Movie Reviews
Saturday , November 18 2017

2013 Films

(based on non-festival, theatrical U.S. release date)

12 Years a Slave.  With three feature films under his belt, director Steve McQueen has shown an obsession with imprisoned men  – Bobby Sands (Hunger (2008)), a prisoner of conscience; Brandon (Shame (2011)), a prisoner of addiction; and with 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a prisoner of an institution – slavery of the southern United States circa 1841, into which the real-life Northrup, a free man of the north, had been kidnapped and sold.  And in a scene that echoes one of the most enigmatic moments form groundbreaking TV series Roots, the first casualty of that institution was Northrup’s identity.  But the slaves were not the only victims of the institution.  McQueen’s go-to lead actor, Michael Fassbender, takes a supporting role as the plantation owner Epps, and in doing so, elevates the material with a performance that intimates a certain sadness to his sadism without ever offering excuses.  For a film that was certainly produced with Oscars in mind, McQueen’s eye is a bit less apparent than in any of his other films, and the screenplay by John Ridley (Red Tails (2012), U-Turn (1997)) is fairly straight-forward (if not a bit splotchy for a biopic).  The real power of 12 Years a Slave comes from the performances.  And in the midst of an impressive A-list of a supporting cast, Eijofor and Lupita Nyong’o (as the broken object of Epps’ obsession, Patsey) are among the best of the year.  (Grade: B+)

About Time.  In choosing to watch About Time, I took others’ comparisons to Groundhog Day (1993) way too seriously.  What was a purgatorial curse in that film is a superpower of male members of Tim’s (Domhnall Gleeson) family, fueling writer/director Richard Curtis’ remarkably stakeless ode to domesticity.  With solid performances, segments of the first half of the film are entertaining enough, but the rules of time travel initially set up by Tim’s father (Bill Nighy) seem to be blithely jettisoned in the second half – to the point of distraction (wait, now he can go forward in time? wait, now he can take others with him? wait, now he gets to keep certain children born post-destination?) – because, it seems, to adhere to such rules would harsh the mellow sentimentality.  (Grade: C-)

The Act of Killing.  Oppressively redundant and over-punctuated, The Act of Killing is proof positive that a compelling documentary pushing two hours (or more, depending on the cut) needs more than just an intriguing concept.  In this case, Western-funded Indonesian death squad members (chief amongst them, Anwar Congo) recall the splendor of participating in the systematic elimination of millions of communists in 1965-1966 by re-enacting their atrocities on camera.  In so much as the victors ultimately define what do or do not constitute war crimes, the same paramilitary groups born of that era now thrive in the midst of a corrupt “democracy.”   That’s all well and good, but how many times do we have to hear one participant or another dubiously define “gangsters” as “free men”?  How many times do we have to view Congo revisit the scene of the crime to describe the method of homicide he devised to minimize blood spillage?  (In both cases, I counted three, but it may have been more.)  Even the surreal John Waters-esque wardrobe choices are overplayed for comic relief to diminishing returns.  It’s too bad that director Joshua Oppenheimer did not fully appreciate the benefit of subtlety (e.g., Congo tenderly explaining how to apologize to a baby duck with a broken leg).  Instead, we get entirely too much footage of the low-hanging fruit donning meat-taped-to-the-face prosthetics and reminiscing about carnage, while juxtaposed against lingering shots of Congo pretending to have a conscience.  For those of us who attended a screening at Alamo Drafthouse (Drafthouse Films distributed the documentary), the video introduction by the director – telling us how we should be expected to react to the film – was a bad sign right from the get go.  (Grade: C)

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.  (Grade: B)

All Is Lost.  Amidst all of its subtlety, simplicity, and economy, what I appreciate the most about All Is Lost is a level of faith in its audience that is distinctly lacking in films like Cast Away (2000) and Gravity (2013).   (Grade: A)

American Hustle.  Amy Adams, Amy Adams, and Amy Adams.  (Grade: A-)

Anchorman II: The Legend Continues.  I got nothin’.  (Grade: D+)

August: Osage County.  I have only two odd observations.  First, this is the first film ever for which I would peg Meryl Streep as the weakest link. Most of the time she’s alright in handling a difficult character on the page; but sometimes, I felt like I was watching an overwrought community theatre performance.  Second, during the centerpiece funeral lunch scene, I could not help but notice that the half of the crowded auditorium who seemed to be over 55 were laughing hysterically and the half who seemed to be under 55 were cringing with emotional discomfort. I don’t know what it means, but it was definitely a thing.  (Grade: B-)

Bastards.  Is that French I hear? And are those really iPhones?  Because I swear it’s the late 80s, and Michael Mann and David Lynch decided to make this movie together.  (Grade: B)

Before Midnight.  (Grade: A)

Begin Again.  Oh Keira, you missed the Lilith Fair thing by about 15 years.  (Grade: C)

Behind the CandelabraBehind the Candelabra is purported to be director Steven Soderbergh’s last feature-length film, although Side Effects would be the last to get a worldwide theatrical release.  Made available on HBO at the same time that it premiered at Cannes, U.S. distributers shied away from this biopic of Liberace (Michael Douglas), as told by his live-in-the-closet lover of four years, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).   The performances are outstanding – particularly Douglas, who wisely chooses not to imitate so much as channel Liberace.  That said, there is nothing particularly revelatory about the whole proceeding.  (Grade: B-)

Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri).  Romanian director Cristian Mungiu follows up the 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007) with a much slower burn (if burn is the right word).  Beyond the Hills begins with the 25 year-old Alina arriving on a train from Germany to reunite with her former friend/lover from an orphanage, Voichita, who now resides in a monastery.  Alina’s passion for Voichita is matched by Viochita’s pious devotion to Jesus, and when Alina’s attempts at emotional manipulation (throw in what may be a tad of mental illness) hit a crescendo, the priest and sisters finally decide to perform as exorcism with tragic results.  All of this sounds like melodrama of the highest order, but the story-telling here is shockingly sober. (At one point, you may be asking yourself, “Did something supernatural just happen?”)  Mingiu is a coy filmmaker with a tendency for burying a distinct sense of composition within an often kinetic documentarian style; his palette is gloriously drab.  And perhaps these are some of the reasons that his films have garnered such appreciation among cineastes worldwide.  All that said, the power of Beyond the Hills has been dissipated in the editing room – one feels the 2 hours and 26 minute runtime, as the first and second acts are rife with redundancies and other unnecessaries that fail to enlighten or enrich.  (Grade: B-)

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.  It’s difficult to assess the quality of the filmmaking when the story is just so inherently interesting.  I wish this documentary had existed 20+ years ago when every other hipster at Tower Records was trying to talk me into buying a Big Star CD.  (Grade: B-)

Black Rock.  A survival thriller conceived, directed by, and starring mumblecore alumnus Katie Aselton with a screenplay penned by her spouse, Mark Duplass? That’s just too intriguing to pass up, no matter how negative the reviews. To be sure, the first act of this 80-minute film is certainly underdeveloped, and the final action sequence is poorly executed. Some of this might be forgivable if the filmmakers were embracing a B-movie aesthetic, but they’re not. All that said, there is some good stuff as well – committed performances from the three female leads (including Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth), some uniquely raw dialogue and subtext that really works for the genre, and one of the more memorable final shots of any film released this year.  (Grade: C+)

Blackfish.  (Grade: B+)

The Bling Ring.  Director Sofia Coppola presents a pretty straightforward biopic of four larcenous teenagers in terms that are neither sympathetic, unsympathetic, nor particularly remarkable.  So is the selfie generation, weened on Facebook and TMZ, even more vapid, shallow, self-obsessed, and entitled than all that have come before?  Perhaps.  And?   (Grade: C+)

Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 and 2).  (Grade: B-)

Blue Jasmine In this distinctly contemporary and somewhat comic twist on A Streetcar Named Desire, Woody Allen uses alternating settings – between San Francisco (the present) and New York (the past) – to maximum effect.  Although the script often makes his ensemble work a little too hard, Cate Blanchett’s take on the emotionally-fractured Jasmine/Jeanette is one of her best performances in in recent memory.  (Grade: B)

Captain Phillips.   (Grade: B-)

The Conjuring.  The fact that both the previews and the actual screenings of The Conjuring have been paired up with previews for Insidious 2 – yet another haunted house film featuring the same director and male lead, no less – only contributes to the nagging feeling that we’ve seen all this before and will see all this again.  I don’t know what’s possessed the positive reviewers – perhaps it’s been so long since we’ve seen a truly great horror film that the bar has been lowered.  But the end result here is simply flaccid.  Ignore the references to The Amityville Horror (1979) (has it already been eight whole years since that one was formally remade?) – The Conjuring is one part Poltergeist (1982) and one part The Exorcist (1973), and you’d be doing yourself a favor skipping this and spending two hours catching up with either of those classics.  Or if you want a horror film “for the women” (as some reviewers have been keen to attribute to The Conjuring), you’d be doing yourself another favor by skipping this and spending two hours with The Descent (2005).  (Grade: C)

The Counselor.  (Grade: C)

Dallas Buyers Club.  Dallas Buyers Club is really two different movies. There is the compelling and artfully shot personal character study/survival story of a Texas electrician/bull rider/hellraiser forced into entrepreneurship (Matthew McConaughey) and his very unlikely partner in crime (Jared Leto) – a film deserving of Oscars just for the sheer level of commitment in the performances. Unfortunately, that movie is interrupted in the second act by a very traditional plot-driven narrative – intended to detail the political/ethical struggle between AIDS activists and the FDA/medical establishment in the late ’80s – that proves to be too abbreviated and convoluted to really enlighten. (See the documentary, How to Survive a Plague (2013).)  (Grade: B)

Dark Skies.  (Grade: C+)

Disconnect.  The problem with many interconnected-lives movies is that the characterizations end up being shorthanded and subtle truths get pushed aside to make room for the Big Idea.  Disconnect (2013) is no exception.  In one of its storylines, the filmmakers could have gone farther into new territory for a Hollywood film – exploring the morality of the “minors” who engage in live online porn – but instead we get nothing more than a line or two of dialogue.  What we end up with is a well-made PSA for those who are woefully unaware of the dangers of the internet age.  (Grade: C)

Don Jon.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feature debut as writer/director is a good bit of serious fun, buttressed by some nice performances from Scarlett Johanson and Julianne Moore. Gordon-Levitt takes a sharp left turn in a rather abbreviated third act, which may lose some metroplex audiences with expectations based on the trailer, before bringing the whole proceeding to a rather abrupt halt. But rhythmic issues aside, one has to appreciate his willingness to take chances and give the audience just a little extra to chew on right out of the gate.  (Grade: B+)

Drinking Buddies.  While not a fan of the Mumblecore subgenre, I was pleasantly surprised with alumnus Lynn Shelton’s first opportunity to exploit a couple of A-list actresses (Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt) in Your Sister’s Sister (2012).  Likewise, director Joel Swanberg gains some much-needed accessibility from his first ensemble of A-listers (including current it girl, Anna Kendrick).  Although the title may suggest a more specific agenda, Drinking Buddies is essentially an examination of two good-time-all-the-time characters who would invariably be relegated to supporting role stereotypes in any mainstream film.   And as the female member of the duo, Olivia Wilde brings the goods.  (Grade: B)

Drug War (Du zhan).  Director Johnnie To’s Drug War is essentially a chess match between a resolute police captain (Sun Honglei) and a desperate drug-dealer (Louis Koo).  The trajectory of the film is a steady escalation, leaving us anxiously awaiting the next tipping point.  Formally, we’ve seen this sort of story before countless times in the West (on the big screen and the small screen); but the stakes are higher in a nation where the punishment for distributing narcotics is death and plea deals are made without lawyers, and To leaves us with a distinctly poetic conclusion.  (Grade: B)

The East.  This second collaboration by director/co-screenwriter Zal Batmanglij and actress/co-screenwriter Brit Marling (Sound of My Voice (2012)) once again explores the infiltration of a group on the fringe; but this time, the Batmanglij/Marling are supported by a group of A-listers (Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Skarsgard).  On the plus side, Marling gets more to do as an undercover private security agent injecting herself into a group of environmental terrorists, and she turns in one of the most nuanced performances of the year.  On the negative side, the last 10 minutes betray the film’s authentic sense of moral ambiguity for the service of a rather unrealistic message.  (Grade: B-)

Elysium.  There’s no doubt about it, writer/director Neill Blomkamp (District 9 (2009)) has a pen for metaphor-heavy sci-fi and eye for action and CGI.  But Elysium is definitely a sophomore slump. The key word here is “off” … as in: (1) the character development and timing in the script, meaning that the biggest moments never really seem earned; and (2) Jodie Foster’s inexplicable performance.  (Grade: C+)

Enough Said.  The less that is said about Enough Said, the better.  Suffice to say, this anti-rom-com for middle-agers is a testament to how much a screenwriter can get away with when the performances are organic.  James Gandolfini pulls off a suburban, divorced video archivist (read: about as far away from his typecast as one could get).  Julia Louis-Dreyfus – who has made a career in TV with her comic effort meter consistently turned up to an 7 – dials it down to about a 3.  And how often do you get to hear Toni Collette speak in her native Australian accent?  (Grade: B)

Escape from Tomorrow.  An admirably intriguing concept (satirizing the escapism of Disney as hallucinogenic horror) and bold guerrilla filmmaking (at actual Disney locations without permission) do not, unfortunately, make up for poor writing and execution.  (For example, the choice of B&W presentation seems to be necessitated by the compromised photography and dicey post-production effects – because it certainly doesn’t work as an invocation of some bygone era when the only other thing you’ve got it is a heavily-orchestrated score.)  For a cult film that was clearly never intended for mainstream consumption, I expected it to be a bit more disturbing.  Instead, it feels like the filmmakers/actors were pulling too many punches.   (Grade: C-)

Europa Report.  On the plus side, the found footage (or more accurately, the faux documentary) approach seems to fit well in the context of space exploration, and the performances are all solid.  However, after a good deal of build up (as is typical for films that employ said approach), the ending feels distinctly unfulfilling, and the expository narration by Embeth Davitz’s CEO character does not help the proceedings (especially at the end).  (Grade: C+)

Evil Dead.  (Grade: C+)

The Fifth Estate.  Don’t know what “The Fifth Estate” is? Don’t worry, in the second to the last scene, it will all be explained to you. Are you wondering how The Fifth Estate could be an objective recounting of the founding of wikileaks when it’s told from the perspective of ousted “co-founder”, Daniel Berg? Don’t worry, the screenwriters wink all that away in the last scene. Although the themes are not quite as spoonfed as in Jobs (2013), The Fifth Estate is certainly no The Social Network (2010). Director Bill Condon’s distinctly kinetic approach (think of a 2+ hour commercial directed toward the 20-something demographic) does little to prevent the somewhat incoherent affair from devolving into a bit of a snoozefest.  (Grade: C+)

Frances Ha.  Director Noah Baumbach’s filtering of HBO’s Girls through the French New Wave is disappointing on so many levels, especially after the uncommonly honest character study, Greenberg (2010).  Are the performances supposed to be as amateurish as a bunch of high school students adapting Annie Hall (1977)?  Perhaps.  Is the plot supposed to be splotchy as a Millennial’s credit report?  Perhaps.  Is the title character supposed to be so cloying and unfunny?  Perhaps.  But what is the point to forgiving all of this?  The single adjective that best describes Frances Ha?  Inorganic. And the lesson learned?  Greta Gerwig should stick to acting.  (Grade: D+)

The Frozen Ground.  Before ultimately devolving into TV-movie-of-the-week territory, The Frozen Ground is a serviceable enough true crime procedural with a curiously rapid pacing and two very solid, understated, and unlikely performances by Nicolas Cage and John Cusack.  (Grade: C)

Fruitvale Station.  (Grade: B-)

Gimme the Loot.  Gimme the Loot should be the 2013 recipient of the inauspicious Tiny Furniture Award for self-aware indie films tailor-made for those who believe NYC is the center of the universe.  I understand the formula: Neo-Neorealism (right down to a stolen bike) + (attempted) Tarantino-esque dialogue played for laughs + “unlikely” genre machinations + retro-but-idiosyncratic soundtrack = art house gold!  Over two plus decades of reading movie reviews, I have noticed that “energy” (used on more than one occasion to describe this particular film) tends to be the watchword for critics who love to champion little films that are clearly lacking in terms of convincing storytelling. In this case, whether it was the writing, the performances, or both, I didn’t believe these characters for one minute.  Gimme the Loot certainly has energy, but I am not one to give A’s for effort.  (Grade D+)

The Grandmaster [International Cut].  (Grade: B)

Gravity.  “Definitely see the new Sandra Bullock movie … in 3D … and in IMAX!” … Prior to today, there would be so many things wrong with me uttering that sentence.  But you only get one chance to take the ride that is Gravity for the first time. Make it count.  (Grade: A-)

The Hangover Part III.  To answer the question posed by writer/director Todd Phillips’ third installment to the outstanding original: there is such a thing as too much Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow.  (Grade: C-)

The Heat.  The Heat, while good for a few laughs, deals primarily in the same tropes as the abundance of male buddy cop movies and ultimately demonstrates how useless the Bechdel test really is.  Dear enlightened Swedish cinema industry: In this particular A-for-approved gem, what unique aspects of the female perspective shall we take away from the many conversations between Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy that are not about men?  (Grade: C)

Her.  (Grade: A)

A Hijacking (Kapringen).  (Grade: B)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  The same lack of narrative gravity and cartoonish action +1 for Smaug fun -1 for the addition of characters/plot to form a Twilight/Hunger Games love triangle = 161 minutes of meh.  (Grade: C)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  For those who were not fans of the first installment (e.g., me), it might be helpful to think of this as sequel as The Empire Strikes Back of the series – you know, where all the interesting stuff happens.  (Grade: B-)

The Hunt (Jagden).  (Grade: A)

The IcemanThe Iceman (2013) exemplifies one of the reasons I am not a big fan of the biopic genre.  The thinking of the filmmakers seems to go like this: It’s based on a “true story,” so all we need to do is tick the biographical boxes and chew some scenery.  Director/co-writer Ariel Vroman has provided a workman-like portrayal of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), but no matter how correct (or incorrect) it all is, there is nothing revelatory whatsoever about this mob-baddie fare. We learn little about Kuklinski other than that he does the things that Notorious Contract Killers tend to do.  Despite hints that Kuklinski had a tough upbringing, he turned out to be a family man with a sort of double life.  But so what.  We don’t know why or why not, and frankly, we are not given much reason to care either way.  In the end, the only thing notable about The Iceman is an unrecognizable against-type performance by Chris Evans as an ice cream truck-driving sociopath.  (Grade: C)

In a World …  It’s been a long time since I used the term “quirky in a good way,” but actor and debut writer/producer/director Lake Bell has created such a watchable (if not revelatory) film that is much less about the world of voice-over artists than NPR would lead you to believe and a lot more about the comic/tragic intersection of family and feminism.  (Grade: B-)

In the House (Dan la maison).  Despite the promising start – anticipating anything from social satire to suburban melodrama, the subtext-heavy In the House by director/screenwriter Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool (2003)) gradually loses its sense of wicked mystery in the second act becoming – well, something else.  (Grade: C+)

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.   With a strong cast (Steve Carrell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin, and Oliva Wilde) and a not-so-strong script, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone nonetheless manages to meet the Six Laugh Test. (Grade: C)

Inside Llewyn Davis.  (Grade: B+)

Iron Man 3.  (Grade: B)

Jobs.  There is a certain injustice to the Hollywood machine picking Mark David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin to tell Mark Zuckerberg’s story, while picking Joshua Michael Stern and Matt Whiteley to tell Steve Job’s story.  (Grade: C)

Kick-Ass 2.  As much as I can dig a plot where the female super-villain is the muscle who gets paid 10 X her male counterparts, there is very little else to appreciate in Kick-Ass 2.  The original film was a good bit of subversive fun; but by its nature, subversion rarely carries over to the sequel, even when the writing and acting is not completely phoned in.  (Grade: D)

Let the Fire Burn.  The distinct artistic choice of using all historical footage and no audio narration turns out not to be a very enlightening editorial choice.  This subject matter in particular – a pre-Waco 1985 confrontation between an overzealous police force and an instigating cult called “MOVE” (think Black Panthers taking a page from the Amish) – could desperately use some contemporary perspective.  (Grade: C+)

Like Someone in Love.  (Grade: B+)

Lore.  (Grade: B)

Lovelace.  “Inspired” by the life story of porn star Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried, with her doe eyes put to maximum use) – and in particular, her time with her creepy/abusive husband (Peter Sarsgaard, one step removed from his performance in An Education (2009)) – Lovelace boasts one of the most intriguing supporting casts of the year (Juno Temple, Hank Azaria, Eric Roberts, James Franco, Robert Patrick, and an utterly unrecognizable Sharon Stone). The film is divided into two distinct halves – a relatively drama-free version of events, which plays like a straw man argument in the controversy of Lovelace’s life since we are never offered any source for this perspective; and then another version of the same period with Lovelace filling the spaces in between with the gritty details. However, the narrative strokes are so broad that one never feels much of an emotional connection to any of the characters – good, bad, or mixed. Whatever you think of the veracity of Lovelace’s side of the story, any film drawing on her autobiography ‘Ordeal’ as gospel should have been nothing short of a punch in the gut.  (Grade: C)

Mama.  Not even a non-fairy tale ending could redeem this film from its awful writing – the primary purpose of which seems to be involuntarily jolting the audience in 12-15 minute intervals.  The only real surprise is the casting of newly-minted A-lister Jessica Chastain as a punk rocker sporting a Pat Benatar haircut, an uncolored tattoo covering her arm, and a Misfits T-shirt that looks conspicuously new.  (Grade: D)

Man of Steel.  (Grade: C+)

Movie 43.  (Grade: C-)

Much Ado About Nothing.  Famously shot in 12 days at director Joss Whedon’s house with his cast of favorites as an antidote to editing The Avengers (2012), this seemingly impromptu take on Shakespeare’s comedy is a bit of uneven fun.  Part of the problem is that some key performances (Amy Acker as Beatrice) are noticeably better than others (Alexis Denisof’s monologues as Benedick).  Part of the problem is the source material (not one of the Bard’s best) and Whedon’s choice to stick tightly to the original text whilst choosing a modern upscale southern California setting.  (Nobody could possibly believe any of these metrosexuals are returning from any sort of war – literal or otherwise.)  Fortunately, we are spared of the whole cast singing hey nonny nonny at the end.  (Grade: B-)

Mud.  Writer/director Jeff Nichols continues along a path of telling big stories in small America (Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011)), setting this coming-of-age tale of a romantic teen boy along the Mississippi River.  Indeed, it is difficult not to think of the first time you read Huckleberry Finn or Great Expectations as you meander through the two-hour plus running time.  Add another Serious Matthew McConaughey Performance along the trajectory of Magic Mike (2012) and Killer Joe (2012), and there is much to like.  (Grade: B)

Nebraska.  Director Alexander Payne offers a distinctly alternate take on the twilight-of-life reflections of The Straight Story (1999), one that is less interested in lofty redemption and more interested in modest understanding.  With a black and white palette that is both true to the setting and ironic in its de-romanticized portrayal, Nebraska is the Midwest as I actually remember it.  But as it has already been said by the folks at Cannes, the real high point in this film is Bruce Dern’s understated performance.  With little on the page, Dern manages to imbue a character, whose indeterminate level of diminished capacity would be caricatured in lesser hands, with subtle shades of light and dark.  (Grade: B)

No.  (Grade: B-)

Now You See Me.  As hyper-kinetic summer movie fun goes, the first act of Now You See Me delivers all of the sugary swoon of a really decadent party.  But in constructing this magic trick of a heist film, director Lois Leterrier (The Transporters (2002)) and company failed to appreciate the effectiveness of simplicity, especially when it comes to sleight of hand.  Crumbling under the weight of its own convoluted prestige, the third act turns out to be the hangover.  (Grade: C)

Oblivion.  Every review seems to read like a checklist of sci-fi films of reference, which I will avoid (mostly because it’s not worth the effort).  Notwithstanding the two particularly exquisite female leads (Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko), Melissa Leo is no HAL and Tom Cruise is just Tom Cruise.  If you have not already, see Moon (2009) instead.  (Grade: C)

Only God Forgives.  (Grade: B)

Oz the Great and Powerful.  Although there are hints of greatness in the underlying story of how the con-man Oscar became Oz, the script is clearly lacking – from the flat and redundant dialogue to an aborted musical number.  Although there are a few wonderful visual aspects (e.g., the opening credits in 3D, the China Girl), the predominance of the CGI gives the film a weightless and unmagical look.  And although Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz toil admirably to transcend the material, James Franco and Mila Kunis are clearly miscast.  In the final analysis, Oz the Great and Powerful is to the Wizard of Oz (1939) as The Phantom Menace (1999) is to Star Wars (1977).   (Grade: C)

Pacific Rim.  Although Guillermo del Toro is certainly one of the most visually distinctive directors working today (Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)), I checked my film snob expectations at the metroplex door and instead channeled the six-year-old boy in me who tuned in to Creature Feature each afternoon with the hope of seeing another Godzilla film.  Unfortunately, the giant robots versus giant monster action of Pacific Rim is a big disappointment.  All of the “detail” of the “Kaiju” (monsters) referenced by del Toro in the pre-screening press is all-to-often obscured into an amorphous mess by the use of the use of short cuts and darkness/rain/submergence in bodies water (read: visual effects cheating).  Add in a predictably unremarkable script that curiously begs for a prequel (notwithstanding the scant bits of del Toro humor) and two of the most uncharismatic lead performances of the summer blockbuster season (Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi), and there is not much to recommend.  (Grade: C)

The Past (Le passé).  Writer/director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation (2011)) does it again with another tale of separation and divorce, but The Past is more a sober mediation on guilt and consequences.  The film opens with Ahmad (Ali Mosafta) returning to Paris to meet his wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo), to finalize their divorce after an extended separation. For the most part, the water has already passed under the bridge, but Ahmad finds himself thrust into a drama involving her new life with fiancé Samir (Tahar Rahim) and her teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet).  The less said about the plot from here on out, the better.  Suffice to say, the filmmaking is impeccable.  Farhadi and company prove that when it comes to conveying a sense of realism, nuanced writing and performances beats non-professional actors and a half-baked script every time.  (I’m talking to you, Adam Leon.)  That said, as adept as Farhadi is with visual perspective, the narrative perspective could use some fine tuning, as one feels the sudden absence of closest character we have to a protagonist (Mosafta) through the twisty final movement.  (Grade: B+)

Philomena.  Philomena was pretty much what I expected from the trailer … Well, plus a little bit extra – that is, I did expect to be beaten over the head by his particular Oscar-bait; but then again, I wasn’t aware of who the director was. (Grade: B-)

The Place Beyond the Pines.  (Grade: B)

Prince AvalanchePrince Avalanche is enough of a departure from Pineapple Express (2007) to get me interested in seeing the next David Gordon Green film. That said, Green never delves deep enough into theme or character to overcome a vibe of quirk for the sake of quirk.  (Grade: C+)

Prisoners.  All movies manipulate – that’s kind of the purpose; but there’s good manipulation and bad manipulation.  Prisoners deals in one of the cheapest forms of manipulation – children in jeopardy.  Even this can be done well, such as in Gone Baby Gone (2007).  Prisoners also deals with invocations of religion within the morally gritty context of the police procedural.  This can also be done well, such as in Se7en (1995).  Unfortunately, Prisoners never rises to the level of either of these films.  Is the problem Hugh Jackman’s one-note (read: histrionic) performance as a father of a lost child?  Not necessarily.  Is the problem that Jake Gyllenhaal presents his Canadian police detective a little bit like a South Central gangbanger circa 1990?  It’s not a deal-killer.  No, the primary weakness is the ending – that is, in light of what happens in the 133 minutes that come before, it’s difficult not to feel cheated by the last 20.  (Grade: C+)

The Punk Singer.  As for evaluating music on its own terms (in this case, changing the world), more than any other genre of music (including gospel, ironically enough), political punk seems to be one big exercise in preaching to the converted.  As such, I suppose it should come as no surprise that this documentary of “riot grrrl” Kathleen Hanna (dubbed THE Punk Singer) is so oleaginous, stopping just short of attributing the success of Nirvana to the film’s subject.  (Although this level of don’t-speak-ill treatment is usually reserved for posthumous documentaries, don’t worry, Hanna’s not dead – she just has Lyme disease.)  Like the agenda music it documents, The Punk Singer is an agenda film (i.e., Hanna as unsung hero).  There is no subtlety.  (At one point onstage, Hanna feels the need to explain that her reference to a “cage” is a metaphor.)  There is no recognition of the contradictions.  (The biggest sin Hanna cops to in her incredibly difficult life is being bitten by a tick.)  And coincidentally, these two aspects are not only what distinguishes an interesting biographical documentary from yet another exercise in preaching to the converted, but they also happen to be what distinguishes a genuine poet with musical craft from just another angry young woman with a massive sense of self-importance.  Having experienced and fallen in love with PJ Harvey, Ani DiFranco, and Tori Amos circa 1991-1995, I can safely say that, in evaluating this documentary on its own terms, nothing made me a believer in Kathleen Hanna.  (Grade: C-)

Room 237.  Expecting a lot more from a documentary of the crazy theories about one of the most well-made films about going crazy (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)), there is something unintentionally ironic about how cheap this whole proceeding is – an aspect punctuated by the synthesized score in the closing credits. Considering that none of the subjects’ theories based on a pause button analysis of the film are intrinsically revelatory (or even entertaining beyond the first 20 minutes), the choice of not showing (literally or figuratively) the real faces behind such dogma and hubris is the most fatal flaw of all. On the other hand, it is not that surprising given that their voice overs sound like the product of a bad Skype session. Although the idea had potential, it is squandered by the anybody-with-a-Mac-and-fair-use-laws-can-do-it brand of documentary filmmaking.  (Grade: C-)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  In order to maximize enjoyment of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), (1) avoid the trailer to the movie, and (2) avoid the trailers that appear before the movie.  As feel-good Christmas Day pap goes, one could do a lot worse than this unfairly maligned film (e.g., having to watch Danny Kaye for 110 minutes).  (Grade: C+)

Short Term 12.  As a truly mixed bag of emotions, “refreshingly sober” might be the best descriptor for this drama based around a home for emotionally troubled children.  Although not based on a true story, Short Term 12 certainly feels more authentic than the bio-indie Sundance hit Fruitvale Station (2013).  In only his second indie feature, writer/director Destin Cretton just about knocks this one out of the park, although a good portion of the credit should go to whoever was responsible for spot-on casting of Brie Larson (The Spectacular Now (2013)) and John Gallagher, Jr. (The Newsroom (2012-2013)).  (Grade: B+)

Side Effects.  (Grade: A-)

Some Velvet Morning.  (Grade: B-)

Spring Breakers.  (Grade: C-)

Star Trek Into Darkness.  (Grade: B-)

Stoker.  (Grade: B-)

Stories We Tell.   Striking the right balance of artful visual choices and respectful restraint in storytelling, director Sarah Polley is slowly and quietly establishing her own impressive indie subgenre.  In her first two films – Away from Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2012) – Polley’s uncommon takes on infidelity and marriage displayed a refreshingly sober wisdom and truth.  Stories We Tell, her first feature documentary, continues this trend.  As the title indicates, Polley’s exploration of how she found her true biological father is chock full of delicious layers of narratives and meta-narratives.  Polley’s putative father provides the voiceover to super 8 film footage from the 1960s and 1970s (or is it?), which accents the abundance of interviews with her family members, her found family members, and the friends of her long-deceased mother.  Polley’s own presence is self-consciously minimal, which may suggest a more general thematic intent for the project.  That said, as one of her own interviewees points out, Polley’s democratic approach to telling this particular story means “never touching bottom.”  As a consequence, Stories We Tell is easier to appreciate on an intellectual level than on an emotional one.  (Grade: A-)  (See Stacey’s review.)

This Is the End.  The concept of the end of the world coming to Hollywood is good for a few laughs, but given the scope of the characters involved (limited), it cannot sustain a feature-length film.  (Grade: C)

Thor: The Dark World.  (Grade: D)

The To Do List.  Much has been made of the distinct female-orientation of two recent genre films – The Conjuring and this comedic debut by writer/director Maggie Carey.  As a minor variation on the virgin-teen-gets-laid subgenre, The To Do List certainly passes the Six Laugh Test for those of us who can appreciate good potty humor.  But as politically gratifying as it may be to see film that takes sex exactly as seriously (or not) as it should and as fun as it is to watch Aubrey Plaza play well below her actual age, there is ultimately very little below the surface – subversive or otherwise.  (Grade: C+)

To the Wonder.  (Grade: B+)

Trance.  Although the acting is strong and director Danny Boyle brings a particularly engaging Slumdog Millionnaire-esque aesthetic to the noir genre, the script is so overloaded with progressively more distracting plot holes/inexplicable character motivations that any semblance of a convincing narrative collapses by the third act.  (Grade: C+)

Upstream Color.  The first 30 minutes of Upstream Color set up what might just be the most effective visual alien abduction narrative ever (sans the aliens).  But from there on out, the pace drops a couple of gears into a meandering and contemplative phase that strains the viewer’s ability to engage and never really recovers.  (Grade: B-)

Warm Bodies.  To put it simply, Warm Bodies is a film that tries to be too much – straight horror, meta-horror, horror-comedy, rom-com, allegory, an homage to Romeo and Juliet and The Wizard of Oz, etc.  In any case, I believe Warm Bodies might have fared better commercially if it had been released one week after World War Z – the latest big-budget entry into the overdone zombie genre.  (Grade: C)

The Way, Way Back.  Steve Carell turns in a rare two-dimensional take as the villainous would-be stepfather, and Sam Rockwell channels his best Bill Murray (Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980)) – which together make this not-quite-retro coming of age summer comedy worth the price of admission.  That said, the second act is too light in substance to fuel the emotional punch the ending needs.  (Grade: B-)

We Are What We Are.  Many great (and not-so-great) horror films set the stage for suspense, terror, and creepiness by simply ramping up a particular facet of our sociological constructs.  (e.g., The 1980s saw a whole string of slasher flicks loosely tied to holidays.)  In this remake of a Mexican movie of the same title, the filmmakers draw upon a rather curious aspect of many religions – the ritualization and commemoration of awful and gruesome periods in a shared history.  Following the death of their mother, teenage sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) are forced to grapple with their own unique religious traditions under the thumb of their patriarch and purveyor of tradition, Frank (Bill Sage).  For the first third of this film, low-budget horror director Jim Mickle serves up a surprisingly artful affair – full of visual harbingers and metaphors, but never heavy-handed.  Past the first act, the plot generally avoids the hide-the-ball machinations that typify the genre.  And yet even as the subtlety begins to fall away, the film remains vital as Childers and Garner play well above the script.   The net effect is an earned and earnest sense of creepiness, which is ultimately betrayed by the final 15 minutes and what may be the worst ending of any film of the year.  What could have been a truly great horror film ends up living up to its own campy movie poster.  (Grade: C+)

We’re the Millers.  The latest SNL alumni vehicle is good for a four or five genuine laughs for those (like me) who can appreciate potty humor, although it’s never a good sign with the loudest laughter comes from a pranky outtake playing over the credits.  What is this – a Marvel movie?  (Grade: C-)

What Maisie Knew.  In What Maisie Knew, we assume the viewpoint of a young girl (Onata Aprile) being bounced around between a philandering father (Steve Coogan), a philandered nanny (Joanna Vanderham), a rock star mother (Julianne Moore), and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard).  While competently shot and acted, the big problem is the screenplay adapted from Henry James’ 1897 novel. The pace never lets up enough to really get to know the characters, which might be part of the plan given the broad strokes used to paint the father and the mother in particular.  (Aside from setting this version in Germany in 1938 and making the parents Nazi party officials, I could not imagine how one could hang these characters lower on the proverbial tree.)  Notwithstanding the attempt to take a shortcut to emotional appeal with a smaltzy score, the net result is a film that seems so burdened with conviction to its primary commentary (“look what those selfish divorcing parents are doing to their children!”) that very little genuine humanity shines through.  (Grade: C)

The Wolf of Wall Street.  Greedy people are decadent.  There really isn’t much more to The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest stab at relevance by one of the greatest directors of his time, Martin Scorsese. The recipe goes like this: (1) Combine one part Wall Street (1987), one part Glengarry Glen Ross (1990), and one part Pineapple Express (2008); (2) reduce for less-than-inspired writing and the fact that, despite being given what seemed like a dozen motivational speeches, Leonardo Dicaprio is really no Michael Douglas or Alec Baldwin; and (3) add enough hookers and blow to bloat it all out to 3 hours.  I don’t want to believe it, but maybe Tarantino is right about aging directors. So how do I exorcise this distinct feeling of melancholy and that odd lingering numbness in my nasal cavity? Perhaps a double feature of The King of Comedy (1983) and After Hours (1985) would do the trick.  Scorsese is dead, long live David O. Russell!  (Grade: C-)

The Wolverine.  With Pacific Rim and now The Wolverine, Hollywood’s world-focused marketing efforts is no longer confined to changing the nationalities of the bad guys in 80s remakes: the Far East is now a primary part of the target audience.  Commercial considerations aside, redrawing the titular X-Men character as a ronin, adding a pseudo-schoolgirl as an ass-kicking sidekick, and setting the film almost entirely in Japan is certainly an interesting move.  Unlikely director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma (2007), Walk the Line (2005)), for the most part, wisely sticks to smaller and fewer action sequences than what has become the standard superhero recipe (read: no buildings – real or CGI – collapsed in the making of this film).  And for the first two acts, The Wolverine looked to be the best of the series. But then came the head-scratching endgame, which has proven to be the Achilles heel of many a superhero film with potential.  (Grade: C+)

World War Z.  Lest even the most ardent of fans grow weary, Hollywood’s steady stream of vampire and zombie flicks have recently trended toward mixing in other genres (e.g., zombies + teen romantic comedy = Warm Bodies (2013)).  As such, World War Z blends some relatively impressive CGI and non-CGI effects into what is essentially a procedural – along the lines of Contagion (2011) – of which former/re-recruited U.N. operative Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is the engine.  The early sequence introducing the rapid spread of the undead disease on the streets of Philadelphia is particularly jarring, and there are a couple left turns in the narrative that fans of the genre are bound to appreciate.  But in all the hubbub, it is difficult to feel any essential sense of real danger, especially where it matters most – in the endgame.  (Grade: C+)

The World’s End.  This third installment of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007)) of director/writer Edgar Wright and writer/actor Simon Pegg is certainly the most ambitious – and not just in terms of special effects. In satirizing two subgenres (the bromedy and the alien body snatchers), The World’s End might also be the most fun (sans a head-scratching epilogue).  (Grade: B-)

You’re Next.  Although the trailer makes this buzz-worthy horror film seem like a riff on The Purge (2013), the opening sequence is all 80s slasher. And although the filmmakers seem a bit too concerned with satisfying the genre fanboys who love to catalog novel ways to drive up the kill count, a couple of well-timed twists kept my attention for the duration.  (Grade: B-)

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