Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Reviews Part Two

REVIEW: 42 ***

"42" is the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American man to break the color-barrier in professional baseball. The film doesn't tell us anything new about the era of segregation in the United States, nor does it bring anything new to the sports genre in movies. Yet it does entertain, which is its main goal.

The cast includes newcomer Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. He is likable and dignified in the role. Accompanying him is veteran star Harrison Ford as Dodgers manager Branch Rickey, who chose to defy convention and hire Robinson for the team. Ford provides one of his best character portraits. Certainly it is one of the more interesting roles he has taken on in a long time.

Brian Helgeland (winner of the Oscar for co-writing "L.A. Confidential") focuses the film on how the legendary player overcame the initial backlash against his joining the league in 1947 and how the Brooklyn Dodgers team overcame their fears about integrating to eventually welcome him as a member. The script doesn't give us a lot of information on Mr. Robinson's life outside of these events, but it manages to be inspiring without revealing anything even the most casual sports observer wouldn't know.

Perhaps this is the main reason that "42" feels like safe entertainment, instead of aiming for greatness like some of the more popular baseball dramas of the past like "Pride of the Yankees" (1942) or "Field of Dreams" (1989). Having said that, "42" is worthwhile for the performances and its breezy telling of an inspirational story.

REVIEW:  A Good Day to Die Hard

John McClane (Bruce Willis) winds up traveling to Russia to help his estranged son (Jai Courtney), who is mixed up in a crazy plot that revolves around a secret file and assassination attempts and corruption. The son is reluctant to let John help, but eventually they find a way to reconnect.

The plot never really comes together as a cohesive action story, and just goes from one action set-piece to another without ever being particularly exciting. Worse, the father-son relationship never quite clicks, which makes it feel like the desperate plot device that it really is. If they make a sixth entry, I hope they find a better story to tell. What is surprising is how far from the quality of its predecessors, especially the original, this one is. It feels tired and uninspired.

REVIEW: Lovelace
**½

"Lovelace" is a biopic about an innocent young woman who is thrown into the porn business by an abusive husband. Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) comes from a strict religious home and is shy and trusting at first, but then she meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard). Traynor charms her into doing things she seems not so eager to do, including getting involved in the surprising hit porn flick Deep Throat, but then he turns into an all-out hustler and she goes through quite a lot of abuse before finally getting away.

Seyfried finds a way to make her innocence-to-maturity-to-survivor arc work despite the audiences' not-unreasonable question as to why she got so involved for so long. Some may find that some of Linda's past has gone unmentioned so this storyline can remain unbroken, but we come to like and believe her character. Sarsgaard has been good for a long time (see "Shattered Glass") and is convincing as the lousy husband gone greedy, using drugs and pimping his wife for money, while showing us why Linda found him so charming in the beginning. Lovelace's parents are well-played by Robert Patrick (forever remembered for his villain in "Terminator 2") and a nearly unrecognizable Sharon Stone (an Oscar-nominee for "Casino" and no stranger to controversy herself).

The film is flawed, as it occasionally feels like it could easily have been released to cable without any major changes. Still, it is an interesting true-life story of a woman who unwittingly becomes a porn star and national punchline, while surviving a nasty marriage.

REVIEW:  Olympus
Has Fallen **

Here is a film that might have felt right at home in the mid-90's. It features an all-out attack on a major American landmark, the White House, and features plenty of explosions. Then there is a flawed, but unstoppable hero (Gerard Butler) who is the one man who can save the president and the country once the White House is taken over by terrorists.

Some of this is fun, as Butler keeps in contact with the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) who has been promoted to Acting-president while the real one (Aaron Eckhart) remains a hostage. The Speaker and the security team have to trust this guy, a former Secret Service agent, because he's the only one inside who can try to rescue the hostages being held in a bunker. So Butler out-smarts his enemies, while narrowly dodging bullets and engaging in fist fights. It's fun in a sort of mindless way.

The problem is that everything begins to feel like a kind of video game, rather than like real people are in real danger. It's also not as engaging as similar fare seen in films like Wolfgang Peterson's 1997 action classic "Air Force One," which starred a much more aggressive president than "Olympus Has Fallen" presents in Aaron Eckhart's portrayal. I never really felt invested in what happened to Gerard Butler's character, though he fills the bill as a sort of generic action hero type. And few lines from the movie stood out, until the end. The best exchange comes when someone complains about the destruction done to the White House, and another character shrugs and says "It's insured." That moment could also underline the basic feeling after viewing this movie: I enjoyed it on a basic level, but it doesn't carry any real impact with it.

REVIEW:  White House Down **½

U.S. Capitol police officer John Cale (Channing Tatum) wants to impress his young daughter (Joey King) by winning a job as a member of the president's Secret Service. He is unsuccessful, but he doesn't let her know the outcome and suggests they take a White House tour.

Turns out to be the wrong day for a stroll through the nation's most famous house, when a bomb explodes in the Capitol, creating chaos as the White House and President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) are soon under siege. But fear not, for our rejected would-be Secret Service man is on hand to rescue the president and help his defense team (led in part by frustrated high level agent Maggie Gyllenhaal) via the command center.

Just as preposterous as this spring's "Olympus Has Fallen," but somehow more fun. A lot of this has to do with the cast, including Tatum and Foxx who have fun with the film's lighter moments and the always dependable James Woods as a disillusioned villain orchestrating the attack on the White House.
The film never quite reaches the level of an "Air Force One" or director Roland Emmerich's own '90's classic, "Independence Day," but it does provide plenty of popcorn action entertainment.


Capsule Reviews 2013

REVIEW:  Blue Jasmine ****

A woman married to a wealthy business executive finds her life unraveling when she discovers his shady dealings and philandering. She sets out to rebuild her life, while staying with her working-class sister, but struggles to adjust. Superb performances by Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins help make this one of Woody Allen's best recent releases.

REVIEW:  Captain Phillips
****

Intense, suspense-building story of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew combating a take over of their cargo ship by Somali pirates in 2009. The film provides us with a battle of wits between Phillips and the pirate's captain Muse (played with an occasional flash of humor by Barkhad Abdi), who takes to calling his counterpart "Irish." Done with an almost documentary style, much like his "United 93," director Paul Greengrass again brings the audience along on a realistic yet incredible ride. Tom Hanks hasn't been this good in a very long time, probably not since at least "Road to Perdition" in 2002.

REVIEW:  Curse of Chucky
**

Chucky returns to take revenge on a family he has held a grudge against for many years. As far as Direct-to-DVD titles go, this is actually pretty decent. Director Don Mancini, the creator of the franchise, opts more for suspense before playing up the gore. Some developments are predictable, and there are a few one-liners thrown in that don't quite work (though one victim predicts fate by saying "see you in the morning... at the cemetery"), but fans of the series will likely be surprised that this isn't bargain-basement quality. You could do worse for your Halloween-season horror viewing than to rent/download/stream/ whatever this installment.

REVIEW:  Elysium **

Heavy-handed allegory where a future sees the haves enjoying their own space station away from the have-nots. The effects are good and Damon makes an easy-to-like hero. On the other hand, Foster's villainous Defense Secretary character is sort of a dead-end and the whole thing ends up feeling like countless other sci-fi action movies.

REVIEW:  Gravity ****

Involving, well-crafted story of the struggle of space engineers to survive after their work is interrupted by a catastrophic strike from debris. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) finds herself basically alone in space, with only the reassuring presence of the more experienced astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) to guide her through the harrowing experience of trying to find a way back to Earth's surface. Once everything goes haywire, she must race time or face the real possibility of never getting back. Superb performance from Bullock, with Clooney likable as her guiding voice.

REVIEW:  Pacific Rim **½

Humans fight giant bug-like aliens while manning huge machine gear in this exciting, if a bit cliche, action story. Technically impressive, as it should be -- coming from "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy" director Guillermo Del Toro.

REVIEW:  Prisoners ***½

Intense, well-acted thriller stars Hugh Jackman as a man who becomes unhinged when his daughter is abducted and the law (represented here in the form of a detective played by Jake Gyllenhaal) seems slow in its investigation. In his frustration, Jackman takes the law into his own hands under the assumption that a particular suspect is guilty. If the third act, which reveals some answers to what happened, seems a bit too neat it is largely because of the escalating tension built through the rest of the film.

2013 Reviews Part One

REVIEW:  All is Lost ***

Worthwhile, if a bit too solitary, tale of survival at sea. Robert Redford gives a sturdy (and nearly-wordless) performance in a physically demanding role. Some of the visuals are striking, such as when we see schools of fish under the life raft Redford uses. Nevertheless, there is an element of emotion missing until late in the film, when the situation has finally led to a realization of doomed fate closing in. Still, it is an interesting time spent with one man fighting against the odds in an uncontrollable environment.

REVIEW:  Frozen ****

After a fairly disappointing year for animation, compared to recent times, we have a real winner in "Frozen." Taken from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale "The Snow Queen," it is centered on a pair of sisters torn apart when the elder sister Elsa (Idina Menzel) accidentally hurts the younger Anna (Kristen Bell) using her ice-manipulating magic ability while the two play.

Their parents are told by a wise wilderness troll that Elsa's powers must be kept under control, which leads to her nearly total isolation from everyone else for fear that her power would be destructive. Increasingly lonely and frustrated by these circumstances, made worse by the death of their parents, Anna sees an opportunity to try to make up for lost time when Elsa's coronation ceremony occurs.

Unfortunately, an argument over a young man's proposal sets off a chain of events, leading to Elsa fleeing to the mountains and leaving the kingdom under an icy eternal winter. Not one to give up Anna follows, determined to make things right. Along the way, she encounters a man named Kristof (Jonathan Groff), his sidekick reindeer Sven and a lovably goofy snowman called Olaf (Josh Gad). This delightful animated musical was directed by Chris Buck (1999's "Tarzan" and 2007's "Surf's Up") and Jennifer Lee (2012's "Wreck-It-Ralph"), with music by Christophe Beck and songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Don't miss it!


REVIEW:  Still Mine ***½

Craig Morrison and his wife, Irene, have been married for 61 years. They live a comfortable life together, but Irene is increasingly ill from the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. After a series of events, Craig decides to build a new house on their 12-acre property that can accommodate his wife's needs. But there is a problem.

The local building authorities inform Morrison that he needs a permit to build on his own property. His initial reaction is incredulous, but he plays along and pays the $400 anyway. He continues to build. Before long, the regulators come back to tell him he is violating their code standards. He must submit blueprints for his plans. Again, he plays along, but doesn't stop creating his new home. There isn't time, the reasoning goes. His wife isn't getting better.

Eventually, Craig is brought into court for these violations. He has already pleaded with these people, showing them he has experience building, and even having the new place inspected. All to no avail. So now it is up to a court to send him to jail or allow him to keep the new home he has built.

James Cromwell, best known for his Oscar-nominated role as the kindly farmer in "Babe" (1995), gives an affecting performance as the aging husband trying to make sense of an awful situation. Genevieve Bujold also is lovely as his increasingly suffering wife. They both play their roles realistically, and without succumbing to the trap of sentimentalizing their circumstances.

The film, directed and written by Michael McGowan, reminds us that life doesn't necessarily get easier in old age, and that a true bond can remain strong through even the toughest trials. It is worth seeking out at your local cinema.
REVIEW:  Wadjda ****

Lovely film about one girl's gentle defiance of her country's traditional placement of women in society. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a young school girl who longs for the seemingly simple joy of racing a bike with her male friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani).

Her mother (Reem Abdullah), knowing how society will frown on Wadjda for riding a bike, refuses to buy it. So the independent-spirted 11-year-old girl decides to raise the money herself through means that make her school's headmistress suspicious. Then she discovers a Qur'an recital competition and determines to win the prize money to pay for the bike.  Meanwhile, Mother is distracted by the looming possibility that her husband will take on a second wife and does not realize the situation.

"Wadjda" tells its story gently, and brings forth the political issues in a straightforward manner that allows us to focus on the innocent quest for a moment of childhood joy forbidden by a society with many contradictions.

Included in those contradictions is the fact that a society that doesn't allow women to drive and bans movies has produced a female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, whose film is the first from Saudi Arabia ever submitted for consideration for the Academy Award Foreign Language category.  [UPDATE:  'Wadjda' did not make it to the final ballot for the Oscars, whose nominations were announced January 16, 2014]