Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2013 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was greatly delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's "The Oscars and the Year in Review," "The Top Six" and "Noteworthy Films.")

Monsters University: Pixar's prequel to Monsters, Inc. isn't as good as the studio's masterpieces, but that's a high bar, and it's certainly an enjoyable flick. In this installment, we see the first meeting of eventual best buds and coworkers Mike Wazowski (awkward and brainy, voiced by Billy Crystal), and James P. Sullivan (the imposing, scary-by-G-rating-standards monster, voiced by John Goodman). It turns out they disliked each other intensely at first as classmates at the prestigious Monsters University, where aspiring scarers study the time-honored craft of terrorizing children from the bedroom closet. Mike's earnest and geeky energy doesn't go over well with Sullivan and the cool kids he runs with; he's a legacy admission while Mike's a work-study kid, and Sulley relies on his natural talent as a scarer, is lazy otherwise, and can be something of a jerk. (Meanwhile, Mike can get a wee bit self-righteous.) These high school dynamics transplanted to college are the most tired part of the movie, but at least the performances are good, and thankfully most of the film goes beyond the usual stereotypes. The main plot centers on Mike and Sulley failing a key exam and being kicked out of school; their one chance at regaining admission is to win the annual team Scare Games, which means both need to join Oozma Kappa, the least hip fraternity on campus. The Scare Game challenges are inventive and fun to watch, the secondary characters are interesting, Crystal and Goodman have good chemistry together, and Mike and Sulley reveal nuance and hidden dimensions over the course of the story. Although I hope Pixar doesn't mine its old material too much more (I'm wary about Toy Story 4 rumors), this was an entertaining watch.

Despicable Me 2: Despite the hype, this sequel isn't better than the first film, but I probably enjoyed it the most of the animated features I saw from 2013. This time around, reformed evil genius and archvillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) is trying to make an honest living and be a good adoptive dad to his three daughters. But old habits die hard, and some people just need smiting, a water hose or the ol' stun gun. Plus, even though his minions and partner-in-no-longer-crime Doctor Nefario (Russell Brand) work hard at it, the supposedly wholesome jam they produce is just awful. Gru's hopes are raised when he's contacted by his former adversaries in the Anti-Villain League (AVL) to track down the evil mastermind who stole an important formula. He's recruited by and partnered with Lucy (Kristen Wiig), an occasionally goofy but very sharp agent. Meanwhile, with heavy urging from his daughters and against his own shy, cranky nature, Gru tries his hand at romance – but soon realizes that his date is much less intriguing than Lucy. Besides the irrepressible and always entertaining minions, Despicable Me 2 is fun for adults because Carrell as Gru makes an excellent deadpan curmudgeon and the treacle factor doesn't get too far out of hand. Steve Coogan makes for a drool head of AVL and Benjamin Bratt has a blast as the ridiculously suave Eduardo (it's amazing to learn he was a last-minute replacement for Al Pacino). Pharrell Williams' song, "Happy," written for the film, still seems to be everywhere, and it's pretty catchy.

(Here's Illumination Entertainment studio head Chris Meledandri on The Business about the film.)

Frozen: Frozen is the prettiest of the major animated films of 2013, and has plenty of elements to like, but I was left underwhelmed by Disney's latest effort (inspired by rather than based on Hans Christian Andersen's tale, The Snow Queen). It's an excellent kids' movie (as its box office results attest), but not as persuasive for adults. Kid princesses Elsa and Anna are not only sisters but the best of friends, and have great fun using Elsa's magic ice powers during playtime. But then Elsa accidentally injures Anna, and their parents take Anna to a troll to magically heal her; he also wipes Anna's memory of the incident. The king and queen go into full isolation mode, locking the castle to keep Elsa's powers a secret, and Elsa retreats to her room, ignoring the befuddled Anna's pleas to come out... and this goes on for the next decade or so (compressed into a montage and song, naturally). Even by fairy tale standards, it's awful reasoning and poor parenting. The parents conveniently die at sea, and Anna doesn't see her sister until Elsa's coronation, where Elsa loses her temper and her powers inadvertently erupt. She scares the entire city, which she accidentally ices, and flees into the mountains and builds an ice palace (during a showcase song, of course). Anna goes to seek her sister and end the potentially eternal winter, with the help of new companions Hans (Santino Fontana) and his trusty reindeer, Sven. Kristen Bell is well cast as Anna (she's also a decent singer), bringing some spunk and welcome goofiness to the Disney heroine role. Josh Gad makes for good comic relief as Olaf, a magically-animated snowman. Broadway star Idina Menzel obviously has superb pipes for Elsa, she and Bell play well off each other, and a story with two sisters at the core is a nice, slight change of pace for Disney. The film also tweaks some fairy tale and Disney conventions, and this pays off best in the climatic scene. Some of the other elements seem by-the-numbers, though, or otherwise fall short. The songs have some clever, funny lyrics, but are rather forgettable – you're not liable to be left humming them afterward as with other Disney tunes (apart from "Let It Go," which can be an earworm). The filmmakers allow some moments of audience distress, but rush in pretty quickly to reassure, undercutting their impact. The big showstopper number, "Let It Go," which Menzel belts out as she constructs her ice palace (and gives herself a magical makeover), is visually great and well sung, but feels highly derivative of the "Defying Gravity" scene from Wicked. In both cases, we see a supposed villainess, unjustly feared and scorned by society, delivering a liberation-empowerment anthem as she embraces her true capabilities. It doesn't seem coincidental that Menzel won a Tony for that exact role in Wicked and "Defying Gravity" has become one of her signature songs. Many viewers loved the scene, but while I admired the artistry involved, it felt too unoriginal and calculated for a core element of the film for me to embrace the work as a whole. Your mileage definitely may vary on this one. Frozen has proven immensely popular (there are even sing-alongs), and young girls and their parents especially seem to value it. It's worth a look, but I'd rank other Disney films much higher.

(Here's writer/director Jennifer Lee and songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez on The Business and Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez on Fresh Air.)

Becoming Traviata: An interesting film for opera buffs and more casual fans of classical music, this French documentary follows French soprano Natalie Dessay as she prepares to play the celebrated role of Violetta in Verdi's enduringly popular La Traviata. Dessay is coaxed along by opera director Jean-François Sivadier, and the fascinating aspect of the film is its lengthy glimpses into the intimate rehearsal process. As Dessay tentatively feels out the part, she'll occasionally cover her anxiety with nervous laughter. Sivadier is supportive throughout, gently prodding her, listening to her ideas, and allowing Dessay and the other performers to play with and explore the material. He knows the piece well, and gradually wins over his more reticent performers. It's particularly striking to see how Dessay moves from hesitant, self-conscious, and obsessing over little details to fully committing. She has to feel her way through the emotional and vocal territory first, but when it's time, she can really bring it. She's a better actress than many an opera singer, and her occasionally ferocious emotional focus fuels her stage performance as well as her vocal one. (Another favorite sequence presents countless shots of Dessay being shown how to do a proper stage collapse and then practicing it over and over again to get it right. Out of such mundane acts is great art sometimes made.) This isn't for everybody. You'll probably enjoy the film more if you've heard or seen the opera at least once, or if you've ever worked on any sort of stage show, but a certain crowd will truly appreciate this one.

The World's End: This is the first Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Nick Frost movie I haven't loved, but I was rarely bored. Gary King (Simon Pegg) was the coolest kid in high school, but unfortunately, he peaked then and hasn't grown since. One of his favorite stories from his teen years involves Gary and his four best chums attempting an ambitious pub crawl of all 12 pubs in their small hometown of Newton Haven. It was a wild night, but the gang fell off one by one along the way, and even Gary succumbed three pubs short. Desperate to reignite a spark in his life (or just relive his glory days), middle-aged Gary visits his old friends to recruit them in another attempt. But they've all moved on in their lives, and at least one of them, Andy Knightley (Nick Frost), holds a strong grudge against Gary. (Why specifically isn't revealed until much later, but given Gary's nature, we have no difficulty believing the grudge is justified.) Regardless, Gary manages to beg, plead, bribe and guilt them into joining him, and away they go, in Gary's limping high school car no less, nicknamed "the Beast." The first section of the film is a warm look at friendships and growing older, and how the latter affects the former. Pegg and Frost have great chemistry as usual, and all the key cast (Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine) play off each very naturally as old chums. (Rosamund Pike is also memorable as Freeman's sister – among other things, her scenes show that Gary's teenage moves on the ladies have not aged well.) Pegg's vocal work alone is entertaining, as he spouts off long, hyperverbal speeches full of tonal shifts in his mellifluous baritone. The film possesses a more serious undertone than the others from this team that emerges from Gary and Andy's confrontations. Meanwhile, there's a wild plot twist that occurs a third to a halfway in that significantly changes the movie. The resulting scenes are well-staged and entertaining (although a climatic scene drags on too long). Still, I was honestly enjoying the first film, a comedy with a serious side about aging pals, more than the second film it became; elements of the first film persist into the second one, but I didn't need that other stuff in this particular movie. All that said, it's still well worth seeing if you've enjoyed this team's films in the past.

(Here's Edgar Wright on The Treatment and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on Fresh Air.)

The Wolf of Wall Street: It's Scorsese, so it's worth a look, but it feels like we've seen it before because we have. The structure is essentially the same as Goodfellas and Casino – the rise and fall of a charismatic semi-villain with some redeeming qualities. All three films are based on real people, and in this case, we're following Jordan Belfort, a slick (and slimy) stockbroker. The odd thing is, although they beat up and even kill people, the gangsters in those earlier Scorsese films are actually more likable (and in their own way, more honorable) than the dishonest day traders in The Wolf of Wall Street whose customers are actually their marks. At three hours, the film's also way too long, mostly because it's so predictable, but also because Scorsese rarely gets out early on a scene (apparently, he allowed the actors to improvise at the end of each scene, and while they're believable and clearly having fun, it gets awfully repetitive). Leonardo DiCaprio does a solid job as Belfort, and Jonah Hill is great as his best bud and partner in crime, Donnie. An extended sequence involving drugs is utterly hilarious and probably the funniest of 2013 (you'll know it when you see it). But even the scenes of debauchery and excess (drugs, sex, extravagant purchases) get a little monotonous. When Jordan starts fighting with his gorgeous trophy wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie, best known in the States from the short-lived series Pan Am), it's hard to take his protestations of devotion to their child seriously. It plays more like narcissism and sheer possessiveness, and perhaps that's the intent, but regardless, it underscores that Jordan is pretty unlikeable (apparently, the real Belfort had even less redeeming qualities). More to the point, he becomes less and less fun to watch.

Some critics have attacked Scorsese and DiCaprio for glorifying Jordan Belfort and his predatory profession, and that's somewhat fair, but Scorsese deliberately undercuts that response on several occasions. In two scenes (both involving cars, actually), he explicitly establishes that Jordan is an unreliable narrator. Late in the movie, Scorsese essentially turns his camera on the audience to examine those hopeful, desperate souls who should know better but are still gullible enough to be attracted to Jordan Belfort and his snake oil. There's also the issue of varying audience reactions – personally, while watching one of the many "gleeful theft of someone's savings" scenes, my reaction was horror – these are the people our establishment idolizes and thinks should run our financial system? (To be fair, much of what Jordan & Co. was doing was illegal, and thus not officially condoned by the American system, but there's little question that the greed-is-good mentality is worshipped and the reckless capitalism model rules.) Naturally, not every Scorsese film can rise to the level of his best, but the pacing in particular falls noticeably below that of his other journeyman entries. Joanna Lumley, Jean DuJardin and Matthew McConaughey are good in supporting roles.

(Here's Leonardo DiCaprio on The Treatment and Morning Edition. Pieces on the accuracy of the movie are numerous, but Slate, History vs. Hollywood and Time cover most of the ground.)

Philomena: Stephen Frears' latest film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), who as a teenaged, unwed mother was forced by nuns to give up her son for adoption 50 years previously. Philomena's daughter approaches disgraced journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) at a party to pitch the idea of helping her mother track down "Anthony." Dench and Coogan make a good odd couple, and although Coogan is primarily known for his comic acting, he does a strong job here. Martin is more the realist than Philomena, but he's also more bitter given what he sees as his unjustified ouster from a good gig and feels he's slumming it with this human interest piece. On top of that, he doesn't have fond memories of his Catholic upbringing, is not a religious believer, and can't understand why, on occasion, he's angrier than Philomena about the treatment she's received. Judi Dench is naturally fantastic, and the character of Philomena gives her a wide emotional range to play. She and Coogan have a great, light feel for the comedic scenes but can also bring the fire. (Dench is particularly powerful and affecting in a scene discussing forgiveness.) A couple of criticisms: The home movie footage of Anthony at different ages, intercut throughout the movie, becomes a bit overdone. Meanwhile, there's a scene where Philomena shows she's hip-to-the-lingo that feels forced, an attempted crowd-pleaser that strains plausibility a bit too far for the character. Still, these are minor points. This is a very solid piece and a human story versus spectacle; fans of Frears, Dench or Coogan will want to catch it. (D.C. moment: The Folger Shakespeare Library with its bas-reliefs is seen from the side, standing in for a government office.)

(Here's Steve Coogan on The Business and composer Alexander Desplat on All Things Considered.)

August: Osage County: The big-screen version of Tracy Letts' Tony-award-winning play about a dysfunctional family gathering boasts a famous cast trading verbal (and sometimes physical) blows. As you'd expect, there's some good acting, but the humor tends to be dark and bitter, and not everyone will want to spend time with these people. Letts adapted his own play with few changes apart from changing locations and opening up the physical space. He does a good job of structuring his reveals as to when a particular family skeleton will slide out. He occasionally achieves some shock value, but admirably moves beyond that to shift power dynamics and explore a deeper side of characters and their relationships. (The best of the characters show considerable range). Likewise, the best of the dialogue crackles and has a natural flow, but I wish Letts had reworked the more stagey speeches. Other moments unfortunately feel stiff, forced or self-conscious, with some of that Grey's Anatomy here-comes-the-big-speech eagerness for emoting (at least there's no indie song playing underneath it all here). For instance, despite their separation, Bill (Ewan MacGregor, always a welcome addition) has come to support his wife, Barbara (Julia Roberts) during a difficult time. They're occasionally kind to one other, but more often Barbara needles him (with some cause, as we find out). At one point, Bill (a professor) says, "You’re thoughtful, Barbara, but you’re not open. You’re passionate, but you’re hard. You’re a good, decent, funny, wonderful woman, and I love you, but you’re a pain in the ass." It sounds awfully rehearsed, preplanned, and artificial – self-consciously quotable. MacGregor sells it as best he can, and it could have worked given the characters if Barbara had called him on it, on how long it took him to compose it or how long he'd been saving it up, but she doesn't. Similarly, Chris Cooper as Barbara's uncle Charlie delivers a big speech to his wife Mattie Fae (the fiery, fantastic Margo Martindale), and it likewise ends with self-consciously composed lines (although Cooper is so natural and grounded it still works pretty well). The best monologue occurs on a nighttime porch, a childhood story about boots told by Meryl Streep as drug-addicted matriarch Violet Weston to her three daughters. Streep works it beautifully as you'd expect, exploring all its nuances, and wisely chooses deep waters under restraint versus chewing-the-scenery. Violet and Barbara rip into each other the most often, and this is the best Julia Roberts has been since Erin Brockovich. I was less impressed than I usually am by Benedict Cumberbatch (as the neurotic Little Charles), but Julianne Nicholson was awfully good as middle sister Ivy. (Sam Shepherd doesn't have much screen time, but he's great, as always.) If you're a fan of the actors, it's probably worth a look. (I do wonder if a better director could have worked with Letts more and delivered a stronger film. I'm not a fan of director John Wells, who when producing TV shows tends to go for shock value over earned drama, killing or maiming characters to goose ratings and make "Don't miss!" promos, or having close friends experience implausible blowouts so they can have a tearful makeup later.)

(Here's Tracy Letts on The Treatment and Weekend Edition.)

Hannah Arendt: Credit the film Hannah Arendt with ambition, opening with a sequence of the protagonist thinking, and trying to make a movie about intellectual disputes. It's not entirely successful, and the film suffers significantly for viewers who aren't already familiar with Hannah Arendt's work and the controversy ignited by her reports (originally published in The New Yorker) on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. As it is, we only really receive Arendt's full thesis in a climatic lecture scene, so that the start of a deeper discussion is simultaneously its final word. Structurally, the film would have been stronger if Arendt articulated her point of view more clearly early on, experienced pushback, we had more back and forth, and then she got the last say. Director Margarethe von Trotta tries to do something like that, but the actual arguments are often elided, so that as an audience we're denied the context to fairly judge the disputes we're seeing (more so if one hasn't read Arendt's book). I'm sympathetic to a point, since talking heads often aren't the most cinematic, but some films and filmmakers (Bergman, Rohmer, Fincher's Zodiac) have done it quite well. Meanwhile, some of the existing scenes are highly dramatic, as when Arendt compares a request that she self-censor to Nazi book-burning. Alas, not every scene is equally successful, despite a superb performance by Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. Arendt's views are highly nuanced and she has a sardonic wit; her views are not welcomed (and she would argue, not always understood) by an audience with painfully raw memories of the Holocaust. In particular, she's seen as putting too much blame on Jewish collaborators, and her condemnation of Eichmann as a man lacking imagination and thought, rather than being a traditional, consciously "evil" man, is seen as excusing in some small way his role in the monstrous genocide that was the Holocaust. Arendt remains a controversial figure, with few doubting her intellect but some charging that her personal arrogance and snobbery colored her conclusions on Eichmann too much. How one views the film will naturally be shaped by how acquainted one is with Arendt's work and one's judgement of it. Personally, I feel some of the criticism of Arendt is warranted when it comes to her personal failings and professional blind spots and also because, even in her follow-ups, she did not fully explain her provocative thesis about "the banality of evil," thereby leaving too much room for misinterpretation (even though some would have been inevitable). All that said, I'd contend she was a true intellectual and brilliant woman, and Eichmann in Jerusalem is one of the great nonfiction books of the 20th century. It is not sufficient to read in isolation to understand the Holocaust, nor are all of her conclusions unimpeachable, but at the very least, her insights and conclusions start a provocative and essential conversation about the true nature of evil and the Nazi regime in particular. Similarly, Hannah Arendt is a useful supplement to that debate and the debate over Arendt herself, but doesn't fully stand on its own.

The Invisible Woman: Ralph Fiennes' second directorial effort is a handsomely shot, well-acted piece, but like the relationship it depicts between Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), it's a restrained, slow-moving affair. The film does a good job of capturing Dickens' enthusiastic, playful personality and his uneasy relationship with fame – sometimes he craves the public's acclaim, but sometimes feels overwhelmed by its demands (as in a striking scene where he is enveloped by a vast and growing crowd seeking to shake his hand). Dickens' relationship with his wife is respectful but any romance has grown cold, and his eyes fall upon Nelly, an intelligent young actress and devoted reader of his works. Dickens' affection for her becomes clear and a source of gossip, while her feelings are more conflicted (as are those of her mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas), further complicated by the potential for scandal but also Dickens' very real ability to take care of Nelly and her entire family. The mores of the Victorian era forbid divorce, even if Dickens' prestige grants him some license, but Nelly is well aware that he can take more social risks than she can as a woman. The Invisible Woman is based on the speculative book of the same name (Dickens and Ternan burnt their correspondence in real life, and the exact nature of their relationship is unclear). The film winds up being an above-average but not overwhelming entry in the Masterpiece Theatre genre. It's always fun to watch the versatile Fiennes, whose eyes do tremendous work here, betraying warmth, eagerness, apprehension and disappointment in small glances. Jones does a nice job playing warring emotions, often under restraint by necessity, and this results in several fine short speeches (it's the best work I've seen from her to date). Kristin Scott Thomas and the rest of the cast are strong as well; if there's one thing this team understands, it's how to perform subtext. Fans of the actors or Dickens will want to check this out. (I hadn't known that Dickens wrote and performed in so many amateur plays.) I liked this film, but still prefer Fiennes' superb and vastly overlooked directorial debut, Coriolanus (the third film reviewed here).

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: James Thurber's justly famous, wonderful short story about a beleaguered man who escapes into a rich fantasy life runs less than ten pages, so writer-star Ben Stiller invents and expands a great deal for his feature film. Should he have left Thurber alone and called the film something else? Perhaps, but the original story remains intact and readily available, and Stiller's efforts feel respectful. In this film, Walter Mitty is a photo editor at Life magazine, which is going to publish its last issue. He's secretly smitten with his coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, who's good as usual), and tormented by the company's hatchet man (Adam Scott, who makes a surprising good slimeball in a nice change from his Parks and Recreation character). The negative for an important photo from maverick, genius photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) has gone missing, and Walter is under fire. In desperation, to impress Cheryl and most of all to prove something to himself, he sets out to track down the elusive O'Connell for answers. Naturally, this takes him on a series of adventures that will change him forever, and at few points it's not clear whether we're witnessing more fantasy or new, real bravado. I wasn't blown away by this film, but it's enjoyable enough. Stiller plays beaten-down, repressed characters well, but crucially, he also credibly sells Walter's gradual transformation. Wiig gives Cheryl some breadth and humanity, and makes her more than some one-dimensional, unobtainable love object. Sean Penn is effortlessly convincing as the fiercely independent, philosophical O'Connell. Trailers can be misleading, but the main one for this film (with almost no dialogue) is superb as a standalone piece.

(Here's Ben Stiller on All Things Considered.)

Saving Mr. Banks: Disney's movie about the making of one of its most famous movies, Mary Poppins, centers on Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) trying everything he can to convince the book's prickly, demanding author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), to sign him the film rights. She's fiercely protective of her book and the character Mary Poppins, but could really use the money (her tastes exceed her income). At times the project feels rather self-serving by the Disney studio, but the film is thankfully less treacly than its trailer. Walt Disney as played by Tom Hanks is depicted as one heck of a guy, with few flaws, but Hanks attacks the role with relish and turns on his considerable charm as Walt tries to woo Travers. Thompson is even better, giving Travers a certain style to her curmudgeonly, autocratic ways and frequently ridiculous demands. (By all accounts, Travers as played by Thompson is much more likable than the real woman was.) Meanwhile, the supporting cast is superb. Bradley Whitford is a glad-handing studio exec who rubs Travers the wrong way and Paul Giamatti is her humble studio driver (who slowly wins her over). B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman play the Sherman brothers, the chipper, inventive team who wrote the memorable songs for Mary Poppins (and who occasionally have their patience exceeded by Travers' demands). In flashback, Colin Farrell plays Travers' father as a man of great love and dreams but also tragic demons. (Ruth Wilson and Rachel Griffiths are solid in flashback roles as well.) Saving Mr. Banks has been fairly criticized for promoting an overly rosy version of Walt Disney and especially Travers, and as a true-to-life account should be taken with multiple grains of salt. However, the film has its merits in terms of craft and performances. (It also tends to make audiences want to watch Mary Poppins again, as intended.)

(Here's producer Ian Collie on The Business. Vulture and History vs. Hollywood, among others, cover the real P.L. Travers.)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Once again, the film is too damn long and ridiculously padded, The Hobbit should not have made into three films, and it shouldn't have been made into an extended prequel for The Lord of the Rings. That said, it has some good moments. Smaug "the Magnificent" is just that, possibly the most impressive, menacing dragon rendered on screen to date (certainly he makes the short list). Martin Freeman remains superbly cast as the humble, brave and inventive Bilbo Baggins, and it's interesting to see him interact with Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug (all the more so given the actors' chemistry on Sherlock). Ian McKellan is excellent returning as Gandalf, of course. Although it's annoying that director-writer-producer Peter Jackson invented and expanded characters, he's at least cast them well with Stephen Fry and the already elfin-looking Evangeline Lilly. Likewise, Luke Evans does a nice job as Bard. (I assume most people have read the book, but if not, what follows might contain slight spoilers.) The extended battle/romp through Smaug's chamber is mostly pointless, and given the bloat invented for the story, cutting genuinely good bits from the source material is all the more disappointing. Jackson jettisoned the introduction from the book of the dwarves to the character Beorn – Tolkien's chapter is tightly written, funny and introduces all of the dwarves (in twos and threes), something the film series has yet to do properly (apart from Thorin, Balin, Fili and Bombur). Jackson opts for some menace with the Beorn encounter instead, but there's plenty of that elsewhere; it's a lost opportunity that throws away clever groundwork and a nice shift in tone. Other alterations work better. The extended barrel ride sequence, while thoroughly ridiculous, is great fun. The "black arrow" of the book makes much more sense as depicted. The effect of the ring on Bilbo during the effectively creepy spider scene is inspired, very much in the spirit of Tolkien. The same goes for a scene involving the eye of Sauron. These feel like Jackson and the team adeptly filling in some details in a great, beloved tale, whereas at other times the book is treated as just raw material (in marked contrast to the film series The Lord of the Rings). Adjust your expectations accordingly. (For LOTR, I was nervous going into the first film, then hotly anticipated the release of the second and third films, but for each Hobbit film, my reaction has been, ehh, okay, I'll schedule it in somewhere.)

Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's writing and directing debut stars himself as a modern-day Don Juan. Jon is extremely successful at bedding women, but he's also deeply porn-addicted, and as he explains to the audience in voiceovers, even real sex with an attractive woman can't measure up to the fantasy heights he gets from porn. Then his head is turned one night at a club by the sexy Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). He sets out to track her down and woo her, and she in turn demands that he change major elements of his life – going back to school, hiring a maid rather than cleaning his apartment himself (which she views as degrading), and never using porn again. At night school, Jon runs into an offbeat but intriguing woman, Ester (Julianne Moore), and they gradually develop a friendship, although he's not always comfortable with her grilling him about intimacy versus sexual satisfaction. The movie features good performances and some funny scenes, but what makes Don Jon interesting is that it deviates from strict predictability. We've seen the man-child-reformed-by-a-woman movie many times before, and Don Jon does tap into that, but then moves in some less expected directions, particularly in Jon's relationships with both Barbara and Ester. Be warned that this movie is definitely rated R, related to Jon's viewing habits. (It's also a short flick, clocking in at a mere 90 minutes.)

(Here's Joseph Gordon-Levitt on The Treatment and Weekend Edition.)

Man of Steel: Seven years after Bryan Singer's lackluster Superman film (the 22nd film reviewed here), Zach Snyder takes a crack at the character, with mixed results – its best moments are quite good, but its flubs are notable. Moreover, they're deliberately-chosen misfires, key moments in the film that must have been discussed at length. The good: Russell Crowe as troubled genius Jor-El and the elaborate, pulp sci-fi world of Krypton; Michael Shannon as ruthless, unrelenting chief villain General Zod; Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Superman's adoptive parents, the infallibly decent Kents; and Amy Adams as plucky, resourceful reporter Lois Lane. (Kate Bosworth has been decent in other roles, but was painfully miscast as Lois Lane in Singer's movie; Bosworth to Adams is the biggest acting upgrade I can think of in a decade.) Laurence Fishburne as news chief Perry White, Christopher Meloni as a colonel and Richard Schiff as a government scientist are solid in supporting roles. The bad: More of the "Space Jesus" iconography of Singer's film (and it's often lingered on excessively), a head-scratching key plot point seen in flashback, and a climatic plot point that betrays the fundamental nature of the Superman character. (It seems the filmmakers chose momentary shock over a more organic and meaningful climax. I was surprised that Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer developed the story, given their superb work on the Batman series. But more discussion in the spoiler section.) Zach Snyder is known as a "shooter" and not much of an actor's director, but he's generally smart enough to stay out of his actors' way and does know how to string together some flashy images and stage a good action scene. British actor Henry Cavill certainly looks the part of Superman/Kal-El, and conveys the sense of reluctant hero well. It's understandable the filmmakers toned down the bright colors of the original superhero suit and ditched the red swim trunks, but the blue of the suit is so dark, in some shots it borders on black. This darkness goes far beyond costume choices; although the modern Batman has long been dark and brooding, that tone has never really fit Superman, and Man of Steel doesn't make a convincing case otherwise. One of the key moments in Superman II is the villains realizing that Superman cares about "the humans" and will fight to save them at his peril. There are similar moments in Man of Steel, but also colossal and seemingly casual property destruction that's impressive in the blow-er-up-real-good spectacle sense but feels awfully odd from a story-character perspective. I've never been a huge fan of Superman, mainly because in most tellings his might so far outstrips the competition the stakes are too low. Here at least he had super-powered foes (as in Superman II). This was a pretty good filmmaking team, and I wanted to like the resulting movie much more than I did.

Thor: The Dark World: The sequel to the surprisingly good first Thor movie (the 16th film reviewed here) is solid but not overwhelming. Predictably, the best scenes are those between close-but-feuding brothers Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The actors have good chemistry, and the best, extended sequence evokes the classic Norse myths of the two gods uneasily teaming up, the mighty warrior and scheming trickster. Unfortunately, the film limits their time together, and we get three other storylines: Save the worlds against the dark elves led by Malekith (played with self-assured menace by Christopher Eccleston), a love story of reunion between Thor and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and the question of succession to the Asgardian throne and the approval of Thor's father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). More Thor and Loki and less visual effect spectacle would have been nice, but the first film had the same flaw and it's a common one for summer blockbusters. At least the scenes of cataclysm and the signature fights are pretty well staged. As Jane, Portman has some good scenes, but the "quote them in the trailer" moments feel a bit forced. Stellan Skarsgård is a welcome return as scientist Erik Selvig, temporarily driven more than a bit loopy. As gal sidekick Darcy, Kat Dennings delivers her wisecracks well, but is less convincing at sincere moments. Meanwhile, Odin acts less like the wise, all-knowing all-father and more like the powerful but tempestuous Zeus. (Also, it felt off to have Asgardians fighting spacecraft so often; it's a genre clash that doesn't quite work.) I thought the film was worth a look just for Hiddleston and Hemsworth, but the best of the Marvel films (and superhero and comic book films in general) keep a firmer eye on the human (or deity) dynamics.

The Wolverine: The second solo Wolverine film is much more satisfying than the first one (the 13th film reviewed here), although its plot doesn’t hold up well to sustained scrutiny. As a few critics have noted, the better superhero movies have been using the comic books as a development lab and have adopted some of the best elements while making changes. In this case, the mining comes from some of Wolverine's best adventures, from the 80s in Japan. In flashback, we see that Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was in Nagasaki when the bomb dropped and saved the life of Yashida, a Japanese officer. In the present, Logan's drinking away his troubles – horrible nightmares of killing a woman he loved, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). He's tracked down by the hunter-warrior Yukio (Rila Fukushima) on behalf of Yashida, who's a corporate bigwig in Japan but also elderly and dying. Yashida's attended by his loyal and kind granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), brusque son Shigen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and mysterious Dr. Green (Svetlana Khodchenkova). Yashida offers to take away Logan's "curse" – his healing ability – thus allowing him to die, and perhaps saving Yashida's life. Logan understandably declines, has a disturbing dream involving Dr. Green (who's an attractive blonde woman, of course), Yashida dies, later on there's a battle – and Logan discovers to his shock that his healing factor no longer works. Most of the film is Logan on the lam, aided by Mariko and Yukio, trying to escape pursuit and to hunt down someone who can tell him what happened and restore his healing. Hugh Jackman remains the centerpiece here, a good actor who captures the character's gritty honor and has the physique and physicality to sell all the action. He's also convincing depicting Logan's growing affection for Mariko and fear of hurting her (when he has a nightmare, he tends to pop his claws, which can be lethal). A few problems – director James Mangold makes sure to show us when Logan's healing factor is working and not working, but goes overboard on this. More to the point, although Logan can heal from most wounds, he still feels pain, and tries to avoid getting tagged in the first place – occasionally Mangold has Logan just standing there, taking the punishment, seemingly unfazed. (This also makes battles pretty one-sided and less suspenseful when the healing factor is working.) Another quibble – it's not unusual that a Hollywood film would have Japanese characters speaking English versus Japanese some of the time, but it's bizarre that they will speak Japanese while in the presence of foreigners yet switch to English when alone. (It pulled me out.) The PG-13 rating apparently mandated that shredding people with claws results in virtually no blood. (It's more amusing than troubling.) Lastly, the villain's master plot doesn't make a great deal of sense in the end. (The io9 spoiler FAQ covers most of plot oddities.) If you like Jackman or the character, it's worth a look.

Iron Man 3: Robert Downey suits up again as Tony Stark/Iron Man, and once again it's worth going along just for him, even if the overall film is sillier than its predecessors, despite some dark undertones. (The cowriter-director is Shane Black, who directed Downey in the fun Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) This time around, Tony Stark's internal struggle is post-traumatic stress disorder from the giant alien battle depicted in The Avengers. Never the touchy-feely, talk-it-out type, Stark becomes even more obsessive and rash in response to this distress, straining his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and others, most notably James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and sidekick Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, who also directed the first two movies). The external menace is fanatical, ruthless, international terrorist the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Meanwhile, an old flame and colleague returns, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) – years ago she was developing Extremis, a technique to regenerate tissue, including lost limbs, and claims she's made progress. She's now working for slick tech entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a potential ally or rival to Stark; Stark humiliated him years ago during his rampant dick period. Black has an ear for clever dialogue, and Downey can certainly deliver it. The action scenes are also solid. Black can get a little too cute and self-indulgent at times, but he does know how to deliver a fun ride. A major plot twist earned mixed audience reactions; it's inventive and entertaining (and masks a serious subtext), but it also violates Iron Man canon and significantly changes the tone. (More below.) The first film is still the best, but they've all been of respectable quality. If you've seen the first two and liked them, you might as well catch this one, too.

World War Z: The movie bears almost no resemblance to the book, apart from the worldwide zombie outbreak and a few other elements. The best adaptation approach would have been a miniseries using the book's episodic but effective interview format to build an overall picture. That said, World War Z manages to be pretty solid and creepy for a mainstream horror movie, and wound up being immensely successful financially. (Credit, too, must be given to the filmmakers for scrapping a filmed, expensive, final battle and reshooting a quieter, more character-driven climax.) Brad Pitt makes a likable leading man, in this case reluctant hero scientist Gerry Lane, drafted by the top brass into discovering how the zombie outbreak started and how they can stop it. In exchange for keeping his family safe, he suits up, going into some very unnerving situations, with two of the most memorable both involving planes. Director Marc Forster has always had a good feel for performances, and has developed a decent command of spectacle and suspense as well. The final half hour or so isn't groundbreaking, but it doesn't need to be – at its best, it's deliciously tense. One of my complaints is that the zombie infection – from bite to turning – takes effect waaaaay too fast. Although the film didn't need to go the traditional "several days" or even "a few hours" route, delivering instant, fast zombies (just add plague!) massively throws off the power dynamics, similar to the Will Smith version of I Am Legend. I went in with low expectations and thought this was a decent summer popcorn movie.

Side Effects: Even the uneven Steven Soderbergh films generally feature a few interesting elements, and he's got a decent cast here: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The "side effects" of the title come from a drug prescribed by psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Law) to Emily (Mara), the troubled wife of a Wall Street, white-collar criminal recently released from jail (Tatum). It's hard to say much more without giving away key plot points. Basically, this a puzzle movie designed to keep up guessing, and for the most part it succeeds at keeping up engaged, making us ask questions, flirting with some red herrings, pulling some clever reversals and pushing us to reevaluate the characters. That's harder to pull off than it looks. My one complaint is that the filmmakers decide to go one or two twists too far, the unfortunately common temptation of such movies.

Ender's Game: Orson Scott Card's Nebula and Hugo award-winning science fiction novel finally hits the big screen. (I've read the book twice, but it's been a while.) The film gets the most important element right by casting the superb Asa Butterfield as young, scrawny genius Ender Wiggin, who's recruited for Earth's Battle School. The planet needs a new breed of young heroes to fight an alien menace that threatens the existence of the human race. From Ender's fear to his determination, his competitiveness to his despair, Butterfield nails it throughout, and makes several key moments genuinely affecting (even if you know what's coming). Hailee Steinfeld as Ender's classmate Petra and Abigail Breslin as his sister Valentine are other standouts among a very solid roster of kid actors. I was wary of director Gavin Hood's involvement given his occasionally dreadful (and unintentionally comic) Wolverine flick (I still need to see Tsotsi, with its child actors), but give him credit for coaxing good performances from his young charges and delivering a visually impressive and narratively coherent big battle. Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis are the standouts among the adult actors, while Harrison Ford does his gruff, tough-love father figure thing effectively enough as Colonel Graff. The film's biggest flaw is that it rushes the central internal storyline so much it falls apart at times. Graff believes Ender is too compliant and authority-dependent, and tries to set up situations so that he'll be ostracized and bullied, to toughen him up, old-school style. This external storyline, with its clear plot points, is adapted capably enough. However, Ender's internal arc is criminally rushed, especially given the movie's mere 114 minute run time. In the book, Ender is smart and inventive, but initially tends to be innovative within the rules of the game he's given. It takes him time and multiple attempts before he's frustrated enough to break the rules outright and make moves that surprise even himself a bit. This bildungsroman tale is the core of the original story, and interweaves skillfully with the external plot. A stronger script would have broken this internal arc into at least three scenes, and played them off Ender's frustrations and victories in the school's Battle Room and barracks. Instead, it's all condensed into a single scene, and makes Ender seem less harried genius than (briefly) sociopath. Cuts and changes to the source material were inevitable (the Earth blogging subplot with Valentine and Peter was predictably ditched), but botching Ender's growth severely hurts the movie. Merely breaking up the "Mind Game" scenes and adding a Battle Room montage would have resulted in a significantly better film. (I think this fumble is why viewers who haven't read the book have wondered aloud why the novel caused such a fuss.) That said, I thought the movie's climax was both visually spectacular and emotionally satisfying, as was the aftermath. I'd be interested to see the deleted scenes and extras for this one.

Oblivion: Pretty and derivative, Oblivion is smart enough to rip off some decent material, at least, and director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) has a visual flair. The rough plot: Earth is largely uninhabited due to a cataclysmic war, and Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are a team overseeing harvesters collecting massive amounts of water from Earth's oceans for off-world colonies. They need to protect the harvesters and military drones from a resistance trying to sabotage them. Needless to say, all is not as it seems, and revelations abound. You'll likely see some of the twists coming, but Cruise and the other actors ground the story enough in plausible human emotion – how would you react in this situation? – that it never feels solely like a "puzzle" movie. The film works fairly well on its own terms during a viewing, but afterward you're likely to question several elements. (Was it really necessary to go to those complex lengths if you just wanted to do that? Etcetera.) Cruise is pretty good here, Andrea Riseborough is impressive, vulnerable and touching as Victoria, Morgan Freeman is reliable as always playing the wry, paternal Morgan Freeman role, and Melissa Leo delivers an excellent performance whose nuance becomes more apparent with time. The movie's a decent but unexceptional diversion.

Star Trek: Into Darkness: The first installment in the Star Trek series reboot was excellent overall (it's the 11th film reviewed here), so it's disappointing but not surprising that the second film would be decent but markedly weaker. The relationships between the chief crew members remain a strength, particularly those between Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Benedict Cumberbatch makes a fantastic chief villain, and the film boasts some effective scenes of menace and action. Bruce Greenwood is a welcome return as Captain Pike and Peter Weller a welcome addition as Admiral Marcus. The film does delve into the nature of fear and the proper political (or military) response to it, especially vis-à-vis evidence or the lack thereof. Other than that, the film is often a remix of Star Trek's greatest hits (from one film in particular), especially in its final stretch. These choices may delight (or possibly infuriate) long-time fans, but also feel disappointingly unoriginal. I'll admit at least one made me chuckle, but on a meta level, and that's a bit problematic since I believe that was precisely the filmmakers' intent – that we should smile at this moment as fans even though narratively, it's a moment of despair and increased tension. (You'll know what moment I'm taking about, Trekkers.) Relatedly, this means another key, remixed moment, so pivotal and memorable in the source film, is robbed of its impact because we immediately start thinking about how its aftermath will play out in this new version. (Also, that aftermath raises a host of other questions.) Meanwhile, although I still think Chris Pine makes an excellent Kirk overall, able to handle the comedic touches as well the dramatic scenes, he's painfully outclassed as an actor in a key confrontation with Cumberbatch (and that's not entirely intentional, despite a preceding scene). I'm hoping the new Trek team finds the right approach for the third film in the rebooted series.

Mud: Despite some lousy ads, this film from writer-director Jeff Nichols makes a good character study of Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and coming-of-age story for 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). It's the summer in Arkansas, Ellis and Neckbone are on the poorer end of the spectrum, and they're looking for something to do. They discover a boat somehow stuck in a tree on a small island in the river. Along with the boat, they discover Mud, a charismatic if odd and superstitious figure who promises they can have the boat (he's been living in it) in exchange for their help (especially food). Eventually, he tells them he's hiding out because he killed the man who injured his ex-girlfriend and great love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Now Mud's being pursued by both the cops and a murderous posse made up of the man's family and hired guns. The boys know the other adults in their lives won't approve of their friendship with Mud, but he comes off as a honorable outlaw and the lure of the forbidden is powerful, especially given the romantic appeal of Mud's couple-against-the-world story with Juniper and the excitement of playing go-between. (Fueling his involvement further, Ellis is in throes of puppy love with the slightly older May Pearl, and his parents' marriage is on the rocks.) The kid actors are good, and McConaughey is low-key and natural as the mysterious and semi-mystical but seemingly honest Mud (this was the best I had seen him before Dallas Buyers Club). Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Joe Don Baker and the rest of the supporting cast are solid. Arkansas-born Nichols has a good feel for his Southern milieu.

(Here's Jeff Nichols on The Treatment.)

42: Writer-director Brian Helgeland brings the latest biopic of Jackie Robinson to the screen. The storytelling and filmmaking are pretty traditional and straightforward, but the film features several memorable scenes. Chadwick Boseman delivers a strong performance as Robinson, the first black man to play for major league baseball after WWII. Harrison Ford give one of his better gruff, paternal performances (his second of the year) as Brooklyn Dodgers exec Branch Rickey, who wants "a player who's got the guts not to fight back." Nicole Beharie does a nice job as Jackie's wife Rachel, and the versatile Alan Tudyk is indelibly despicable as Ben Chapman, the virulently and vocally racist manager of the Phillies. Robinson's talented and has a tough skin, but sometimes the unrelenting jabs get to him, and his reactions to this mounting pressure makes for some dramatic scenes. 42 has its inaccuracies, but none are that consequential. It does tend to get overly sentimental, the score playing warmly underneath, for some of the scenes of cross-racial harmony. It's a Hollywood studio movie, but taken on those terms, it's not bad, especially for fans of baseball and Robinson.

Trance: Director Danny Boyle loves the medium so much it's generally fun to watch him work, even in a minor piece such as this, but suspension of disbelief becomes a mounting problem. Simon (James McAvoy) is an art auctioneer who becomes entangled with criminals, who want him to steal a painting. Things go wrong, blows are exchanged, and Simon winds up with amnesia – he can't remember where he hid the painting. After the criminals (led by the sinister and stylish Franck, played by Vincent Cassel) torture him and begrudgingly acknowledge he's telling the truth, they light upon the idea of sending him to a hypnotherapist to try to help him remember. It winds up being Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who gets sucked further and further into the plot with the gang. Boyle and writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge makes some interesting choices, particularly playing on and against McAvoy's likeable personality, but they don't all work, particularly when the framing and tone of the movie's beginning is compared with its ending. Likewise, although the film tries to invent some cover, the powers of hypnotherapy as depicted become increasingly powerful and implausible. We're also left rather unmoored, without someone to root for. Hitchcock manipulated audience expectations and shifting identifications expertly (particularly in Psycho), but here such matters just feel muddied and tossed off. As with Side Effects, this movie goes a few twists too far.

(Here's Danny Boyle on The Treatment and The Business.)

Oz the Great and Powerful: Director Sam Raimi delivers this origin-story prequel with some visual flair and a solid cast – James Franco as the once and future Oz, Zach Braff as Frank/Finley the flying monkey, and three disparate witches in Michelle Williams as goodie two-shoes Glinda, Rachel Weisz as the scheming Evanora, and Mila Kunis as the more complex Theodora. I haven't read any of the Oz books so I can't speak to the film as an adaptation, but it works reasonably well as a prequel to viewers only familiar with The Wizard of Oz. Franco is well-cast as a charming, womanizing bullshitter. Likewise, the actresses do a good job with what they're given, but I would have liked Glinda a bit less ethereal and aloof and early Theodora less naïve. Some of the fights, involving magic, machinery and subterfuge, are quite inventive, and the extended, climatic showdown is well-crafted. It's not a must-see except for fans of the Oz books or the actors, but it's a decent rental.

The Company You Keep: The main joys of Robert Redford's latest directorial effort (based on the novel of the same name) are that it's made for adults and features a stellar cast of older actors: Redford, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott and Julie Christie. The plot centers on Jim Grant (Redford), a recently widowed single dad whose Weather Underground past is uncovered by young reporter Ben Shephard (Shia LeBoeuf). Grant (really Nick Sloan) was implicated in a murder 30-some years ago, and is forced to go on the lam, leaving his 11-year-old daughter behind. In the process, he reconnects with many of his old colleagues, some of whom greet him warmly, and some who are less keen to see him. In both cases, this leads to discussions of their past political ideals and old disagreements, as well as their personal lives and how things have changed. (None of it ever feels preachy or like a political treatise; it’s old friends and acquaintances catching up.) Meanwhile, Shephard pumps Diana, an old girlfriend who works the FBI, for information as he tries to guess where Sloan is heading and what his goal is, since his movement patterns don't make apparent sense. Along the way, Shephard encounters and flirts with young Rebecca Osborne (Brit Marling), whose father Harry (Gleeson) is a retired cop who was in the thick of the murder investigation years ago, which still holds several unsolved mysteries. Tucci is good as Shephard's editor, whose efforts to mentor Shephard often go frustrated. Susan Sarandon is also a standout as Sharon Solarz, an articulate and worldly past radical whose arrest sets the events of the film in motion. I was left underwhelmed by Julie Christie in a pivotal role, though, and thought Sarandon would have done far better. The film also tends to have low energy at times despite the chase plot at its center. The movie doesn't hit a home run, but it's a welcome change of pace from more conventional Hollywood fare.

(Here's Robert Redford on The Treatment. It contains spoilers.)

Now You See Me: Director Louis Leterrier assembles a good cast for this caper flick of magicians (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) recruited by a mysterious figure to form the group the Four Horseman. Financially backed by the rich Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), they pull off amazing capers presented as stage magic to the public. Mark Ruffalo plays a frustrated FBI agent pursuing them, assisted by an Interpol agent played by Mélanie Laurent. Morgan Freeman plays Thaddeus Bradley, a retired magician and frequent talk show guest whose career is revealing how magic tricks are done. The movie's enjoyable enough, with some fun gags and double-crosses, including a satisfying final reveal. The film does require more-than-average suspension of disbelief, however. As with 2006's The Illusionist, at a few points (a human being floating into the air in a computer-generated bubble) it's not clear exactly how we're supposed to take what we're presented. Is this physical impossibility supposed to be a clever stage trick? Real magic? (Less likely.) Something the director thought looked cool so he just slapped it in? Thankfully, these moments are relatively rare. For the most part, all the tricks the Horseman play are grounded in reality – impressive, confounding, but possible in the material world (and we're generally shown later how they're pulled off). Viewers are asked to accept intricate and sometimes ridiculously elaborate planning, but that kinda goes with the genre. One of the film's flaws is that we don't get to know the core four that well. They're introduced nicely, all in the middle of a magic show or scam when they get the magician's equivalent of the bat signal, but after their recruitment, they leave the screen for a while and we don't see what happens. (We don't see what won them over, and given how ornery and individualistic these characters had been, especially Harrelson's, it raises questions.) Instead, we next see them as the hot ticket in town, the Four Horseman, and mostly from an outsider's perspective. Specifically, we mainly stay with Ruffalo as dogged and harried FBI agent Dylan Rhodes, who views the Horseman as enigmatic and taunting him. These are interesting choices, but it makes it hard to identify with the Horsemen, who are ostensibly the anti-heroes we're supposed to be rooting for. Still, in the end, it's a decent rental.

The Heat: It always helps if a comedy's actually funny, and this one is. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) reunites with Melissa McCarthy, and this time on the screen, McCathy's teamed up with Sandra Bullock. (Katie Dippold, who's written for Parks and Recreation, penned the script.)The Heat has a simple, silly premise to put the two stars together, and as you probably guessed, Bullock's the stuck-up, by-the-book FBI agent who's highly competent but alienates her coworkers (Ashburn), who's forced to team up on a case with McCarthy, who's the intimidating, crass, mavericky undercover cop (Mullins). The two have good chemistry, with Bullock making a good straight woman to McCarthy's outrageous outbursts and wild actions (she's a skilled improviser). The film's also a reminder that, although Bullock's doing more serious roles now, she's got solid comic chops. I could have done without the obligatory "serious" subplots, but it was fun to see two women in a summer vehicle we've seen countless times with the gents. McCarthy's an excellent physical comedienne, but Bullock is impressive and hilarious herself in a bit where her leg isn't working properly. (And multiple puncture wounds have rarely been so funny.) Michael McDonald is a standout in the supporting cast.

Renoir: (Released in France in 2012.) This French film isn't a full biopic of justly celebrated painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (played by Michel Boquet), but instead visits him late in life during WWI through the eyes of his latest model, the young and lovely Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret). Renoir's hands have become arthritic, meaning he has to have the paint brush strapped on, and he persists in painting despite the pain. He lives in the south of France far from the front and supported by a household of doting women who admire him and his work. Later on, he's visited by his eldest son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), back home from the war. Jean is disillusioned by life and war but is still considering going back (he has yet to become a masterful film director). Romance also blossoms between him and Andrée. As you'd expect, this is a gorgeously shot movie, full of dappled light and the summer colors of the French countryside. There's not much of a plot, and I'd still like to see an actual biopic of Renoir senior, but it's a pleasant film to watch.

Aftermath: (Released in Poland in 2012.) Émigré to Chicago Franciszek Kalina (Ireneusz Czop) returns home after years to small-town Poland to visit his brother Józef (Maciej Stuhr) at the family farm because he's heard there's trouble (Józef's wife has left but wouldn't tell Franciszek what happened). Family tension lingers because Józef was left to handle the farm and Franciszek didn't make it back for their parents' funerals, but some affection (or at least deeper loyalty) remains, too. Franciszek soon encounters dirty looks from many town members, but no one, including his brother, will speak of what's going on. A brick through the farm window and some violence in a bar finally get Józef to start confiding in his brother. The town harbors some awful secrets from WWII that Józef stumbled upon and feels compelled to investigate further. At first, Franciszek doesn't see the point any more than the rest of the town, but eventually gets pulled in as well, if for no other reason initially than solidarity with his brother. The film is loosely inspired by real events, chronicled in a link below, but I won't give more away here. Aftermath makes for a pretty effective thriller, with gradual, cumulative reveals, and some of the scenes are striking, particularly those involving a nighttime exit from a church, a dusty records basement, and a rainy, muddy night near a cabin. (It occasionally feels like a horror film.) Plausibility is strained, however, by the extremity of Józef's reticence, the same from his wife (although we never see her), and by a late complete reversal of attitude (perhaps ultimately passing) by a major character. All these feel like plot-demanded constructs versus more organic elements, mostly so that Franciszek can come in blind and then gradually transform. This artificiality undercut the film's climax for me, because it felt too contrived, but despite these flaws, Aftermath remains a memorable, provocative film.

(Here's the book that inspired the film; needless to say, the link contains spoilers.)

Kon-Tiki: (Released in Norway in 2012.) This Norwegian film earned a foreign language film Oscar nomination (alas, the English language version was released in theaters here). The movie chronicles the real-life adventures of Thor Heyerdahl and his team, who in 1947 built a raft and tried sailing it without modern navigation from Chile to Easter Island to prove that pre-Columbian South Americans could have visited the Polynesian Islands. ("Kon-Tiki" is the name given the raft, supposedly an old name for the Incan sun god.) It makes for an interesting story, but at times the conflict on the raft feels artificially ratcheted, and the film loses considerable suspense for viewers who know the outcome. To its credit, the film does explore different aspects of the charismatic Heyerdahl, with other characters periodically questioning whether Heyerdahl is a visionary or a delusional egomaniac. Kon-Tiki winds up being a decent but unexceptional survival film and biopic.

(Here's the co-directors of the film on The Business about shooting the film in both Norwegian and English.)

Sharknado: This SyFy Channel film aired on TV first and later played in movie theaters for an event night. It was sold as a so-bad-it's-good fun watch, but mostly it's just bad. A movie about Los Angeles besieged by shark-filled tornadoes could have goofy fun, but all the deliberatively ridiculous, best parts were in the ads (the hero's chainsaw leap through the gaping mouth of a pouncing, airborne shark). What kills the movie is that the basic filmmaking is so inept. The shot coverage, editing and continuity make for a disjointed viewing experience. The protagonists drive through water that alternates between puddle-deep and neck-deep, stock footage of a "road block" (a police car on dry streets) is awkwardly spliced in, and characters can step out of frame four feet and wind up in a badly mismatched effects shot. Abrahams-Zucker movies such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun deliberately created and mocked bad continuity, but here it just screams, "We have no budget and no time!" (Apparently, it was a 18-day shoot and the budget was about one million.) I wanted to like this much more than I did. (A sequel is due out at the end of June.)


Steve said...

Have you seen Upstream Color?

"it is a movie that if it were a painting would be a perfect collage of Picasso's best abstracts merged with Salvador Dali's illuminating but confusing narrative."

Batocchio said...

It and Primer are on my list. Thanks for the prod! (You might like Moon with Sam Rockwell if you haven't seen it already.)