movie reviews November 2013

12 Years a slaveabout timeender's gamewadjdaLast Vegasthor: the dark worldDianahow I Live nowall is lostthe best man holidayblue is the warmest colordelivery mandallas buyers clubkill your darlingsthe hunger games: catching firefrozen

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Frozen
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Moviemakers of all sorts have mined the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen for inspiration. Walt Disney Animation Studios is no exception. The latest, loosely based on Andersen’s The Snow Queen, is Disney’s Frozen. Entertaining, spectacularly produced, especially in 3-D, Frozen comes close to being a classic in animated films.

Two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), reside in a castle; the eldest Elsa is destined to rule the surrounding kingdom. But Elsa has a terrible power, one she cannot fully control. Without protective gloves, he freezes whatever she touches. When childhood play between Anna and Elsa almost results in Anna’s death, Elsa is separated from her sister, leaving Anna confused as to why Elsa refuses to see her.

Their parents’ death brings Elsa out of hiding to accept her right as queen. As the kingdom of Arrendelle celebrates, a joyful Anna is courted by Hans (Santino Fortana) who later turns out not to be what he seemed to be.

The pressure of assuming her place as queen proves too much for Elsa and she mistakenly brings winter over the town and the kingdom. She escapes into the wilderness in shame. Anna follows alone, vowing to bring her back and return summer to the kingdom. Meanwhile, Hans establishes himself as the one in charge.

Tossed in the snow by her spooked horse, Anna trudges on, eventually finding the cabin of the ice-cutter Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his loyal reindeer, Sven. Reluctantly Kristoff agrees to help Anna find her sister. Along the way, they meet Olaf (Josh Gad), a snowman built by Elsa during her acceptance of herself as an “ice” queen. Olaf adds a large comic element to the story.

They find Elsa at her magnificent ice palace in the mountains (It’s hard to think the production value of the animation could be much better.) but she is unwilling to return to her throne. Meanwhile, Hans has set out with a group to find Elsa, along with two henchmen loyal to the Duke of Weselton, who has his designs on taking over the kingdom.

The chase is on as Elsa is captured, and it intensifies as Anna succumbs to a “freezing” element brought on by sister. Kristoff and Olaf race to save both, and the real villain of the story emerges.

Nine songs help move the story along, though considering the wondrous visuals in Frozen, the music isn’t needed to appreciate the film. Two songs are standouts, “For the First Time in Forever,” sung by Bell and Menzel, and “Fixer Upper,” sung by Maia Wilison and cast. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/29/13)


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

After contriving a game-changing win in The Hunger Games a year ago, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the accomplished archer from Appalachian-like District 12, is again conscripted into televised battle in the arena. But before that, she’s bullied and threatened by the ruler of Panem’s totalitarian regime, President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), into keeping up the pretense of a romance with her fellow Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and acting as a spokesperson for the Capitol. Pockets of insurrection in the outlying districts are intensifying — inspired by Katniss’ perceived rebellion — and Snow wants to quash them by any means necessary.


So many elements of the first installment of The Hunger Games are back in its sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. But the screenplay, adapted by Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) from the second novel in the YA series by Suzanne Collins, is much more complex and political. This time, Katniss isn’t fighting other children; she’s going head-to-head with President Snow and his advisor, the new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But Katniss can’t win. Her status makes her a pawn of the Capitol, and her unorthodox strategy during the games has turned her into a symbol of resurrection. It seems her only way out is to join the rebels, but she isn’t entirely convinced —yet.

Lawrence adds a level of maturity to Katniss in this sequel, but the character still has lots to learn about propaganda and politics. She’s shell-shocked but not immune to new feelings, particularly for Hutcherson’s Peeta. She’s also more willing to be a team player, and her team includes familiar faces: Woody Harrelson reprises his role as Haymitch, District 12 Tribute mentor, pragmatist and drunk, though this time it makes even more sense that those attributes go together. Iced confection Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) now has genuine affection for her victors. And Lenny Kravitz returns as extravagant stylist but underwhelming Cinna.

There are new players, but too many to get to know or track. Especially once back in the arena, the movie seems to lose its sense of direction and purpose. There is a bit of misdirection, so some of it is intentional, but with so many characters briefly introduced only to be killed or lost mere minutes later, director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) might be striving too hard to keep the readers of the series happy, rather than create a coherent section of the film. By introducing sexually ambiguous Finnick (Sam Claflin) and ax-wielding Johanna (Jena Malone, there’s also a sense that he’s setting up for the next installments, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts 1 and 2.”  (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/26/13)


Kill Your Darlings
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Before they were changing what literature could discuss or even what constituted the written word, Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) became involved with a murder case that changed their lives. John Krokidas’ debut movie Kill Your Darlings examines how a 1944 incident brought the Beat writers together. More importantly, it’s a first-rate thriller that just happens to involve three of the 20th century’s more important writers when none had yet been published.

In Ginsberg’s case, that’s completely understandable. As the film opens, he’s a 19-year=old student starting at Columbia University. World War II is on everyone’s minds, and Ginsberg has to live with the long shadow of his father (David Cross, who played Ginsberg himself in I’m Not There).

Having a dad with an academic reputation doesn’t make it easier to get through classes. It also doesn’t help that Ginsberg has to deal with casual anti-Semitism from his classmates and the fact that he’s more attracted to men than women.

Despite the pressure he’s under and the strain of having a mother who’s falling into mental illness (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Ginsberg dreams of making the same mark on literature that Walt Whitman did. His classmate and pal Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is pushing him to do just that.

Even though Lucien lets a pathetic older friend named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) write all his papers, Ginsberg’s new friend leads him and their mutual friend Burroughs on series of sometimes dangerous and rude pranks that ridicule the literary order. To them it feels great to ridicule Ogden Nash, even if they can’t write much of substance yet.

All of these merry shenanigans put Ginsberg on academic probation, and Carr’s relationship with Kammerer ranges from affectionate to toxic. Kammerer is as pretentious as Carr, but he seems dangerously obsessive about the younger man, and there’s a relentless sense that the situation won’t end well.

Krokidas and his co-screenwriter Austin Bunn are covering well-worn territory. When the case unfolded, it filled all the New York papers and even spread to the rest of the country because Burroughs and Carr came from prominent, moneyed families. In addition, Burroughs and Kerouac recounted the indecent in their posthumously published novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks, while Ginsberg dedicated his most famous poem Howl to Carr who wanted the dedication removed. James Baldwin and others also wrote thinly veiled recounting of the story.

Fortunately, Krokidas presents his characters not as future titans but struggling students and dropouts who haven’t yet found their distinctive voices. Radcliffe effortlessly captures Ginsberg’s feelings of being a misfit and his disgust with the hypocrisy of the adults around him. It’s fascinating to see Kerouac as a likable but irresponsible young man and Foster giving a performance that has less to do with makeup and artifice but some type of alchemy.

He effortlessly captures Burroughs’ gallows deadpan and eerie sense of detachment. The heroin addiction may be coming later, but the distinctive outlook is emerging, even if the books aren’t there yet.

The film also takes a hard-eyed look at the mores of the day and wonders if the events it depicts might have come out differently in a society that wasn’t as antagonistic toward homosexuality as ‘40s New York was. These fellows were playing with fire, but it’s hard to wonder what might have occurred if they had encountered each other now. Did the prejudices of the day lead them to rebel or were these guys dangerous in a way that contemporary writers can only hope to be?

Nonetheless, Kill Your Darlings is more engrossing than a literature lesson. It’s safe to figure the Beats wouldn’t have wanted to be discussed by the same fussy academics they despised. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/25/13)

Haiku
Kill Your Darlings

Ginsberg and Burroughs
Might have been more fun when they
Were still just unkowns.


Dallas Buyers Club
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In 1986, roughneck electrician and sometime bull rider Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and given 30 days to live. Realizing he’s come to the end of his hard-partying and womanizing days, the physically depleted Woodroof refocuses his enthusiasm on finding a way to prolong his life. In the process, he’s able to combine his innate analytical skills with his intractability to buck the recommended but ineffectual course of treatment offered by the pharmaceutical companies and supported by the FDA, and advocate for alternative therapies.


Inspired by the activism of real-life Texan Ron Woodroof, Dallas Buyers Club risks dismissal as an “issues” movie.  But the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack takes enough liberties with the story to create an effective drama. They’ve invented characters — amalgamations of people from Woodroof’s actual world — that drive the story and also give the story a compelling narrative arc.

One character invention is a medical ally, Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), to give legitimacy to Woodroof’s theories and embody the frustration and anger of caregivers stumped by the new plague. Garner portrays Saks as sympathetic toward Woodroof but also prim enough to express a disapproval that keeps any ideas of a professional partnership or romance at bay. Yet, when Woodroof exploits their friendship and endangers her medical standing, it’s a stinging betrayal.

But even more engaging is the transforming friendship Woodroof reluctantly forges with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgendered AIDS patient Woodroof meets during his brief stint in an AZT trial at the hospital. Leto’s performance is adequately flamboyant, yet suitably restrained. Soft-spoken and saucy, Rayon at first is useful to Woodroof as a liaison to the community most afflicted by HIV/AIDS, which Woodroof reviles, but the two eventually become close, bonding over despising so much in this world; yet, wanting desperately to stay in it longer.

Rightly so, director Jean-Marc Vallée targets McConaughey as the ailing but determined Woodroof. Extreme weight loss notwithstanding — the actor lost around 50 pounds for the role — McConaughey proves himself with this performance. He’s slick and magnetic but still ailing and vulnerable. His Texas drawl serves its purpose. He’s self-aware: the irony of losing his friends for believing misconceptions he had only recently believed himself is not lost on him. His changes of heart are marked subtlety, registering more on his face and in his eyes than in any dramatic gesture. But when a gesture appears, for example, in the grocery store, it’s unexpected and powerful. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/25/13)


Delivery Man
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Vince Vaughn is one hardworking actor, having been in four films released or to be released this year, the Delivery Man his latest. Of course much of Vaughn’s film opportunities come from the fact that he gives studios that back films he’s in a good return on their investment, according to Forbes magazine.

Vaughn is also an actor that makes acting look easy — or, at least, not much work. A big part of that impression may come from the type of character he plays in many of his films — a big doofus guy that despite his physical presence is never intimating, a motor-mouth who has to be reminded to think before doing something … anything, and ultimately a soft touch who is good-hearted while being almost always irritating. As David Wozniak in Delivery Man that characterization continues.

David’s incompetence as a meat delivery truck driver is tolerated because the Wozniak Meat Company is a family business run by David’s father Mikolaj, played by Polish actor Andrzej Blumenfeld. Mikolaj, along David’s brothers, Victor (Simon Delaney) and Alexksy (SNL’s Bobby Moynihan) love David despite his shortcomings and aversion to maturity.

Delivery Man is a remake of the French-Canadian film Starbuck. Starbuck was the named used by a sperm donor to hide his real identity. David used the name in some 600 visits to a clinic, resulting in fathering 533 offspring. Now 147 of them want to know who their biological father is.

Facing a legal entanglement and fearing total banishment by his pregnant girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders, TV’s How I Met Your Mother), David seeks guidance from his best friend Brett (TV’s Parks and Recreation Chris Pratt). Brett, an out-of-work attorney and stay-at-home dad with four kids, implores David to forsake fatherhood with Emma and agrees to take on his case as a friend and to, hopefully, impress his mother.

Pratt takes the downtrodden Brett on an enduring comedic ride with enough anguish and subtle endearment that it may be just a matter of time before Pratt gets his own starring film vehicle. When both Brett and David assess their plights together, the results aren’t loud laughs from the audience but rather long, imprinted smiles in recognition of the humor that can be felt when trying to gain control over something in our lives that involve others.

Delivery Man does carry some unnecessary baggage including a plot element about David owing money to a couple of gangsters and soapy, idyllic summertime scenes where David surrounds himself with his sons and daughters without them knowing he’s their father. While David’s seeking out and helping a few of those offspring gives the film a promising start toward realism, that story line comes to an abrupt stop when it seems director Ken Scott realizes the movie would be six hours long if he continued with that plot idea. So then there’s a switch to a countersuit cooked up by Brett and romantic scenes with Emma as David’s experience in sperm donation with Emma brings on an appreciation of the impeding birth of his child.

The result is a film much like Vaugh’s standard role characterization — interesting without being confusing, innocuous on almost every level and humorous in a feel-good way. (PG-13) Rating. 2.5 (Posted on 11/25/13)


Blue Is the Warmest Color
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The American title of this film, Blue Is the Warmest Color, may be closer in tone to the original name of its source material — Julie Maroh's graphic novel Blue Angel — but it brings too literal a slant on director Abdellatif Kechiche's overt symbolic use of blue as a visual motif throughout the film.

In French, the movie is called La vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2, which translates to The Life of Adèle: Chapters 1 & 2 and better describes this coming-of-age story.

Kechiche may have inserted the distracting points of blue to create a connection with Maroh's novel, but his loyalty to it is not constant. In the screenplay, which he co-adapted with Ghalia Lacroix, he changed the name of one of the characters from Clémentine to Adèle, the name of his lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos, and started the story with her, instead of the posthumous diary account Maroh wrote. This is no minor revision: Kechiche's method is to keep an unwavering close-up focus on Adèle —her doe eyes, her full lips, her errant top knot.

Kechiche tracks Adèle as she eats, sleeps, reads, rides the bus. It sounds like a snoozefest, and some of the film is, but surprisingly not those scenes. The 19-year-old Exarchopoulos is absolutely charming as Adèle. Her portrayal is open and loose. She gobbles up experience as she does her father's spaghetti Bolognese during one of the many dinner table scenes. She's a bit of a mouth breather who doesn't know when she has sauce on her face, and that makes her incredibly likable.

When Adèle's group of school friends turns on her, accusing her of being gay, they're like a pack of rabid dogs tearing into a baby bunny. They're cigarette smoke cloud of adult-like, cosmopolitan sensibility dissipated, they single her out and dig in. The exchange is extremely emotional and frenzied, and more than either of its protracted sex scenes, makes the film a political animal rather than just a character study.

When Adèle and her blue-haired dream girl Emma (Léa Seydoux) finally get together, Adèle's appetites are still front and center. This isn't a love story as much as it is a narrative about the transformation of a young woman into adulthood, and part of that is her falling in love.

Emma provides a counterbalance — she's older, more sophisticated and out — but it's still Adèle's reactions and choices that fill the screen. At Emma's graduation party, we're privy to a conversation among Emma's artist friends, but the camera, targeting those expressive eyes and mouth, follows Adèle, who feeling unqualified to join in retreats. Her insecurity, and later her pain, is almost tangible. It's Adèle's world; we just visit it. (NC-17) Rating: 4


The Best Man Holiday
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Almost 15 years after The Best Man, writer/director Malcolm D. Lee has reunited the original cast for its sequel. Through either luck or intuition, Lee included the talents of yet-unknown great actors such as Terrence Howard and Harold Perrineau in his 1999 hit, and, even more astounding, somehow convinced them to come back to star in something as corny as a holiday film.

But Lee has higher aspirations for his film than mere feel-good fare. The Best Man Holiday starts off a bit like The Big Chill in that a group of co-ed college friends, in various stages of their professional and personal lives, are summoned to the home of the most affluent for a very serious reason. But Lee’s script overreaches. Not content with a single major life event, he bestows one on almost every member of the cast. The same goes for secrets and lies and misunderstandings: almost everyone has one of those too.


Some of these many revelations and confrontations work better than others. Their success is largely dependent on the actor’s ability to convey a depth of character despite these burdens. The more serious the crisis, the shallower it seems in a film that seems schizophrenic in its juxtaposition of comedy, drama and faith. The more serious the issue, the more Lee’s solution to it seems like lip service or mere signifier of emotional content.

That’s why Julian (Perrineau), dealing with the donors to his charter school who have discovered a YouTube video of his ex-stripper wife, Candace (Regina Hall), during her working girl days; Jordan (Nia Long) introducing her white boyfriend (Eddie Cibrian) to the group and reality star Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) have more compelling, though less serious storylines. Novelist Harper, reprised by a smug-looking Taye Diggs, is difficult to like, especially given the deceptions Lee forces him commit against both best friend (Morris Chestnut) and pregnant wife (Sanaa Lathan). Ironically, Howard is both comic relief and moral core, though it’s not clear that Lee intended the latter.

You needn’t have seen The Best Man — or have even seen it all — to follow the crowded action in The Best Man Holiday.  Lee provides sufficient explanation of character, motive and plot from the hit 1999 feature on which this sequel is based. A clever title sequence made up of a combination of flashbacks and updates acts as both recap and springboard. But the follow-up wallows in the first movie’s story, forcing it on the mercy of the goodwill of an already won-over audience. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/18/13)


All Is Lost
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The unnamed taciturn captain (Robert Redford) of a yacht damaged by an errant cargo container labors to keep his vessel afloat in the Indian Ocean. Further battered by sea and storm, the vessel is stripped of vital supplies in each successive crisis, and the lone sailor is forced to rely on dwindling rations and his ability to jury-rig items MacGyver-style for his very survival. Using an antique sextant, he methodically charts a course for the Sumatra Straits, where he hopes he’ll come to the attention of one of the many massive cargo ships ferrying their containers of goods to the Western world.

To even conceive of making this film, writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) had to have faith in his script’s detailed physical activity to sustain interest. Described as an experiment in filmmaking, All Is Lost isn’t some bare-bones production. Its values, particularly in sound design and cinematography, are high. But Chandor has different priorities for his story. Mostly wordless, the scenes revolve around what Redford the seafarer is doing in the moment. The camera doesn’t so much follow him as find him, new plan already decided upon, continually forging ahead, trying to make the best of each worsening situation without ever falling into despair.

Redford’s performance is as wooden as ever. His yachtsman is mechanical and unexpressive, even when emitting a singular outburst — a latent F-bomb — that sounds forced and phony. But under Chandor’s direction, this hardly even matters. The captain of this boat is on an unstoppable journey from frying pan to fire, and all that’s required of him is to keep fixing and arranging what’s left to him in the most logical and sensible manner, as if he’s a geriatric Boy Scout earning his ultimate badge. He even shaves before a particularly bad storm hits.

But Chandor offers evidence he doesn’t have complete confidence in his method. A voice-over in the opening scene hints at familial ties to the outside world, and a date title says that the entire drama takes place in the span of a mere eight days. Neither is necessary to create sympathy for our man lost at sea or adds to the dramatic tension. A re-edit starting from the moment the captain wakes up to watery quarters and ruined communications equipment would honor the story more. Chandor also pads the movie’s ending to create metaphor and meaning where there should be none. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/18/13)


How I Live Now
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

How I Live Now is adapted from yet another young adult novel, but this one thankfully has more on its plate than finding the perfect vampire boyfriend.

Adapted from Meg Rosoff’s book, How I Live Now involves an American teen (Saoirse Ronan) named Daisy who is reluctantly visiting the UK and can’t wait to get back to New York. The young people she’ll be staying with are cousins by her estranged father’s marriage to Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor). She resents them already as a result.

The amiable Isaac (Tom Holland) asks her too many annoying questions, and little Piper (Harley Bird) is downright annoying. About the only good thing about being stuck in the country with these folks is that she gets to spend quality time with the hunky Eddie (George MacKay), who knows how to make cows behave and has a pet hawk.

Daisy’s discontent gradually changes to outright terror when a nuclear attack devastates London. The countryside is soon flooded with troops, and it’s hard to tell who is authorized to deal with the crisis and who isn’t. Without steady electricity and regular communications, all news from the outside is mere hearsay. The tired mantras that Daisy has been reciting in her head since she arrived are now enabling her to survive in an environment where she really has reason to complain.

Ronan is one of those rare performers who can be mesmerizing to watch even when her character is a seemingly insufferable brat. As she transforms from loner to hero, Daisy becomes just tolerable enough to make viewers worry about Daisy before she masters adapting to her new environment. Ronan can also play doubt and vulnerability with the same skill that she demonstrates at being sullen. The film rests on her slender but sturdy shoulders, and she carries it with remarkable ease.

Director Kevin Macdonald is best known for his documentaries like the Oscar-winning One Day in September and dramas like State of Play and The Last King of Scotland. His documentary background comes into play here because all that happens around Daisy seems convincingly chaotic and unaffected.

Macdonald and the screenwriters leave the cause for the coup vague. This makes sense because the film is presented from the point of view of apolitical teens and children. There are clues about what is happening on TVs in the background or half-heard conversations, but like the characters, viewers are left to their own devices to figure out why the UK is in such a state.

The modest production is another plus. At times, the ostentatious costumes and makeup in The Hunger Games get distracting to the point of annoyance. It gets hard to follow the story if you’re caught off-guard by Stanley Tucci’s wig. Having just a few menacing soldiers marching about in How I Live Now is a good deal more disturbing than all of the overproduced hubbub in the other film.

How I Live Now is troubling because it reminds us how fragile civil order can be. That’s a good deal scarier than having to choose a werewolf or a bloodsucker for a beau. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/11/13)

Haiku
How I Live Now

“Young Adult” doesn’t
mean shallow, stupid, silly
or full of sparkly.


Diana
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Diana, Princess of Wales, born Diana Spencer, likely will never leave the public consciousness. Though interest in her life may fade through the generations, her celebrated marriage to Prince Charles and their eventual divorce, her personal battles with depression, her love affairs, her devotion to various charitable causes and the conspiratorial shadows that linger concerning her death make her a woman for all ages.

Diana, a film by German-born director Oliver Hirshchbiegel, known mainly for his television movies, touches upon Diana’s inner turmoil and her commitment to causes to improve people’s lives such as eliminating landmines — however, strangely omitting her work with victims of AIDS. Yet what the film dwells on during its nearly two-hour running time is Diana’s love entanglement with a physician during the last few years of her life, and the joy and sadness surrounding it.

Granted, given her physical beauty, her intelligence, her shyness, her affection for people and her want to escape from the emotionless shackles of British royalty, Diana’s pursuit of true love with another is an inescapable part of her life. Yet, that need to escape is pretty much all Hirshchbiegel brings to the film. All the emotion in this film hangs on Diana’s love affair with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Kahn played by Naveen Andrews (TV’s Lost).

What distracts the viewer from a tedious rollercoaster of the tears and kisses of their relationship is the performance of Naomi Watts as Diana. It is exemplary in capturing the suffering of the privileged — a fact some would find impossible — and a force that keeps this film from being bogged down in a mushy sandpit of emotional inertia.

In Diana, as her love affair with Hasnat turns into a slow dance of inaction, it is a heart-bursting frustration Watts brings fully to the screen with a desperation and anger fitting one bewildered by rejection given who she is and the beliefs she holds.

Andrews compliments Watts’ performance in every way. His hyper-ego as a surgeon contrasts with his ties to family traditions associated with his religion, leaving him straddling between the modern and the old — he loves her, yes, but how can he marry a Christian; how can he give up his life’s work as a physician in the glare of paparazzi hungry to photograph all things Diana?

As the two alternately make love and make war, the end does come. Diana takes up with Egyptian playboy Dodi Al-Fayed (Cas Anar), playing up her relationship with him to the press to rub Hasnat raw.

In that sad reaching out to what has gone, Watts conveys brilliantly Diana’s self-awareness of her worldly status and her inability to accept that she can’t have what she really wants for herself.

As her death hits the world in 1997, the film can make one ask if Hasnat crashed against a human game of heart so familiar to us all: the chance not taken, the door not walked through. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 11/11/13)


Thor: The Dark World
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

At its core, the plot of this sequel to 2011's Thor(and follow-up to last year's Marvel's The Avengers) is simple: an evil creature seeks to destroy the universe with a deadly whatchamacallit (you know, like the Tesseract in Captain America), and Thor must stop it. Unfortunately, determined to explain this apocalyptic MacGuffin in excruciating detail, Thor: The Dark Worldbogs down an already skimpy plot with a tedious backstory and not-so-super villain. Thankfully for all concerned, his traitorous — and far more interesting — adoptive brother reappears to liven up the proceedings.

The film opens as Anthony Hopkins’s Odin wearily narrates a lengthy prologue full of hoary Lord of the Rings tropes: eons ago, the Dark Elves of some-world-or-other, led by evil Malekith (Christopher Eccleston in contacts and an American Revolution-era dusted wig) attempted to destroy the world — actually all nine worlds, or realms — with something called The Aether, a kind of energized blob of Coca-Cola that . . . well, destroys everything.

The bad elves were defeated by Odin’s father, except, of course, they weren’t, and now that all nine realms are once more coming into alignment, the Aether has reawakened Malekith and his minions for another try. Oh, and meanwhile, Thor’s terrestrial astrophysicist girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has stumbled upon, and absorbed, The Aether, making her, essentially, a walking time bomb.

Got all that? Well, it really doesn’t matter anyway, nor do many of the characters or events that transpire along the way. Often, the plot seems pieced together from a wish list of what the writers thought would look cool on screen: “What if the elves had space ships and laser guns?” “Let’s have a Norse funeral boat set alight by flaming arrows!” Scripted by committee and directed by cable TV veteran Alan Taylor (The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones), The Dark World isn't about anything except keeping viewers engaged enough to make it to the end — and to the next, hopefully better, film in the Marvel franchise.

Characters appear purely to set-up scenes, then abruptly die or disappear. Thor's mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), given precious little to do in the first film, is allowed a brief display of swordsmanship only to perish at the hand of Malekith, prompting the big Viking send-off and, despite minimal screen time with her son, ostensibly motivating his heroics. Likewise, while early conversations and furtive glances set-up Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander) as a potential rival for Thor’s affections (certainly a more appropriate partner than the swooning earthbound scientist he can‘t be bothered to beam down to visit for two years), she simply disappears in the last half of the film.

Kenneth Branagh’s Thor successfully mined the fish-out-of-water humor of placing the neutered Norse deity in 21st Century America. For the first hour or so of The Dark World, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is mired in the Asgardian dimensions with little to do besides beaming into various cheesy Heavy Metal-esque landscapes and dispatching the odd monster with a hammer blow and snappy one-liner.

Once he solicits the aid of imprisoned brother Loki (the source of Asgard’s last apocalypse), however, things begin to look — and lighten — up. As Odin's resentful, treacherous foster-child, Tom Hiddleston steals the show and redeems the movie’s second half. Hiddleston’s Loki revels in his villainy in a way that makes Eccleston’s Malekith — and nearly everyone else around him — seem bland by comparison. Still, he’s vulnerable, complex, and likable. Downright human, one might say, which is what makes a character memorable. Maybe Marvel and Disney should consider a Loki franchise. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/11/13)


Last Vegas
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Wherever the genesis of Last Vegas came from it must have begun from the premise of “Four old guys surrounded by scores of nubile, bikini-clad damsels in Sin City.”

Being sharp Hollywood-types, they must of known right off more must be added — a lot more, otherwise the film would quickly become the third feature on the drive-in movie circuit. So they recruited four A-list actors in their sixties or more, added some meat (so to speak) — beyond the eye candy — to the script in the form of a “lessons in love” angle, and the result is fun movie that will — let’s face it — really appeal to the older guys in the audience. Yet, still the jokes and situations are funny enough that even women and younger folks will laugh at the good-buddy putdowns and sharp geezer comebacks.

Billy is getting married and wants a bachelor party with three of his old best friends from their Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. Billy, aptly played by Michael Douglas, is pure Californian — tan, wealthy, confident and engaged to Lisa (Bre Blair), his fiancé nearly forty years younger than himself.

Naturally the pimping comes hard and heavy from Billy’s old friends: Archie (Morgan Freeman), caught in the clutches of an overprotective son, Sam (Kevin Kline), happily married for 40 years and finding excitement by discovering what prescription drugs others are taking, and Paddy (Robert De Niro), mourning his deceased wife as he models his depression in pajamas and a bath robe. Their jabs range from wanting to be introduced to the “infant” Billy is marrying to Billy’s “chestnut” hair.

In Vegas, the boys hang together, bicker a lot, ogle the girls, do the club scene and get comped deluxe accommodations after Archie hits it big at the blackjack table. Not unexpectedly, they throw a big party so exclusive that even rapper 50 Cent can’t get in.

The film becomes more revelatory once Diana (Mary Steenburgen) enters the picture. The tax attorney turned lounge singer attracts the eye of both Billy and Paddy. As the two men compete for her affections, old grudges are broken, truths revealed and, dare say, the old guys learn something new. And Billy matures, leaving Lisa behind. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/5/13)


Wadjda
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

A singular desire is the driving force behind writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour's first feature film, Wadjda. The title character, a Saudi tween (Waad Mohammed), wants a bicycle. But despite the presence of a very real green bicycle, it's more a metaphor that represents all the restrictions women must follow in Saudi Arabia. Not until this April were women allowed to ride bicycles, and they are still laws against women driving, voting and even going to the movies.

As a sociological record, this is a monumental film. It's an insider's view of a culture not often observed by outsiders. And Al Mansour, the director of the 2005 award-winning documentary Women Without Shadows and currently Saudi Arabia's only female director, is mostly fair. She gives Wadjda an endearing rebelliousness, but refuses to make her a martyr. Even before Wadjda becomes obsessed with earning money to buy the bike, she is entrepreneurial to a fault. When her more honest moneymaking schemes are thwarted, she resorts to extortion and even faking religious conversion to enter into a Koran contest.

There is also a tense unspoken battle Wadjda wages against her abaya. The headscarf is in constant motion, falling off her hair or being pulled belligerently back in place. She also refuses to give up her black high-top Chuck Taylors, going so far as to blacken the rubber with marker, though this isn't apparent in any later scenes, causing continuity problems.

Still, some of the representations of repression are stiff with exposition. Scenes in Wadjda's school, in particular with the headmistress (Ahd) are more for effect than storytelling or character development. But sympathetic audiences will be extremely forgiving.

To comply with gender segregation laws, Al Mansour often had to direct out of a production van, directing crew and actors over walkie-talkie. This could be the reason the slice-of-life scenes between Wadjda and her mother (Reem Abdullah) are the most compelling. The actresses exhibit natural mother-daughter chemistry, particularly when the dialog, especially for the mother, becomes less expository.

Here, the story becomes more personal and heartbreaking, and Al Mansour resists telling instead of showing. Her mother can't have any more children, so her father (Sultan Al Assaf) is deciding if he should marry a second wife. More than the bike, Wadjda would like to be enough for him. But again, her being a girl gets in the way. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/4/13)


Ender's Game
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Those expecting a rollicking, uplifting sci-fi epic are apt to be disappointed by Ender’s Game. Directing his own adaptation of the 1985 Orson Scott Card science fiction novel, Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) adopts a distinctly downbeat mood for a film that largely eschews the thrills of space dogfights for sober reflections on the morality of war.

Fifty years after an invasion by the alien Formics killed millions, the unified world government is preparing for a second attack by amassing an army of children, who, by virtue of their well-developed video gaming skills and more elastic reasoning, have been deemed better at “integrating complex data" during battle. Kids from around the world are sent to military schools for brutal training regimens under the surveillance of ruthless Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and empathetic military psychologist Major Anderson (Viola Davis). Graff is also on a desperate search for a child mentally and psychologically suited to command these International Forces.

Despite a keen knack for video games, scrawny 12-year-old Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) seems an unlikely recruit until, attacked by a bully, he doesn’t just defend himself, but — in a truly disturbing scene — thinks a moment, then stomps the kid to the point of hospitalization. Not exactly your typical Young-Adult hero.

Interrogated by his observers, Wiggin defends his actions as strategy, one that clearly resonates in a post-9/11 world of "shock and awe": that an extreme beat-down, he hesitantly explains, not only won the current fight but all future fights. His answer gets him fast-tracked for Battle School. As it turns out, International Forces have adopted a similar preemptive strategy to deal with those nasty Formics, and Graff (Harrison Ford) now believes Ender may be “the one” to lead the charge.

Located on an orbiting space station, Battle School is everything a sci-fi fanboy could hope for. Hood allows viewers time to revel with young Ender in the wonder of its transparent zero-gravity Battle Room, where competing squads hone tactics while shooting “freeze” guns at one another. The slow camera tracking and fluid movements make some of these training runs look like a sort of interstellar ballet. Still, the knowledge that these kids are being groomed for war lends even the lightest moments a troubling undertone.

Telescoping the novel's six-year span into a single year forces Hood to simplify many characters into genre types. At Battle School, Ender accumulates a standard best friend Bean (Aramis Knight), platonic confidante Petra (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld), and nemesis Bonzo (Moisés Arias).

As Ender, however, Butterfield (Hugo) delivers a quiet, nuanced performance. Tall and thin, with unnaturally large eyes, Butterfield looks a bit like an alien, himself, but effortlessly conveys the very human struggle between empathy and aggression at the core of the character.

Surprisingly, it’s only when Wiggin and his crew begin to prepare for the actual battle that the film begins to drag. While the space battle simulator — a floating array of huge virtual computer screens — is impressive, watching Commander Wiggin manipulate it as though conducting an orchestra begins to feel a bit like watching a friend play Wii.

Soon enough, however, a delayed piece of information will deal Wiggin a crushing blow, leaving him — and the audience — haunted by lingering questions about the morality of war, child soldiers, preemptive attacks, and cultural genocide. Seems this 30-year old story about a distant future has lot to say about right now. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/4/13)


About Time
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Writer/director Richard Curtis, screenwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, and director of Love Actually, has taken the teeth out of time travel. It’s not that the script should give in to the standard time traveler plots — historical wrongs to right, fortunes to amass or lives to save — but despite Curtis’ usual infusion of English charm, About Time is humdrum. Curtis screws around too long with inconsequential romantic comedy bits, wearing down both novelty and goodwill, and getting to the existential core too late.


There are no elaborate rules or mechanisms involved in Curtis’ time travel; it’s more a genetic perk. By shutting themselves in closets, making fists and concentrating on a specific moment in time, the men in the Lake family can instantaneously transport themselves to that exact moment, as long as that moment is in their lifetime. Memories of those moments’ previous iterations intact, generations of Lake males, manipulating moments to their benefit, have accumulated enough financial success and privilege that their heirs can use the passed-down ability to spend countless hours doing whatever.

The latest beneficiary, 21-year-old Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), gently guided by his father played by the lithesome Bill Nighy, concentrates his time traveling talent on finding love. After a false start, he focuses on Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American living in London, and though Curtis’ script includes pre-marital sex, it still seems fuddy-duddy in this regard. So upstanding a fellow is Tim that his first act of time travel is to go back to the previous night to grant a New Year’s kiss to spare a girl’s feelings he doesn’t return. In fact, Tim spends a great deal of time traveling back to fix painful moments for other people that it unnecessarily complicates the storytelling. We know what’s going to happen, so Curtis should just get on with it.

This simplified time travel is an enviable talent. Who hasn’t thought of a snappy comeback moments after the end of an encounter, wished for a more graceful entrance or not recognized the importance of a first meeting and botched the first impression? But the problem with witnessing these types of unlimited do-overs is that they’re not very interesting to anyone but the owner of that particular life. In the big scheme, the ability covers only trivial matters that aren’t interesting to watch the first time, much less the second or third.

That is, until Curtis gets to the point in which death remains inevitable and irreversible, and there’s a problematic technicality regarding Tim’s traveling to the time before the birth of his children. The times he forced to realize that he can’t fix everything by revisiting a moment are actually quite powerful. And Bill Nighy’s performance as the retired professor who uses his power to spend time with his children and read is inspired and comforting. So it’s extremely ironic that Curtis can’t go back in time to rewrite the script with that as its focus. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/4/13)


12 Years a Slave
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) chooses hard subjects for his feature films. To different masters, his main characters are captive and often powerless. Although it's difficult to watch their struggles against cruelty and emptiness — even when self-inflicted — it's far from its own type of masochism. Yes, McQueen films with an unflinching eye, but he never fails to use his artistry to create a type of visual poetry out of misery and offering hope, if not redemption.

12 Years a Slave, which McQueen co-wrote with John Ridley from Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir, requires McQueen's signature scenes of quiet beauty for respite and understanding. Modern sensibilities make it difficult to fully grasp Northup's dire predicament.

A freeborn African-American living with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY, in the 1840s, the violinist is brought to Washington, DC, under false pretenses to be drugged, beaten and kidnapped. He's then sold into slavery to Louisiana plantations, where he suffers from both systematic indifference and malicious cruelty.

McQueen adeptly rearranges the timeline so the film opens with an enslaved Northup, portrayed with an admirable restraint and sober determination by Chiwetel Ejiofor. He then tracks back to Northup's free life as fond remembrance as well as the actual start to his incredible story. Although the title indicates an eventual end to Northup's anguish that Northup can't have known he would eventually be liberated is always present in the story.

Ejiofor gives the once-in-a-lifetime role its due solemnity. At pivotal moments, McQueen's camera finds Ejiofor's face, square jaw clenched, eyes focused on the distance, or possibly even looking to read an uncertain and bleak future. At another slave's funeral, the hardness in his face changes as he joins in singing. It's one of several scenes in which we actually witness Northup becoming either broken or rebuilt. Under McQueen's direction, Ejiofor is allowed to convey these depths of emotion without even saying a word.

In each new circumstance, Northup must decide how much of himself and his situation he should reveal and when it's the time to fight back or try to notify the outside world. Sometimes this leads to unnatural commentaries on the rationale behind slavery from slavers and overseers played by Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender. Or, in the case of Brad Pitt as a not-quite abolitionist Canadian carpenter, an awkward speech against it.

But these appearances, except for Fassbender's fetishistic obsessions with late-night dances and young slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), are over quickly. They're presented in a series of short, dense scenes, composed to reveal the hypocritical and mercenary nature of slavery through Northup's moral center and the growing surrealism of his situation.

This is a film about the inhumane conditions of slavery, but ultimately it's also about faith and perseverance under unjust and adverse circumstances. And for that, it will unfortunately remain timely. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/4/13)


 

 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com


 

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