ABOUT TIME (***1/2) is one of the best romantic comedies I've seen in years, which is not surprising given that it comes from Richard Curtis, creator of Love Actually andNotting Hill. This stars the ginger, gawky & adorable Domhnall Gleeson as a guy who can travel back in time, trying over & over to get things right in his pursuit of his Ms. Right (Rachel McAdams). But fear not, it's not a sci-fi if that's not your thing. It's likeGroundhog Day meets Notting Hill, with the soul of Love Actually. It's delightful, at times hilarious, and remarkably heartfelt. The last half hour is brilliant, and will make you want to be a better person. Go go go!
ALL IS LOST (**) is a perfectly quality film about Robert Redford stranded at sea in a leaking sailboat, fighting & brainstorming to survive. Everyone's abuzz that Redford may win his first acting Oscar, and I guess I'd say that if he won, I'd be happy for him, as he seems to be a good guy and has done a lot of great things for the business, I think? But, whelp, I wouldn't agree with it. It's an impressive film, and sure it may have been a lot of hard work on his end; but the movie is a bit boring, and he spends most of the movie being about as wooden as the boat itself.
AMERICAN HUSTLE (****) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence light up the screen in this CIA con-men/women heist thriller/comedy. Writer/director David O. Russell is a king of subtle style, and he creates a rich, juicy world with this one. Check it out! I initially gave it ***1/2, but upon second viewing, yup: this is a 4-star-er for me... It's a throwback to Scorsese's heydey, and is poised to solidify itself as a crime dramedy classic.
ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (***1/2) This is one of the best comedy sequels I've ever seen - it truly picks back up RIGHT where it left off (not timeline-wise, but quality & style-wise), and slowly raises the ante. This ensemble is just so friggin funny, and the creativity in the language is out of this world. PLUS it also functions is quite the smart satire of modern news. Go have a ball!
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (***1/2) After how much I loved the Broadway play (which I saw 3 times), and after all the lukewarm reviews, I was surprisingly satisfied by this. Some of the language doesn't pop as well on screen - the comedy, particularly, can't fly in the same way - but the gut is still there. Some of the cast is out of place, but most of it is dead on, and Meryl and Julia lead the charge with flying colors, providing some of the best work either of them has done. Other highlights: Margo Martindale as Meryl's frumpy, grumpy sister, and entrancing newcomer Julianne Nicholson as Meryl's pushover middle daughter. Worth seeing, especially if you missed the play.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT (****) is hands-down the best movie I've seen so far this year. For those who don't know, it's the third in a brilliant & unique series: Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy meet on a train in Europe and spend a spontaneous day together falling in love in Vienna in 1995's Before Sunrise; then reconnect for the first time in 9 years as they spend a day in Paris comparing notes on 9 long years of life & rekindling that love in 2004's Before Sunset. Now they have been together since then, have twins, and are experiencing typical relationship turmoil in Greece. Each movie is basically just two people walking & talking, so if that's not your thing, beware. But it's some of the most alive & beautiful walking & talking you'll ever see; and Midnight raises the bar even higher with some seriously deep & layered writing & acting. Please watch the other two then go!
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (**1/2) is "that 3-hour teen-angst lesbian French drama with crazy-explicit extended sex scenes". And that's... exactly what it is. Wish it were half as long, and half as dull to boot. BUT, the acting from these newcomers is utterly phenomenal, and the piece is quite affecting at times. I don't regret seeing it (cuz of the acting), but I would regret if I were someone who saw way fewer movies and had wasted an outing to see this.
BLUE JASMINE (***1/2) stars Cate Blanchett as an American socialite who decombusts, and then tries to get her life together while crashing with her lower-class sister (Sally Hawkins) in San Fran, after her businessman husband (Alec Baldwin) gets arrested for Bernie Madoff-esque activity. Hawkins, Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, & Louis C.K. all absolutely shine in supporting roles, but Blanchett's work takes the cake. Allen films are known for featuring some fine, and award-winning, work from actresses; but Blanchett's might be the best I've seen in a Woody endeavor.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (***1/2) is another immaculate drama/thriller from director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum). Tom Hanks stars in this true story of a ship captain taken hostage by Somalian pirates. It's just one of those quality nail-biters.
THE CONJURING (***1/2) is pretty surely the scariest movie I've ever seen. Patrick Wilson & Vera Farmiga are gurus of ghosts, and Lily Taylor & Ron Livingston are the parents of a family of 7 who move into a ferociously haunted house. If you like scary movies, by god: go!
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (***1/2) features Matthew McConaughey as a straight man with AIDS in the 1980's, who, in response to the hospital/government's failure to supply the proper drugs/medicines to HIV victims, starts a black market to supply said better but frustratingly illegal drugs to HIV folk. Jared Leto lights up the screen as his queeny tranny friend & business partner, and McConaughey turns in his best performance to date, by a looooong shot.
DON JON (***) is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's passion project: he wrote, directed, & stars in this story of a porn addict, trying the whole dating-a-real-person thing with Scarlett Johansson. It's nothing to write home about, but it's a better made film than I thought it would be, and Julianne Moore does some of her finer work in a supporting role.
ELYSIUM (***1/2) is the follow-up feature from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, and is equally good in my mind. It's 2154 and Earth is an overpopulated, polluted, destructed sh*thole, and the rich have escaped to Elysium, a save haven that floats in Earth's orbit and keeps those Earth-dwellers out. Matt Damon's an Earth-dweller in need who tries to be the hero, Jodie Foster is a morally-corrupt power-figure above, and District 9 star Sharlto Copley is her firecracker of a bounty hunter. What's terrific is that it's a satisfying thriller that also supplies an effective allegory. Good stuff.
ENOUGH SAID (***) is a romantic comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini (in his last lead role) as two divorcees who tiptoe into a new relationship with each other. It's tender, endearing, funny, and beautifully performed.
42 (**) tells the Jackie Robinson story, which is an inherently moving story to watch. And it has many great moments. But boy oh boy do they lay on the schmaltz, and Harrison Ford (as the GM that boldly pulled him in) is doing his best Clint Eastwood,melodramatically garbling his way through an overtly & unnecessarily flashy performance.
FRANCES HA (***) is so close to being an utter classic. But for me it fell short due to a consistent tonal awkwardness that it seemed to never quite be able to shed. I'm too tired right now to tell you what it's about - watch a trailer, see if it seems to be up your alley, and if so check it out! There's SO MUCH that's just lovely about it; it just never quite NAILS it if you ask me.
FROZEN (***1/2) is the best non-Pixar animated movie I've seen in ages! (It's also just about the only non-Pixar animated movie I've seen in ages, but whatever...) Delightful characters, delightful story, almost on par with the Disney heyday. And perfect for the holidays - check it out!
FRUITVALE STATION (***1/2) is the true story of Oscar Grant, who was unnecessarily shot by cops at a San Fran BART station on New Years Eve 2008/9. It tells his tale of that day, leading up to that night, and the shooting is at the end, so if you didn't know about the true story, unread this brief review and go see it fresh. It's a beautiful & sad & shocking tale.
GRAVITY (***1/2) is stunning. Sandra Bullock & George Clooney as astronauts stranded in space, all directed by the visually-adept virtuoso Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men). He uses 3D maybe better than I've ever seen it used, and it's quite an enthralling ride. I have some minor complaints, and it didn't nail me the wayChildren did, but it's an absolute must-see, and a must-see-in-the-theaters!
THE GREAT GATSBY (**1/2) gets bonus points for being super stimulating & visually enthralling, and featuring moments of brilliance. But boy are these 3 leads (DiCaprio, Maguire, Mulligan) sub-par, and sadly these characters' souls just aren't at the party.
THE HANGOVER PART III (**1/2) is entertaining enough, with typically fun performances. But it does indeed fall even shorter than the first sequel, which makes it a far cry the first. Nuts.
THE HEAT (***1/2) is perhaps the first female buddy-cop movie, and it stars Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, who have excellent chemistry. McCarthy is an absolute comic genius, and is somehow able to make dialogue, that you KNOW kinda stinks while you're watching it, seemingly hilarious. Fun times.
HER (****) Joaquin Phoenix turns in yet another indelible, layered performance as a lonely, emotionally sheltered man who falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johnasson, oddly enough doing her best work since Lost in Translation a decade ago). Set in the near, but ominously approaching, future, this masterpiece artistically asks perhaps life's most pertinent & sobering questions about where technology is taking us, and what hope we have for our hearts & relationships. My favorite movie of the last 5 years, and certainly the year's most socially relevant.
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (***) ...is totally a step up from the first Hobbit ! I'm still displeased with how much it feels like glossy & ridiculous video game, but I'm more used to it this time around. It still totally lacks the soul & grit of Lord of the Rings , but it's still good fun, and seriously, Martin Freeman is SO MUCH MORE INTERSTING TO WATCH than Elijah Wood... (Sorry Elijah)
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (***1/2) Never read these books, but this flick was at least as much of a ride as the last one! Nothing genius here, but wow: a) Jennifer Lawrence is just terrific every time outta the gate, and b) despite a few tonally strange features, these movies are grossly suspenseful.
THE HUNT (***1/2) is an affecting Danish film starting Mads Mikkelsen (the bleeding-eye villain from Casino Royale) as a kindergarten teacher shunned by his town after a student (his best friend's daughter) claims that he exposed himself to her sexually. The performances are phenomenal, and the film is harrowing.
THE ICEMAN (**1/2) is based on the true story of a contract killer (the volcanic Michael Shannon) who killed over 100 people, and his family etc etc etc... It does NOTHING new, and doesn't even do the old that well. That said, Shannon is endlessly watchable, and it's entertaining enough... Consider it if you so desire.
IN A WORLD... (***1/2) is this year's surprise gem for me! My second fave of the year thus far, behind Before Midnight. Lake Bell (where did THIS GIRL come from??!) is terrrrrIFic as an up & coming voiceover actress, venturing to become the first successful female voiceover artist for trailers, following in the footsteps of her wildly successful trailer-voiceover-actor father (the inimitable Fred Melamed). The dialogue in this movie crackles with inventiveness & truth that soar in tandem & hit your funny bone & heart in equally successful measure. Michaela Watkins & Rob Corddry provide collateral awesomeness as Bell's sister & brother-in-law, and Demetri Martin is shockingly good as Bell's awkward friend who wants more. GO GO GO!
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (***1/2) is mid-level Coen Brothers, which is to say it's damn good. The story of a singer/guitarist struggling through the folk era of 1960's New York, Llewyn features some terrific supporting characters (as you'd expect from the Coens), delicious music, and of course, sparkling dialogue. It doesn't pop off the screen too often (some of you may be bored), but some of you will just love it.
IRON MAN 3 (***1/2) was a blast! It might actually have been my favorite of the series! I'd say it's certainly the funniest - RDJ let's even more loose in the role.
KILL YOUR DARLINGS (***1/2) is the depiction of Allen Ginsberg's (Daniel Radcliffe) college days, as he bonds with other early beat poets over some revolutionary sculduggery. It's a beautifully shot, rather hypnotic film; it somehow takes off despite Radcliffe's shortcomings. The up & coming phenom Dane DeHaan is mesmerizing as Lucien Carr, Ginsberg's primary partner in crime & the object of his secret affection.
THE KINGS OF SUMMER (***) is a dramedy about 3 kids who run away from home for the summer to build a house in the woods and... have some fun? Stick it to their parents? Unclear, which is one problem, along with the clunky & lacking story line. But the mood & cinematography are just lovely, and the parents provide some wonderful performances. I really enjoyed sitting in the world that was created.
LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER (***1/2) rides dangerously close to the line of being schmaltzy, Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Month-esque, but somehow narrowly avoids that dangerous cliff. It's the story of a "house nigger" (Forest Whitaker) who becomes the White House butler for 7 administrations, but it moreover utilizes his story as the lens through which the film depicts the progress of race equality through those decades. It's deceptively affecting, and Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey (as his wife) do some fine work.
LONE SURVIVOR (***1/2) is one of the best war movies I've seen in years. Based on the true story of four US soldiers trapped in a dicey situation in Afghanistan, fighting their tails off to come out alive, it does a hell of a job of sucking us into their intense world. Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch are terrific as soldiers, and the music & sound heighten the enthrall factor.
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (***1/2) is not one of the better Pixar flicks by any means, but it absolutely rises to the level of many others with its delightful spirit, quality storytelling, and well-constructed jokes. Lots of delicious characters too - it's a good time.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (***) was directed in black & white in about 2 weeks by Joss Whedon in his own Los Angeles house. While delicious as an idea, in execution this idea leaves something to be desired as an overall "concept" for the piece. That said, he created a lovely world that's really nice to spend 2 hours in. Some of the performances are wooonderful, and some are... really not. Nathan Fillion steals the show as Dogberry.
MUD (**1/2) is "Matthew McConaughey's best work ever" but totally not. He's absolutely solid, and does absolutely nothing new. It's the story of two kids in the south who stumble upon a shipwrecked boat up in a tree, inhabited by an on-the-run-from-the-law fella named Mud (McConaughey). They befriend him & try to help him, etc etc. It's decent enough, but another aggressively mediocre movie.
NEBRASKA (**1/2) ...stars Bruce Dern as an old, rather senile alcoholic who makes the trek from Montana to Nebraska with his son (Will Forte) to claim his million dollar Sweepstakes prize that his wife & son are sure is just a scam. Dern turns in a fine performance, and June Squibb is a delightful riot as his wife. But acclaimed writer/director Alexander Payne fails to fully win me over yet again - I always feel like his characters don't seem like real people. Now, that seems to be part of his style, but I can never quite tap into his skewed realities in a way that I enjoy that element of his films. His films just seem stilted and awkward and meandering to me. Even more meandering than this paragraph. But it's moderately worth it for Dern & Squibb's work, some of the delightful scenes & characters, and the overall story. Likely nominee for best pic, best actor, best supporting actress, best screenplay. Possibly best director, very long shot for supporting actor.
THE PAST (***1/2) From the Oscar-winning Iranian director of 2011's A Separation , this is the story of an Iranian man who returns to France to officially divorce his French ex-wife, only to get entangled in the complicated web of sticky relationships between her, her two kids, and her new fiancee. The patient director lets us really watch these characters unfold beautifully - the story gets richer & richer, and the acting is terrific. Though, bring your patience pants.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (***1/2) follows a motorcyclist bank robber (Ryan Gosling), the cop who guns him down (Bradley Cooper), and, 15 years later, Gosling's infant son (now 16, rising phenom Dane DeHaan) as he struggles with his fatherless life. It features some whip-smart & engrossing storytelling, wonderful performances, and enthralling atmosphere.
PHILOMENA (***1/2) is the touching story of an old Irish Lady (Judi Dench, obviously wonderful) who was forced by nuns to give up a child for adoption when she was a young mom. Now, 50 years later, she enlists the help of a journalist (Steve Coogan, typically hilarious and rarely tender) to help her track down her son. The story is beautifully told, and features magical on-screen chemistry (non-romantic chemistry, don't worry) between Dench & Coogan.
PRISONERS (***1/2) might hit 4 stars as I let it sit with me longer. It's DAMN good storytelling, about a desperate father (Hugh Jackman) who will do anything to track down his kidnapped young daughter (and neighbors' daughter), and the cop (Jake Gyllenhaal) trying to do the same but also keep Hugh in line. Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, and Melissa Leo round out the stellar cast.
RUSH (***) is the true story of two rival racecar drivers (Chris Hemsworth & Daniel Bruhl)... it's about as engrossing as you'd imagine that would be, which is to say it's pretty good.
THE SAPPHIRES (***1/2) is based on the true story of 4 female Aboriginal Australians in the 60's who form a singing group and wind up singing for the soldiers in Vietnam. The Irish Chris O'Dowd proves himself to be an actor of fabulous depth, range, & charm as their manager, and the whole film just soars. Funny, moving,delightful, it's one of those instant crowd-pleasers that I encourage everyone to see!
SAVING MR. BANKS (**1/2) The story of the rocky journey to make Mary Poppins, Banks is about as formulaic as they come. Emma Thompson (as Poppins author P.L. Travers) and Tom Hanks (as Walt Disney himself) are quite good, but a) she's suuuuuuch a insufferable pain in the arse that it's hard to not grow tired of the main character, and b) the flasbacks to the pieces of her childhood that make her who she is now, and the Poppins story what it is now, beat you over the head with precious backstory. So, it's kind of tiring to sit through; but nonetheless, its formula is fairly spot on, causing the movie to win you over at times, especially the end, naturally...
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (***) ...has so much going for it. The story of a LIFE Magazine employee (Ben Stiller) who's suddenly inspired to start living life to the fullest, it's a feel good movie that often succeeds in making you feel really really good. And it features some super stimulating & creative filmmaking. But it's pretty standard fare and is in essence a little to shallow to fully get away with how precious it is. Nonetheless, if ya wanna just sit back & smile, go for it.
SHORT TERM 12 (***1/2) is flat-out one of the best movies of the year. A tender tale of the workers and residents at a treatment facility for teens, this gem dazzles with its window into the human condition.
In SIDE EFFECTS (***1/2), Rooney Mara plays a tortured soul who, under medication from her doctor (Jude Law) murders her husband (Channing Tatum) while sleepwalking. Who's to blame? Her? Law? The pharmaceutical company? No one? Director Stephen Soderbergh lets this captivating story unfold beautifully.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW (***1/2) isn't spectacular, but it's damn good. Newcomer Miles Teller (so touching in so few scenes of Rabbit Hole) has uncanny charisma as the lead in this story of a fun-loving but aimless & alcoholic high schooler and the unpopular girl (the divine Shailene Woodley, just as terrific as she was in The Descendents) who helps him find who his inner peace.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (***) was a solidly enjoyable Star Trek movie. So: boring at times for those of us who have no relationship to Star Trek, but ultimately well composed & thrilling enough at times to feel like a good time.
STORIES WE TELL (***1/2) is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. Filmmaker Sarah Polley directs this doc about her own family, focusing on the tumultuous and infidelity-ridden relationship between her parents. But it also ultimately becomes about how we tell stories, and how these stories - true or not - replace our memories & thus the fabric of who we are. Super interesting.
THIS IS THE END (***1/2), featuring Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride as "themselves" during an apocalypse, is absolutely hysterical. Probably the low-brow comedy of the year. Check it out!
TO THE WONDER (**) is director Terrence Malick's (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) first contemporary-set feature, about Ben Affleck & Ukranian newcomer Olga Kurylenko's complicated & challenging romance. It of course features gorgeous shots, hypnotic music, and selectively touching narration; but it falls far flatter than most of his work. It unfortunately drags and doesn't really amount to much.
12 YEARS A SLAVE (***1/2) is based on the true story of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is kidnapped into slavery and winds up spending, you guessed it, 12 years as a slave, mostly on a plantation run by a despicable slave-owner (Michael Fassbender), who treats a young female slave (the brand new Lupita Nyong'o, Yale MFA class of 2012!) particularly viciously. Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong'o are all early strong contenders for the Oscar (Ejiofor lead, the other two supporting), and I'd say that's deserved. It's a striking, moving film; but I will also say that I was more impressed by it than I was stimulated by it. It's a touch long & slow. But very worth it.
20 FEET FROM STARDOM (***) is an insightful documentary about the backup singers of famous bands who spent tiresome careers just... 20 feet from the big stars, and never getting to share that spotlight. I expected the film to dive more deeply & specifically into what that felt like for them, and would have liked that; instead it's a whole heck of a lot of storytelling about the lives & times with these bands, which interested this moviegoer less than it would have had I known or cared more about music. So, fair warning to those musically declined. That said, it was rather interesting, and featured some really nice slices of delicious music.
WARM BODIES (**1/2) is a half-decent, enjoyable-enough, zom-rom-com (zombie romantic comedy) about a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who falls for a human girl, and just might win her over, despite this trying zombie apocalypse. It's nothing brilliant at ALL, but it's enjoyable enough if that sounds fun to you.
THE WAY, WAY BACK (***1/2) is one of my favorite flicks of the year. It features an awkward teen (Liam James), forced to spend the summer in a small beach town with his mom (Toni Collette) and her douchebag boyfriend (Steve Carell), who finds himself & community taking up a job at the local waterslide park (with employees Sam Rockwell & Maya Rudolph). It's a total tear-jerker (well, for me anyway), delight, and summer highlight. Allison Janney is hysterial as their next-door neighbor.
WHAT MAISIE KNEW (**1/2) I only saw because the movie I wanted to see was replaced by a special screening. Meh, it was ok... It's about a young girl who's tossed around between her divorcing parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) and their respective new partners (Alexander Skarsgaard and some chick). Most of the adult characters are completely over-the-top terrible such that it's impossible to relate to or care about almost anyone. But the girl is entrancing and the story is touching-ish enough to earn this mediocre review.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (***) Scorsese works with DiCaprio yet again, and god knows why. Sure, he fits the part, but... boy would this movie have been much better had it starred someone with more gravitas, depth, and attention to detail. But nonetheless, it's good fun, and Jonah Hill steals the movie as his partner in white collar crime.
WORLD WAR Z (***1/2). Brad Pitt et al battle zombies. Sounds terrible. But it. was. AWESOME! Director Marc Forster pumps this action flick with nailbiting thrills. Buckle up for quite a ride.
THE WORLD'S END (***) is another quirky British comedy from the writer/director & stars of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. It's on par with those two (though Shaunstill takes the cake), and is about a gaggle of five 40-something old high school buds who attempt to do a pub crawl with a drink at each of a series of 12 pubs in their hometown in one night, when suddenly they are faced with a wacky robot apocalypse. Not the funniest movie you'll see these days, but it's a great time.
YOU'RE NEXT (***) is a slasher thriller about an extended family gathered in their mansion in the woods for a weekend of good old family times when a small team of slashers sneakily infiltrate from the woods and start... slashing them... one by one. It's not amazing, and most of the acting is pretty sub-par, but it's quite thrilling and at times flat out hilarious. Go if you like being scared!