Friday, February 14, 2014

Rush (2013) [R] ****

A film review by Richard Roeper, Movie Columnist, September 26, 2013.

In the individual sports, it’s nearly impossible to become a champion for the ages if you don’t have a fierce and lengthy rivalry with an opponent of near or equal skill and heart. Jack Nicklaus needed Arnold Palmer. Muhammad Ali needed Joe Frazier. Nadal/Federer, Hagler/Hearns, Earnhardt/Waltrip, Duran/Leonard... 

And in the 1970s on the Formula One racing circuit, it was Niki Lauda vs. James Hunt. They needed each other.

Even if you don’t know Formula One from the Soap Box Derby, Ron Howard’s Rush, like all great sports movies inspired by true events, is foremost about getting to know and understand the characters. By the time we get to the inevitable Big Game/Race/Match, the stakes are so high and the drama so real we find ourselves tensing up — even though we’re watching a re-creation of events long since in the record books.

Rush ranks among the best movies about auto racing ever made, featuring two great performances from the leads, who capture not only the physical look of the racing legends they’re playing, but the vastly different character traits that made their rivalry, well, made for the movies.

At first blush the brusque, detail-obsessed, virtually emotion-free Austrian Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and the cocky, womanizing, partying Brit Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, his blond locks only slightly shorter than Thor’s) are such polar opposites they make Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed seem like kindred spirits. But as we follow their rivalry from the stepping-stone Formula Three circuit to the big stage of Formula One, we see there’s more to Lauda than his relentless quest for perfection, while Hunt learns the hard way he’s not immune to heartbreak — and he uses that pain to dedicate himself to the world championship.

Lauda’s a perfectionist in the garage, tirelessly working to build a better machine. Hunt figures he’ll floor it when you’re easing off on a turn and he’ll roar past you. When Lauda proposes to his girl Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), he says he’ll probably forget her birthday and he’s not much for holding hands, but if I’m going to do this with someone, it might as well be you. Hunt also gets married, but he proposes to supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) because they’re two of the best-looking and most fabulous people on the planet, so why not go for the fairy tale? (Even when the marriage falls apart, it’s in spectacular fashion. Richard Burton steals Suzy while James is brooding and boozing over his stalled racing career.)

Director Howard expertly sprinkles in the domestic scenes while giving us just enough inside baseball sequences to familiarize the non-fan with Formula One racing without getting bogged down in the detail. The terrific script by the great Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland) keys in on what makes these men risk their lives every day when they go to work — and then we get another cool, 1970s graphic establishing the next European or South American or Asian stop on the 1976 circuit. (Rush is rated R, and it should be. If you’re going to show the horrific crashes, not to mention Hunt boffing his way through half the stewardesses, models and groupies of the time, you can’t just hint at it.)

As Hunt puts it, these Ferraris and McLarens are coffins sitting on high-octane fuel. And though Hunt’s the risk-taker, it’s Lauda who winds up in the hospital, his face horribly burned, his lungs so filled with soot and smoke they have to be vacuumed via a long tube inserted into Lauda’s mouth — while he’s conscious. Less than two months later, Lauda is back in action, against all medical advice. He’s not about to let Hunt take away his title by piling up the points while he’s sidelined. Lauda needs Hunt. Hunt needs Lauda.

Chris Hemsworth is so comic-book handsome it takes a while to realize what a fully realized performance he’s giving, playing a guy who loved the celebration as much as he craved finishing first. Hunt isn’t some empty-headed himbo. He loves racing because it makes him feel like a modern-day knight.

As for Bruhl’s work as Niki Lauda: This is nomination-level acting. The Austrian perfectionist role could have been the stuff of caricature — and indeed Lauda gets most of the laughs in the movie by virtue of his near total lack of social graces. But we also see flickers of playfulness in Lauda’s eyes during a hilarious hitchhiking scene that winds up with him behind the wheel in the Italian countryside, much to the rapture of two fans in the back seat. Bruhl is also magnificent conveying Niki’s maddeningly analytical philosophy (Happiness is the enemy, because when you’re happy you have something to lose) and his relentless determination.

Ron Howard has an Oscar and he’s been one of our best storytellers for 30 years. This is one of his most impressive efforts, with an edgy, kind of Euro feel, especially in the harrowing racing sequences.

Real-life spoiler alert: Niki Lauda is still with us. James Hunt is long gone. Mr. Lauda has recently expressed his regrets Mr. Hunt won’t be able to experience Rush.

It would have been great to see them see it together.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Labels: action, biography, drama, sport

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Big Sur (2013) [R] ***

A film review by Elizabeth Weitzman, on Oct 31, 2013.

One day I will find the right words, Jack Kerouac wrote, and they will be simple. And perhaps one day a director will find the right way to adapt his words, and the solution will seem simple. But not today.

Today we are faced with yet another well-meaning but unsuccessful attempt to translate Beat poetry into big-screen beauty. Kerouac (portrayed by Jean-Marc Barr) published Big Sur in 1962, after his overwhelming popularity drove him to hide out in California with pals Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards) and Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas). Barr drones much of the text in voice-over, while director Michael Polish trains his camera on spectacular Big Sur scenery.

The men drink, proclaim and complain in impressionistic, though rarely memorable, fashion. Kate Bosworth and Radha Mitchell are lovelorn and lovely as the perpetually overlooked partners. But with Kerouac declaring that the only thing that matters is the conceptions in my own mind, we’re still left waiting for the filmmaker who can take us there.

Labels: drama, Fifties



Now You See Me (2013) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Scott Bowles, USA Today, May 31, 2013.

While hawking his latest film Now You See Me earlier this month, Morgan Freeman nodded off during a live television interview that became a viral sensation. Consider it Freeman's stab at mentalism, a telepathic warning about this clumsily-executed story of magicians with a penchant for bank robbery.

Boasting a terrific cast and a flimsy plot whose logic disappears faster than a rabbit in a hat, Now You See Me struggles to pull off its cinematic sleights of hand. Jesse Eisenberg plays J. Daniel Atlas, a David Blaine-styled stunt magician who leads a crew of devious prestidigitators through a series of bank heists that catch the attention of the FBI and Interpol. Joining the crew are mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and street magician Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Soon the group, known as the Four Horsemen, is ripping off banks across the globe — and spreading the wealth among audiences like levitating Robin Hoods.

But the story, as directed by Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans), can't quite get off the ground. That's something of a surprise, given a cast that should be able to make any story defy gravity. In addition to the Horsemen, we meet Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman), a former magician turned TV host who pulls back the curtain on illusionists. The Horsemen are assembled and led by the wealthy and mysterious Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), whose ultimate goal remains a mystery.

The crux of Now You See Me's woes is the illusions themselves. Magic is never easy on film — just ask the folks behind The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, the recent ill-fated Steve Carell story of magicians that made audiences disappear from theaters. Similar woes afflict Now You See Me, whose secrets are apparent: computer-generated effects and plot conventions. The mentalist can hypnotize over the phone; the mind-reader flashes your thoughts on building facades. Good magic is plausible; these tricks are too outlandish to make you ask how did they do that?

There are flashes of razzle-dazzle. Harrelson, in particular, gets laugh-out-loud lines, and Eisenberg seems to know real sleight of hand. But it's mostly smoke and mirrors. After Freeman's snooze became a YouTube fixture, the actor jokingly dismissed the nap, saying he was using Google eyelids to check his Facebook account. You may find yourself attempting the same feat, because Now You See Me has little up its sleeve. [Bowles' rating: ** out of 4]

Labels: crime, mystery, thriller


Red Obsession (2013) [UR] ****

A film review by Sheila O’Malley for RogerEbert.com on Sept. 6, 2013.

When the CEOs and proprietors of the great wine chateaux in the Bordeaux region of France talk about what they do in Red Obsession, a new documentary directed by David Roach and Warwick Ross, they sound like poets and mystics. One says that you need to bring so much love to your vineyard. Standing amidst the vines, another says, there’s a vibration here. One speaks of having a visceral sense of the history of the area, of the early ancestors who figured out the proper way to bring the grapes to fruition. Narrated by Russell Crowe, Red Obsession takes us through the background of the wine-producing capital of the world, its history, its dependence on capricious elements (like the weather, the global economy), and the challenges facing the area due to rising prices and crumbling markets.

Red Obsession opens with an elegant tracking shot of a dark warehouse filled with wooden barrels, as Joss Stone moans I Put a Spell on You. It's sexy, a fitting opening for a film about obsession, about wine-mania, about people who live, breathe, eat, think, and drink wine. The footage of Bordeaux is awe-inspiring, with aerial shots of the great chateaux and the vineyards. Close-ups of the labels from the different chateaux abound, along with luscious shots of glimmering wine being poured. The obsessive nature of the entire industry is reflected in these shots, a good marriage of theme and form.

Through interviews with wine journalists and chateaux proprietors (including Francis Ford Coppola), we learn about the business, its ups and downs, its competitions. Journalists talk about how difficult it is to describe wine, even though it is their business to do so, and they too sound like poets or mystics. A wine is like a voice, an instrument with a timbre… The chateaux work with the journalists, holding wine-tastings of each new vintage, waiting for the verdict. The proprietors of the chateaux are clearly international businessmen and women in one respect, but in another respect they are farmers, who understand that you have good years and bad years. Much is out of your control. The pressure is enormous to keep producing stellar wines, but when you are dealing with nature you cannot always guarantee the results. One of the real issues in recent years is that the prices of the bottles of wine have risen so astronomically that they have become too valuable to drink. People now buy bottles of wine as investments, rather than something to be shared at a special occasion.

The economic collapse of 2008 and 2009 has impacted the Bordeaux region in an immediate way. Americans stopped buying expensive wine en masse, and up until then America was the major market for Bordeaux wines. But another market has exploded, almost overnight, in China. The second half of the film is devoted to the wine-mania in China, the cutthroat wine auctions in Hong Kong, and the entrepreneur (he made his fortune in sex toys) whose wine collection is worth 60 million US dollars.

Bordeaux wine-manufacturers may talk like poets and mystics but they are practical people of trade, and recognized that China was a new market with unlimited possibilities. The cities in China are shown with a frenetic speeded-up film, lights buzzing along the highways and glittering off and on in the skyscrapers, quite a different dynamic from the stately footage of Bordeaux. Wine is going for such high prices in China that the folks back in Bordeaux are concerned. The prices are becoming divorced from reality, a clear sign that a speculative bubble may be forming. This is a controversial issue, and the talking heads, Chinese and French, argue it out from across the globe.
The narration is simply done, providing us with the necessary context to understand the interconnectedness of this world, its history, its reliance on weather, politics and trade agreements. Informative though it may be, Red Obsession is a moody and emotional piece of work. Clouds race over the French chateaux, clouds of change. Obsession keeps Bordeaux in business, but obsession can be unreliable. What happens if China loses its interest in wine and moves on to something else?

Coppola describes the experience of drinking a glass of Chateau Margaux that was bottled four years after the French Revolution. It was a profound experience. He wonders if Lafayette had had a glass of it. He wonders if maybe Thomas Jefferson, a famous wine-lover and wine-obsessive, had had a glass. The glass of wine connected Coppola to those earlier times. Wine tells a story, he says. [O’Malley’s rating: *** ½ out of 4]

Labels: documentary, history, winemaking


Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2013) [UR] ****

A film review by Scott Tobias for NPR.org on Jan. 24, 2013.

Midway through Burden of Dreams, the superb documentary about the making of his glorious 1982 fiasco Fitzcarraldo, iconoclastic director Werner Herzog decides that he has had enough.

His dream project, about a Peruvian rubber baron who tries to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle, has been beset by false starts, delays and tragedies — most notoriously his attempt to drag a steamboat up a muddy hill using a primitive pulley system. Musing about nature, which has doubled as inspiration and villain throughout his career, Herzog rejects the notion that the jungle is in any way a lush and harmonious place.

It is the harmony, he says, of overwhelming and collective murder.

Thirty years later, Herzog hasn't entirely softened. The same year that March of the Penguins suggested that penguins share humanlike qualities of love and devotion, Herzog made Grizzly Man, a film that shows how anthropomorphizing wild animals can have deadly consequences.

Yet recently, with documentaries like Encounters at the End of the World and the new Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Herzog's man-vs.-nature theme has undergone some modification. His feelings about the essential pitilessness of nature haven't changed — Encounters features a lone penguin waddling off to his doom, a barely veiled shot at March of the Penguins — but those who understand harsh climes and embrace them also win his fascination and respect.

Herzog traveled to Antarctica for the vignettes that make up Encounters at the End of the World, but for Happy People, he didn't have to leave the cozy confines of his editing suite. Originally a four-hour, made-for-TV documentary about Siberian fur trappers, Dmitry Vasyukov's film has been repurposed by Herzog into an inspired 94-minute rumination on the hardships and liberties of a remote culture. There's true harmony in this place, because its inhabitants are attuned to ancient rhythms — and are skilled at improvisation.

The village of Bakhtia, home to about 300 people, lies in the heart of the Siberian Taiga, so far from civilization that it can only be accessed by boat or helicopter (and even then, only during warmer seasons). Though Happy People spends some time in Bakhtia, taking in various rituals and crafts, it primarily follows a grizzled fur trapper as he — along with a dog that serves as crucial partner and companion — plies his trade during the brutal winter months. Bears are the greatest threat to his life and livelihood, stalking his outposts so incessantly that he tacks disposable squares of plastic on the windows, which get pawed and clawed so often it's not worth replacing the glass.

With Herzog serving as narrator, Vasyukov's camera focuses on techniques and traditions that have passed from trapper to trapper through many generations. The most compelling sequences in Happy People simply observe the trapper in action, whether fashioning a pair of reliable skis out of a log — a busted ski could be the difference between life and death in the Siberian wilderness — or springing a sable trap out of tree-carvings and moss. Though his ancestors never had access to a snowmobile, little else about his trade has fundamentally changed.

In cutting four hours down to just over 90 minutes, Herzog can present only a sketchy, incomplete portrait of Bakhtia, enough to raise issues like the plague of alcoholism among its indigenous peoples, without following through on them. Even so, Vasyukov's footage of a traditional Christmas celebration or of a politician campaigning in the area for the first time in four years give Herzog rich opportunities to comment on village tradition and its wariness of outsiders.

At bottom, though, Happy People celebrates the hard-won freedoms that living in the Taiga offers those who are willing to confront its challenges. There are few places on the planet where the strictures of society don't apply, and the trade-off for fending off bears and minus-50-degree weather is the opportunity to lead a pure, solitary life. It's not the life for many, but Herzog doesn't mean the title ironically. [Tobias’ rating: **** out of 5 stars]

Labels: documentary


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Liberal Arts (2012) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Roger Ebert, September 19, 2012.

Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts is an almost unreasonable pleasure about a jaded New Yorker who returns to his alma mater in Ohio and finds that his heart would like to stay there. It's the kind of film that appeals powerfully to me; to others, maybe not so much.

There is a part of me that will forever want to be walking under autumn leaves, carrying a briefcase containing the works of Shakespeare and Yeats and a portable chess set. I will pass an old tree under which once on a summer night I lay on the grass with a fragrant young woman and we quoted e.e. cummings back and forth.

Jesse, the character played by Josh Radnor (who also wrote and directed the film), has stayed in academia but surely in its least pleasant job. He is a New York City college admissions officer, turning young people away at the gates of Valhalla. He receives an invitation to a retirement party for Peter (Richard Jenkins), a professor who was one of his undergraduate heroes. Jesse returns to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, a campus so beautiful I now understand why I subscribed to the Kenyon Review for years: Its pages must have absorbed the grace of the campus.

The retirement is far from perfect, because Peter has to admit to himself that he has no desire to retire. Richard Jenkins is the kind of actor you can easily imagine being someone's beloved mentor and understand why he would surrender that role with reluctance. At a party, he introduces Jesse to Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old daughter of friends, who is studying improv theater. Did I mention that Jesse is 35?

It's not so much that they fall in love as they fall in love with idealistic conversation. Zibby still lives in a world where such talk is common. Jesse is starved for it. The fresh promise of his undergraduate years has never been replaced for him by the working world. Their 16-year age difference is undeniable, but the young student finds his age to be one of his attractions, as young students have been known to do.

Also on the campus, we meet two familiar types. One is Nat (Zac Efron), who wears a deliberately absurd hat to signal I am not like anyone else, and utters philosophical aphorisms as if he is the campus Thoreau. The other is Dean (John Magaro), never seen without holding a copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It is to Radnor's infinite credit that he never explains why the novel is a telltale character marker.

We also meet Judith (Allison Janney), Jesse's professor of romantic poetry and another huge role model. Janney brings to the character that acerbic wit she does so easily, and they have a scene together I wouldn't dream of spoiling for you.

Elizabeth Olsen is the film's most enchanting asset. In performance after performance, she has grown in assurance and appeal. Yes, she is separated from Jesse by 16 years, but she is not a victim in their relationship. She and Radnor have an ease together, a delighted comfort, that is so much more attractive and plausible than the ludicrous thrashings of love in so many pictures.

Liberal Arts has been criticized in some quarters as a sitcom, in part because Radnor stars in a famous one, How I Met Your Mother. Those who see it that way are well-guarded. God forbid that they would ever fall for anything. I strive to leave myself vulnerable.

There is a word to explain why this particular film so appealed to me. Reader, that word is escapism. If you understand why I used the word reader in just that way, you are possibly an ideal viewer for this movie.

Labels: college, comedy, drama   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 55/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=66, viewers=68)   
Blu-ray   

John Carter (2012) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli, March 8, 2012.


With its derivative story elements, epic scope, and straightforward action orientation, John Carter is a throwback to a simpler time when it was enough to have a heroic protagonist face off against all manurroughs series), suffers from a convoluted plot and an anticlimactic resolution, but hits enough high notes along the way to be enjoyable.

Back in my pre-teen years, I collected comic books. I can recall summer mornings spent lying in bed enraptured by the graphic adventures of Conan the BarbarianJohn Carter is one of those rare movies that, during its watching, delivers the same sense of adventure. There's little doubt this is a flawed motion picture, but it aims big and, more often than not, delivers what it intends. Like its source material, which has reached the ripe old age of 100 this year (A Princess of Mars, in which Carter makes his first appearance, first came to the public's notice in 1912), John Carter is about handsome men, beautiful women, bizarre aliens, and impossible acts of heroism. It's about good triumphing over evil. And, if the ending seems a little haphazard because there are more stories to tell, at least it has an ending viewers can live with if a sequel never materializes. We are not held hostage to a dubious box office potential. 

John Carter is an origin story. It relates how the title character (Taylor Kitsch), a post-Civil War confederate captain from Virginia, is transported to Mars (called Barsoom by those who live there). Differences in gravity give Carter enhanced strength and agility on the Red Planet, which is in the midst of its own civil war. Carter's initial encounter with the natives is with a party of four-armed, green-skinned, horned Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). Circumstances lead to his rescue of Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who is to be married by her father, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), to warlord Sab Than (Dominic West) to secure peace between the blue humanoids and the red ones. Dejah Thoris wants Carter to join her people in their struggle against the forces of Sab Than; in return, she offers him the secret of how to return to Earth. Things are not as simple as they seem, however. Than is being controlled by a race of immortal creatures whose entertainment comes from manipulating the rise and fall of empires and planets. To save Mars, Carter must form alliances and defeat the plans of Matai Shang (Mark Strong).

John Carter is fast-paced - almost too fast-paced. There's a surfeit of story for its 132-minute running time and, in order to cram in everything, the backstory is related with an unseemly rapidity and the politics of Mars become a muddle. It doesn't take long to figure out who the good guys are, but it's not always clear why they are the good guys. Calling John Carter science fiction is a misnomer; it's really fantasy or space opera. Just because it happens on another planet doesn't mean it's science fiction. Middle Earth is no less alien than Barsoom. It helps with the suspension of disbelief if you don't try to figure out why there are so many sword fights in a movie with giant airships. Hey, Star Wars had light sabers!

This is director Andrew Stanton's first live action feature; he comes to John Carter with a Pixar-saturated resume that includes Finding Nemo and WALL*E. The movie relies heavily on computer generated elements and resembles the Star Wars prequels in the degree to which special effects are incorporated. It looks impressive in a CGI way with lots of stuff going on in both the foreground and the background. One could make a convincing case that it's not much of a leap from WALL*E to John Carter. Here, a few humans have been added to what amounts to a predominantly animated world. Even the Tharks are the product of motion capture.

The acting is adequate for this type of epic, with the actors not necessarily having been chosen for their traditional thespian qualities. The most obvious example is Taylor Kitsch, who cuts a nice figure without his shirt and delivers his dialogue without stumbling over his lines (although his John Wayne accent early in the proceedings is distracting). He lacks the musculature of Frank Frazetta's recognizable interpretation of Carter, but he looks the part of an action hero. Lynn Collins brings strength and beauty to the role of Dejah Thoris, and she and Kitsch make a good couple. Supporting roles are filled by more established character actors. Mark Strong and Dominic West don the black hats. Ciaran Hinds in Dejah Thoris' father, the leader of the city Helium. And Willem Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church, and Samantha Morton provide the voices (and presumably the motion capture work) for the three main Tharks.

The biggest flaw associated with John Carter has nothing to do with the production and everything to do with the presentation. The post-production 3-D conversion is abysmal. It's among the five most inexcusably bad examples of this process and has the potential to destroy the viewing experience for anyone unfortunate to watch it this way. Blurry images, dimly lit scenes, and view-master quality planar placement abound. Often with 3-D films, the 3-D is merely unnecessary. In this case, it's an impediment to immersion. It's not Clash of the Titans bad, but it's in the ballpark.

Disney's decision to move up the release date from a crowded summer marketplace to the more sedate month of March [2012] may help the movie's box office performance, although it would be surprising to see John Carter generate the revenue necessary to compel a sequel. After all the missteps and mis-starts along the way, it's almost a miracle this movie made it to the screen. Rice Burrough's most famous creation, Tarzan, has inspired dozens of movies; this is John Carter's first trip to the big screen. The result is an entertaining diversion but it lacks the magnificence one desires in the opening chapter of a would-be franchise.

Labels: action, adventure, fantasy, sci-fi
Internet Movie Database 
Metacritic 51/100 
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=57, viewers=70)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) [PG-13] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli, for ReelViews.net, on June 5, 2012.

Few working directors are as consistently, dependably quirky as Wes Anderson, whose films tend to excite art house audiences while being ignored and bypassed by mainstream movie-goers. His latest, Moonrise Kingdom, represents one of his best, in large part because it tones down some of the more abstruse elements of his style in favor of greater accessibility and stronger character identification. One knock against some of Anderson's previous efforts is that they're too clever - so clever, in fact, that the humanity gets sucked out of them. That doesn't happen here. Moonrise Kingdom is lovingly crafted with an attention to detail that is breathtaking while, at the same time, it displays genuine affection for its young protagonists, reserving any cynicism for the adults, who can be said to more closely resemble typical Anderson characters.

Few things in life are more urgent and transcendent than a pre-teen romance embarked upon at a time before sexual desire has crystallized beyond a vague curiosity and love is a term for which true meaning remains elusive. The writers of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson and Ramon Coppola, have excellent memories. Both are in their 40s (Coppola was born in 1965, Anderson in 1969) yet they have brought this story to the screen through the eyes of 12-year olds. Therein lies the movie's route to success; it gets us to remember our youth and imagine how things might have been for us in these circumstances. The movie's innate innocence springs from its adoption of this viewpoint. And it builds the perspective by subtle cues and easy-to-miss details that feed directly into the viewer's subconscious.

Neither Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) nor Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) could be described as normal or well-adjusted. Both are whip-smart and headstrong. Sam is an orphan who has become such a tribulation to his foster parents that he is not being invited back after spending his summer at a Boy Scout camp on a New England island. Suzy, a resident of the appropriately-named Summer's End corner of the island, is the bane of her family; her parents have bought a how-to book about coping with a troubled child. In each other, however, they have found a soul-mate, so they do what soul mates often do: run away together. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is their age. They want to get married, but they don't have a license, lack parental permission, and fail to meet the minimum age requirement allowed by law. Not that such things make much difference to them.

The sense of time and place couldn't be more forcefully presented. The year is 1965 and the location is a sparsely-populated island off the New England coast. Anderson has elected to shoot the movie much as it might have been made during the '60s, and it is suffused with a warm, sepia tinge - the color of nostalgia. The camera prefers tracking shots to close-ups and passes through walls to offer a cross-section of a house where some of the action transpires. Local history is provided via Bob Balaban who functions as a narrator, offering the kinds of observations one might find in a promotional period short. There's an undeniable tongue-in-cheek element to this but it serves its purpose.

The concept of young love is certainly not unique, but the tact employed by Anderson is. The leads are likeable and appealing but each possesses offbeat distinguishing traits. Suzy is never without her binoculars and Sam had taken up pipe smoking. Their physical and emotional ages might be 12, but they are smarter than most of the adults they encounter - a fact explicitly acknowledged by one in a moment of candor. They share a scene that is equal parts tenderness and awkwardness - a first kiss, a first grope, a first acknowledgment of arousal. Moonrise Kingdom is never salacious and sex is never much of an issue. Intimacy between the leads while they are on their own means reading to one another and absorbing the adventure of being in the wilderness without supervision. Sam and Suzy claim to have found love with each other; what they have discovered, in fact, is friendship - something neither has experience with.

Roughly half the running time is devoted to following the journey of Sam and Suzy as they wander from one dubious milestone to another on what is not a very large island. Their misadventures are interwoven with the efforts of adults to find them. These include Suzy's parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand); the scout master in charge of Sam's troop, Ward (Edward Norton); and the local head of police, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Later in the film, there are appearances by several other recognizable faces: Tilda Swinton as the local representative of Social Services, Jason Schwartzman as a helpful scout leader; and Harvey Keitel as the hard-assed commander of all scouts.

Anderson should be credited for casting two excellent unknowns in their first major film roles. Both Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman become their characters, exhibiting none of the stiltedness and uncertainty that sometimes accompanies neophytes. Their performances are natural; their chemistry is immediate and unforced. During the scenes when they alone occupy the screen, we see the world through their eyes without the distracting filter of an adult perspective. In a turnaround not unexpected from Anderson, it's the adults who come across as immature and silly.

Moonrise Kingdom reminded me a little of A Bridge to Terabithia, although the tones are different. The magical realism of the earlier film is barely hinted at here, and Moonrise Kingdom is more comedy than fantasy or drama. Both films, however, are founded on a strong connection between children of the opposite sex; that affection provides viewers with an easy point of entry. Of course, this being a Wes Anderson film, the comedy is often a little off-kilter, frequently deadpan, and rarely of the laugh-aloud, roll-on-the-floor variety. The movie is funny in an intellectual, low-key manner, but it is not as obscure or obtuse as that which defined The Darjeeling Limited or The Royal Tenenbaums. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has blended the strengths evident in his past endeavors with a well-constructed, emotionally resonant story. The result is a pleasing 90 minute idyll.

Labels: comedy, drama, fantasy, romance

This Means War (2012) [PG-13] ***

FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy)are covert CIA operatives, partners and inseparable best friends. However when they both fall for Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) they begin to use their skills and high-tech gadgetry against one another, while at the same time each one tries to convince Lauren that he is the best choice. While FDR and Tuck have similar job skills, they have very different personalities: FDR is a player who's very comfortable in the downtown L.A. club scene, while Tuck is much more of a family man: he has an ex-wife and a preteen son he loves. The big problem is that while FDR and Tuck are focusing on each other, they are forgetting that their arch enemy Heinrich (Til Schweiger) is trying to find them and kill them both.

Co-written by Timothy Dowling (Just Go With It) and Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), Sherlock Holmes), and directed by McG (Charlie's AngelsCharlie's Angels: Full Throttle), this film has all of the high production values and frenetically-paced, choreographed violence you'd expect, but absolutely no heart or emotional integrity. There's no chemistry between Reese Witherspoon and either Chris Pine or Tom Hardy, and the acting talents of these three are totally wasted. If the goal was to appeal to young teen-aged boys then the film is a success. More discriminating viewers should definitely pass. If you are looking for action, comedy and romance, I can recommend Mr. and Mrs. Smith as well as Knight and Day but not This Means War

Labels: action, comedy, romance   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 31/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=43, viewers=68)   
Blu-ray

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 3, 2012.

Maybe it's the screenwriters' way of justifying their deja-vu-all-over-again reboot of a still-familiar franchise: In The Amazing Spider-Man, a high school English teacher looks over her class of twenty-somethings disguised as pimply teens and puts the lie to the old saw that there are just 10 original stories in all of literature. In fact, she says, I'm here to tell you there is only one.

In other words, don't come to The Amazing-Spider-Man looking for originality.

A competent, though entirely unnecessary, reengineering of the Marvel Comics title — arriving 10 years and two months after Sam Raimi's more fun, more energized Spider-Man, and just five years since Spider-Man 3 — The Amazing Spider-Man brings fresh faces and 3-D bells and whistles to the adventures of a moody nerd-boy who gets bitten by a radioactive arachnid and morphs into a smart-talking, web-slinging, thug-busting superhero.

Andrew Garfield, the Brit who played Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, picks up the Spidey mask dropped by Tobey Maguire, bringing a spindly physique and twitchy angst to his portrayal of Peter Parker, the Queens kid who lives with his kindly uncle and aunt (Martin Sheen and Sally Field), and becomes a unitarded vigilante to avenge the death of you-know-who and thwart the evil machinations of a ya-da-ya-da.

The evil machinations in director Marc Webb's version (talk about aptly named!) come courtesy of The Lizard, one of the oldest of Spidey's comic book nemeses, played here in human form as scientist Dr. Curt Connors by Rhys Ifans. Connors, we're told, is the world's foremost authority on herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, and, as it happens, was long ago partnered with Parker's brilliant geneticist dad on a cross-species tissue regeneration project. Connors lost his arm in a laboratory mishap, so he has a personal interest in this regeneration business. And young Parker has his father's old notebooks, and the decay-rate algorithm that is essential to the equation — and that serves as The Amazing Spider-Man's plot-propelling MacGuffin. (Speaking of MacGuffins, Parker has a poster of Hitchcock's Rear Window on his bedroom wall.)

And then there is saucy, saucer-eyed Gwen Stacy (a very blond Emma Stone), who is: a.) Parker's high-school classmate and impossible object of desire, b.) Dr. Connors' favorite intern at Oscorp labs, and c.) the daughter of NYPD Capt. George Stacy (Denis Leary), who decides that this Spider-Man guy shouldn't be allowed to disrupt traffic with his crime-fighting antics. (Note to Leary, and to Field: do not let your agents talk you into doing another 3-D film. The scrutiny of the stereoscopic format is not flattering!)

The Amazing Spider-Man is very much a story in two parts: The first hour is spent establishing Parker's backstory, and Spider-Man's origins. We witness Parker's subway-ride discovery of his newfound powers and the havoc they can wreak; the skateboarding stunts he is now capable of (another poster in Parker's bedroom: Mark Gonzalez, the street-skating pioneer); his awkward courtship of Gwen, and the worried look in Uncle Ben's and Aunt May's eyes as the boy they have raised since toddlerhood starts staying out late and coming home with big bruises and a bad case of the munchies.

The second half of the film is a pile-on of CGI effects and thundering face-offs between Spidey and The Lizard. There's a daring rescue in the middle of the Williamsburg Bridge, and there's plenty of skyscraper-scaling slugfests, as Spidey has to contend with the gigantic reptile iteration of the Welsh actor Ifans and save a huge chunk of Manhattan from a chemical fallout that could turn the population into lizards. (Don't go into the sewers! They're literally crawling with the things!) The Oscorp Tower, an architectural wonder that gives The Avengers' Stark Tower a run for its money, is where everything comes to a loud, climactic head. You can practically feel Webb, director of the charmingly gimmicky love story (500) Days of Summer, get overrun by effects techies and stunt choreographers and hologram designers. The Amazing Spider-Man goes from what is essentially a teenage identity-crisis love story with nice quirky moments in it (Garfield and Stone shoot sparks) to a studio-ordered, supersized slam-bang summer tentpole. Audiences will probably respond to it — Spider-Man, after all, is one of Marvel's true icons, a Silver Age hero with us since the early 1960s — but this one was made to please a more select demographic: Sony shareholders.

Like most superhero movies, The Amazing Spider-Man taps into our primal dreams and desires. Emotional and physical flaws, feelings of inadequacy, our losses and lost chances ... all are given a chance at redress and redemption. It's hard not to respond to stuff like that on some level. But it's also hard to keep interested in the big screen, big noise, big whoop of it all.

Labels: action, adventure, fantasy


A Little Bit of Heaven (2012) [PG-13] **

A film review by James Berardinelli, May 1, 2012

One of my fears when watching movies about characters coping with cancer is that they will turn into Lifetime disease-of-the-week melodramas: shallow, plot-by-numbers chronologies of the disease's progression that become either manipulative tear-jerkers (when the protagonist dies) or feel-good experiences (when the protagonist lives). Often, such movies contain tacked-on love stories; subplots about the victim reconnecting with an estranged father, mother, or sibling; and supernatural elements that soften the gloomy end. All these things are true of the worst offenders in Cancer Cinema. They are also true of A Little Bit of Heaven.

What's missing is honesty. It has been supplanted by artifice. The protagonist, Marley Corbett (Kate Hudson), has conversations with God (Whoopi Goldberg) as a way to let her know that death isn't so bad. In fact, it's pretty damn cool. No need to get upset when the end of the movie comes and no miraculous cure has been discovered. Along the way, Marley falls in love with her sexy doctor, Julian Goldstein (Gael Garcia Bernal), a Jewish Mexican, because every terminal cancer patient must have a passionate love affair with her attending physician, even though he is violating every possible ethical tenet. A Little Bit of Heaven also provides helpful lessons about colon cancer and colonoscopies delivered in professorial snippets. Marley remains in good spirits throughout, allowing the filmmakers to skate through with a lighthearted tone. This spares us the unappealing possibility of watching the eternally perky Kate Hudson appear in something truly depressing.

There are some good scenes. Hudson does not follow the unwritten rule that in movies about dying women, the woman must become more beautiful as her disease progresses. In this case, Marley eventually starts looking like death warmed over, although Hudson was apparently unwilling to go all the way and shave her head. To excuse this lapse, the script helpfully informs us that her treatment would not cause all her hair to fall out. Someone should have told Joseph Gordon Levitt about this before he made 50/50.

The best scene features Peter Dinklage as a dwarf prostitute. That's probably a politically incorrect way to describe the character, but it gets the point across. The movie is rated PG-13 so Marley doesn't sleep with him, but they have a fun PG-13 evening. Kathy Bates, who plays Marley's mother, effectively conveys the sense of powerless frustration that accompanies the experience of watching one's daughter die. She wants to do something... anything... but there's nothing she can do. It's all in God's hands. In this case, that means Whoopi Goldberg (talk about a suspension of disbelief hurdle). Funny, when I think of God, George Burns comes to mind.

A Little Bit of Heaven starts out like a romantic comedy. Marley is cheerful and happy and looking for love. But, as one of the hottest female ad executives in the business, she's married to her job. She's also a bit of a commitment-phobe; her buddies and family think her current friend with benefits, Rob (Steven Weber), might make great husband material, but she's not sold. She likes him, but doesn't like him like that. It's when Marley visits the doctor after feeling run-down that the romantic comedy takes a sharp left turn into Lifetime melodrama. Enter the Sexy Doctor who decides that if he can't cure the patient, he can at least sleep with her. Enter Dear Old Dad [Treat Williams], who thinks throwing money at a problem will make it go away. And enter God, who looks so much like Whoopi that even Marley remarks that she looks like Whoopi.

It's easy to be cynical about something like this when there are so many good movies about cancer to choose from. This is more Sweet November than 50/50. Perhaps the most disheartening thing about A Little Bit of Heaven is that its director, Nicole Kassell, previously made The Woodsman, which is about as tough and uncompromising a movie as once can get about pedophilia (starring Kevin Bacon). For her to slip this badly for her sophomore effort is a sad thing indeed. Even if one blames the screenplay, by first-time writer Gren Wells, it doesn't excuse Kassell. I'll acknowledge A Little Bit of Heaven's good intentions, but you know what they say about the road to hell... In trying to say something upbeat and inspirational about living with (and dying because of) cancer, A Little Bit of Heaven makes it seem like a glamorous and appealing way to go. Anyone with a friend or loved one who has battled this disease will find that A Little Bit of Heaven isn't just unrealistic, it's a little insulting.

Labels: comedy, drama, fantasy, romance  
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 14/100  
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=28, viewers=66)  
Blu-ray 

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Flight (2012) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli, November 3, 2012.

Flight is about addiction. In particular, it's about the long spiral that comes between the period when a person begins imbibing too much and when he acknowledges that he no longer has control and needs help. This is valid dramatic material, but it's not the most light and life-affirming way to spend two hours. Flight isn't about addiction and recovery. It's about addiction, period. It shows how an otherwise decent person will do terrible things to get a drink. It illustrates the power of compulsion. And it displays the collateral damage that results from an alcoholic spiral.

By the time the movie starts, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has already lost much in his life, including his wife, who has divorced him, and his teenage son, who hates his guts. His best friend appears to be his drug dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman). His girlfriend, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), is a fellow addict with an equally colorful history of drug and alcohol abuse. They're talking about getting married. As the film progresses, Whip torpedoes a promising relationship with recovering abuser Nicole (Kelly Reilly), puts himself in danger of lifelong incarceration, and betrays friends and colleagues. He tries to quit on his own, with predictable results, and utters the mantra of every drinker: I drink by choice. I can stop whenever I want. He walks out of an AA meeting. It's all very predictable; this story will be familiar to millions of viewers from their own lives.

The bottom-line question is, perhaps, whether audiences want to endure this two hour journey through despair and self-destruction. Flight is a well-made motion picture, but not a fun or entertaining one. The screenplay, by John Gatins, understands the power of addiction. There was a time when alcoholism was a hot button topic for serious motion pictures, especially in the indie realm, but that has fallen away somewhat in recent years. Now, more trendy addictions to various drugs and sex have taken its place.

Flight offers an interesting twist. Whip is the captain of a passenger jet. One day, on a trip from Florida to Atlanta through stormy weather, his plane suffers a mechanical failure and goes into an uncontrolled dive. Whip, whose blood-alcohol level is .24 (three times the legal limit for driving) and who snorted cocaine for breakfast, shows exceptional piloting skills to salvage a situation that few pilots would have survived. He loses only six people in the crash. The movie raises, but does not pursue, two fascinating questions. Had he been sober, might Whip have saved even more lives? Or, conversely, was it the alcohol-and-cocaine cocktail in his blood that enabled the risky, unconventional thinking that allowed him to save 100 people?

This is a different kind of movie than we have come to expect from director Robert Zemeckis. For the past decade, he has been laboring in the high-end animation field, producing such movies as The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. His last live-action endeavor was 2000's Cast Away; before that, he made mainstream entertainment like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump. Never before has Zemeckis gone into territory this uncompromisingly dark. One suspects the subject matter has great resonance with him. (In the movie industry, alcoholism is rampant, so he has almost certainly has come into contact with the disease in one form or another.)

The first half-hour contains some riveting material, reminding us that Zemeckis knows how to capture an audience's attention. The initial scene features actress Nadine Velazquez in her full-frontal glory as she saunters around a hotel room and slowly dresses. The next 20 minutes detail the doomed flight, giving us pause to consider the sobriety and competency of the men in the cockpit. But that material is all set-up. Whip's actions during the crisis give us an impression of him that Zemeckis and Washington meticulously deconstruct over the next 90-plus minutes.

Some might consider Flight to be an exercise in bait-and-switch, but that's more a marketing issue than one that should be laid at the feet of the filmmakers. It's true the movie abandons a host of intriguing issues (including an underdeveloped subplot about the blame game that goes on in the wake of a spectacular air disaster). There's also a too-obvious contrivance that puts temptation in Whip's path late in the film (involving a conveniently open hotel room door). This is a blow to Flight's verisimilitude. Yes, it could be argued that it's a minor thing, but it feels forced.

Movies like this have a way of bringing out the best in Denzel Washington, and his performance here is finely tuned and multi-layered. In portraying Whip, Washington draws on his past work as both a villain and a hero; there are times when the charisma shines through and others when there's a great deal of unsympathetic behavior. Co-stars Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood have little to do except stand back and watch Whip implode. John Goodman has a jolly time as a drug dealer who knows his stuff and doesn't think too much about morality. Kelly Reilly provides a counterpoint to Washington as an addict who has already hit bottom, admitted her failings, and is clambering toward recovery. In many ways, Reilly gets a more complete character arc than Washington, although she is absent for most of the movie's final third.

Can Flight succeed as mainstream entertainment? Addiction is omnipresent in today's society; those of us who don't suffer from it in one form or another are likely still impacted by it through others. The story has universal ramifications, but do movie audiences want to sit through something on the big screen they may have encountered in real life? Despite the spectacular plane crash and the in-the-moment heroism of the main character, this is not escapist fare. However, Flight is a well-made motion picture. The acting is top-notch, the writing is (with the previously noted exception) on-target, and the material packs a dramatic punch. It may not be frivolously engaging but it is compelling. That, in my view, makes it more deserving of an audience than about 75% of what's currently out there. 

Label: drama, flying  
Internet Movie Database  
Metacritic 76/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=70, viewers=76)   
Blu-ray  



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The Bourne Legacy (2012) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Roger Ebert, August 8, 2012.

The Bourne Legacy is the story of a man who needs some medication and spends the whole movie trying to get it. This is good medicine. As the film opens, he dives naked into a river in Alaska, brings up a sealed tube from the bottom, takes a little blue pill and a little green pill, wraps himself in a thermal blanket by his fire, and then backpacks across a mountain range while fighting off wolves. Some of the climbing involves steep walls without use of rope or pitons.

Aaron Cross is not a superhero. Like Jason Bourne before him, he's an agent of The Program, a secret U.S. intelligence project that involves modifying the human genome to produce men with incredible physical and mental agility, and the skill set of an Eagle Scout with nine pounds of merit badges.

Cross is played by Jeremy Renner with the kind of focus and detached courage he showed in The Hurt Locker. Because he isn't referred to by name for a long time, and because everybody keeps saying Bourne is still out there, and because I had not seen the trailer, I wondered for awhile if perhaps Renner was now playing Bourne, but the film finally, mercifully, produces a wanted poster showing Matt Damon, which clears that up.

The movie spends a lot of time in a Manhattan command center for The Program, which is chockablock with computer screens and communications equipment, and can apparently tap into any surveillance camera in the world. In this room we meet the masterminds of The Program, grim veterans played by Scott Glenn, Stacy Keach and Albert Finney, and headed by Edward Norton. They spend a lot of time in each other's faces, trading jargon and spycraft. These men have decided to terminate The Program by giving all their expert agents a triangular yellow pill that causes them to bleed from the left nostril and die. Always the left nostril.

After Cross eludes a drone equipped with a missile in Alaska and fights off more wolves, he makes contact with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who has a Ph.D. and two post-doctoral fellowships and knows all about the pills. Now there is the best sequence of violence in the movie, which involves a lab technician played by Zeljko Ivanek. Then Cross and Shearing join forces in a desperate quest to stay one jump ahead of the masters of The Program while traveling around the globe to Manila, where the medications are manufactured. The Rachel Weisz character spends a lot more time on screen than females are often allowed in action movies, even though she isn't used for sex appeal. Her performance stands up strongly beside Renner's.

These meds are a virus that alters genes. You can take booster pills from time to time, or with a new iteration you can be locked in, which is what Cross seeks. He has become accustomed to possessing incredible muscle and mind power. One can only guess what other benefits the pills bestow; to my knowledge Cross never eats or drinks during the entire film.

The Bourne Legacy is always gripping in the moment. The problem is in getting the moments to add up. I freely confess that for at least the first 30 minutes I had no clear idea of why anything was happening. The dialogue is concise, the cinematography is arresting and the plot is murky.

There are three major chase scenes — by car, by parkour and by motorcycle. Parkour, you recall, is the art of running up walls and dancing over rooftops, and apparently comes along with the pills. The motorcycle chase takes place in Manila, after Cross and Shearing steal a cycle, the police give chase, and one particularly determined individual with dark aviator glasses persists beyond all reason. Since he doesn't have a single word of dialogue, it's impossible to say if he has any idea how important Cross and Shearing are, but he keeps coming like the Energizer Bunny.

This chase lasts way too long. I glanced twice at my watch. It goes up and down stairs and down the middle lanes of expressways, and causes countless crashes, and is edited in that frustrating style where you see fragments of action but don't always have the whole picture. At its conclusion — poof! — the wind goes out of the picture's sails, and a final scene sets up a sequel. I wonder how long Bourne's name will stay in the series titles. After all, he's still Out There.

Labels: action, adventure, mystery, thriller

Friday, February 7, 2014

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Stuck in Love (2012) [R] ****

Written and directed by first-time director Josh Boone, and based on his own life experiences, Stuck in Love is honest, moving and intensely personal, while still being refreshingly innocent. Greg Kinnear shines as award-winning celebrity writer Bill Borgens, who hasn’t started a novel since his wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly) recently divorced him.

The story open at Thanksgiving dinner during which Bill’s nineteen-year-old daughter Samantha (Lily Collins) announces that her first book is being published. Samantha is estranged from her mother, believing her responsible for the failure of her parents’ marriage. As a result, Samantha has rejected the concept of romantic love; her philosophy of life is realistic and nihilistic… enjoy life now, because after this life there is nothing. Her younger brother Rusty (Nat Wolff) is a budding writer; he’s trying to find his voice, and is quietly smitten by Kate, a drug-abusing, high school classmate, played perfectly by Liana Liberato.

Still in love with Erica, Bill hides in the bushes outside her home, watching her and her new husband fighting, unable to move on with his life, and not realizing that Erica might be having doubts as well. Erica, meanwhile, is heartsick that her daughter has shut her out of her life. The key to opening Samantha’s heart to Erica appears in the person of college classmate Louis (Logan Lerman), who finds himself falling in love with Samantha, while he struggles to accept the fate of his dying mother.

Stuck in Love deals with real family issues from divorce to drug abuse; the story is honest and it is one to which all of us can relate. The casting is excellent and the performances are perfect. When the film ends you will be left willing and eager to remain in the Borgens family’s world. If you have enjoyed character-driven romantic comedy-dramas like Crazy, Stupid, Love, He’s Just Not That Into You or Silver Linings Playbook, you will very likely enjoy Stuck in Love.

Labels: comedy, drama, romance