Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (2013)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino. Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli. 142 min. Not Rated. Italy/France. Comedy/Drama.

A writer in Rome who's seen'em all and done'em all, and has written only one novel throughout his life, is celebrating his 65th birthday, when suddenly, he's intrigued by any sign that can offer life new meaning; a story device to explain why he never wrote another novel. One of those strange foreign movies that requires patience, and I understand when I use "foreign" and "patience" in the same sentence, I've already lost 99% of you. But this beautiful Italian film, somehow reminiscent of Cinema Paradiso, provides moments that linger for quite awhile - especially the one involving birds.

PS: Thank you, JZ, for introducing the film.

Mo says:

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Director: Martin Scorsese. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Cristin Milioti, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Shea Whigham, Fran Lebowitz. 180 min. Rated R. Biography/Crime.

The true-story rise and fall ... of a New York stock broker. Scorsese and DiCaprio create one of their greatest collaborations ever, about the sickening but very palpable American (or general human) greed, and how it infiltrates the commonest people - overshadowing great movies like Oliver Stone's Wall Street. You think with the current viewer attention span of a 4-year-old, it would be tough to get through three hours movie time; but Scorsese delivers without a hitch, cruising through this fascinating/disgusting lifestyle, and not even a moment to look at your watch. Think of it as Goodfellas on Wall Street.

Mo says:

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Director: James Ponsoldt. Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk. 95 min. Rated R. Comedy/Drama/Romance.

Recently watched Love Story, and was amazed how fake, contrived and predictable this popular movie was. Fast-forward to 2013, and similar to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we have high-schoolers who are real people - with real emotions, and real problems that are dealt with in a very authentic, heart-breaking manner. Starts as a comedy and ends in deep drama, with believable performances by Teller, and three up-and-coming actresses: Woodley (The Descendants), Larson (Short Term 12), and Winstead (Smashed). Think of Before Midnight and The Spectacular Now, and you realize romantic movies will never be the same.

Mo says:

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

American Hustle (2013)

 Director: David O. Russell. Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Peña. 138 min. Rated R. Crime/Drama.

This is what happened: For months, they advertised the guts out of a decent director's movie of four great actors playing larger-than-life hustlers in the oh-so-cool 70s. So I'm already expecting a masterpiece. But then the movie starts, and it keeps going. And I'm not sure where it's going. And it's too much Scorsese Goodfellas/Casino-style narration/editing/cinematography. But then, there's this one scene: Bradley Cooper, at a momentary triumph, laughing his head off, imitating Louis C.K.'s character. And it's so well done. That one scene, and every prior element that made that scene possible, deserves recognition.

Mo says:

A Hijacking (Kapringen) (2012)

Director: Tobias Lindholm. Cast: Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling, Dar Salim. 103 min. Rated R. Denmark. Drama/Thriller.

A Danish ship is hijacked by Somali pirates, so it's impossible to watch this without making comparisons to this year's Captain Philips, which thankfully sheds light on A Hijacking's strengths. The story cancels out any controversial "inspired-by-a-true-story" Tom Hanks-embodied heroics, and invites the viewer to live and endure with the crew members, their captors, and the negotiators who remotely struggle to gain their freedom ... for four long months. Gradually, human life becomes extremely precious, and the long wait makes any loss too devastating. Watch this for a European, humanistic point-of-view on the subject.

Mo says:

Monday, December 23, 2013

My Top 10 Christmas Movies

Everybody's posting their own favorite Christmas movies, so I'm not falling behind.

I know people mention a movie among their favorite Christmas films just because it shows a Christmas ornament for a fraction of a second, but I'm not going  as far as listing Prometheus here just because there was a Christmas tree on board the ship. Still, some of these are definitely devoid of any Christmas spirit; I mean ... what do you expect from Kubrick?

Here's the list, in alphabetical order, with films spanning almost 70 years. Weirdly, the list contains two Tim Burton films, and The Nightmare Before Christmas is neither one of them:

1. Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)

2. Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)

3. Die Hard 2 (Renny Harlin, 1990)

4. Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990)

5. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

6. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

7. Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990)

8. In Brudges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

9. It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

10. Love, Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003)

Edward Scissorhands would be my favorite Christmas movie ever.

In case you have any movie of your own to add, there are two good lists to use as reference, here and here.

And here's a lame movie quiz:

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Following (1998)

Director: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell. 69 min. Rated R. UK. Mystery/Crime.

Christopher Nolan's first feature film. Using the style later he perfected in Memento, Nolan tells the story of a loner who as an inspirational source for characters of a new book, follows random people in the streets, studying their behavior. When he breaks his own first rule (not to follow the same person twice), that person wises up, and turns out to be a thief, who takes him along as a side-kick on burglaries. Through flash-backs and flash-forwards, we're taken through several mind-bending twists, with a surprise ending. No bias - you can see the dawn of a genius filmmaker.

PS: Streaming on Netflix, here's some interesting trivia:

"As Christopher Nolan's debut feature, it was designed to be as inexpensive as possible to make: scenes were heavily rehearsed so that just one or two takes were needed, thus economising on 16 mm film stock, the production's greatest expense, and for which Nolan was paying from his salary. Without expensive professional lighting equipment, Nolan mostly used available light. Apart from providing the script and direction, Nolan also did the photography, editing and production himself."

Mo says:

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Director: Peter Jackson. Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry. 161 min. Rated PG-13. USA/New Zealand. Adventure/Fantasy.

More of the same. Yes, the production design is insanely well done (like always), and Smaug the dragon is a visual feat beyond your wildest dreams. But again, there's one action sequence after another, with repeating camera roller coaster point-of-view shots, and Legolas' arrows saving the day at the last minute, ad nauseam. The 3D HFR format (high-frame rate; 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24) was a strain to the eyes, creating a "soap opera" effect reminiscent of old British TV shows. If you have a crushing urge to watch this, feel content with 2D.

Mo says:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Hunt (Jagten) (2012)

Director: Thomas Vinterberg. Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp. 115 min. Rated R. Denmark/Sweden. Drama.

The emotionally-charged account of a kindergarten girl leads to a male teacher being accused of pedophilia, obviously giving other parents the jitters, and suddenly the whole town is on the teacher like a pack of wolves. He's fired, handcuffed, prosecuted, and banned even by the local grocery store. Eventually, his entire livelihood is (very believably) destroyed. It's a social horror that can happen to anybody: becoming the victim of a mob mentality, depending on what the society is super-sensitive to, based on the testimony of an unreliable witness. My favorite new actor, Mads Mikkelsen, makes the pain excruciatingly palpable.

Mo says:

Monday, December 16, 2013

Disconnect (2012)

Director: Henry Alex Rubin. Cast: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Nyqvist, Paula Patton. 115 min. Rated R. Drama.

Three stories narrated in parallel, about educated people using the internet, Facebook, their iPads, and their cellphones, to build relationships with other entities online, and then trusting them, and then sharing their most personal info and intimate secrets, without even having seen the person face-to-face before, or confirming whether the virtual identity they're connecting with truly exists in the outside world - ending in the loss of their own privacy and existence. Disconnect is the story of us; it's the story of our times. Surprising turn by Jason Bateman, who before this was almost a nobody in movies. Not anymore.

Mo says:

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Frozen (2013)

Director(s): Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee. Cast (voices): Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel. 108 min. Rated PG. Animation.

After many years, Disney is finally practicing originality again. This one is still based on a Hans Christian Anderson story ("The Snow Queen"), but a Disney animation where the protagonists are two headstrong sisters, characters are different shades of gray, some are conspirators hiding as heroes, and all villains are male, are concepts I do not recall the cartoon-making giant attempting at before. And the imagery ... let's just say watching this 3D animation was an immense pleasure in 2D. Makes you wish the icy cold winter shown, would go on forever.

PS: The following disclaimer appeared during the end credits; given the rampant insanity of political correctness, I wouldn't be surprised if this was serious:

"The views and opinions by Kristoff in the film that all men eat their boogers are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The Walt Disney Company or the filmmakers. Neither The Walt Disney Company nor the filmmakers make any representation of the accuracy of any such views and opinions."

Mo says:

Frances Ha (2012)

Director: Noah Baumbach. Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver. 86 min. Rated R. Drama/Comedy.

Another art-house movie that makes feeble attempts at looking intelligent (e.g. filming in black-and-white). The story of a dancing student who in terms of words and actions demonstrates the intellect of a Neanderthal, definitely unable to live anywhere near human civilization, let alone live in New York City where the story is set. Is this an extension of American media's attempt to make stupidity look cute? I'd seen the film a few weeks ago, and the reason I wrote about it now, was only because I discovered actress/co-writer/director's wife Gerwig was nominated for a Golden Globe today.

Mo says:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lovelace (2013)

Director(s): Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman. Cast:  Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, James Franco, Bobby Cannavale, Hank Azaria, Debi Mazar, Wes Bentley, Eric Roberts, Chloë Sevigny. 93 min. Rated R. Biography/Drama.

True story of pornographer-turned-activist Linda Lovelace, actress of Deep Throat, the most notorious blue movie in American history. I was initially disappointed in the character development during the first half, confused whether the director is portraying Lovelace as an idiot, or an intelligent victim? But suddenly midway through, there's a change of narrative style, which effectively differentiates how we (as viewers) perceive celebrities, from who they really are. With astonishing performances by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick in supporting roles, similar to Boogie Nights and Star 80, this is a deeply sad and disturbing film about the adult entertainment industry.

Mo says:

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Director: Francis Lawrence. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Toby Jones. 146 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Sci-fi.

Book 1, book 2, book 3. That's the order of which I enjoyed the "Hunger Games" books - the first my favorite. The movie adaptation of the second book, "Catching Fire", performs the rare feat of panning out the story better than the book, thanks to a few small but dramatically significant changes (mostly pointed out here); to the extent that the second movie is as good as the first one. Still amazed at the writer's knowledge of political science: picturing how totalitarian regimes work, and how revolutions become corrupt. And Woody Harrelson is always such a wonderful supporting presence.

Mo says:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Nebraska (2013)

Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk. 115 min. Rated R. Drama.

Similar to About Schmidt (and almost as engaging), Payne is at it again, exploring the plight of old age - this time picturing Bruce Dern as a demented small town old man under the illusion that he's won a million dollar sweepstakes, and a son whose trying to convince him otherwise. But it's not about the story. It's about showing us in cold, depressing black-and-white how the old stubbornly cling on to non-existent dreams in a decaying terrain, and how impossible it is for generations to bridge the gap. Maybe the only solution, is to let them enjoy their dreams.

Mo says:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d'Adèle) (2013)

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche. Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos. 179 min. Rated NC-17. France/Belgium/Spain. Drama/Romance.

It's that time of the year, films vying for Oscar nominations, and the time to get lured into watching these artsy art-house movies - in this case winner of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival Palm d'Or, by the choice of a jury headed by the greatest filmmaker of all time (yes, chosen by Spielberg). A story of two girls who fall in love and talk to other people about everyday mundane stuff, where somewhere around two of the three-hour running time could have been cut out to save us time; including the NC-17 rated scenes. So now you've been warned.

Mo says:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) (2003)

Director: Joon-ho Bong. Cast: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim. 132 min. Unrated. South Korea. Crime/Mystery.

On one hand, it's the real-life story of how the South Korea police force by the thousands couldn't capture a serial killer who raped/murdered up to ten women from 1986 to 1991, and without spoiling anything, was very similar to San Francisco's Zodiac killer. On the other, it's a cinematic presentation of how sure we are about the things know, how wrong we are about them, and how you make a two-hour plus movie, just to reach a single final shot of the protagonist, looking at the camera, looking at us, and the whole world suddenly comes crashing down.

PS: Thanks you, Ali S. This was probably the best recommendation you've ever made.

Mo says:

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Way Way Back (2013)

Director(s): Nat Faxon, Jim Rash. Cast: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet. 103 min. Rated PG-13. Comedy Drama.

Coming-of-age story, by the creators of The Descendants and Little Miss Sunshine (hence, Steve Carell and Toni Collette): the most insecure teenager on the planet goes on a summer trip with his mother and stepfather, and starts believing in himself through the most unexpected friendship with a wacky extroverted water-park manager. The beauty, as in the above-mentioned works, is almost entirely in the dialogue, but Sam Rockwell's delivery of his hilarious wisecracks creates such a memorable and likable character in the manager, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination shouldn't be a surprise. So pleasant, I didn't want this to end.

Mo says:

Philomena (2013)

Director: Stephen Frears. Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham, Michelle Fairley. 98 min. Rated PG-13. UK/USA/France. Drama.

This isn't just based on a true story about an Irish old lady, whose child was sold into adoption by the Catholic Church to wealthy Americans because he was born out of wedlock, and her search to find him 50 years later. This is a perfect "road movie", where two extreme opposites (simple-minded religious old Dench and sarcastic middle-aged atheist Coogan) start their common search on humorous terms, end up with anger and forgiveness, and learn something about themselves and each other along the way. Judy Dench was always my hero; now I've found a new one in Steve Coogan.

PS: Huge winner at this year's Venice Film Festival.

Mo says:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Twixt (2011)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola. Cast: Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, David Paymer. 88 min. Rated R. Horror/Thriller.

Stephen King-wannabe writer is promoting his new book in a small town that doesn't have a bookstore and everybody minds their own business, and befriends Edgar Allen Poe in his dreams to draw inspiration from a serial child murder case that happened in the town's old motel years ago, and write a novel about vampire executions. I know, sounds weird. But Coppola's revisit of vampire territory is slightly enchanting, and the beautifully photographed black-and-white dream sequences are mesmerizing as post-modern renditions of Gothic horror. Coppola continues to experiment with new styles and instruments; let's see when he hits gold again.

PS: Exes Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley are a husband and wife here who only speak together through Skype, and Kilmer calls her his inspiration for his novels on witchcraft. Nice sense of humor.

Mo says:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Company You Keep (2012)

Director: Robert Redford. Cast: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Anna Kendrick, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott. 125 min. Rated R. Drama/Thriller.

Forget the story; look at the cast. How can you ignore this, and pass on the chance of seeing these screen icons interact? Yes, the political conspiracy story is flimsy, and Redford seems stuck in his own All the President's Men Three Days of the Condor past. But hey, we're talking Sarandon, Nolte, Christie, Gleeson, taking short roles in a cinema legend's film. Even the recently-famed actors such as Jenkins, Kendrick and Howard have taken tiny parts, because they must've been up in the clouds when they got the call. This is Robert Redford as Hollywood demigod, flexing his muscles.

Trivia: Jackie "Britain's Got Talent" Evancho plays the main character's daughter, and she doesn't even sing.

Mo says:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (2013).

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn. 117 min. Rated R. Biography/Drama.

Racist homophobic heterosexual Texan electrician tests HIV+ in the mid 80s, and goes on a crusade to smuggle non-FDA approved AIDS drugs into the country. Set McConaughey and Leto's incredible Oscar-worthy performances aside, and there's really not much left to the movie. The entire hospital strangely appears to have only clerk working all the shifts, the entire Dallas only one policeman popping up at every corner, and the entire country only one DEA agent. And Garner is not a good actress. Just didn't get what the take-home message here was. Watch this for a much better film on the subject.

Mo says:

Parkland (2013)

Director: Peter Landesman. Cast: Paul Giamatti, Marcia Gay Harden, Zac Efron, Ron Livingston, Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Welling, Colin Hanks, Jackie Earle Haley, Jacki Weaver. 93 min. Rated PG-13. History/Thriller.

A snapshot. That's all. The film's goal is to portray how it felt 50 years ago on this day, to have been in Parkland Memorial Hospital, when they brought in a popular president with a blown skull - and succeeds magnificently. The movie completely avoids any conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination, and sticks to the tense, crushing atmosphere of the day, and the three days after. For our generation, 9/11 was the day the world changed, and we know how it felt. This film projects the feelings of the day the last generation's world changed. Seemed as bad.

Mo says:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Purge (2013)

Director: James DeMonaco. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey. 85 min. Rated R. USA/France. Horror/Thriller.

Year 2022. "Crime is at an all-time low, because one night a year, all crime is legal." So the premise is perfect for a philosophical movie about human psychology, to become a memorable cult horror film. But then ... the screenplay becomes distracted to a situation right out of Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, where a lone man, who actually believes in the Annual Purge, defends his home and family against the purgers. This well-directed and beautifully-shot story had so many sociopolitical aspects to explore (because the extravagant themes don't seem too extravagant), but feels content to a simple gory thriller. Wasted creativity.

Mo says:

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Blackfish (2013)

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite. 83 min. Rated PG-13. Documentary.

Former Sea World trainers describe how the institution has captured, trained and treated killer whales, in a manner that has gradually forced them into psychosis, and lead to several horrible trainer injuries and deaths throughout its 40-year history, while the institution keeps the fatalities in shadows and runs the business unscathed. This is not some kind of propaganda against Sea World; rather, it makes you think why humans continue to manipulate forces which consequences they cannot even fathom. This documentary will make you re-think your next trip to the zoo. It's one those rare films you owe yourself to watch.

Mo says:

The Heat (2013)

Director: Paul Feig. Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans. 117 min. Rated R. Comedy/Crime.

A very entertaining female buddy cop movie that solely works due to McCarthy's body language and delivery of the lines. After Bridesmaids and this, I'm just surprised it took so long to discover this huge talent. But The Heat has nothing else to offer.

PS: Watch for "Biff" from Back to the Future as the police chief.

Mo says:

Friday, November 15, 2013

Europa Report (2013)

Director: Sebastián Cordero. Cast: Embeth Davidtz, Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist. 90 min. Rated PG-13. Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller.

The first manned mission to find life on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, ends in disaster ... because there's something lurking under the moon's ice. Told in the by-now-old "found footage" format, the movie's spacewalks might have had a better chance at impressing if they hadn't already been overshadowed by one of the year's greatest films. Amazing how the Alien style of storytelling (down to the last detail of a female being a final survivor - and I'm not spoiling anything by mentioning that) still influences films more than 30 years later.

Mo says:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Director: Alan Taylor. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgård, Chris O'Dowd, Benicio Del Toro. 112 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Fantasy.

Okay, I get it. Marvel is on this crusade of mass producing superhero movies, because each character needs multiple sequels before they can prepare for the next Avengers movie; to the extent that the "secret" post-credits sequence is now becoming more fruitful and interesting than the movie itself. People's hands get chopped off and grow back out, characters keep on dying and coming back to life again, because hey, we need them for the next movie. No story, no imagination, nothing new. Not even Hiddleston as the great villain Loki can prevent this insult to the intelligence (and the pocket).

Mo says:

Barbara (2012)

Director: Christian Petzold. Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock. 105 min. Rated PG-13. Germany. Drama.

East Germany, 1980. Female physician who cooperated with the West, is banished (after her incarceration) to work in a rural hospital, in a village where even the cats and dogs seem to hate her. So will she try to escape to West Germany, or stay and live up to her duties as a doctor?  I was expecting a more sophisticated answer than what the movie provides, but the movie's 93% on the Tomatometer suggests critics who reviewed this film aren't accustomed to how people in countries with authoritarian governments struggle with this question every single day. Every single day.

Mo says:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Passion (2012)

Director: Brian DePalma. Cast: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Karoline Herfurth. 102 min. Rated R. Germany/France. Crime/Mystery.

Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma. The generation of filmmakers who defined modern-day Hollywood. Among them, Spielberg and Scorsese heroically stayed in the game, solely because they kept "re-inventing" themselves; an attribute DePalma is most resistant to. In this murder-mystery of backstabbing female bosses and employees, DePalma again gives us the same twin sister whodunits, half-screen side-by-side storytellings, shower/elevator suspense sequences, and "gotcha"s of characters waking up from nightmares - the same as he did 40 years ago. Brian DePalma was a director who made good movies in the 70s and 80s. That filmmaker is now in permanent retirement.

Mo says:

Friday, November 8, 2013

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Director: Steve McQueen. Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Quvenzhané Wallis. 134 min. Rated R. USA/UK. Biography/Drama/History.

I almost gave this a NoMo. The next-to-nothing story is summarized in its title, it's way too long, and I couldn't wait for it to end. But then, 24 hours has passed ... and it keeps bothering me. An image of the lynched black hero, while child slaves play ignorantly and gleefully in the background. A whipping scene that's so devastating, you want to look away. An ending image of Ejiofor, gazing at you, burning right through you. This movie does for slavery what Schindler's List did for the Holocaust. This is not a fun movie to watch. It hurts bad.

PS #1: Hunger, Shame, and now this. Steve McQueen is making a career out of disturbing films looking into the dark corners of the human soul.

PS #2: And Paul Dano has made a career out of playing the most "punchable" characters in Hollywood.

Mo says:

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ender's Game (2013)

Director: Gavin Hood. Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley. Viola Davis. 114 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Sci-fi.

Earth is threatened by an alien invasion, and army generals decide to recruit teenagers to lead the attack against the alien planet. Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel is directed towards teenagers, and that's why the movie feels ... childish. Yes, the visual effects are (literally) uplifting, and there a few good moral points about thinking twice before completely annihilating your enemy, but when nearly the entire running time of a movie is focused on the military training kids (even when a few Oscar-nominated kids are among them), it's hard to be inspired the way sci-fis inspire.

Mo says:

Fantastic Planet (La planète sauvage) (1973)

Director: René Laloux. 72 min. Rated PG. France/Czechoslovakia. Animation.

Giant aliens in a planet right out of Salvadore Dali paintings exploit humans and treat them as household pets, while stray human colonies stage a rebellion using the aliens' knowledge and technology. This Czechoslovakian animation (PG-rated, but clearly for adults) was supposedly a metaphor for the Soviet occupation, and considering it was made before the late 70s' space sci-fi boom, the immense imagination and creativity at work picturing an alien world, together with the eerie soundtrack, is quite baffling. Maybe if I was old enough to watch it at the time, it would've taken my breath away.

Mo says:

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The East (2013)

Director: Zal Batmanglij. Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond. 116 min. Rated PG-13. USA/UK. Crime/Drama.

Cult-like resistance group called "The East" commits acts of terrorism against corporate CEOs who pollute the environment, so a government-supported private firm hires an agent to infiltrate the group. The concept is quite intriguing, but the story-line doesn't live up to expectations; mainly because it takes the agent forever to figure out the firm that hired her isn't any better than the companies the resistance group is up against (writers hoping for a conspiracy thriller?). And that in-house surgery scene was ludicrous. Amazingly, there are hints at a sequel at the end. The filmmakers must have a lot of self-esteem.

Mo says:

Monday, October 28, 2013

All Is Lost (2013)

Director: J.C. Chandor. Cast: Robert Redford. 106 min. Rated PG-13. Adventure/Drama.

Old man sailing in the Indian Ocean wakes up to find his yacht damaged, and struggles to survive against all imaginable odds at sea. There's only one actor, almost no dialogue, and the movie couldn't be more engaging. Part of the time you're not even sure what the man is attempting on the boat, but you're sure he knows what he's doing, because hey, it's Robert Redford. No surprise if he was chosen just because we've known his screen presence all our lives, and we trust him. Similar to Buried, the film dares to entertain through minimalism, and fully succeeds.

PS: This is J.C. Chandor's second feature film, the first being 2011's Margin Call. This is a director to watch.

Mo says:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Director: Baz Luhrmann. Cast: Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher., Amitabh Bachchan.143 min. Rated PG-13. Australia/USA. Drama/Romance.

Haven't read the novel, and haven't watched the 1974 Robert Redford version, and ... who am I to say Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) made a bad movie anyway? All I dare say is, his overlong film put me to sleep at least twice; meaning not even his always-brilliant visual style (very accurately simulating the look of colored old black & white photos) managed to keep me awake. And I wasn't able to sympathize with DiCaprio as Gatsby. And I'm not a romantic movie fan. And ... okay, I just don't recommend this.

Mo says:

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Director: Errol Morris. 103 min. Not Rated. Documentary.

An innocent bystander who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, is convicted of murdering a policeman in Texas, and brushes very close to getting the death penalty. Morris' interview documentary, magnified by Philip Glass' somber soundtrack and multi-layered re-enactments, may have been groundbreaking for its own time, but after films such as the Paradise Lost trilogy and Into the Abyss raised the "proving-the-death-row-inmate-innocent" documentary bar so unreachably high, such a master documentarian's work pales in comparison - just as Dr. No isn't as thrilling or character-driven as today's Bond movies. They're just doing it better these days.

PS: If you've seen the movie, check out its strange aftermaths here.

Mo says:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

Director: Alex Gibney. 130 min. Rated R. Documentary.

Two-hour plus documentary, following the rise of Julian Assange while his popular WikiLeaks website keeps whistle-blowers anonymous; and the fall of Julian Assange, while his famed whistle-blower Bradly Manning doesn't stay anonymous. But this is not just a biographical film. It explores Assange's philosophy of free, limitless information (e.g. if an Afghan snitch dies because WikiLeaks blew his cover, well, he deserved to die, because civilians have no business cooperating with invading forces), and shows how the same philosophy undermined and crushed WikiLeaks. In other words, the film forces you to take sides.

PS: Alex Gibney is the director of the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, the Emmy-nominated Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, and the Emmy-winning Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of GodCan't wait to see his recent The Armstrong Lie. This guy gets around.

Mo says:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Carrie (2013)

Director: Kimberly Peirce. Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Judy Greer. 100 min. Rated R. Horror.

Confession: I was never a huge fan of DePalma's 1976 version. The whole "They're gonna laugh at you!" repetition was annoying, and the closing hand-out-of-the-grave shock-shot was cheap. The remake is more intelligently directed, Carrie's and the audience's understanding of her telekinesis powers is more subtly told, and (to complete the blasphemy) Chloe Moretz and Julianne Moore, as Carrie and her mother, are more compelling than Spacek and Laurie. I respect Stephen King's message of not treating "evil" as abstract, and rather portraying people as its purveyors; when evil happens, everybody pays. But alas, it's a remake, and lacks originality.

Mo says:

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Captain Phillips (2013)

Director: Paul Greengrass. Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Catherine Keener. 134 min. Rated 134. Action/Biography.

Just couldn't wait for this cinematic rendering of the high-profile 2009 Somali pirate hijacking to be over. Was it because the tension was unbearable (which actually makes this a good film), or because other crew members had already ruined the movie by calling it a big lie? Maybe Greengrass (United 93) had made the characters too simplistic (Philips' idiotic opening conversations about their kid's future; Somalians' motivations for "Let's make a lot of money!"), or just that his overt use of shaky documentary-style photography bordered on nauseating. Without Hanks' unbelievable performance in a final scene, this would've been a NoMo.

PS: The disagreements I've had this year with RottenTomatoes have been staggering - from the MoJo-scored After Earth, that got a meager 11% on  the Tomatometer, to this movie, which got a 97% and I'm trying to forget already.

Mo says:

Monday, October 14, 2013

At Any Price (2012)

Director: Ramin Bahrani. Cast: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham. 105 min. Rated R. Drama.

In Bahrani's fourth feature, Quaid plays an Iowa farmer who follows the "expand or die" motto. He initially projects as a sleazy corn seed seller, sweet-talking his customers into iffy contracts. But then, he's just trying to meet his old father's high expectations, and push the family legacy onto sons who dream of Nascar-racing and mountain-climbing. It's heartbreaking how everybody sees right through the man, how he just stares into oblivion when he finds himself in a crushing bind, how he looks just like ... us. The film has some flimsy moments, but I was pleasantly surprised at Quaid's incredible performance.

PS: Bahrani, who also made the mesmerizing Goodbye Solo, was labelled by Roger Ebert as "America's best new filmmaker". Here's his four-star review on this movie.

Mo says:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

Director: Bryan Singer. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Eddie Marsan, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy. 114 min. Rated PG-13. Adventure/Fantasy.

They once used to make movies of similar titles, where giants were Ray Harryhausen's claymations, and were fun because we weren't expected to believe them as real. Nowadays, some believe CGI effects have become so sophisticated, they think they can make giants look real, but they really can't, so the whole thing becomes a mess. You don't know whether the director wants us to believe this as real, or have fun with it as fake. In this setting, even the king and his court look like caricatures, and again, we don't know how to treat them. Just a big mess.

PS: Shocked to see this was the same director who made The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, and the X-Men movies.

Mo says:

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Director: Mira Nair. Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Vasundhara Das. 114 min. Rated R. India/USA/Italy/Germany /France. Comedy/Drama/Romance.

An affluent Indian family is preparing for the wedding of their only daughter, but the festivities create a chain reaction of exposing scandals within the family. The film is remarkable at showing the inner (complicated) workings of both an Indian wedding and family, although I'm not sure this is a true representation of all Indian families, or how families generally solve the (almost impossible to solve) crises depicted in the movie. Maybe the film is trying to teach how people should behave, rather than how they actually do. But then again, morality lessons are usually frowned upon in cinema.

Mo says:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity (2013)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón. Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris. 90 min. Rated PG-13. USA/UK. Thriller/Drama.

Jaws. The Sixth Sense. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Shawshank Redemption. Just a handful of movies that define cinema's existence. They thrill and entertain, are flawless in technique, and are powerful enough for the viewer to worry for their characters, or shed a tear for them. Well, Gravity just added to that list of masterpieces. A simple story, flowing with originality, following a single character in peril, in the vastness called space. Its script, acting, cinematography, editing, and soundtrack, make this a study in perfection. My other favorite movie of 2013 just found a strong competitor.

Mo says:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)

Director: Mira Nair. Cast: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri. 130 min. Rated R. USA/UK/Qatar. Drama/Thriller.

Not a great fan of Mira Nair's works. She makes a decent effort to picture the plight of US immigrants, but I'm not sure whether she addresses Americans in her films, or the immigrants? (The latter may sympathize; the former may not even care.) Here, with a talented actor in the lead, she makes an extremely compelling case of why a genius foreigner trained in America's most prestigious schools, may eventually join the ranks of terrorists - and that's not just because of a strip-search at the airport. Sad that we're distracted by an obligatory Hollywood standoff at the end.

Mo says:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) (1988)

Director: Isao Takahata. 89 min. Unrated. Japan. Animation.

"September 21, 1945; that was the night I died." When a cartoon (of all forms of media) starts with that line, you know you're in for something deep. But then watching this flashback-driven animated feature, about a teenage boy and his little sister fighting hunger in war-torn Japan, it dawned upon me how animation was probably the only way to tell this story, as only the lively colors and stark contrast of animation could enrich the drama; something impossible to achieve with live action. Not only a sad and heart-breaking cartoon, but one of the saddest films I'd ever seen.

PS #1: You can watch the full animated feature on YouTube here, although the resolution is probably not the best.

PS #2: Thank you, Ali S., for recommending yet another great animation.

Mo says:

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

Director: Nicolas Gessner. Cast: Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Alexis Smith, Scott Jacoby. 91 min. Rated PG. Canada/France. Horror/Mystery.

Thirteen-year-old girl living alone makes every effort to maintain her privacy, and keep what she's hiding in her cellar in a shroud of secrecy. Watched this the first time in elementary school, and even though the viewer is never shown what's in the cellar, I remember any scene that was somehow related to it creeped me out at the time. Revisiting it, the entire film is disturbing even by today's standards, owing mainly to Foster's performance (done the same year as Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and Parker's Bugsy Malone). Watch this little girl, and witness a powerful actress in the making.

Mo says:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Rush (2013)

Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara. 123 min. Rated R. USA/Germany/UK. Biography/Action.

Ron Howard's latest venture into car chases (after 1977's Grand Theft Auto), works like a sinus wave. The first half, the true-story rivalry of two world-champion racers, is mostly about the race; not the driver. Then midway through, one driver is seriously injured, and while he struggles to get back into the race, the drama's emotional stakes suddenly shoot sky high. Then, there's a final scene that dumbs everything down so low, it ruins the past two-hour fun of breathtaking 70's style grainy cinematography, and Hans Zimmer's thrilling music. If Howard could've only left out that one final scene out...

Confession: Ron Howard is a good director. But look at his past works. Splash, Cocoon, Willow, Backdraft, Far and Away, The Paper, Apollo 13, Ransom, The DaVinci Code. All good movies, but as Kenneth Turan of the LA Times says about Rush: "... it has style, but lacks a heart." I can make the same claim about almost all of Howard's movies - except for A Beautiful Mind, which does have a heart, but that credit mainly goes to Jennifer Connelly's performance, and not necessarily Howard's direction.

Mo says:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prisoners (2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano. 153 min. Rated R. Crime/Thriller.

Canadian director Villeneuve has done it again: similar to 2010's Incendies, he's created an heart-wrenching thriller about moral ambiguities, this time involving prisoner torture, the role of religion, and worst of all, the innocence of children. Yes, there are some minor story flaws, but the movie is so long, tense and taut, suspending disbelief is the least effort needed on your part. A domineering Gyllenhaal again performs the heroic cop role, and steals the show from (a somewhat struggling) Jackman, making the whole child abduction situation very believable, and extremely difficult to sit through. So consider yourself warned.

Mo says:

The Robber (Der Räuber) (2010)

Director: Benjamin Heisenberg. Cast: Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz, Florian Wotruba. 101 min. Germany/Austria. Biography/Crime.

One of this blog's purposes is to criticize movies everybody knows about, and admire movies nobody knows about; so no point in criticizing movies nobody knows about. That's why I was hesitant to write about this true story of an ex-convict who's a bank robber, and a runner. So he robs banks, and then he runs. And he runs a lot. And we never understand why he's bad. He's just bad because... he's bad. Almost got a feeling the director has something against this guy. But then, the movie got 77% on the Tomatometer, so I had to do something.

Mo says: