Wednesday, May 22, 2013

20 More Movie Reviews

I watch too many movies, which is why I'm having trouble making progress on my book. All of the following movies are from 2012 or 2013.


The story of Jackie Robinson, the first black person to play major league baseball since the color line was enacted i.e. for about 60 years. The film is nearly as much about the white team executive who puts him there, Branch Rickley. Unlike the biopic A League of Their Own, there are no side character stories to add color to the main narrative. Jackie's teammates don't display much personality. Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) is told to not react to the hate that will be thrown at him, and he doesn't (for the most part). Mostly he frets. Harrison Ford shines as Branch, as does Ben Chapman in his small role as the Philadelphia Phillies manager who hurls a steady stream of racist epithets at Jackie during a game.

The story runs pretty smoothly, which robs a lot of the tension from it: he plays, people insult him, he succeeds. The story also focuses on the baseball games, which is pretty standard movie material.

Bottom line: An ok movie, not a must see.

Anna Karenina

This exercise in cinematic self-indulgence is supposed to be clever, but it was over-produced, gaudy, and distracting - maybe that was its intention, considering the gaudiness of the Russian aristocracy. The movie is filmed mostly on a single stage in an old theater - like a fanciful play - where the sets are swung back and forth and characters from one scene bustle around in front of or behind another scene. Shots are often framed like garish pictures. The music is loud, the whole thing looks like a carnival (think Moulin Rouge), and the camera focuses more on the way sets and props move than on the plot. Keira Knightly and the others do their scenes, but the overall effect serves to distance you from them, rather than to engage our sympathy.

None of the richness of Tolstoy made it into the movie. From about mid-way I skimmed the rest of the movie. In case you don't know, it's a shame piece about a woman who has an affair and is then shunned by society.

Bottom line: Skip.


The story of six American citizens who escaped from the American embassy in Iran when it was taken over by fundamentalists in 1979. They hid out in the Canadian embassy's residence waiting for the baddies to find them. The CIA and some ballsy Hollywood producers decide to get them out by pretending that the Americans are actually Canadians on location for a movie in Iran doing a scene scope; one of them goes their and hopes to leave with them back to Canada using fake passports.

This was all supposed to be a true story, or close enough to the truth (who did the lion's share of the work in the actual historical event is not necessarily accurately depicted). I kept looking at one of the women characters, trying to place the actress, until it finally hit me that it's Helen Santos from West Wing (played by Teri Polo). Turns out I was wrong; it's Kerry Bishé.

It's dramatic and tense, rife with surprises, and excellently acted. The narration at the beginning puts the story into perspective (explaining - if not justifying - the embassy takeover). Something about it still felt a little small. Maybe it's seeing John Goodman pop up again (he's everywhere, now, isn't he?).

Bottom line: Worth seeing. but just as good on the small screen.


The story of an airplane pilot (Denzel Washington) who saved most of the lives on his malfunctioning plane with a daring landing maneuver, but did it while high on cocaine and alcohol . The story is about his substance abuses; the fact that he is a hero is just an excuse he uses to not deal with his problem.

Beautifully acted and interestingly plotted. It makes drinking look bad, but it seemed to glorify the cocaine. And oh look, it's John Goodman as the drug dealer friend.

Bottom line: Worth seeing, but probably just as good on the small screen.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Part 1 of 3 of what everyone originally assumed would be a single movie. Rather than the children's tale that was the book, Peter Jackson refocuses for a more serious movie based on the same plot, with a global sweep and a whole lot of other scenes from other Tolkein side-notes thrown in for good measure. It all works, except Sarumon is still so ... difficult, it's a wonder that Gandalf ever trusted him.

This is a grand movie that measures up to the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, or nearly enough. Maybe a little slower at the start.

Bottom line: Watch it on the big screen.

Iron Man 3

Part 4 of the Iron Man series (I'm counting The Avengers, which was mostly an Iron Man movie IMHO). A whole lot of people are unhappy with the portrayal of The Mandarin bad guy in this movie compared to how he is portrayed in the comic books. Having not read the comic books, and (even if I had I would still be) not giving a damn about a character's faithfulness to the source, I had no problem with the character in the movie.

What I had a problem with is the plot, in which the god-like powers of Iron Man fail conveniently and specifically when necessary to provide a story. The home of Tony Stark, the world's number one weapon manufacturer, should not be able to be taken out by a few helicopters with missiles. Even if the dozen Iron Men suits that fly around at Stark's beck and call weren't available for some reason (and they are, conveniently, later when the movie draws near its end), the house surely should have a few other defenses that could have been brought to bear.

The Iron Man armor now flies off and on in pieces despite having no visible flying mechanism, and in response to a neck flick from an unarmored Stark who may be thousands of miles away. And the suit, which can withstand a hit from Thor's hammer, falls into pieces when hit by a truck for comic effect.

The entire plot depends on Iron Man being vulnerable so they make him vulnerable so that they can have a plot, and then they resolve the plot by making him not vulnerable again: suddenly remembering all of the weapons and features that are available to him.

Along the way, Tony Stark meets a cute kid who helps him out, and Pepper Potts gets her chance to shine. They give her a tempting love interest in order to create some tension, but I didn't find that part believable.

Bottom line: Skip, believe it or not. It has its moments, but it was nothing like either of the other movies.

Les Misérables

If you like the play, book, or whatever, then you'll like this adaptation. If you have an affinity for musicals where all of the dialog is sung, even when it should just be spoken because it's not really sung with any particular melody, then you'll like this.

I never thought I would ally myself with Philistines, but I am not a Les Mis fan. I like some musicals, but I am not thrilled with plays or movies where every sentence is sung. It's wearying, affecting, and frankly boring. The play itself is rather dreary with miserable and mean characters and situations. The initial songs, in between the singing dialog, were not all that interesting. I quit about half way; some of the more memorable tunes had yet to appear.

Bottom line: you already know if you have to see it; you'll probably buy it, too. If you don't know, you're better off with a lot of other movies.

Life of Pi

I haven't read the book. The story of an Indian boy whose father owns a circus. They pack off to move from India to Canada, but the boat sinks, leaving him with no parents but an assortment of animals on a small raft. The animals die until it is just him and a ferocious tiger. Most of the movie is a disaster/survival movie at sea, where the boy has to stay alive while dealing with the sea, sharks, hunger, thirst, boredom, and a tiger.

This is as well done as it could possibly be. The tiger and other animals are perfectly integrated, and so many shots of the seas, sky, water creatures, glowing lichen in the ocean, etc are stunning. The visuals never interfere with the story, and the story manages to convey the length of the difficulty without actually becoming boring. The scenes where they come across a floating island at sea are particularly beautiful.

Like other stories in this genre, all of his encounters means something metaphorically; in this story, some, but not all, of the metaphors are given a possible interpretation at the end, but not definitively.

Bottom line: A must see, and worth it on the big screen. The film is available in 3D, and it's probably worth it.


Watch Tom Cruise smile, flex, grunt, and cavort around a dystopian landscape destroyed by aliens. That's about all you'll watch, since every other character in the movie - even Morgan Freeman - is a cutout prop for Tom to interact with. Morgan has the same personality you've seen before in every other movie with Morgan Freeman. The two main women characters are hollow shells. The rebel leader could have had a personality, but I suspect it got lost on the cutting room floor (or maybe the floor of the room in which Tom signed his contract).

Tom acts well enough. The effects are ok. The tension works and it moves along. As for the plot and script, it has a certain grandeur, but not quite enough. Moon was a small movie and just the right size for its plot. Oblivion has about the same depth, but more fluff. and the confrontational finale is reminiscent of  Star Treks 1 and 5, which is not good.

Bottom line: Entertaining but shallow. Skip unless there's nothing better around and you can stomach a whole lot of Tom Cruise.

On the Road

I read and loved this book. The movie captures some of the book, and what it captures it captures well, although it emphasizes the sexual. Kristen Stewart is quite good (I actually like her: she is not so wooden when she lets an emotion hit her face, like a smile, a naughty glance, or a tear). Sam Riley and Garret Hedlund work as the dynamic duo, and the supporting characters all do fine jobs.

The story is about the road trips and the search for freedom and insight. You get a lot of the free spirit, free love, and road travel, as well as the poverty - monetary and moral - that the main characters inhabit. The ending is a bit of letdown on the one hand, though suitable on the other.

Bottom line: Worth seeing, but probably just as good on the small screen.

Oz: The Great and Powerful

James Franco is Oz and a bevy of talented (and pretty) women play the other characters in this prequel to the classic movie The Wizard of Oz. The story tells how Oz arrived over the rainbow and how the witches came to be who they are. This one started out a little slowly and I was happily surprised when it picked up. It switches between targeting a younger audience and a general audience, but didn't quite succeed as well as the original movie did at being broadly appealing to both at the same time.

Again, I wasn't expecting much, but it was a rich and satisfying experience with some memorable characters, like the China doll girl. The ending "transformation" by the main character to reform himself was a bit unsubtle; a lot of modern movies fumble this. But you can go with it. Mila Kunis as the formerly neutral witch who turns into the wicked witch is still too pretty when she's wicked. But she cackles well enough.

Bottom line: Though there are a few frightening moments, I recommend this primarily for kids or as a wholesome movie experience.

Pitch Perfect

The 30 second shot of Anna Kendrick doing the cup song was the best part. Otherwise, this movie inhabits the space between Glee and Bring It On. It's about a high school a capella group: its girls, leadership, and quest to become champions. You have sassy girl, sweet girl, sexy girl, and lots of other stereotypes. It's shallow but funny (with the light snarky insults we've come to know modern comedy) and quotable, and you look forward to every time they prefix a word with "a ca-". It's "a ca-ridiculous".

The performance commentators are particularly funny.

Bottom line: Dumb as designed, and worth seeing if you like Glee and Bring It On, on the small screen.

Safety Not Guaranteed

A deliberately quirky movie about a couple of small-time reporters writing a story about a guy who advertises for a companion to go time-traveling with him and that he has only done it once before. The movie plays it straight, so you know that the final scene of the movie is either going to show that he is, in fact, a lunatic, or that he is, in fact, a time traveler. I wasn't really looking forward to either ending, both of which seemed to be rather cliche. I was hoping for something unexpected.

Getting to one of those endings is kind of fun. Aubrey Plaza (channeling Kristen Stewart) plays the main junior reporter who gets to know the guy. Everyone has his or her quirks, which makes it a nice character-driven movie.

Bottom line: Worth seeing on the small screen, or even the big screen since the characters are involving and the scenes mostly take place outdoors.

Silver Lining Playbook

The whole world loves Jennifer Lawrence, and for good reason: she's a sparkling good actress without pretensions and she is good-humored and funny in real life. In this movie, she and Bradley Cooper play Tiffany and Pat, two borderline mental-cases in a blue-collar world who find and eventually need each other (though Pat continued to obsess about reuniting with his ex-wife). Along the way is a lot of small-town neighborhood, football betting, and preparations for, and performance in, a ballroom dance competition.

The movie is borderline quirky and borderline mainstream, with Robert DeNiro playing a major role as Pat's father. Everybody faces down their demons, and none of it is (entirely) formulaic, other than who will end up with whom by the end.

Bottom line: Worth watching.


This acclaimed movie is supposed to be the return of the Bond franchise. And, to its credit, it is sharply shot and packed with action and some humor. However, I almost got ejected from the movie theater after the third or fourth time I burst out laughing at the sheer idiocy of some of the plot.

Perhaps the most egregious plot problem is mid-movie: The bad guy has already been shown to be a master hacker in ways that defy any kind of sanity (by hacking into the MI5 network he can physically BLOWS UP the entire block of offices). MI5 security guru takes the bad guy's laptop and PHYSICALLY PLUGS IT IN to the MI5 unprotected local area network, a network on which, apparently, lies every control to everything in MI5: every piece of information (no encryption), every screen, the controls to every door and light, even doors about which MI5 didn't know existed (and therefore could not have hooked up to the network). He does not  plug the laptop into, say, a physically separated network that can be used to crack possibly dangerous laptops, or even to one separated by some kind of hardware barrier. When they plugged that Ethernet cable into the laptop, I couldn't stop laughing for a minute. For goodness sake, I'm not even allowed to connect my smartphone at work, and I work for company that makes mobile phone software.

Surprise, surprise, a few minutes later the evil guy's laptop has compromised the entire MI5 network. How does the intrepid security expert at MI5 react to this? By pulling out the Ethernet cable, of course! And then saying "Oops".

This type of nonsense happens again and again in this movie. The plot makes no sense, especially the parts that have to do with computers. For a nice overview, see the YouTube takedown video.

Bottom line: If you aren't bothered by the inconvenience of really stupid plot holes and dumb actions from supposedly intelligent professional people, the movie is very entertaining and worth the big screen. Otherwise, skip it.

Snow White and the Huntsman

Kristen Stewart again, in a rousing romp through the Snow White fairy tale, but with a much spunkier Snow White and a dashing Chris Hemsworth (Thor) as the Hunstman turned protector/love interest. You get a little Terminator 2 (the magic mirror morphs into a humanoid), The Hobbit (dwarves), and some Lord of the Rings (battle sequences). Everyone plays their part well and the story works.

This movie is part of the same trend that brought you the TV series Once Upon a Time. On the one hand, Hollywood is obviously low on fresh new stories to bring to us. On the other hand, starting with a famous short story and creating an entirely new one using the same characters is not altogether bad, when done right.

Bottom line: Worth seeing on a big screen (too late for that, though).

The Company You Keep

Robert Redford is Jim/Nick, a former members of the Weather Underground, radical American anti-war and anti-business activist/militant wanted for a killing in the early 70s. Owing to the capture of one of the other members, Jim/Nick wants to find yet another one of the members and convince her to turn herself in and confess to the killing for which he has been erroneously implicated; they won't believe that he wasn't involved unless someone else confesses.

Some of the critics complained that the actors are at least ten years older than they are supposed to be; this didn't bother me. It's acted well, shot well, but paced rather unevenly and I didn't connect with any of the characters to really care what happened to them. A few arguments are made for and against their radical activism, but none are totally convincing and the focus is more on Nick/Jim as a fugitive than it is on anything else.

Bottom line: Ho hum. Skip. If you want to see a great film on roughly the same subject, watch Running on Empty, one of the best films ever made.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

A fantastic movie about a troubled teenage boy Charlie (Logan Lerman) who has had a mysterious problem over the summer, and who has a hard time fitting in to social groups until he meets sympathetic outsiders Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller). They all shine, particularly Emma in her post-Hermione roll. The only thing that really bothered me was that outsiders generally don't have secret reserves of power to face down bullies at just the right moment; Charlie does. Although the movie tried to make it look like it was scary that he could get so violent, it's much less scary than being a helpless victim of bullies; that threw me off for a minute. Otherwise, I was enchanted the whole way through.

Charlie is obviously named after the protagonist of Flowers for Algernon. Very few movies make me want to run out and read the book right away; this one did. The Hunger Games, Scott Pilgrim, The Hours were some others.

Bottom line: Must see movie.

The Sessions

A movie about a paralyzed man Mark (John Hawkes) who lives most of his day in an iron lung who solicits a "sex therapist" Cheryl (Helen Hunt) because he wants to experience sex once before he dies. Inspired by a true story. I didn't realize that sex therapists actually have sex with their patients as therapy; I thought it was all verbal and diagrams.

I love Helen Hunt, and we get to see all of her here (ahem). The story is about as sweet and straightforward as you might imagine. Cheryl has done this many times before, but for some reason this particular time disturbs her husband; if any couple needed open communication, this couple would be the one, but we don't get to see a conversation like that; the movie could have used it. They wanted to portray Cheryl as maybe possibly falling in love with Mark , but we don't get that sense - only that she cares for him. She also doesn't tell Mark that falling in love with your sex therapist is common, and that he should look out for it and deal with it for what it is, but we don't get to see that conversation either.

So the interpersonal tension that is shown in the movie is all due to a lack of communication. The main tension is whether Mark can actually succeed with the act and feel ok about it afterwards, but we already know the answer to that.

Bottom line: Meh. Skip I guess.


Yet another Jennifer Aniston comedy, this one about a couple from the big city who land on a hippie commune for a while. It's a trite fish out of water story, with a side-plot about the commune about to lose its land lease ... so the couple comes to the rescue. Alan Alda plays the old hippie patriarch of the group.

A cliche bunch of misfits and a forgettable lot of comedy. Has Jennifer done anything that was actually good since Friends? I think The Good Girl is pretty much it, and it's not coincidental that TGG is not a comedy (it's about a lot of unlikable, desperate people).

Bottom line: It's got some laughs, but skip.

Movies I still really have to see this year (unfortunately):
Before Midnight
Cloud Atlas
Ender's Game
Frances Ha
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Chris Brooks said...

Great list and I mostly agree. I probably liked Skyfall more than you did, and I agree about the awesomeness of Running on Empty.

Yehuda Berlinger said...


We played Havoc last night, first time in a while. It's still good.