s going to happen to them. Pretty, happy endings don’t make action pictures, do they? But Fuqua, whose best work was the nail biting Training Day, has a way with keeping us on the edge of our seats anyway. And, as he did with the Oscar winning Denzel Washington in that film, he also manages to elicit something strong, almost unexpectedly fresh, from his actors. Here, the biggest (and happiest) surprise is Wesley Snipes, whose terrific film presence has been abused in dumb cartoony vehicles the past decade or so. In a supporting role as a recently paroled drug kingpin, returning with an unsure bravado to the neighborhood, Snipes digs in to give his best and most promising performance in years.

Shutter Island

Up for having a master filmmaker mess with your head? Then this is the movie for you.

Channeling his inner Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese taps into the Gothic hipness of Dennis Lehane’s psychological mindbender. The equally game Leonardo DiCaprio stars as U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, summoned, along with his new partner, played by Mark Ruffalo, to an eerie offshore psychiatric hospital when one of the patients, a brilliant and beautiful young murderess, has gone missing. During a hurricane. Teddy is onto the weirdness of the place early on; Scorsese, through a marvelously static opening sequence, enhanced with Robbie Robertson’s dandy score, sets us up for some bizarro stuff, too. There’s more going on in here than meets the eye: or is there?

The impeccable Scorsese is clearly having a ball, tapping into the kind of stark, Cold War era fear that runs through the most profound of thrillers. Everything is remote, suspicious, yet nothing clear or distinctly threatening. As he weaves through a colorful cast of characters to interview about the case, Teddy becomes more and more muddled. He is, after all, trying to get the truth out of crazy people. Isn’t he?

Unfortunately, as the story winds on and on (like most of Scorsese’s work, this one runs on just a tad too long), the fun fizzles. We discover the truth and, as written in the original novel, that truth is nowhere near as entertaining as is the trip getting there.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy here. For the most part, the savvy production values shine. And the supporting cast, including the terrific Max von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Williams, and Ben Kingsley, are right on the money. Not earning co-starring credits, but delivering dandy work all the same, are Jackie Earle Haley and Robin Bartlett. While we, and the movie, are exhausted by the end, the ride to it is a real trip.

The Wolfman

While some legends never die, maybe there should be a moratorium called on those incessant unnecessary big screen remakes of them. Because when all you can deliver is an expensive, effect-heavy horror flick that’s just plain boring, it’s time to rethink things a bit.

Joe Johnston’s insistently classy spin on the classic Victorian rich-guy-bites-those-who-feed-him tale goes for the wrong goal. There have been very few really lush gore fests that have actually ripped the heart as well as scared the bejesus out of people (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula pops to mind, but that was, let’s face it, helmed by the master of engrossing lush himself). We’re usually better off with a leaner, meaner spin: one that remembers horror movies are supposed to be fun. The fun is lost in the all-too-thick sauce here.

Benicio Del Toro stars as the black sheep of a wealthy English family, called home when his brother goes missing. Turns out, there’s something viciously attacking the local citizens: something that rips into the flesh with gusto, just about once a month, when there’s a full moon. Hmmm....I could make a joke about those monthly blues, but I’d be the only one having a good time. The chunky script, credited to Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, takes itself and its story much too seriously for anything purposely light (although the audience I sat with did seem to find a few moments of unexpected hilarity). Like Del Toro, the supporting stars, all fine actors, aren’t given a chance to shine. Hugo Weaving is the detective on the case; Emily Blunt, the brother’s widowed love. Anthony Hopkins does have a few effective moments as the wacky Dad, but we’ve seen him do these same line readings before. I suppose it’s kind of like “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, but Hopkins has too much to offer as an actor to be straightjacketed into delivering repetitive performances.

Valentine's Day

Charm will only get you so far. In this case, even the most charming (and huge) cast can only do so much with this corny compilation.

For this ensemble, Garry Marshall has collected a sweet bushel full of actors he’s worked with before and some who are new to the family. Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway and perpetual Marshall go to guy, Hector Elizondo show up, along with newbies including, but not limited to: Jennifer Garner, Jessica Biel, Topher Grace, Jamie Foxx, Shirley MacLaine, Queen Latifah, Taylor Swift and, in her feature film debut, Taylor Swift. The intertwining Los Angeles based love stories pretty much revolve, though, around Ashton Kutcher, who spends his Valentine’s Day running his florist shop and in between the two loves of his life. As he discovers The Meaning of True Love, so do all the rest of these characters. The hope, I’m sure, is that we do, too.

It’s not that I’m not a mushball when it comes to these kind of things. I’ve watched reruns of The Love Boat along with everyone else. But when the expected silliness is “enhanced” (?) with embarrassing scenes of the very talented Anne Hathaway speed talking her way through phone sex, a mother asking some nuns to hold her baby for a second with the warning “You should know we’re Jewish”, and a worried mother calling to the naked boy running from her daughter’s bedroom, “Cover your ho-ho”, well, need I say more?

The surprise, if there is one here, is that just about all the starring performers come through with enough durable sweetness to make all of this grow on you. A bit. Show winners like Julia, Ashton and Jennifer falling in love and, come on, resistance is futile. But just when I thought I’d fallen for this not so great valentine, I was shaken right back into reality. Ambitious reporter Jamie Foxx runs off to a press conference, hoping he can nab “an exclusive”. Word to the wise: press conference and exclusive: that’s a contradiction in terms.

From Paris with Love

John Travolta kicks that pesky schizophrenic script out of his way to serve up yet another, perfectly entertaining badass. This time, bald and pierced, he steals the show as CIA special agent Charlie Wax, an “unconventional” CIA special agent who shows up to partner with an ambitious play by the rules operative, played decently enough by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Director Pierre Morel, teaming with producer Luc Besson, keep the rather pedestrian story line filled with enough shoot’em ups and car chases to not only secure an R rating, but also to keep audiences who enjoy this kind of thing happy. While I lost count of the number of bad guys blown away about half way through the 95 minutes of this movie, there is a body count estimation thrown in: Wax, getting quite the chuckle out of it, believes he’s downed at least one guy an hour, over the last 24 hours. Even I can do that math. It should be noted, though, those scenes are smartly choreographed and edited. While the audience I watched with was pretty civilized about the whole thing, I could just hear in my head a wilder crowd, swearing with delight while having a bloody good time.

Travolta, too, seems to be having a lot of fun. Shaving his head, donning a few earrings and a remarkably supple leather jacket (which never seems to restrict his athletic action), his Wax is a guy, for the most part, who’s a few steps ahead of everybody else and digs it. Why should he fill his new partner in on what he’s doing, when it’s so much more fun to mess with his head? But, as the script wanders from slick action to warm odd couple buddy stuff, we not only lose the smarts, but the edge, too. It’s much more, well, maybe not much, but at least a little more interesting to watch these two different lead characters go at one another than to share giggles and wine over dinner.

 

Edge of Darkness

The most interesting component to this Mel Gibson vehicle happens off screen. After all, the script must have had something to make Gibson, who’s been pretty busy not acting lately, choose to return to work on camera after seven years. The production notes state Mel thought the story was “intriguing”. I’m not buying it. Because, at least in how it turned out, this is a totally thrill-less thriller.

Based on what was a popular British miniseries 20 years ago, the edgeless “Edge” is now set in Massachusetts. The only adult daughter of a single father, who happens to be a Boston detective, is quickly gunned down upon her somewhat mysterious visit home. While it’s natural to think she was just the collateral damage on an intended attack on her dad, he knows better. She must have been involved in something.

Off we go on a standard, dully told chase. There’s a not so trustworthy boyfriend, the malevolent boss, a  sitting duck of a well intentioned friend. That would all be ok, if it were staged with finesse. But director Martin Campbell brings none of the gritty elegance or sense of timing he infused in Casino Royale this time around. That’s especially curious, considering this is Campbell’s second go at the project: he directed the miniseries, too.

And then there’s Mel. Perhaps he just wasn’t all that into what he was doing here, but, in the past, Gibson has given some fine performances in productions that were and were not so great. In this picture, he’s all facial expressions. There’s no use of the rest of his body; the arms often just hanging there, lifeless. I was far more intrigued as to what was behind that disconnect between body and head than I was by anything else in this all too ordinary movie.

The Book of Eli

Ready or not: here it comes. The first kick ass apocalyptic action flick, designed for both the comic book and True Believer set.  Well, you can’t say this decade in movies hasn’t started out with a bang!

Denzel Washington brings a remarkably intriguing gravity to the mysterious role of Eli, a man left roaming the devastated landscape of America, some 30 years after a religious war and blinding flash. The few survivors, and their scrappy, if uneducated offspring, are wreaking havoc, scrambling for whatever’s left. But Eli has a mission. He’s taking his book, yes, it’s the Bible and headed west. Nothing’s going to stop him, either. He’s amazingly invincible, but, boy, what trials he’s to endure!

Frankly, as the Hughes Brothers’ camera first panned the opening scene, allowing us to watch as a cat munches a fly crusted corpse, I was pretty miserable. Just what we need: yet another end-of-the-world gross out. But, shrewdly, Gary Whitta’s screenplay won’t just settle for the standard. Thanks to Washington’s star wattage and acting smarts, we find ourselves drawn to this strange traveler. And once he bumps into Gary Oldman’s megomaniacal fellow reader, things really begin to get interesting. For sure, there’s tons of heated action, but there’s a chilling moral struggle that’s just as much a part of the reality here, too.

I’m not going to oversell this, but, I, for one, was surprised at how this movie grew on me as it forged along. I found myself actually caring about Eli and impressed at how ambitious the story line and production values were. And no, I’m not going to give it away, but, yes, there is a goodie bag of an ending that just might knock your socks off and give you a lot to think about as you head back into this paralleling bone chilling cold of 2010.

Sherlock Holmes

It’s not going to rock your world, but Guy Ritchie’s take on the classic detective series has got a lot going for it. Most notably, of course, it’s got Robert Downey, Jr. and that’s just fine with me.

Downey is a perfect fit for a modern day revival of the venerable Arthur Conan Doyle series. Sliding almost effortlessly between wide eyed curiosity and snarling superiority, Downey gets the push-pull of the Detective perfectly. He also understands the man’s vulnerabilities: his depressions, substance dabbling and very real reliance on his best friend, the good Dr. Watson. And Jude Law brings just the right touch of irritated understanding to that character, torn between sticking with his irresistible friend, or going legit and getting married. Not to worry: Holmes has his lady, too, a smarty pants not so good girl played gamely by Rachel McAdams. It’s also nice to see Eddie Marsan show up, in a decent supporting role.

While the story here is pretty average stuff, the set design and effects are of a higher caliber. No movie currently in theaters is going to match Avatar for knocking your socks off with the look of the thing, but Sherlock’s no slouch, either.

All the while I was screening this determinedly fun for the family kick off to what was obviously conceived as the first in a series, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite TV shows: House. Not just because Gregory House, like Sherlock Holmes, solves crimes while ticking people off, but because House, also like Sherlock, has his Watson: Wilson, played marvelously by Robert Sean Leonard. I would think fans of any of the procedural programs, the CSIs or even Law and Orders, would go for the process stuff that’s at play in this movie. But, at its most elementary,  my dear, this Sherlock is very much like Dr. House: neurotic, brilliant and great to watch, from a distance.

It's Complicated

Really? Complicated? Nothing so complex going on here at all, in what is essentially another chapter in the Nancy Meyers brand.

In Nancy world, middle aged women are smart, a little soft around the middle and charmingly, just a little bit insecure. Not about their professions, mind you: those have been successful enough to afford said women great clothes, substantial cars and, most notably, the most fabulous houses. It’s the love life part that’s got our ladies a tad dizzy. But not to worry: scratch the surface and all these size 10’ers are really irresistible to the most yummy of men. And there are lots of supportive girl friends who are happy to drop everything and gather round for a glass or two of an excellent pinot noir to cheer on the inevitable.

This time, it’s Meryl Streep’s turn to star as Nancy’s woman on the verge. A divine baker and loving mother to three grown children, our heroine lives what she thinks is a perfectly nice life in the most wonderful house in Santa Barbara. (Nancy’s ladies always live in expensively cool, but never ostentatious places). Then, after running into her ex a few times, like at the building where his and his new wife’s fertility clinic is, she begins to feel those old feelings. Said girlfriends urge her to get, shall we say, physical, with someone. Anyone. But, at their son’s college graduation, turns out the revived attraction is mutual. And away we go.

Streep, as always, elevates her material here. Alec Baldwin, paunch and all, is as funny as he can be in this played out role. And Steve Martin, neutered down for his sweet third wheel part, is, well, sweet, too. All even survive potentially embarrassing sex and pot smoking scenes.

As is also an essential in Nancy world, there are moments of self doubt and introspection. Those flashes used to signal something savvy in the Nancy brand; here, they are stuck in as if by habit.

Fans of Meyers’ films won’t be miserable or anything watching this movie. It is ok. Enough. But, those of us who remember the smarts of Diane Keaton pushing a baby carriage in a business suit, or the heart rendering basketball scenes between Steve Martin and his daughter, will yearn for something more. Until then, the Meyers brand is alive and full of nifty decorating tips.

Nine

Coming off his spectacular Chicago, Rob Marshall has hit the wall with this musical version of Frederico Fellini’s autobiographical 8 ½.

Nine, as a Broadway show (first staged by the genius Tommy Tune), has been a hit several times. A whirling dreamlike fantasy, enveloping a legendary director coping with writer’s block, this string of show stopping numbers was charming, sexy and sad. As a film, where we watch a tremendously self-absorbed man twirl between nine key women in his life, the fun is sporadic. At best. And the magic, the ethereal other worldliness of the piece, hardly ever reaches off the screen to pull us in.

Daniel Day Lewis stars as Guido and, for me, his casting is an essential problem. There’s no denying Lewis’s talent and he is game here: going for broke, singing and dancing. But Lewis’s signature intensity brings a gravity to Guido that, while it may be attractive to some, can also be a ton of work for others. We’re supposed to love this guy, through all the stuff he pulls. And here, that’s not so easy.

Still, there’s a glorious bevy of women surrounding him, at least in the story. Penelope Cruz is luscious as the sexy mistress, Judi Dench, terrific as his costumer, Kate Hudson snappy, playing the American journalist come for her interview. Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren aren’t given all that much to do and neither is Fergie. However, when the pop star sings, which she does extremely well, she puts all the other vocal performances to shame. The best performance in this uneven collection is that of Marion Cotillard, who is stunning as Guido’s patient and not so patient wife. This Oscar winner, who also stole the show away from Johnny Depp in Public Enemies, just gets more impressive with each new turn.

Avatar

Imperfect as it is, Avatar is still essential viewing for anyone who cares about the future of the movies. Because Jim Cameron’s visual epic presents effects we’ve never seen before,  not just offering thrills but setting the bar for the genre: making your daddy’s special effects now just a pretender in today’s new world.

Yes, there is a story here. Jake Sully, (Sam Worthington) a former Marine, now confined to a wheelchair, is recruited to Pandora, an otherworldly outpost where there’s a mineral to be mined that just could save the Earth. Because the environment on the alien world is toxic to what we call people, the humans must go through some kind of complicated scientific process, allowing them to temporarily adopt Avatar bodies, infiltrate the natives and get that much needed ore. That’s the plan, anyway. When Sully is reborn, his first emotional awakening is to the pleasure of being able to walk again. Then, as he is taught the spiritual lessons of the indigenous Na’vi, and, of course, he meets the beautiful local princess, our hero must decide which of his two worlds is worth saving.

If only Cameron had invested 1/100th of the creative energy he and the animators from Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital company put into the look of the thing toward the script, boy, what this could have been. But, as obsessed with perfection and knock your socks off visuals as the Avatar team is, they also allowed for a pretty formulaic storyline to hook it to. We’ve seen this plot countless times before but, who knows, maybe that was the thinking: we don’t have to take our eyes away from the dazzle to worry about silly little things like memorable dialogue.

OK, so it isn’t perfect. But those effects are amazing. I found myself audibly gasping at the sparking 3-D, the beautiful floating mountains, those incredible horses and flying Banshees. And the actors, all CGI’ed, look pretty cool, too. Visually, the movie seems to top itself, scene after scene. Technology buffs can have a field day here, wondering what happened to make all these remarkable breakthroughs. But I, for one, was just as entertained, not constantly asking, “How’d they do that?” but just simply marveling, “wow: they did that!”

Crazy Heart

Sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to steer right into the heart. Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart does just that.

We’ve seen the story of the washed up country singer many times before. But never have we seen Jeff Bridges play it. And it’s been worth the wait. As the struggling Bad Blake, Bridges brings a slow hum of anger to his alcoholic has-been. Bad knows he’s too talented to have wound up playing bowling alleys, puking up the booze he scored from the star struck small town liquor store owner. And yet, here he is. Haranguing his agent, Blake finally gets an offer to open for a younger, bigger star. But there’s history between these two and, as desperate as he is, Bad just can’t get out of his own way.

Then, in walks Maggie Gyllenhaal. She’s there to interview him, but we all know what’s gonna happen here. And it’s good, too. But is Bad a good enough man to keep it going?

Full confession: I have always loved watching Jeff Bridges’ work. From the quintessential Dude, to the wide eyed Starman, Bridges’ has always endeared me with his ease, confidence and smarts. There’s always much more going on in his performances than what immediately hits the eye. And his Bad Blake is no exception. This is a guy whose fury is a slow burn: when it explodes, he’s afire. But, when he’s performing, you know he knows he’s home. His surprise at falling in love is even more enchanting to behold. And, in perhaps her best work to date, Gyllenhaal is just as winning. She had me from the minute she appeared on screen. It’s always nice to see Robert Duvall show up (he produces, also), but perhaps the biggest surprise here is Colin Farrell, who, in a small but key role, doesn’t just keep it grounded and interesting, but, heck: he sings too! And well!

Which leads us to the music. T-Bone Burnett, whose film credits include the spectacular music of Brother, Where Art Thou?, has done it again. There’s not a lot of songs here, but what there is, is great stuff. Kind of like this small, but shining movie.

The Lovely Bones

When I first heard Peter Jackson was to direct the film version of this delicate best seller, I was, shall we say, surprised. After all, he of Lord of the Rings and King Kong fame, is not known for his light touch. However, when I saw the actual movie, I got it. Jackson wanted to play with heaven.

In case you don’t know, The Lovely Bones was a hugely popular novel about a murdered teenager, watching as the world below tries to comes to grips with her death. While it certainly enraptured those comforted by the idea of our ability to maintain some sort of relationship with those who have passed away, the book also was notable thanks to its delicate handling of what is a perfectly awful situation. Let’s not forget a young girl was brutally butchered before all the heavenly fun could begin.

Jackson never lets us forget. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens screenplay veers the story right toward the murder. We spend as much time with young Susie before her untimely demise as we do afterwards, insuring we are as  devastated as are her parents when she is lured into the underground crime scene. Once Susie does ascend, Jackson, who has told the story up till that point with a surprising traditional approach, goes for broke. His dreamscape of what heaven looks like is as imaginary as are any of the sets in the Rings pictures. But, almost dazzlingly bright, especially in contrast to the dim look at Earth, we almost feel as if we need sunglasses to watch.

Young Saoirse Ronan, who was such a smash in Atonement, does a fine job as the child, stuck in a netherworld, hoping for revenge upon her killer. And as that horrifying sicko, Stanley Tucci gives an astonishing performance. It’s not just his look that he’s changed, it’s his voice, his walk, his attitude. As fascinating as it is to see his work, I, for one, found myself cringing every time he was on screen. The movie seems weighted toward him, which not only doesn’t follow the book, but also dumbs the piece down, making it almost like an ordinary who done it, albeit with very fancy art pieces about what’s upstairs.

Invictus

Clint Eastwood has developed an almost ego-less directorial style that is quite remarkable: he stands tall, tells the story and gets out of the way. With Invictus, Eastwood’s got quite the story to tell.

When Nelson Mandela was elected the first black President of South Africa, he inherited quite a mess. (Sound familiar, anyone?) Given a political mandate, the leader was faced with the legacy of apartheid. Even the blacks and whites in his own administration didn’t trust each other. How could the country succeed when its own citizens carried the intrinsic fear of their fellow countrymen? Mandela, savilly, began to notice the whites’ concerns about their future paralleling their disappointment in the national rugby team. Recognizing an opportunity, he decided to do something about that.

Yes, Invictus is a movie about the South African team winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup. But, of course, it is also about so much more. Told almost in bullet points, we see how Mandela came upon his inspiration, nudged the team’s captain toward success both on and off the field, dealt with his own personal heartaches, went to international summits hours after collapsing from exhaustion, had an eye for the ladies and relished being in the spotlight of his people. The only time Eastwood gets emotional is when he allows a few unnecessary songs to play, telling us all too specifically what we should be feeling. The film would have been much better off had he taken a few extra minutes to fill in the blanks, give us all a little flavorful downtime in between chapter headings.

And yet, you can’t help but do the math yourself, watching this true and inspirational story. It is remarkable to see Mandela’s brilliant political instincts at work, even when those around him are trying to get him off his oh so determined track. And, thanks to two fine leading performances, we do get the emotion of the thing. Matt Damon has served up two very different, excellent characters on screen this year. He’s just great in The Informant and he’s as far from that guy, but equally as terrific, here. And then there’s Morgan Freeman as Mandela. And yes, he is every bit as good as you’d think he’d be. Freeman and Eastwood, after several spins around the movie dance floor together, are clearly on the same page. Be the man. And when the man is as strong, smart and interesting as Nelson Mandela, being that man is pretty remarkable all on its own.

Up in the Air.

It’s almost impossible to imagine this bittersweet love story hitting the screen at any other time in recent history and yet, word is, director Jason Reitman started adapting Walter Kim’s novel about the frequently flying some five years ago. The world, as you may remember, was a pretty different place then. Today, this story of people who are hired to fire other people brings a timely punch to the gut that, almost by accident, adds a resonance that’s hard to shake.

George Clooney has been suave and charming in movies before (in probably all of them, actually), but he has hardly ever brought the sense of vulnerability he betrays here. Women will swoon; guys will admire his got-it-all-figured-out shtick. After all, his impeccable Ryan isn’t just really great at laying off the laid off, he’s also amazing at working the system. The business travel system, that is. This is a guy who’ll do anything for the mileage, who knows how to always book the swankiest room and the where the free breakfasts are. He’s got goals: to make the airline’s top flying rank and to be invited to present his theory of life (it’s got something to do with an empty backpack) at the best convention going. But then two women show up. There’s Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman who confesses she’s just like him, but “with a vagina” and young Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the smart kid who’s trying to revamp the company’s system and therefore, ruin Ryan’s oh so well organized life.

Good taste precludes me from telling you what happens. But I’d love to talk to you about it. What is admirable about the three main characters in this film is how beautifully drawn and acted they are. The supporting characters? Not so much. But there is a conversation to be had about what makes both the women, very compelling cookies, do what they do and I’d love to have it. But not now: gives too much away.

It is, however, perfectly appropriate to share just how smart, sad and true much of this movie really is. Clooney gives his most complex romantic performance to date, Farmiga and Kendrick make their co-leading ladies as interesting and of the moment as is the rest of the best of this very grounded movie.

 

Everybody's Fine

In this remake of a 1990 Italian film (Stanno Tutti Bene), Robert De Niro stars as the recently retired widower, living a lonely life in upstate New York. It sums up a lot to say that this former maker of telephone wire, the material that carries communication between people, cannot communicate with what’s left of his own family. Some might say poetic. Some might say, “oh please.”

Most of the people who attended the screening I went to left the room choking back tears, confessing shyly out of the corner of their mouths, “You don’t understand. That’s my father!” And for those who can relate to this crisis upon crisis melodrama, there will surely be affection for the old guy. After all, when DeNiro wants to turn it on, nobody can wrench the heart strings better. He even got me loving the young Don Corleone, when he just gazed at his ailing baby son. Remember? So you can just imagine how it works now, stooped just a bit, grizzled puffy cheeks, trying to get someone to talk to him as he waits for a train to see the children who were all too busy to come see him. Even after he bought the steak and the most expensive bottle of wine the grocery store sold.

Turns out, of course, there’s more to it all than just that the kids weren’t interested. There’s a Problem. And it’s a big one. Bigger than the unmentioned divorce, the disappointing career choice, the sexual screwups that are the everyday stuff of his estranged family. And let’s not forget: Dad’s got his own problems. What with the bad lungs and heart, after all.

Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and especially Drew Barrymore each have some lovely moments, playing one on one with the legendary star. And perhaps as a holiday film, bringing out the violins and hankies before heading off to a family reunion isn’t such a bad thing. But while everybody in this film might be fine, I can’t help but think that everyone in the audience would have been better served with a little less schmaltz.

This Is It

Irresistible on so many levels, this rehearsal documentary delights, fascinates and frustrates.

There’s no question Kenny Ortega has done a remarkable job, piecing together footage shot as part of the concert, during rehearsals and for the planned behind the scenes teaser that, I suppose, was going to be released to promote the tour. Even though he had a lot to work with, it couldn’t have been easy. This film, like the tour itself (in Michael’s words), is primarily designed to please the fans. In fact, an early title slate says just that: this is for the fans. And they, no doubt, will be pleased. Sure, we get the weepy, prayerful tryouts, the costumers backstage showing us how they sew buttons on Michael’s Beat It jacket, but this film is very much about Michael himself, or, as we all come to call him, MJ.

And MJ is a knockout here. Even when he, in an effort to save his voice for the actual performances, tones it down or did I see some lipsyncing going on?, Jackson was at his most magnetic. Even in people filled shots, where he is with tons of dancers, musicians or production people, your eye just automatically goes to Michael. He was, and I guess still is, that kind of guy.

He was also the kind of guy who couldn’t, it seems, sit still. Maybe he doesn’t sing each number, but he sure does dance to them. While standing, discussing choreography, the feet are moving; the hands are too. And when he puts it all together, moonwalking, crotch grabbing, jumping, flying across the stage, watch out: what an incredible performer Michael Jackson truly was.

Of course it is sad this film had to be made, that the actual concert could not have gone on and had that work speak for itself. But it should be noted that the timing of a release of this kind is pretty auspicious. The public loves behind the scenes stuff, as long as it’s limited and prettied up as it is in, say, the Idol programs or on the new tv hit, Glee.

And that is precisely the level of artistic insider stuff we get here: we get one shot of some dance masters yelling, a few seconds of Jackson complaining his audio feed is too loud, a glance or two at Ortega shooting the new Thriller film that was to be displayed on the screens during the live performances. But just as often we get reaction shots of off-stage dancers, watching in awe: thrilled to just to be in the presence of the Thriller himself.

We don’t need to be told this was a superstar, blowing away his fellow artists with the flick of his wrist, do we?

For those morbidly interested in the physical stuff: yes, Michael looked great. Healthy, but pretty thin. Of course, you do all that dancing, it’ll take some poundage off you.

What I found the most interesting was that in this, his announced last hurrah, Jackson seemed to put away the creepy stuff. Gone was that eery falsetto speaking voice. Here, he analyzes, conducts, encourages and dominates with a very sure tone. The contrast between his “normalcy” and his almost other worldly talent makes his very special gift all the more remarkable.