Mini-Reviews: Nebraska, The Wind Rises

•November 29, 2013 • 1 Comment


Some of Alexander Payne’s post-Election work has struggled to find the balance between loving satire and outright mockery. About Schmidt, Sideways, and to a lesser degree The Descendants, have some lovely character work and keenly observed human behavior… only to then be undone by cartoonish moments and mean-hearted characterization. However, with Nebraska, Payne’s newest work, he finally figures out a way to satirize the world of his characters while never losing his affection for them. Perhaps the color film was holding him back, as the crisp black-and-white cinematography perfectly fits his tone. We meet Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old man in Montana with a nagging wife (June Squibb), an underachieving son (Will Forte), and a dreary existence. Suddenly, he finds hope– he receives a letter from Publishers Clearinghouse that says he may have won a million dollars. Instead of replying in kind (he doesn’t trust the mail), he sets off to Nebraska to collect his money. After failing to convince Woody it isn’t real, his son decides to take him there himself, stopping briefly in Woody’s hometown. There, they see family, explore his roots, and his son grows to learn and respect more about his father. I’ve some familiarity with the Midwest, and I know these people: the men drinking beer and watching football, the women who know the business of everyone in town, the way that small news becomes big news. While it’s easy to poke fun at, it’s even easier to feel Payne’s love for this world, and the final five-to-ten minutes are a joy. This film has a small scale, but it feels big– it’s Payne’s best in a decade, easily.

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Thor: The Dark World: Far From Dark, This Sequel Is Heavenly

•November 7, 2013 • 10 Comments

Marvel has figured it out. They know precisely the tone they want their films to have, and they strike their chord with masterful precision time and again. For those who like their comic book movies breezy, action packed, and, y’know, FUN (i.e. fans of The Avengers and Iron Man 3), I’m overjoyed to report that Thor: The Dark World is cut from the same cloth. New director Alan Taylor must have been like a child in a sandbox full of toys, as he fleshes out Asgard, Thor’s family and friends, and the Nine Realms with zeal and humor. This may in fact have more jokes per minute than any Marvel film to date, something fans of the first may be surprised to hear. Yet despite all the laughs and the big-time action sequences, the characters shine through. Hemsworth and Hiddleston continue to be terrific as Thor and Loki; they’re the beating heart of this extravaganza. Marvel hit a grand slam with The Avengers and nailed Iron Man 3, so I expect that there will inevitably be a film that drops in quality. This isn’t it: Thor: The Dark World is great fun.

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Mini-Reviews: Dallas Buyers Club, Ender’s Game, About Time

•November 6, 2013 • 3 Comments

Dallas Buyers Club:

Dallas Buyers Club is a classic example of great performances happening to a good movie. Outside of the inspiring story itself and the main three performances, there’s not a great deal to praise, as Jean-Marc Vallee’s film suffers from a number of shortcomings often found in biopics. When we meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), he’s a boozehound, sexhound– every type of hound. He discovers from his doctor (Jennifer Garner), that he has AIDS and is given thirty days to live. Woodroof views it as “that homo disease” and doesn’t believe it.. until he remembers having unprotected sex with a heroin user. Upon realizing the current medicines approved by the FDA will not fix him, he travels to Mexico and stashes a ton of unapproved drugs that help extend his life. With the help of a transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto), they attempt to give these legal drugs to those who need them… but the FDA interferes. It goes without saying the story itself is remarkable, but the film spends too much time focusing on the events and not enough on the characters. The few character-focused scenes we get are deeply moving, largely because McConaughey and Leto are remarkable. When they’re allowed to engage in actual conversation, the film soars, but too often the script reduces them to odd-couple banter. It’s a must-see for the caliber of acting work being done– it’s just a shame that Dallas Buyers Club teases you with the brilliant character-building scenes and gives you so relatively few of them.

Ender’s Game:

As someone who has never read Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, I can’t vouch for the the faithfulness of Gavin Hood’s film adaptation. I can vouch that, while the movie feels very watered-down and “studio-ized,” it made me want to pick up the book. The story is the real star of Ender’s Game, which contains plenty of cliched sci-fi genre proclamation dialogue (“The fate of the world rests in your hands!” etc.) and sleepwalking veteran adult actors, yet it never really sinks. Credit Asa Butterfield for being a likable main presence in the film, as Ender, the smart young lad and born leader in the coming conflict against an alien race who attacked Earth and plans to return shortly. His training ground, a kind of intergalactic paintball arena with floating geometric shapes, is compellingly realized, and the other child soldiers around him (including Academy Award nominee Hailee Steinfeld) are all charming if simple supporting characters. The story itself is heady, full of interesting moral quandaries and ethical dilemmas about soldiers, war, and self-preservation. It may be delivered in the safest and most palatable genre package possible, but it’s overall a surprisingly diverting experience. I’m unlikely to remember much, but I remember enjoying it– and when the writer/director’s last project was the abominable X-Men Origins: Wolverine, “forgettable yet enjoyable” is a better compliment than I was expecting to give.

About Time:

There are two Richard Curtis camps: there’s the camp that finds his brand of gooey sentimentality and foppish British wit utterly charming, and there’s the camp that finds it to be abhorrent manipulative junk. Put me in the former camp, as a proud owner of Love Actually on DVD, so I was excited for About Time, his newest venture with romcom-staple (and my personal celebrity crush) Rachel McAdams. We follow a young man (Dohmnall Gleeson) who discovers from his father (Bill Nighy, ever wonderful) that he has the ability to travel back in time. He can’t travel to the future, just backward– to relive days, or perhaps to correct small errors without causing too much of a butterfly effect. As one would expect in a Curtis film, he uses it for love, finding a way to win the heart of the girl of his dreams (Rachel McAdams) and make every moment of his life count. It’s all very life-affirming and charming and British, though I was rather surprised how plotless and sprawling it is. It’s Curtis’ messiest film, full of non-stop voiceover narration and very little sense of overarching forward narrative momentum. Do Gleeson and McAdams have chemistry? Of course. Are there plenty of one-liners to make you chuckle and plenty of achingly earnest sentimental moments to make you cry? Naturally. Will Curtis’ target audience (my girlfriend included) absolutely adore every frame of this? Undeniably. I was less taken by this than by previous Curtis entries, and obviously those who hate this brand of romcom would find this film akin to having root canals on all of your teeth simultaneously, but I can’t deny that it gets the genre work done, warts and all.

Mini-Reviews: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Counselor

•November 6, 2013 • 3 Comments

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa:

Bad Grandpa, the newest outing by Jackass star Johnny Knoxville, is about as surreal a movie experience as I’ve had and am likely to have this year. The film is a series of pranks played on passers-by in which Knoxville is a grandfather behaving poorly in public. It’s an 80-minute episode of Candid Camera with far more farts and scrotums. Whether you find it funny or not is ultimately wildly subjective (I found most of it unfunny, though the grandson made me laugh intermittently)… but its “funniness” has nothing to do with the surreal nature of my experience. I couldn’t get past the following: the key to these jokes is the audience never once getting lost in the “characters,” but rather remaining hyper-aware that that is Johnny Knoxville in makeup and we’re watching pranks being played. Yet the film every few minutes or so contains scenes of private dialogue, as if they’re encouraging us to get lost in these characters. The final ten minutes or so actually gets sentimental for its characters, complete with a montage of their fond memories. I couldn’t wrap my mind around why it works so damn hard to tell us a story when the humor requires us to remain removed. Would you ever watch a prank show in which the guys playing the pranks go off and have scenes by themselves, building their characters, tied in no way whatsoever to the pranks at hand? It’s a truly bizarre choice that I still can’t quite wrap my mind around. You likely know if Bad Grandpa will make you laugh or not, and a review won’t sway you one way or the other. I don’t remember laughing much… but I do remember feeling puzzled.

The Counselor:

I believe The Counselor is precisely the movie Cormac McCarthy set out to make, a faithfully realized rendition of his script. McCarthy’s outlook is bleak, his dialogue is novelistic and philosophical, and his tone is frigidly cold. Cold, novelistic, and philosophical are usually my bread and butter (see: my review of last year’s Cosmopolis), but excepting a couple of choice scenes and performances, I found The Counselor to be a tough sit– not just due to subject matter, but also execution. With the exception of Brad Pitt, who shines, I felt the actors had trouble balancing the need to find a character with the mouthfuls of dialogue they were sporting. Fassbender as the leading man is, strangely, a blank; intentionally so, yet when all we’re given from our main character is a bad accent and an absence of emotion until twenty minutes before the end, I strained to even remotely engage. Many of the individual monologues are quite lovely, yet when strung together, pacing became an issue, so the film wasn’t just cold, talky, and unpleasant, but also needlessly slow in its unfolding. There is undoubtedly an audience for this movie, particularly those who would simply love to hear McCarthy’s uncompromisingly dark philosophizing read aloud, and that alone makes me tempted to revisit it one day. However, chalk me up as someone who, despite generally digging McCarthy on page, can’t get with The Counselor on screen. Individual elements may shine, but the whole doesn’t add up.

Mini-Reviews: Sound City, Blackfish, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

•November 3, 2013 • 1 Comment

Sound City:

Sound City sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not to say that this is the best film of the year (it’s not), or that it’s the best film of the year (it’s not); however, I can say this is one of the safest bets for enjoyment the year has to offer. Dave Grohl has created a loving portrait of the legendary music studio, which gives us an encyclopedic history without sacrificing character; the personalities are as important as the music, the why as essential as the what. It’s easy to make a documentary enjoyable by lacing it with sensational music from the 70s and 80s, but Grohl’s execution is crisp and his storytelling eye is sound– it feels like it was crafted by a veteran documentary filmmaker. Anyone with a passing interest in music is likely to find a favorite in the mix: Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield, and Nirvana are among the dozens who recorded there and are interviewed and featured in archival footage for Sound City. The final thirty minutes or so amounts to little more than Dave Grohl massaging his own ego; he buys an important piece of Sound City and invites most of the artists back to record music with him at his home. Not that this is a problem– a collaboration between Paul McCartney and the surviving members of Nirvana is likely to delight nearly all who watch it– it just strays from the singular focus the doc had maintained up to that point. Regardless, Sound City is a must-watch for any music lover, and it’s one hell of a feature doc debut for Grohl. 100% well-earned.

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Mini-Reviews: In A World…, A.C.O.D.

•November 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

In A World…:

This summer, two indie comedies came out, both written and directed by actors, handling the behind-the-camera work for the first time. One got major distribution, plenty of media coverage, and the cover of Entertainment Weekly; the other got limited distribution and was more or less hidden from the public. One of these films was made by a man about a man and the objectified women around him. The other was made by a woman about a woman who has dimension and warmth living in a world where men have the power and the media attention. Want to take a guess which is which? In A World… was the minor release, the film crafted by the woman (surprise), and by miles the superior of the two (the other, Don Jon, has already been ranted about on this site). Lake Bell, the writer/director/star, has created a lovely film, the rarest of gems in the comedy genre: a character-driven story with social relevance. Lake Bell’s character is the daughter of the greatest living voiceover actor (Fred Melamed), and while she craves to break into his business, he discourages her– the people want to hear a man’s voice, not a woman’s. Bell’s script deftly toes the line between zany and grounded, never taking a misstep. None of the characters in this ensemble piece is a cartoon; all are fully sketched, with intentions, clear backstories, and a purpose for existing. Why can’t more comedies grasp this notion? Furthermore, why can’t comedies like this get the media coverage and the attention they deserve? In A World… is one of the best comedies of the past couple of years, and I have a sneaking suspicion it was treated by the powers-that-be the way Bell’s character is treated by her father. A real shame. This is a real crowd-pleaser, a breath of fresh air, and a comedy for which I couldn’t give a stronger recommendation. Seek it out.

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Mini-Reviews: Escape Plan, The Fifth Estate

•November 2, 2013 • 2 Comments

Escape Plan:

We’ve been granted a reprieve from the “I’m too old for this” action genre, at long last. Escape Plan brings us our action heroes of the eighties, Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but it bucks the trend of presenting them as they are, instead giving them actual characters to play and a plot with actual stakes. I love a brainless shoot-em-up as much as the next guy, but there’s something thrilling about watching Sly and Arnold tell a story. Ray Breslin (Stallone) breaks out of jails for a living, and his newest client betrays him, leaving him with only one new ally, Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), in the most inescapable prison ever made. The action is surprisingly limited, opting instead for a slow build in tension, which feels underwhelming in the middle, but it makes the finale action set piece all the more rewarding. Our iconic stars are surrounded by trustworthy character actors who liven the proceedings, like Vincent D’Onofrio, Faran Tahir, and Vinnie Jones. Plus, our villain here is, thankfully, Jim Caviezel, who gleefully chews the scenery like a young Gary Oldman; an action flick is only as good as its hammy bad guy, and this one boasts the creme de la creme. It’s all very silly, of course– but when Stallone drops one-liners on the warden, or when Arnold turns around in slow motion with a giant gun, you’ll feel the comfort of seeing these icons right at home, where they belong.

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Mini-Reviews: Captain Phillips, Machete Kills, Runner Runner

•October 12, 2013 • 4 Comments

Captain Phillips:

Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is the rarest of gifts: a thriller steeped in humanity. Based on the 2009 raid of the container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, it’s a triumph of studio filmmaking with a deceptive simplicity that unfolds to reveal surprising complexity, and its palpable tension caused my fingernails to mysteriously grow shorter during its runtime. Greengrass was clearly an inspired choice, as no action director alive so effortlessly creates the semblance of realism, and he’s never done it better than with this film. Tom Hanks also gives the best performance of his career; it turns out his intensely earnest Everyman vibe, usually captured behind the sheen of slick Hollywood fare, is perfectly suited for Greengrass’ grounded style. After an astonishingly intense start to the action, the tension somehow continues to steadily rise throughout, leading to one of the most emotional and satisfying endings to a film you’re likely to see this year.

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Gravity: A Visual Experience Light Years Ahead Of The Rest

•October 4, 2013 • 4 Comments

I saw Gravity at two consecutive screenings. I saw it, immediately left, bought a ticket for the soonest available screening to follow, and saw it again. This is not because Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s space adventure is difficult to wrap your mind around. It’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, it’s a surprisingly straight-forward and simple plot, the type of conventional parable we often get in these survival genre films. It’s because the film immerses you in the deep terror of space, and it’s so gorgeously rendered that it succeeds in that old movie cliche of “transporting you to another world”– here, that world is thousands of miles above our own. It’s also the type of movie filled with ingenuity and visuals that seem impossible to achieve; the first thirty minutes of Gravity are two long takes, both all-timers. Cuaron’s affinity for the long take, seen in his other films, suits him perfectly to shoot in space, where the camera spins, tumbles, and weaves about, giving us a smooth blend of disorientation and carefully established geography. As you watch an astronaut free floating through space while the sun peeks out from behind the planet, you gasp at the combination of fear and wonder that space inspires. That’s what makes Gravity such an indelible experience; it deserves to be seen in 3D on the biggest screen at your disposal, or you’re missing out.

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Mini-Reviews: Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2, Don Jon, Enough Said

•October 2, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2:

The first Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs film, brought to life by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (better known by the masses as the writers/directors of 21 Jump Street), grows tastier with each watch. It’s packed to the brim with visual gags, puns, inventive and colorful animation, and characters with heart. It’s not just one of the best animated films of the last half-decade, but one of the best comedies of the last half-decade, period. That creates unfortunate expectations for the Lord-and-Miller-less sequel, and the first act seems to signify a pretty massive disappointment. The characters are removed from their home island, which had been trashed by food, and they go to work in America. Our hero Flint (Bill Hader) works for his childhood idol, the Steve Jobs-esque Chester V (Will Forte), and for a stretch, we get a lot of set-up and exploration of Chester V’s world, which simply isn’t as interesting as the food-infested island that awaits. Thankfully, they head to the island eventually, and once we arrive, the movie kicks into gear with puns galore (“there’s a leek in the boat!”), cleverly designed “foodimals,” and the characters we love have much more to do. It falls short of the bliss generated by the first film, but I’d be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with the last 45 minutes of this sequel. Excluding the first half-hour or so, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 is probably the best animated film of 2013. Including it, it’s an uneven affair with rewards laying in wait for those with patience… especially for those of you who love puns.

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