Year Director Running Time MPAA Rating Title Comments
2012 Roger Michell 94 R Hyde Park on the Hudson Disappointing. Bill Murray stars as President Franklin D. Roosevelt in this comedic dramatization of an event that occurred in 1939. The title refers to the President's estate in Hyde Park, New York (now a National Historic Site). The King and Queen of England paid a visit to Hyde Park to seek FDR's support for England against the growing threats from Germany. This was King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), the same king featured in "The King's Speech" (2010), but that was a much superior film. The story is told from the point of view of Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (Laura Linney), a sixth cousin of FDR who became one of the President's mistresses. It is based partly on Daisy's private journals which were discovered following her death in 1991; writer Richard Nelson first wrote a play in 2009 and then adapted it for this film. Murray, West and Linney were each quite good in their respective roles, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I thought the treatment of the Queen's character was very awkward, almost embarrassing. And the whole issue of the purpose of the visit of the King & Queen seemed very marginalized.
2012 Tom Hooper 157 PG-13 Les Misérables The story of "Les Misérables" from the novel by Victor Hugo has been filmed numerous times as a pure drama and also has been produced as a stage musical. This new film version is based on the musical and is the fourth filmed version of this story I've seen but it is not my favorite. If you have not seen the 1935 film staring Fredric March and Charles Laughton, you owe it to yourself to rent that classic. I also enjoyed a French version released in 1995 directed by Claude Lelouch, which was a indirect way of telling the story through the life of a man who discovers parallels between his own life and that of the novel's "Jean Valjean." The 1998 film by Bille August was also good but I still hold the 1935 version as the gold standard. This new version by Tom Hooper is very powerful and I will admit that the last 30 minutes are quite emotional, but probably the strongest reason I didn't like it overall is the same reason I did not enjoy the stage musical I saw in Chicago years ago. I just don't see this story as suitable material for a musical (or at least, not these songs and this music). But bear in mind that I am a child of the 1950s and may have a different idea of what constitutes a musical from those who produce them today. And I also feel I should point out that this isn't just a dramatic story periodically interrupted by song, rather, every word of the screenplay is sung even between songs (though I'm told this is the way it was done in the stage version). It reminds me of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964) in which all dialogue was sung (in French) but the difference there is that there were no songs. This "Les Misérables" is more like an opera, though even many operas take a break for spoken dialogue. The film is visually very impressive and features major star acting talent: Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as Javert. All did their own singing on set during filming, which is admirable, though I was not impressed with Crowe's vocal talent. I won't go into much about the story itself, but it is about Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread (in France, about 200 years ago). After release from prison, he breaks parole and is pursued through the years by Inspector Javert. And while in hiding, he becomes the guardian of Cosette, daughter of his former employee, Fantine. So, understanding my bias, you may still enjoy this massive undertaking, especially if you are a fan of the stage musical, though I am not really able to give an informed comparison there, since I saw it so long ago (and didn't have a great seat). Finally, two minor complaints: (1) Daniel Huttlestone, the young boy in the role of "Gavroche," a street urchin, had a cockney accent, which I thought was totally preposterous in a story set in France; (2) the camera sometimes zoomed in absurdly close to an actor's face.
2012 Peter Jackson 169 PG-13 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey A very entertaining action adventure based on approximately the first third of the novel “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. To make such a lengthy film from a fraction of a book that is already shorter than any of his three "Lord of the Rings" books, suggests that a lot of the screenplay contains material not in the novel. But not having read it, I cannot tell you what that extra material is. But I imagine that it is the reason some viewers have been so negative in their criticism. Movie-goers who are new to the story as I was, will not have such preconceived notions and will be more likely to enjoy it for what it is. Without getting into too much detail, it is a story which takes place prior to and in the same fantasy world as the "Lord of the Rings" books and films. The central character is a hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman; also Ian Holm as "Old Bilbo"). The great wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), recruits Bilbo to join a boisterous group of dwarves on a big adventure, with the goal of reclaiming the dwarves' former homeland at Lonely Mountain. The film actually begins with a long flashback, explaining how the dwarves were forced out of Lonely Mountain by the dragon, Smaug. Many unusual obstacles are encountered on their journey, which is to be continued in two planned sequels, which no doubt will also include expansion of the original source material. Also featured in this film are Elijah Wood as Frodo, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman and Andy Serkis as Gollum. Those familiar with "Lord of the Rings" will recognize these characters and actors from that film trilogy. Like "Lord of the Rings" this was filmed in New Zealand, making for spectacular outdoor scenery. Depending on the options available at your local theater, there are a number of ways this film may be viewed. I saw it in 3D, on an IMAX screen, and projected at 48 frames per second, known as "High Frame Rate" or HFR for short. That is twice the traditional frame rate. If you've seen any film in 3D or on an IMAX screen, you know what that is like, but HFR is a new experience which has the effect of making the picture appear sharper than normal, possibly even sharper than real life (I have heard this called the "soap opera effect"). Some people have complained about this as producing an uncomfortable or even nauseous feeling, but I strongly suspect those reactions are really caused by the sensation of motion imparted by the IMAX presentation, not the HFR. The HFR option is most typically included only with the 3D presentation, but not necessarily combined with IMAX. 2D presentations are also in most theater complexes. I thought the presentation I saw was worth the higher ticket price, which isn't always the case with 3D. As most films I see now are projected in digital format, they are already very clear and sharp, so I'm not sure if HFR will become widespread in the industry or not; it was interesting to experience but probably not really necessary, though I understand that cost is not a factor since it is all digital. I look forward to parts two and three.
2012 Christopher McQuarrie 130 PG-13 Jack Reacher A very good murder mystery thriller starring Tom Cruise in the title role. It begins with a horrific sniper attack on innocent people and the arrest of a suspect. When the accused asks the police to locate Jack Reacher for assistance in the case, they are puzzled because he is unknown to them. Jack is the sort of person who lives “off the grid” without a cell phone, credit card or anything that would allow you to find him with modern technology. But Jack finds them and becomes an investigative assistant to the suspect’s defense attorney, Helen (Rosamund Pike). It’s a well crafted story and the two lead actors are very good, not to mention they make an attractive couple. Also featured are Richard Jenkins as "Rodin," Werner Herzog as "The Zec" and Robert Duvall in a very nice role as "Cash." Cruise continues to be a great action hero. The film also has some great comic relief moments.
2012 Juan Antonio Bayona 113 PG-13 The Impossible A dramatic recreation of the true-life vacation nightmare experienced by one family who were caught in the middle of the terrible 2004 tsunami which impacted many parts of the world but in this specific case, in Thailand, which is where the bulk of the filming took place. Most of you likely saw the news and documentary footage of the real tsunami, and this film does an amazing job of recreating that on the big screen. Though I must admit that having seen the authentic footage so many times, seeing a recreation now has lost some of its shock value, but again, this film version is quite realistic and terrifying. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as Maria and Henry Bennett (the real family name was Belon), the couple who were vacationing in Thailand with their three boys, when the tsunami struck their beach resort. This event occurs very early in the film, so the main story is about everything that they experience from that point on. Although this is a true story, right off the bat they changed the nationality of this family from Spanish to English (though officially in the context of the film, the family’s nationality is not stated, in an attempt to be neutral on that point). It is a very moving drama showing how the various family members struggled to survive and find each other amidst the massive tragedy that surrounded and often overwhelmed them. I was impressed by how good it was in spite of my advance general knowledge of the events. Great performances especially by Watts and the child actors. It is rated PG-13 but be aware that it contains some very graphic “medical” situations in some of the hospital scenes.
2013 Chris Butler + Sam Fell 92 PG ParaNorman I continue to be amazed that anyone has the patience to create stop-motion animation, especially at feature film length, but here is another one. It is a comical ghost story. Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a boy who has the paranormal ability to see and speak to ghosts, including his late grandmother. His family and all the kids at school think he is crazy and he gets bullied a lot for it. But it turns out his reclusive uncle (John Goodman) has the same ability and warns Norman that disaster looms near because of a centuries-old witch’s curse that only Norman can stop. Thus the main plot centers on Norman’s efforts to save the town from the witch on the anniversary of her death. The visual design of the characters is very much along the lines of pure caricature and stereotyping. Although it was occasionally funny, the overall story did not impress me that much. This was created by some of the same artists who made “Coraline” (2009) which I found to be much more creative and fun. Although this film appears to have been marketed to kids, it is probably not appropriate for kids under 13 due to some of the more adult dialogue and situations. As a side note, this was filmed in 3D but I only saw the 2D version on DVD.
2012 Nicholas Jarecki 107 R Arbitrage A very good dramatic thriller about about the head of a large financial trading firm who gets into deep trouble, both with his business transactions and his personal life. Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller. Robert’s wife, Ellen, is played by Susan Sarandon. The story is mostly about the people rather than the complex investment transactions. His troubles in his business place him at odds with his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), whom he employs as an assistant. And his domestic troubles manage to attract the attention of the police, in the form of Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth). It is a well written and acted plot. Strong lead and supporting performances. The first confrontation between Gere and Roth is a marvel to watch. The ‘R’ rating is primarily for occasional profanity in heated conversations.
2012 Kathryn Bigelow 157 R Zero Dark Thirty A high tension dramatic recreation of the CIA’s search for Osama bin Laden, from the time of 9/11 to the identification of his remains nearly ten years later. It is primarily from the point of view of a CIA investigator named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who directed the search efforts. The title is a reference to “00:30” (12:30 AM) which is approximately the time of the raid. The cast also features James Gandolfini as the CIA Director. If you saw the "60 Minutes" interview of Mark Owen (not his real name), author of "No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden" I think you will find that this film depiction of the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, closely matches the description given in that interview. So on the one hand, that would seem to lend credibility to the film, but at the same time, it left no surprises for me or anyone else who heard (or read) Mark Owen's description. I have not read Mark's book, but I have heard that the film's "Maya" corresponds to the character named "Jen" in the book. The CIA's official position of course is that the film is not an accurate account. I should add though, that the book is not credited as a source for this film. The screenplay is an original work by Mark Boal. Because the film tries to pack ten years into 2-1/2 hours, some parts of the story were not shown and others were probably rushed. I had expected to see some scenes showing the rehearsals of the raid which took place at a mock up of the compound but I did not even catch a hint of that in the film. And the film stops before bin Laden’s body is taken away for burial. I'm sure there are other examples I'm not even aware of. The pacing is a bit slow at times, but there is definitely more action in the second half. You will see some violent and graphic interrogation scenes (but I've seen much worse) and of course the violence of the raid itself, plus a lot of profanity, so naturally it is rated 'R'. I did feel that having followed much of the news coverage of this story over the years, plus the incredibly short time between history and movie, that I wasn't being told much I did not already know. But I'll admit I did not know of the Maya character prior to the first preview trailers I saw. Chastain filled the role pretty well but her character was probably not the most interesting one. I think the producers poured most of their resources into filming the actual raid sequence, which was very impressively presented, leaving the back-story comparatively underdeveloped. So what I’m saying is that it is an above average production but a bit overrated.
2012 David O. Russell 122 R Silver Linings Playbook One of the best romantic comedies in a long while. A wonderful cast and great writing based on the novel by Matthew Quick. Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) has been in a mental institution since a traumatic domestic incident, but his mother (Jacki Weaver) manages to get him released early. He still suffers from a bipolar condition and is reluctant to take his medication, so he is still rather unstable and "explodes" easily. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) hopes to have more father-son bonding time now. His friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) welcomes him back to society and introduces him to his wife's sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a very young and gorgeous widow. But Pat Jr. still hopes for a reconciliation with his wife (Brea Bee). The cast also features a very funny Chris Tucker as Danny, a friend from the mental institution; and Julia Stiles as Ronnie's wife. Pat Jr.'s explosive behavior does get to be a bit much at times, but other than that this is a highly recommended comedy, especially if you like Robert De Niro. And Jennifer Lawrence is the real star of this show. She has a great acting career ahead of her. The 'R' rating is for occasional profanity.
2012 Quentin Tarantino 165 R Django Unchained When I saw that this was directed by Quentin Tarantino, I knew to expect a lot of violence, and boy was I right. Too much, too graphic. It is a great story (a comedic western) with great acting, but definitely over the top with the graphic violence. But if you don’t mind that, here is what it’s about. It takes place a few years before the Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave. Through an unexpected change of ownership he becomes the property of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter. Together they work as a team to track down various wanted men for the bounty money. Django explains to Dr. Schultz that the previous time he was sold, his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), was also sold but to a different owner and Dr. Schultz agrees to help him find his wife if Django helps him complete a number of bounty hunts. Also featured in the cast are Leonardo DiCaprio as wealthy plantation owner Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s butler. It is unfortunate that this otherwise great film is marred by such extreme graphic violence, but that is what you get with Tarantino at the helm.
2012 Alastair Fothergill + Mark Linfield 78 G Chimpanzee This is a beautiful Disney nature film about chimpanzees in the wild rain forests of west Africa. Totally unscripted, the camera follows the lives a family group of chimps with particular emphasis on a newborn male whom they dub “Oscar.” The film makers spent about three years observing the amazing behaviors of these animals, under the most trying of circumstances -- the “bonus features” on the DVD/Blu-ray disc show the difficulties they had to put up with. Narrated by Tim Allen, he explains what the chimps are doing in a very straight forward manner (it’s not a technical documentary) and frequently speaks on behalf of the individual chimps as if they had their own dialogue. If you have a Blu-ray player and HDTV by all means get the Blu-ray edition of this film; the images are stunning.
2012 Woody Allen 112 R To Rome with Love Director Woody Allen continues his string of romantic comedies set in Europe. This time the setting is Rome. Unfortunately after his big success with “Midnight in Paris” (2011), this one is rather disappointing. Here he inter-cuts four independent stories that all take place in Rome at the same time (but since they never intersect, it is impossible to say for certain they are actually concurrent). In one story there is an American woman, Hayley (Alison Pill), on vacation in Rome where she falls in love with Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Her parents, Jerry (Woody Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) fly to Rome to visit her. Jerry attempts to make an opera star out of Michelangelo's father (Fabio Armiliato). Then there is a story about a man named Leopoldo Pisanetto (Roberto Benigni), an ordinary man who accidentally becomes the darling of the paparazzi. The third story involves Sally (Greta Gerwig) and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an unmarried American couple living in Rome, Sally's friend Monica (Ellen Page), and a bizarre character, "John," played by Alec Baldwin, who hangs out with Jack and adds commentary and advice almost as if he was invisible. And finally there is the story of Italian newlyweds, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi). Milly gets lost in Rome while Antonio deals with an embarrassing encounter with a hooker (Penélope Cruz). With no connection amongst the stories other than location, each story has to be evaluated on its own. There are a few funny bits here and there but in general this was a clumsy effort. Baldwin's character seemed very out of place as did Baldwin himself. Woody did come up with a pretty funny idea involving the reluctant singer, but many other comedic routines were not as entertaining. The 'R' rating seems almost unwarranted to me, as there is no nudity, no violence and very minimal profanity, though there are numerous implied sexual encounters but never anything explicit. Because some of the characters are native Italians, there are a number of scenes that include subtitles, but most of the film is in English.
2007 Oren Peli 86 R Paranormal Activity This is a pretty good horror story with a fairly original variation on the theme, though if you’re one of those people who just can’t watch hand-held camera work, you won’t like this at all. The entire film is made with a home video camera operated by one of the main characters, though part of the time he puts it on a tripod. Since it is pretty much a given that this is a movie where things go bump in the night, to me it was often more funny than scary except towards the end where things do get a bit more intense. For nearly the entire film, there are only two characters, Katie (Katie Featherston) and her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat), and it takes place entirely at their house. Apparently Katie has been haunted by strange happenings much of her life and whatever it is follows her, so moving to a different house is not a solution. Micah decides to try to capture these paranormal happenings on his video camera, which he sets up aimed at their bed every night. And some nights he does indeed capture strange events. The DVD has an alternate ending you can watch (roughly the last 4 minutes) but in my opinion, the theatrical ending is better. The alternate ending is much more graphic than the original and in that sense is inconsistent with the rest of the film. It turns out there were actually three endings filmed, one seen only by audiences at the film festival release in 2007, the 2009 theatrical ending and the alternate ending found on the DVD. The ‘R’ rating is primarily for occasional profanity but it’s not pervasive. An unusual feature of this film that makes the “home movie” aspect of it more realistic is the complete absence of a musical track. There are certainly better horror films out there, but if you do decide to give this one a try, watch it in the dark alone (or maybe with someone who scares easily).
2013 Adrian Moat 89 (120 with commercials) TV-14-LV Killing Lincoln An efficient “docudrama” about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, using reenactments of events based on the facts known and supplemented with narration by Tom Hanks and, when available, period photographs. The cast features Billy Campbell as Abraham Lincoln, Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth, and Geraldine Hughes as Mary Todd Lincoln. It does a good job of laying out the true story, pointing out where various details are uncertain or unknown. The screenplay is based on the 2011 book by TV news anchor Bill O’Reilly and Marin Dugard. The book has been criticized as inaccurate on a number of points, but I don’t know whether any of those errors made their way into the film. Supposedly the book has since been reprinted with corrections. The film is good for anyone who wants an overview of the events surrounding the assassination and it does a good job of that in the time available in a 2-hour commercial television time slot (originally the National Geographic channel). I’m sure a comprehensive documentary might merit a mini-series. O’Reilly’s intent in writing the book was to make history more interesting and more accessible to the reading public, and I’d say this film reflects that intent in its “highlights” approach. So in that regard this film is probably good for introducing young people to this piece of American history. I would however recommend Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” (2010), which told essentially the same story but with more attention to the trial of the conspirators.
2012 Peter Lord + Jeff Newit 88 PG The Pirates! Band of Misfits A light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, animated comedy about a band of pirates who are the laughing stock of the entire pirate community. Under the leadership of “Pirate Captain” (voiced by Hugh Grant), they just can’t seem to find another ship with cargo worth plundering. And the captain fears he will never win “Pirate of the Year.” But one day they find themselves attacking the ship carrying Charles Darwin (David Tennant), and their lives will never be the same. It’s good clean fun with lots of hilarious anachronisms (the story is set in 1837). Other celebrity voices include Salma Hayek and Al Roker. It’s often very silly but lots of fun. Based on the novel "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists" by Gideon Defoe.
2010 Jim Loach 106 R Oranges & Sunshine An excellent true-life drama about a British social worker who uncovered a dark and tragic episode in Britain’s relatively recent past. Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) chanced upon the story of people in Australia who, as young children, had been unofficially deported there from Britain in the 1950s and 60s. By the thousands. They did not know who their British families were or if their mothers were alive or dead. The film is based on a book that Margaret wrote about her experience helping these people find their identities and families and getting the governments of these two nations to admit their misdeeds. It was only in 2010 that the British Prime Minister offered a public apology for the incident.
2012 Dustin Hoffman 98 PG-13 Quartet At a retirement home for people from the music performance industry, the newest resident, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), is encouraged to reprise her vocal talents for a musical production. Many of these elderly musicians are quite egotistical; it almost seems a requirement for admittance to the home. Complications arise, quite naturally, when it turns out that Jean’s ex-husband, Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), is also a resident of the home. Also featured as a resident is Billy Connolly, whose main purpose seems to behave in a lewd and lascivious manner for comedic, if clichéd, purposes. I felt this was boring at times and was not convinced by the development of the relationship between Jean and her ex.
2012 Ken Burns + Sarah Burns + David McMahon 118 TV MA The Central Park Five This is a fairly comprehensive documentary about the injustice that was done to five teenagers who were wrongly convicted of a violent rape which took place in New York's Central Park in 1989. I have a vague recollection of hearing about the crime in the news at the time, but was not really aware of the outcome. It's pretty shocking. The film shows how not only did the criminal justice system fail these young men, but how the media jumped on the bandwagon against the accused, even after they were shown to be innocent. Director Ken Burns was able to make use of original news film made at the time, the actual filmed confessions and the artist sketches from the trials. The now freed men also appear in interviews, though one of them only gave consent to use his voice in the film (but he is seen in archival footage and still photos). This story won't give you much confidence in the criminal justice system but it is certainly worth watching if you want to know what really happened.
2012 Paul Thomas Anderson 137 R The Master At the end of World War II, a sailor returns home, suffering from a combination of what we call today Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and an addiction to alcohol, especially customized blends that may literally be deadly. In this state, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), has trouble holding a steady job. Eventually he finds himself a stowaway on a boat captained by Lancaster Dodd, better known to his followers as “Master” (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Master takes Freddie under his wing and attempts to draw him into his cult, which involves the use of hypnotism to convince his followers that they have lived past lives. Though in the case of Freddie, he subjects him to unusual lines of questioning, called “processing,” in an attempt to cure his unstable personality. Mrs. Dodd (Amy Adams) is also an integral part of this cult. These three make an excellent acting trio in this most unusual story, with Phoenix being a standout in his performance as Freddie (all three received Academy Award nominations). It’s a bit long and maybe a bit weird for some viewers but still quite fascinating. Some say this film is really a commentary on Scientology and that "Master" represents its founder, L. Ron. Hubbard. But knowing so little about that, I cannot evaluate the film in that context. The 'R' rating is well deserved, as there is substantial profanity, nudity and some obscene sexual content; but violence is limited to hand-to-hand combat. Overall, a very good drama that requires some afterthought.
2013 Joseph Kosinski 124 PG-13 Oblivion The invasion of Earth by space aliens is a popular theme in science fiction movies and television. The difference in this film is that you never see the aliens. The back story is that humans won the war against the invaders, but the battle was so intense that most of the planet is now uninhabitable, in the year 2077. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the last humans still on Earth, part of what he calls the “mop up crew.” His job is to maintain a fleet of robotic airborne drones, which serve as planetary security and defense. It’s a two person operation, with Jack doing the dirty work and his team partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) manning a control tower (which is also their home) and taking direction from a woman we only see through Victoria’s control panel view screen. But all is not well with Jack; he is disturbed by a recurring dream in which he sees a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who seems familiar but at the same time unknown. One day he witnesses a vessel crash landing in the distance and goes to check it out. What he finds changes everything he thought he knew. Morgan Freeman also stars, as "Beech," the leader of a group of human survivors hiding in buried buildings. Mixing real Earth locations (including Iceland) with extensive computer graphics scenery, the film creates an impressive post-apocalyptic landscape. The film offers lots of high intensity action sequences as well as a romantic subplot. There is one major plot twist which I defy anyone to see coming, but there was also one significant point I correctly guessed just before it was revealed. But I would stop short of classifying the overall plot as predictable. But you need to pay attention to a lot of details over the length of the film to fully understand the plot. Later, after reading other people's analyses, I knew I had missed some of those details. So I went to see it again and I was able to pickup on what I had missed and see how it made more sense than it did the first time. Everything you need to know is in there, you just have to be alert. This is another good Tom Cruise action film and if they make another film based on these characters, I would like it to be a prequel.
2012 Derek Cianfrance 140 R The Place Beyond the Pines A good dramatic crime story with an unusual plot that makes a major shift in the focus of the film, twice! So in some respects it is like three separate stories spanning 15 years, but there is a clear progression from one to the next. Ryan Gosling stars as Luke, a carnival performer who discovers that his ex-girlfriend, Romina (Eva Mendes), had a son by him but never told him. He develops a strong desire to provide support for the baby but this is complicated by the fact that Romina already has a new boyfriend (Mahershala Ali). In order to stay near his son, Luke quits the traveling carnival, but is then lured into a life of crime to make money. And that’s just the start of the first (and most action-packed) of the three episodes in the larger story. The setting (and filming location) for the story is Schenectady, New York, and according to the historical traditions, “Schenectady” was derived from a Native American (Mohawk) word with a translation that is something like the title of this film. Other costars include Bradley Cooper, Bruce Greenwood and Ray Liotta. Very good performances by all the actors. Although I liked most of this film, there were a couple things about the plot that detracted from an otherwise good screenplay. One of the plot devices used is what struck me as being an all too convenient coincidence. It certainly wasn't improbable, but it tended to make the story a bit more predictable from that point forward. And secondly, the ending felt somehow incomplete, in providing somewhat of a resolution for one character but not so much for the others. The ‘R’ rating is for profanity and some violence, but nothing that I would call extreme.
2013 J. J. Abrams 132 PG-13 Star Trek Into Darkness This Star Trek adventure is a follow-on to the 2009 “Star Trek” film which established an “alternate timeline” (or “alternate reality” if you prefer) for the classic characters from Gene Roddenberry’s original TV series. That change freed the franchise from being bound to the established “history of the future” in the Star Trek universe. Thus, if the characters now do something which makes parts of the original series “impossible,” it cannot be considered an error. The core crew of the Starship Enterprise is the same as before and with the same actors as in 2009. New to this episode is actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the villain in this story, initially under the name “John Harrison,” but I won’t reveal his secret identity. I will say though that Cumberbatch gives an excellent performance. It’s an action packed movie with first class visual effects, but there was one major element of this screenplay that disappointed me: they based it on a combination of one of the original TV episodes and one of the feature films made with the original TV actors. And the way they tried to recreate an emotional highlight from the original story fell very flat in my view (speaking as a long-time fan of the original). If you’re a viewer not familiar with the original stories, this point probably will not affect you, but believe me, the original did it better. If you’re watching it without that mental baggage then you will probably find this to be an exciting addition to the Star Trek saga. By the way, for those of you who notice that some theaters are showing this film in 3D, it should be pointed out that this is what I call “fake 3D” because the cameras did not record the action in true optical 3D. The 3D effect was created by computers in post production. As a result, I was not inspired to pay extra for the 3D screening.
2010 Hiromasa Yonebayashi 95 G The Secret World of Arrietty Walt Disney has taken a Japanese animated feature ("Kari-gurashi no Arietti") and translated the screenplay to English, then rerecorded the voices with English speaking actors. It’s a cute fantasy about a boy who discovers little people living in the crawl space under his aunt’s house. And when I say “little,” think Lilliputian. Another good reference of scale is that Arrietty’s head is about the size of a sugar cube. Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler), her father, “Pod” (Will Arnett) and mother, "Homily" (Amy Poehler), live in a tiny house hidden under a pile of bricks in the crawl space. The boy, Shawn (David Henrie) has a heart condition and is getting bed rest at his aunt’s home while his divorced mother is out of town. The little people call themselves “Borrowers” because they “borrow” small objects from the humans’ household that in most cases wouldn’t be missed. And the Borrowers refer to full sized people as “Human Beans.” The fact that Shawn has actually seen Arrietty is the main crisis of the plot, since the Borrowers rely for their safety on not being seen by humans. It’s a great film for young children, but I think many adults may enjoy it also, though I will admit that the ending is perhaps too quickly and tidily wrapped up for adult audiences. It’s fun to notice the level of detail in how they show the world from the perspective of the Borrowers (it may remind you of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989)). Interestingly the screenplay is based on a British novel, "The Borrowers" by Mary Norton, which has previously been filmed several times as both TV series and TV movies, but never before as animation. The names of the Borrowers are taken from the novel, but “Shawn” (”Sho” in the Japanese version) is made up since in the book he is just “The Boy.” As a final note, this is traditional hand-drawn, not computer-generated, animation, and is quite beautiful to see.
1957 Herman Hoffman 89 NR (but probably ‘G’ today) The Invisible Boy An amusingly dated but actually quite well constructed tale of a boy and a robot. Its main claim to fame is that it is the first movie to reuse “Robby the Robot,” first introduced in the landmark science fiction film, “Forbidden Planet” (1956). They even used the same voice actor, Marvin Miller, for the robot’s voice. Not much in the way of known actors, except for Harold J. Stone as Gen. Swayne. Stone was a familiar face in dozens of TV series from 1949-1986. The boy, Timmie Merrinoe (Richard Eyer), doesn’t have much interest in schoolbook learning, much to the dismay of his genius father (Philip Abbott), who designed and operates a massive computer system (a portion of which bears a curious resemblance to the head of Robby). But one day Timmie is left alone with the computer and receives an unexpected education. It would be giving away too much to explain how Robby the Robot enters the plot but, but once he does, a strong bond develops with Timmie. In spite of some of the absurdities in the plot, some of the discussions about the computer and certain scientific principles are surprisingly sensible. I only discovered this film because it is supplied as an extra feature on the Blu-ray disc of “Forbidden Planet.” Certainly if you are a fan of that film (or 1950s sci-fi in general), you will probably have fun watching this, even though it doesn’t hold a candle to “Forbidden Planet.”
2013 Zack Snyder 143 PG-13 Man of Steel Once more, Hollywood is trying to reinvent Superman, this time employing the more intense levels of action seen in other super-hero movies of the last several years. I grew up with the television Superman (George Reeves) and very much enjoyed the movie reincarnation in the form of Christopher Reeve. But this 2013 version of Superman, alias Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), is too dark and serious. Virtually no sense of humor in this screenplay. Anyone who has seen the earlier films knows the basic story of the character's origins. This film, from a story perspective, combines the plots of "Superman" (1978) and "Superman II" (1980), but eliminates the subplot involving Lex Luthor. There is also no Jimmy Olsen. The new Lois Lane is played by the very attractive Amy Adams. Superman's biological father is played by Russell Crowe, while his human father is played by Kevin Costner. Other familiar characters include Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and General Zod (Michael Shannon). Much of the story is presented in nonlinear fashion, bouncing back and forth between the child and adult Clark Kent/Superman. The action sequences are state of the art and very intense. Just too much over-the-top action. And while it's not as if they forgot to write a story to go with it, they could easily have left a lot more footage on the cutting room floor (or perhaps "digital bit bucket" is the more appropriate metaphor these days).
2013 Marc Forster 116 PG-13 World War Z The “Z” is for zombies. And boy are there a lot of them in this movie. So many in fact that I’m sure 99% of them were computer generated. Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a husband and father, trying to save not only his family but the entire human race, from a sudden rampage of zombies. Without warning, people everywhere are turning into zombies at an alarming rate. Gerry happens to have connections to a government agency, which on the one hand, is good for his family, but on the other hand, obligates him to take great risks to seek out a cure for this virus or whatever is causing this apocalypse. It is a fast moving horror action film that doesn't get too extreme with the gory violence, but in those cases where you see zombies at close range, they are quite scary. And the overhead shots of legions of zombies spreading like a colony of fire ants, are quite impressive. Although I felt the conclusion of the plot had some weaknesses, I would say it is an above average zombie movie.
2012 Paul Andrew Williams 93 PG-13 Unfinished Song Originally known as "Song for Marion" in the UK. Arthur (Terence Stamp) and Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) are an elderly couple living in London, England, trying to cope with Marion's terminal cancer. Arthur seems to deal with it by being crotchety and shutting people out, while Marion tries to enjoy her remaining time in an amateur choir of senior citizens. The choir's enthusiastic volunteer director is a young school teacher named Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). But when the inevitable happens, Elizabeth attempts to get Arthur to replace his late wife in the choir. Stamp and Redgrave are both very good in this, but my main disappointment was the clichéd attempts at "old people humor." Apart from that it is a good story with a happy ending.
2012 Stephen Chbosky 103 PG-13 The Perks of Being a Wallflower This engaging and intelligently written "coming of age" movie, apparently set in the early 1990s, is about a very shy high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman). Easily victimized by bullies, he is befriended by two seniors, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson). They basically help Charlie become more sociable over the course of his first year (and their last) at the school. How did Charlie become so withdrawn in the first place? That is doled out little by little over the length of the film in flashbacks. The film does make use of narration from time to time, which I thought was mostly unnecessary, but other than that, it was quite a good story, which is based on the director's own novel of the same title (Chbosky also wrote the screenplay, so he had complete control of how his book was translated to the screen). As a side note, at first I thought the story was set in the 1970s because of the way the film "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975) was featured in the plot, but I later learned that it was meant to be 1991.
2013 Jonathan Levine 98 PG-13 Warm Bodies Romantic comedy in a zombie apocalypse setting. An amusing twist on the zombie horror genre. I wouldn't call it laugh out loud funny but it injects an unexpected left turn in what might have otherwise been just another zombie movie. Based on the novel by Isaac Marion, it is set in a world where the normal living humans have been forced to stay within a walled city because of the threat of zombies outside. Two types of zombies actually. Your basic grunting slow walking type and the "boneys" which are what the regular zombies become when they lose their skin. They become more skeletal and move faster. But the living must still occasionally venture outside the wall to gather food and medicine and thus face deadly encounters with the zombies. On one such occasion, a young woman named Julie (Teresa Palmer), is approached by a male zombie named "R" (because that is all his residual brain can remember of his former life) who, instead of immediately trying to eat her, treats her with unexpected gentleness and protects her from the rest of the zombies. Basically the premiss is that somehow, seeing Julie triggers something inside of "R" (Nicholas Hoult) that begins to transform him on the road back to life. It soon becomes apparent though that "R" is no ordinary zombie to begin with. I mean, what zombie has his own "man cave?" The trailer would have you believe that whatever is causing the transformation of "R" is transferred to the other zombies (except the boneys - they're too far gone), but no satisfying explanation of this process is given. Also featured in a small role as Julie's father and leader inside the walled city, is John Malkovich as "Grigio." There's no question that some of this is gory and violent, but is restrained within the limitations of "PG-13." And further, it is more a story about relationships than an action film. I thought Hoult did a very good job as "R" but I was not very impressed with Palmer's acting. Giving us the zombie's perspective is certainly a new idea, but the story built around that wasn't developed very well.
2012 Jacques Audiard 122 R Rust and Bone French: “De Rouille et D’os.” Although this has received a lot of positive reviews, for me it was just a depressing, predictable drama which failed to make me care about the characters. Marion Cotillard stars as Stéphanie, who works at a French version of "Sea World." Severely injured in an accident with one of the orcas, she subsequently begins a difficult relationship with Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a man who once rescued her from a bar fight. He brings to the relationship the fact that he is an underemployed single father who is living uneasily with his sister and brother-in-law. And he is a philanderer. What they see in each other escapes me, but as they say, love is blind. The "R" rating is mostly for sex and nudity; the violence is limited to fist fights.
2009 Ang Lee 120 R Taking Woodstock The part of Woodstock you didn’t see. That is, the famous Woodstock music festival that took place in Bethel, New York, August 15-18, 1969. Where 500,000 young people showed up and overran the local communities to attend the concert. Based on the true story of the local people who made their land and businesses available to the concert promoter after another community had turned them down. “Woodstock” (1970) the documentary film showed you the concert itself but this movie attempts to give you the experience of the involvement of the local residents, including the man whose farm was the site of the concert, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), is the central character, a young man whose parents run a very dilapidated motel at White Lake in Bethel, while he is the president of the local chamber of commerce, and thereby was able to authorize the concert. In real life the man is known as Elliot Tiber, and this film is based on his book about his experience with Woodstock, though some people dispute the details of his involvement and I’m sure the screenplay takes liberties with even Elliot’s version of events. Once the concertgoers start arriving, things really get crazy and I'm sure it was every bit as crazy as depicted in this film, if not more so. The concert itself is never really a part of this story and you only catch a very distant view of it in a brief nighttime scene. And even then you are seeing it through the eyes of a person high on LSD. There are times when the action drags quite a bit (especially that LSD episode) but at the same time there are a lot of unique characters populating the scene to make it interesting (for example, the woman who plays Elliot's mother, Imelda Staunton, was a real hoot). It’s not a great film but was better than I expected. The “R” rating is for the extensive amount of graphic nudity and some profanity and of course the drug use.
2013 Brian Helgeland Brian Helgeland 128 PG-13 42 An excellent baseball movie which tells the true story of Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) first season in Major League Baseball, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1947. It’s a very uplifting story, in spite of the inflammatory language hurled at Robinson out of racism. The film also features Harrison Ford, delivering a wonderful performance as Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who hired Robinson in 1945, initially for the Montreal Royals, as a staging ground for the Dodgers. The art and wardrobe departments did a great job creating the period atmosphere. This one is a winner.
2012 Martin McDonagh 110 R Seven Psychopaths A clever story but the graphic violence is rather extreme. And with both Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken in the same movie, you know it is going to be a bit strange as well. The main character is Marty (Colin Farrell), who is trying to write a screenplay for a movie to be titled "Seven Psychopaths." His friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell) offers to help with the writing and at one point even places an ad in the paper inviting psychopaths to come forward and tell their stories. Marty collects ideas for the seven psychopaths to include in his screenplay, but soon finds that the differences between his screenplay and real life are starting to blur. The film has a lot to offer in the way of plot, acting and humor, but let me repeat that the violence is on the extreme side, so buyer beware.
2006 Guillaume Canet 131 NR Tell No One French: “Ne le dis à personne.” A very complicated crime mystery that keeps you in suspense about the answers to many questions until nearly the very end. It also turns out to be a good love story as well. Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet) is a doctor whose wife, Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) was murdered eight years ago. Unexpectedly he reads in the newspaper that police have discovered new evidence and are reopening the case. He then receives an anonymous e-mail which suggests she may still be alive, but with the warning to "tell no one." As I said, from there it gets complicated with various twists and turns until the truth is revealed. Perhaps it could have been trimmed a bit shorter, but it does a pretty good job of maintaining interest. It is based on the novel by American author, Harlan Coben; and word has it that the film’s ending is different from the book. Although the MPAA did not assign a rating, I estimate it would qualify as "R" for nudity, gun violence and some profanity, but as "R" movies go, not extreme. By the way, if François Cluzet reminds you of Dustin Hoffman, you’re not alone.
2004 Shane Carruth 77 PG-13 Primer A short, low-budget science fiction film that is very confusing. Of course it involves paradoxes, but it was as if they didn’t even try to help you keep things straight. The dialogue in the first half hour is mostly technical mumbo jumbo that gives you little clue as to what any of them are working on. Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are part of a group of friends who operate a small electronics business out of Aaron’s garage, whenever they’re not at their day jobs. And on top of that they are trying to be inventors. When one of their inventions exhibits results that suggest some type of time distortion, Aaron and Abe start working on it in secret from the rest of their associates. Their attempts to exploit time travel to their own advantage is the substance of the rest of the plot. I didn’t even understand the ending until I read online comments about it later. I’ll have to watch it again some other time and listen to the director’s commentary track to get the inside story. I love time travel stories but this one made it too hard to unravel the timelines in a single viewing.
2011 Kenneth Lonergan 150 R Margaret Strangely enough, there is nobody named “Margaret” in this movie. There was a scene where somebody was reading a poem from a book and the name Margaret was heard as part of that reading, but if that is the source of the film’s title (turns out it is), it is very cryptic and its relevance was not readily discerned in that brief moment. The main character in this drama is named Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a 17 year old whose parents are divorced. She lives with her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), who is an actress on Broadway. One day she witnesses a horrible traffic accident and she is never quite the same person after that. The main plot is about her struggle to cope with this tragedy and her peripheral involvement. And since a lawsuit results from the accident, a large part of the movie is about that legal case, which in fact is probably the most interesting part of the film. At 150 minutes, though, I felt that a lot could have been trimmed from this without hurting the core storyline. For example, there is a subplot in which Lisa’s mother starts dating a foreigner named Ramon (Jean Reno), which I thought was too much of a tangent. Two of Lisa’s teachers are played by well known actors: Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick, though I don’t think they were the best choice for those roles. The bottom line is that this is about how Lisa learns some tough life lessons a little sooner in life than most of us. In summary, there is a good basic plot but there is too much padding and not the best casting. It also didn’t help that Anna Paquin was 24 while pretending to be 17 (released in 2011, it was actually filmed in 2006). The “R” rating is for strong profanity (mostly by Lisa) and nude sex scenes, plus the accident scene is a bit bloody (”disturbing images” they call it). This review is based on the theatrical version of the film; there is also available an extended director’s cut that runs about 36 minutes longer.
2012 Benh Zeitlin 99 PG-13 Beasts of the Southern Wild In a low-lying area of the Mississippi River Delta called "The Bathtub" lives a six-year old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). They live in extreme poverty, but are fiercely committed to staying put even when flooded out by a major storm. Hushpuppy has a very vivid imagination which helps her cope with seemingly impossible situations and the "Beasts" (”Aurochs” - an extinct ancestor of cattle) are a product of that imagination. This is a story of how Hushpuppy and Wink struggle to get by during and after the storm. Since this should be viewed as a fantasy and no named storm is mentioned, it could be a reference to Katrina, but that is up to the viewer to decide. Wallis is a remarkable child actress and it’s no wonder she was nominated for Best Actress by the Academy Awards (youngest nominee ever at age 9 and she was only 5 when cast for the part). The story is told from Hushpuppy’s point of view and often through voice-over narration by her; she seems wise beyond her years. The circumstances of her life are incomprehensible to me, but Hushpuppy is a force to be reckoned with in this very unique story about life and death and the balance of nature as seen through the eyes of a child. As a fantasy with characters who may be difficult to relate to, this may not appeal to everyone, but I thought the performance of the young actress made it worth watching.
2011 Hirokazu Koreeda 128 PG I Wish Japanese: “Kiseki.” A pleasant but overlong story about a group of grade school children pursuing a myth regarding a way to make wishes come true. Set on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives in Kagoshima with his mother and her parents, while his younger brother, Ryu (Ohshirô Maeda) lives with their father at the opposite end of the island in Fukuoka. Koichi’s wish is for the family to get back together. He hears a story about the new high speed “bullet” trains and believes that if you witness the first occurrence of two of them passing each other in opposite directions, your wish will come true. The main plot then is how he and his brother work out a plan to be present at this event. The director previously made another film about children, “Nobody Knows” (2004), which I found quite fascinating, but this one did not generate that level of interest. There just didn’t seem to be much substance to the story, especially when spread out over more than two hours. The child actors though are definitely above average.
2011 André Téchiné 112 NR Unforgivable French: “Impardonnables.” I suppose I was drawn in by the fact this was filmed in and around Venice, but I think the scenery was more interesting than the story. A French author, Francis (André Dussollier) decides to write his next book in Venice and visits a real estate office to find a place to live. The sole agent there, Judith (Carole Bouquet), suggests a home on the island of Sant Erasmo. Upon being shown the home, he impulsively states he’ll sign the lease if she moves in with him. Incredibly, that is what happens (they get married but that event is not in the film). A major subplot involves his daughter from a previous marriage, Alice (Mélanie Thierry), who goes missing and he hires a friend of Judith’s to track her down. As for what is unforgivable, it seemed like most of the main characters had something they’ve done that might be unforgivable. They all have serious relationship problems with family and friends which results in none of them being particularly likeable. It has no official MPAA rating but I would say it probably qualifies as “R” due to a number of sex scenes and a horrible scene of animal cruelty.
2013 Louis Leterrier 115 PG-13 Now You See Me Magically entertaining. I had to say that. This is a lot of fun, provided you ignore that some of the tricks probably could not be performed as shown in the film, just because it is a film and not a live show. Four independent magicians are invited by an unknown third party, to work together as “The Four Horsemen” in a series of three spectacular public performances of magic. They are, Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher) and Jack (Dave Franco). Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) is brought in as their financial backer, and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) is watching on the sidelines, hoping to expose their magic secrets for his own financial gain. Multiple branches of law enforcement take an interest in the group after the first show appears to involve a bank robbery. Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma (Mélanie Laurent) are the agents tracking the case. So there is a lot going on here, between the magic acts and the various parties trying to figure out what’s behind the magic. The tricks are fun to watch and there is plenty of action between performances. The ending was a little bit of a let down, but at least they did provide answers. It’s an easy movie to watch because it doesn’t require a lot of deep thought; just let it happen.
2012 Jeff Nichols 131 PG-13 Mud A gripping drama in which two fourteen-year old boys unknowingly place themselves at great risk when they befriend a fugitive. The boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), live on a tributary of the Mississippi River, in Arkansas. Ellis lives with his parents and Neckbone lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). Galen tells Neckbone that on a remote island in the Mississippi, there is a boat stuck high up in a tree due to a major flood. One day the boys go to check it out and discover that a scruffy man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) lives in the boat. They agree to help him survive on the island while he waits for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to meet him at a prearranged rendezvous. By the time they learn of his nefarious past, the boys have bonded with Mud and still want to help him in what they perceive as a romantic pursuit. But he is a wanted man and so the relationship becomes more and more risky. Highly recommended.
2013 Baz Luhrmann 144 PG-13 The Great Gatsby This fifth film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel once again shows us the extravagant lifestyle of one Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), of the fictional town of West Egg, Long Island, NY, during the roaring twenties. If you saw the director's "Moulin Rouge!" (2001), you will be familiar with his visual style, clearly in evidence in many scenes here. I can say that I have seen the 1974 version starring Robert Redford, but have no recollection to compare to; nor have I read the novel, but I did read a short summary and based on that, I would conclude that this new version is very true to Fitzgerald, including the use of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as the narrator, telling the story in flashback. Within the story, Nick is Gatsby's next door neighbor. Simply put, it is the story of Gatsby's undying hope of reuniting with a former girlfriend, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who, inconveniently, is married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). As it happens, Daisy is Nick's cousin and Gatsby uses Nick to help bring them together. In spite of its length, this is an engaging story that passes the time well (the end credits take up a full 12 minutes, so the narrative is only a little more than 2 hours). Luhrmann’s visual style may be a bit over the top for some, and Maguire is not the most inspiring narrator, but if you like the story I think you will probably enjoy this film version.
2011 Goro Miyazaki 91 PG From Up on Poppy Hill Japanese: “Kokuriko-zaka kara.” A wonderful girl-meets-boy story set in a private high school academy located in the seaport town of Yokohama. The year is 1963 (which explains the total absence of modern technology). The DVD edition makes this very accessible to American audiences with its optional English dialogue track, but you can still listen to the original Japanese voice actors with subtitles if you like. Umi Matsuzaki is the girl, who is a junior and lives on Poppy Hill in her grandmother’s boarding house. The boy she meets, Shun Kazama, is the leader of a student activist movement to oppose the demolition of an old campus building known as “Latin Quarter,” a place where all the school clubs have their headquarters. Umi joins the movement to spend more time with Shun. The twists and turns of their relationship prove quite interesting. The “old school” hand-drawn animation is up to the usual high caliber of this studio (Ghibli). If you are familiar with other Studio Ghibli films, it should be noted that this one is a very down to earth story, without any magical or mythical creatures. This is an excellent animated feature I think most people will enjoy; a nice contrast to American animation. And with the “PG” rating it is suitable for nearly all audiences. Regarding the language and subtitle options on the DVD, I discovered that the English audio track includes a bit of narration by Umi during the opening credits, which does not exist in the original Japanese. It turns out this narration is very helpful in clarifying Umi’s living arrangements, which takes longer to figure out from the “Original Cast” subtitles. But on the other hand, the “Original Cast” subtitles give you a translation of the opening song lyrics, which you do not get if you select English (not even if you also select “English language cast” subtitles). If you experiment and select the English audio with the “Original Cast” subtitles, you will observe quite a few differences between the English dialogue and the translation from the original Japanese. In general, I’d say the English voice track is more informative.
2010 Ondi Timoner 88 PG Cool It I highly recommend this documentary to anyone interested in the issue of global warming. Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), was commendable for raising public awareness of this issue, but his exaggerated forecasts of doom detracted from the credibility of the overall theory. Also, there is the problem that the costly proposals to reduce carbon emissions, such as “Cap and Trade,” would actually be an extremely inefficient solution, producing nowhere near the desired results. This new film is based on the book "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming" by Danish author and researcher Bjørn Lomborg. He is proposing a set of solutions that are much more cost effective and could actually put a serious dent in the problem, with money left over to solve other global problems such as disease and education. But because there is so much politics in the issue, he has been criticized by some members of the scientific community. However, the film highlights an example where he was largely exonerated. This film does not dispute global warming or the influence of humans in causing it, but rather suggests more economical and productive solutions, which, unfortunately, face an uphill battle against politics and corporate greed.
2010 Fred Cavayé 84 R Point Blank French: "À bout portant." A very exciting action thriller that is almost nonstop chase scenes (mostly on foot). Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche) is a nurse's aide who saves the life of a hospital patient (Roschdy Zem) after chasing off a suspicious visitor who apparently tried to kill the patient. But as they say, no good deed goes unpunished and somebody kidnaps Sam's pregnant wife (Elena Anaya) to coerce him into helping the patient escape from the hospital. The action is relentless and the plot involves more and more people both good and bad. The violence is fairly intense at times with a lot of shooting victims, so the "R" rating is no surprise there. The DVD does have an optional English voice track so if you are allergic to subtitles you will still be able to enjoy this great movie.
2011 Philippe Falardeau 94 PG-13 Monsieur Lazhar French-Canadian with subtitles. A very moving and heartwarming story about a group of 6th-grade students in Montréal, who experience the death of a beloved teacher and the transition to her replacement, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag). Bachir has his own subplot outside the school, as he is a recent immigrant from Algeria who presented himself as an unsolicited applicant for the teaching position. It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time to get the job. The task of a replacement teacher would be hard enough under normal circumstances, but here he must also deal with the burden of grief shared by his students. The performances by Fellag and the child actors are wonderful. I can’t praise this enough; I hope the subtitles won’t stop you from seeing this Oscar-nominated film.
2011 Ron Fricke 102 PG-13 Samsara As unusual as the title "Samsara" is, this is actually the second film to use that name and the two are nothing alike, so make sure you are renting the right one. This is a "non-verbal" film quite similar to the director's previous film, "Baraka" (1992) and in fact could justifiably be called a sequel. It is a purely visual exploration of various cultural, technological and natural phenomenon across five continents ("Baraka" included Australia and so is one up on that account). Since it may be difficult to infer the director's theme after watching such a variety of content, I can quote him from one of the DVD extras in which he says it is a "guided meditation on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.” I'll have to take his word for it, but in any case it is visually stunning and will introduce you to places and things you may have never seen before. The director is well known for his use of time-lapse and slow-motion photography, which he first used as cinematographer for "Koyaanisqatsi" (1982), and some of that is found here, though not as extensively as in "Koyaanisqatsi." My first impression on viewing "Samsara" is that "Baraka" was a more entertaining film. "Samsara" includes some scenes involving food production that may be a bit disturbing to some, and thus the "PG-13" rating. Otherwise, it makes a great travelogue if nothing else. There was one scene which was so unusual and funny that it didn’t seem to belong in this film but was uniquely entertaining (I’m sure you’ll know it when you see it). It was filmed entirely silent with all music added after editing was completed. And the primary composer was the same as for "Baraka" so if you saw that you will hear some similar music at times. If you have the patience to sit through a feature-length production with no dialogue, you will probably enjoy this unique entertainment, but I would recommend that you compare it to “Baraka” if you have a chance to view both films.
2011 Olivier Nakache + Eric Toledano 112 R The Intouchables French, with subtitles. This is an excellent comedy based on a true story. Philippe (François Cluzet) is a very wealthy man, but can't move a muscle below his neck and thus needs the services of a round-the-clock assistant to do basically everything but breathe for him. In the process of interviewing candidates, an unlikely applicant from the ghetto, Driss (Omar Sy), unexpectedly gets the job. The two men couldn't be more different, but in the course of getting to know each other, they develop a strong bond. Highly recommended and well worth the trouble of reading the subtitles. The "R" rating is just for some occasional profanities; no sex or violence.
2010 Abbas Kiarostami 107
Certified Copy French-Italian: “Copie conforme” (surprisingly a lot of the dialogue is actually in English but you do need the subtitles for the other two languages used). This drama set in Italy, was initially rather boring and aimless, then took a turn to weird, but ended in frustration without resolution. I'm not sure what tipped me off that the film was about to end, but I was saying to myself, "don't end it now, that would be cruel" and then sure enough it ended. Most of the film is one long conversation between a man and a woman. The man, James Miller (William Shimell) is an English author on a lecture circuit for his latest book, "Certified Copy." The woman, Elle (Juliette Binoche), a French art dealer living in Tuscany, attends his lecture with her son but has to leave prematurely because of the distraction her son is causing, but not before leaving word she wants the author to meet her later at her art gallery. From that later encounter, they go off in her car to another village, talking all the way, eventually arriving at a small bar to have coffee. A conversation between Elle and the waitress triggers a very strange turn in the subsequent conversation between Elle and James. She appears to be playing a game with him and when he seems to relent and go along, the viewer begins to question what is true or not about their relationship. The problem is that the film ends without providing an answer. The film was not given an MPAA rating but I think it would at most be “PG,” though it is unlikely to appeal to anyone other than adults.
2010 Jiang Wen 132 NR Let the Bullets Fly Chinese (Mandarin): “Rang zi dan fei” (with optional English dubbing track on the DVD). A very complicated but ultimately very entertaining story involving bandits, organized crime, corruption and various forms of deception. This action comedy is set in 1920 in southern China. Right off the bat you are treated to a most unusual sight: a horse-drawn train making its way through a beautiful valley amongst rocky cliffs. The passengers include the Governor-elect (Ge You) of Goose Town, his wife (Carina Lau) and his Counselor (Feng Xiaogang). The train is attacked by bandits whose leader (Jiang Wen -- yes it’s the director) confronts the survivors. The upshot of this is that everyone proceeds to Goose Town where the bandit is installed as Governor instead of the real guy who now takes the role of Counselor. There they discover the third protagonist, Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat) whose role is like a Mafia boss (”Kingpin” is the word used in the trailer) holding sway over the town. Often the action sequences are very exaggerated but intentionally so for comic effect. I was particularly intrigued by an unusual method of communication used amongst the bandits which consisted of using a small whistle to generate “pheasant calls” that the members could understand as well as you or I understand spoken language. I did watch it with the Mandarin audio and English subtitles but I found that the subtitles often went by too quickly and so this may be one case where the English dubbing track might make the story easier to follow. No MPAA rating assigned but I would guess it qualifies as “R” for some of the more graphic violence (one scene in particular was quite revolting) and occasional profanity. But apart from that caveat, I thought it was very good. It was extremely popular in China, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, some of the comedic elements may not translate well to Western culture and so the film may not come across as funny to us as to native Chinese.
2010 Nathan Greno + Byron Howard 100 PG Tangled This animated musical is Disney’s new interpretation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Rapunzel, that girl with the long golden hair. I came to this with no recollection of the original story (if I ever really knew it). After a bit of research I can report that Disney made quite a few changes to the original, though even Wilhelm Grimm published variations over his lifetime. In this version, Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) is a princess born to a king and queen of an unnamed kingdom. But she is kidnapped by an old woman (Donna Murphy) who imprisons the girl in a tower in order to benefit from the magical powers of the girl’s hair. And instead of being rescued by a prince, that character is now a thief named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), wanted by the kingdom for stealing a tiara. Many other elements of the original are also changed or added-to, including many characters not created by the Grimms. While clearly aimed at young people, I still found it entertaining, though I was quick to be annoyed by details that don’t make any sense. I will admit though I was tripped up on a couple items which in hindsight I was wrong about -- there are some details in this that happen very quickly and you may misinterpret what has happened if you blink once too often. The songs were OK but none I would call memorable. My vote for best character: “Pascal” the chameleon. Probably not Disney’s best effort but certainly better than “Brave” (2012). I saw this in 2D so I can’t rate the 3D effects.
1953 Ingmar Bergman 98 R Summer with Monika Swedish: “Sommaren med Monika” (with English subtitles). This early black & white film by Ingmar Bergman is a little hard to classify. It starts out as a joyful romantic comedy, a summer romance, but a little past the half-way point, as summer draws to a close, certain realities of life insert themselves into the relationship and the story becomes more serious. But within that framework, it is a very good story with two appealing young stars, Lars Ekborg as "Harry Lund" and Harriet Andersson as "Monika Eriksson." Monika aggressively entices Harry to start dating and very soon they quit their jobs and run away in his father's boat to an isolated corner of Ornö Island, in the Swedish Archipelago. But their idyllic romp can't last forever and eventually they must return to Stockholm. It is all very well done except for one scene involving a fist fight between Harry and another man, which by today's standards, was very poorly choreographed, almost laughably bad. In one famous scene, Monika is totally nude, which of course was quite bold for 1953 (at least for American audiences), and today although officially unrated, might garner a soft "R." Another detail that stood out from today's more enlightened perspective, was a scene of sexual harassment in Monika's workplace, which is shockingly extreme (not that there was anything right about it even at the time). Although I've only seen half a dozen of Bergman's films, this is definitely one of his best and apparently one of his personal favorites. The booklet that comes with the DVD contains an amusing quote from Bergman in which he says, referring to the character Monika, “I hope she will cause an emotional uproar and all sorts of reactions. I shall challenge any indifferent person to a duel!” Note: this review is based on the full-length Swedish version, not the shortened “exploitation” version marketed in 1955 as "Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl."
2010 Philippe Le Guay 102 NR The Women on the 6th Floor French: “Les femmes du 6ème étage” (with English subtitles). An amusing comedy set in Paris, 1962. Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) is a stockbroker who feels somewhat trapped in his marriage to Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain). When their maid suddenly quits and is replaced by the much younger María Gonzales (Natalia Verbeke) from Spain, Jean-Louis discovers her poor living conditions on the 6th floor of his building, which is occupied entirely by Spanish maids. He starts doing good deeds for them, to the neglect of his wife. He even starts learning Spanish, so I think you can see where this is going. Having found a new way to express himself outside his marriage, he seems much happier with his life. It's a light comedy with mostly good performances, though Luchini seemed a bit dour as Jean-Loius. Not officially rated but there is a bit of nudity that might just qualify it as "R" but that would be the only reason for such a rating.
2013 Robert Stone 87 NR Pandora’s Promise This fascinating documentary about nuclear power had extremely limited theatrical distribution prior to being broadcast on CNN, 7-Nov-2013. Hopefully it will soon be more widely available through other outlets. It was definitely not what I expected. I have generally been opposed to or at least skeptical of nuclear power. Ever since Three Mile Island, then Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima, nuclear power seemed a pretty scary business. However, this film offers an interesting perspective that deserves consideration. Basically what I think the director is saying with his film is that we need to stop and consider the world's growing energy requirements (including things like providing electricity to parts of the world that still don't have it) and ask what sources of energy will be able to meet those needs, especially in light of the goal of moving away from coal and oil (which are still growing in use). And if renewable sources like solar and wind are not sufficient to fully replace coal and oil, as is implied by this film, nuclear energy should be seriously considered. The presentation explains that the technology exists to avoid the problems seen in the disasters I mentioned above and therefore should be exploited (e.g., Integral Fast Reactors, a program unfortunately terminated by President Clinton). It also dispels some of the myths surrounding the Chernobyl accident. Several noted environmentalists appear in the film to help explain why they have become pro-nuclear. Although the film fails to give much attention to problems with existing nuclear reactors such as Indian Point (NY), the film's message is that going forward, such problems can be avoided. It is important to point out that this film was not funded by anyone in the nuclear power industry. Regardless of what side you are on, you owe it to yourself to see this and perhaps gain a new perspective.
2012 Jeff Orlowski 75 PG-13 Chasing Ice This documentary tells the story of nature photographer James Balog and his quest to capture visual evidence of global warming. The end product of his efforts is a set of short time-lapse movies which document the retreat of glaciers around the world along with additional dramatic footage of the most massive ice breakups ("calving") ever witnessed by man. Thus most of this documentary shows Balog with his Extreme Ice Survey team installing and monitoring cameras in remote locations in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana. It was a grueling multi-year effort resulting in footage that probably lasts only five minutes out of the documentary's seventy-five. The digital images he captured are very dramatic and allow the viewer to see in compressed time, events which actually span several years, but which in the context of history are happening very fast. So in a way this is like a five-minute movie preceded by a 70-minute "making of" film (and though it probably seems redundant, there is actually a "Making Chasing Ice" short film included on the DVD). You will see some exciting high-risk ice canyon exploration along with moments of great frustration when equipment breaks down, but all beautifully photographed. Since the time of this documentary, Balog has added cameras at Mt. Everest and in Antarctica and at least 30 cameras are still in operation around the globe. It is an important documentary for people to see because it enables an understanding of the effects of global warming in a way that mere numbers cannot (though the film is not without a few numbers and graphs). Be sure to watch the end credits sequence because it includes additional ice photography you won't want to miss (in fact it is so good I wish there was a way to watch it without the obscuring credits). Also during the end credits is a song sung by actress Scarlett Johansson; I never knew she was also a singer and it turns out she is very good at it (Hint: if you turn on the subtitles during the end credits you will see the words to the song).
2013 James Hawes 90 TV-14-L The Challenger Disaster Excellent portrayal by William Hurt as noted physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman, during his participation in the investigation of the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. Although not strictly speaking a documentary, it probably could be called a docu-drama. It is based on a book that Feynman co-authored, “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” The presentation is very engaging, though one wishes perhaps that it also covered other aspects of the investigation than just Feynman’s key discovery. Part of the time allotted the film was given over to Feynman’s personal battle with cancer (he died in 1988). Certainly if you were not aware of Feynman’s role in the investigation you must see this. Other featured actors include Bruce Greenwood as General Kutyna and Brian Dennehy as William P. Rogers (head of the investigating commission). It was interesting to observe that the actor portraying Neil Armstrong (Stephen Jennings), was as elusive in this film as Armstrong in real life. Feynman was one of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th Century, and so if you are unfamiliar with him, you may want to watch this just to learn a little bit about him.
2013 Alfonso Cuarón 91 PG-13 Gravity A thrilling action drama in outer space. A surprisingly effective bit of storytelling using only two principal actors and limited dialogue. This is definitely a film that looks best on a large screen. It clearly required a large number of visual and special effects to recreate the lonely vacuum of space but those effects did not overpower the story. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney portray astronauts on a space shuttle mission. The film starts with them already in orbit and performing various activities outside the shuttle. Suddenly they are ordered to abort the mission and that is when serious trouble begins. I won’t give any more plot details but it really demonstrates how dangerous space flight really is. “2001: a space odyssey” (1968) was the first film to attempt to give the audience a realistic sense of being in space, but “Gravity” goes way beyond that thanks to the latest in movie magic. However, they do take some liberties with the laws of physics to create a more dramatic situation. The film contrasts the beauty of orbiting the earth hundreds of miles up, with the incredible risks the astronauts are exposed to every minute.
2013 Paul Greengrass 134 PG-13 Captain Phillips An exciting high-tension drama on the high seas. Tom Hanks stars in the title role in this dramatization of a real modern day pirate attack off the coast of Somalia in 2009. Richard Phillips was the captain of an American container ship, the MV Maersk Alabama. The movie is almost nonstop action once the Somali pirates set off in their skiffs in search of a vessel to attack. The actors playing the Somali pirates are in fact native Somalis but were recruited in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They were very convincing pirates. And Tom Hanks was very good of course. The violence is generally not too graphic but there is a good deal of gun battle action with some visible bloodshed. Since this is a true story you can easily read the history yourself to learn how it ends if you insist on doing so before watching the film, but I won’t reveal the ending here. But I will say that Tom Hank’s performance during the conclusion contains one of his best on-screen moments ever.
2013 Kirk De Micco + Chris Sanders 98 PG The Croods I guess I've become very hard to please when it comes to animated features, or maybe it's the American approach to telling stories through animation compared to some of the better Japanese animation that I've seen. My first reaction to this story about a prehistoric caveman family, named the Croods, was that it was totally unbelievable and made no sense (though I suppose you could say the same thing about “The Flintstones” cartoon series). Cavemen were just early versions of ourselves, not superheroes, and yet every member of the Crood family, from baby to Grandma, exhibited totally unrealistic physical prowess. And as is often the case with cartoon characters, they all manage to survive extreme physical trauma that would have killed you and me several times over (such as surviving a fall hundreds of feet off a cliff). Well, so much for the nonsense. The Croods are very fearful and stay in their cave most of the time. But one night the oldest daughter, Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) sees a strange light outside and hazards a trip out of the cave to investigate (by the way, Eep appeared to me to be about 18). She meets a solo boy about her age who calls himself "Guy" (how original). So there you have the romantic subplot. Massive geological upheaval forces the Croods to seek a new home, which is basically the central part of the plot. Other well known voices used include Nicolas Cage as "Grug" (Eep's father) and Cloris Leachman as the grandmother. Less critical viewers such as children (it is a relatively safe "PG") will probably be well entertained.
2011 Jean-Pierre Dardenne + Luc Dardenne 87 PG-13 The Kid with a Bike French (Belgium): "Le gamin au vélo" (with English subtitles). This is a good story but I must say that I found it very frustrating to watch because the kid was so out of control. I understood his frustration but the adults were no match for his fury. Cyril (Thomas Doret) is an 11-year-old boy who apparently has been abandoned at a foster home by his single father, Guy Catoul (Jérémie Renier). Unfortunately the bicycle he loves so much was left with his father, whose phone number is no longer in service. Nothing can stop him from trying to regain possession of his bike and find his father. But it is hardly that simple. Along the way a hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile De France), who seems to be a total stranger to Cyril, offers to take care of him. I could not understand why she wanted to get involved. He also manages to get into trouble when he falls under the influence of a local street gang. He’s a tough, headstrong kid who definitely needs adult supervision. At only 87 minutes it is an efficiently told story, but just be prepared for this unruly child.
2004 Paul Weitz 109 PG-13 In Good Company This comedy set in the world of corporate takeovers is somewhat predictable and also a bit corny. Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is an advertising executive for a sports magazine. When his company is taken over by a larger firm, he ends up with a new boss, Carter (Topher Grace), who is half his age. But both Dan and Carter have life-changing domestic issues adding to the stress of their new working situation. There is also a romantic subplot involving Carter and Dan’s oldest daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson). I guess I got a few laughs out of it but not enough. The writing just wasn’t very good.
2013 Francis Lawrence 146 PG-13 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire An exciting action adventure sequel to last year’s “The Hunger Games.” This film picks up the story roughly where the first film left off, and features the winners from the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), going on a “victory tour” of all twelve districts in Panem. Generally speaking, it assumes you know the characters and story from the first film, though if you’ve read the books (I haven’t) you will probably understand what is going on anyway. Unlike many sequels, this is at least as good as the first film, and although I won’t tell you how it ends, it clearly paves the way for the next film in the series (my understanding is there will be at least two more). The major part of this film is another Game, but it is a special 75th Anniversary game as well as being designated the 3rd “Quarter Quell” game. The big difference in a Quell game is that the contestants are drawn only from prior winners, so they are all well experienced, unlike the 74th game. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is still in power and many other characters from the first film are here as well. Woody Harrelson is back again as Haymitch Abernathy. A new character, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is introduced as the “Head Gamemaker” to run this year’s game. There are many new and creative threats to the contestants in this new game, so it is definitely not merely a replay of the previous game. If you liked the first film you will definitely want to see this one.
2013 Richard Curtis 123 R About Time The best romantic comedy I’ve seen in a long time. Don’t let the time travel plot device mislead you. Science fiction is definitely low on the list of what this movie is about. In fact, the method of time travel employed appears to involve nothing remotely scientific. Filmed and set in England, the main character is Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man who learns an amazing family secret when he turns 21. His father (Bill Nighy) reveals that all the men in their family have the ability to travel back in time, but only to points within their own lifetime (you may recall a similar premiss in the TV series “Quantum Leap”). But as with all time travel into the past, you must be careful what you do while you’re there due to possible repercussions when you return to your present. As for the romantic angle, Mary (Rachel McAdams) is the young woman who enters Tim’s life in a way that brings new meaning to “blind date.” Tim learns a lot as he uses time travel to “course correct” his life. Great acting performances all around. It may be rated “R” but that is only for some partial nudity and the occasional 4-letter word. Highly recommended.
2013 Steve McQueen 134 R 12 Years a Slave The dramatic true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The year was 1841. As the title suggests, it was twelve years before his friends and family back in New York learned of his whereabouts and assisted his return to freedom. This movie is based on a book he wrote about this experience, published in 1853. It is a very well done drama, but is often disturbing to watch because of the scenes of torture and other ill treatment of the slaves (one scene in particular seemed like it would never end and even though it was a quiet scene in terms of action, it became more and more disturbing simply because of the length of time you were forced to watch it, though cinematically speaking, it was brilliant). Although the subject matter may remind you of the TV miniseries, "Roots" (1977), this film is more graphic about the violence, resulting in an "R" rating (which also applies to the nudity & sex). The film also features Benedict Cumberbatch as "Ford", one of Solomon's slave masters. Paul Giamatti is "Mr. Freeman" a slave trader (actually his role is so brief it could be called a cameo). And Brad Pitt appears (very unexpectedly in my opinion) as "Bass" in a small but very important role (it turns out Pitt is also one of the producers). One minor thing I felt was missing from this film was a sense of time while he was enslaved. We know it was twelve years in total but there is never a sense of where you are in that span as it unfolds. But overall this was very good.