I will spare you the platitudes, drawn-out metaphors and historical perspectives and get right to the point. Star Trek: Into Darkness is an above-average summer popcorn movie. It delivers everything you want from a franchise blockbuster sequel and, from THAT perspective, actually delivers more than you would expect, considering some of the recent sequel disasters (Iron Man 2 and Hangover 2, I’m looking at you). I found the story to be boring and laid way too heavy with stock story tropes—writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof (be careful whenever there are more than two writers) obviously weren’t concerned with being original, interesting or challenging—but it still works as a summer escape movie, loaded with action and screen-filling effects. I thought for sure director J.J. Abrams would find a way to use the 3D technology in this big space adventure movie to wow me with something I’d never seen before, but, instead, it was distracting and so not worth wearing those glasses or forking out the extra cash. While I don’t hate 3D, I haven’t seen it actually add anything to a movie since Hugo.
But, even so, the movie was as entertaining as the opening-night crowd I watched it with—I guess “Trekkies” still exist—mostly because of the tremendously watchable cast. From the totally underappreciated Bruce Greenwood to the comic-relief-with-purpose Simon Pegg to the reasons-to-shell-out-money-in-the-first-place Benedict Cumberbatch and the most-engaging Zachary Quinto, there isn’t a weak link in the movie. Cumberbatch is the next big thing and you’ll understand why when you watch this movie. And Zachary Quinto? Well, I discovered just how good he is out of the pointy-ear makeup on FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum last season and he is equally good in a completely different role as Spock, with his dry delivery and quiet eyes. It’s too bad I don’t love Chris Pine more as Captain Kirk, but his frat-boy demeanor does play off Quinto’s Spock well enough to make one of sci-fi’s most loveable bromances believable and fun.
There’s a lot of humor here, which is good, and the action scenes are well shot. J.J. Abrams better get to know his way around space, since he’s the one tapped with resurrecting Star Trek’s blockbuster space adventure rival, Star Wars, in 2015. But, until then, Star Trek is doing a fine job pleasing the fan boy masses and Star Trek: Into Darkness is a fine way to spend a summer evening.
This is exactly what I was afraid of. When the reins of the latest cinematic retelling of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby were handed to noted camp-schlock king Baz Luhrmann, my heart sank and I wept for what could have been. I hadn’t even seen it—in fact the movie was a couple years away from reality—and yet, I still knew it would be a disaster.
I feared that, in the hands of Baz Luhrmann, the flamboyant Australian filmmaker who lives for style over substance, the classic American novel might be cheapened somehow, might be hammed and glitzed to such extremes that we might not even recognize it anymore.
How silly of me to worry.
Luhrmann already displayed his audacity with his “re-vamping” of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—sorry, Romeo + Juliet—I guess it was only a matter of time before he took on another icon of literature. Since he probably couldn’t get away with costuming Jesus in sequins, The Bible was out, so why not take on The Great Gatsby. It’s a book about beautiful people, big parties and lots of excess, right? Seems tailor-made for the man behind Moulin Rouge! (yes, the exclamation point is part of the title), right?
But here’s the problem. The Great Gatsby, the classic 1925 novel set in New York in the early ’20s, is not just about the parties and the costumes and the overindulgence of the time. It’s about what those things represent and reflect. It’s a story of obsession, with themes of disillusionment, betrayal and the death of the American dream sprinkled throughout. These are elements that require the hand of a storyteller, the delicacy of character development and the textured exploration of themes. These are not things Baz Luhrmann knows. These are not things Baz Luhrmann has ever even considered. Baz Luhrmann knows only one theme: go big or go home. click here to keep reading The Great Gatsby »
Director Derek Cianfrance’s first feature, Blue Valentine (2010), was an absorbing, intense study of love, commitment and relationships. Actors Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams delivered brilliant performances in a movie that was difficult to sit through, mainly because of its naturalistic and brutally honest style. But what we are learning about Cianfrance with his followup feature, The Place Beyond the Pines, is that not only does Cianfrance have a unique style, but he knows a thing or two about storytelling. That, my friends, is a combination every movie lover craves—and rarely gets.
The Place Beyond the Pines is actually three movies in one, but, unlike Cloud Atlas, it never feels too ambitious or too big for itself. It plays like a really good novel, taking its time to get to know the characters, then to tell their stories in believable and—most important—interesting ways. I will not reveal anything about the plot here because this is a movie that needs to be experienced knowing as little as possible. But what I can say is that it is a movie about human themes of love, parenthood, desperation, obligation, justice, morality and retribution. click here to keep reading The Place Beyond the Pines »
So here’s the thing. I don’t get paid to do this. I work a regular, full-time job and I go see and write about movies in my spare time, the time I save to do things I want to do, the things that make me happy, the things that make life worth living. I am quite protective of that free time. I am equally protective of this love of movies that has been borne in me since I was 12. People often ask me if I would want to be a movie critic full time, if I would want to be paid to see all the movies and I fear my true answer would be no, because then I would be exposed to all of the foulness that can come out of Hollywood. I would actually have to see Nicolas Cage movies. But, because I am beholden to none, I am able to pick and choose what I spend my hard-won cash on, and, more important, what I choose to spend my precious time on. I have yet to lay eyes on a single Transformer, Saw or Twilight movie in a theatre and that, I’m sure, is leading to a longer, richer life for me.
That’s not to say that I believe I’m a pretentious movie-goer, only going to see Oscar-caliber movies. I am one of the few that paid full price to see Reno 911: Miami, after all (and don’t regret it). On the other hand, I don’t sleepwalk into every movie that is praised by critics either. I still have not seen this year’s Best Picture contender and Best Foreign Film winner, Amour, and I may never see it. It just didn’t draw me in and that was my choice. I have the luxury to be driven by any number of reasons to go to a movie, be it critical response, a director, a story, or, most often, actors. But, even then, I use discretion and personal judgment. For example, I have seen every Jessica Chastain movie that has come down the pike. But Mama? Nope, just couldn’t do it. And no matter how much I adore Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz individually, not even I could lay down $15 to sit through a double-billed Dream House last year. So I am not totally lacking in reason. click here to keep reading Oz the Great and Powerful »
Last year, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of my discovery of movies, I began a countdown of the movies that moved me (and didn’t), year by year, starting with 1982. My last, pre-Oscar, installment was 1991, so here we pick it up again with 1992. This was the year I graduated college, so, be warned, I was susceptible to, well…everything.
The Movies That Mattered:
Yes, exceedingly young Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are in this movie, mostly with shirts off, but that’s not why I loved it the first time I saw it and have loved it each of the dozens of times I’ve seen it since. This is a less cerebral version of The Dead Poets Society, similarly set in an elite boys prep school in the 50s, but with a story that focuses on the students instead of the teacher. Most notably, one student, played by Brendan Fraser, whose character fits in really well until the “secret” that he’s Jewish comes out. Then he’s not so popular, but he has a few things to say about that. This may not be great cinema, but this is as classic a high school boys tale as you’re going to get and Fraser is just so damn charming that you can’t help but root for him every second. And watching a young Matt Damon (in only his second movie) play a total jerk is pure entertainment in itself.
The Crying Game
Forget 1992, this is hands down one of the best films of the decade. It’s movies like this, with the layers, the writing, the characters, the acting and the story that make me keep wanting to go back into the theatre. If you’ve never seen it, remedy that immediately. It’s flawless.
A Few Good Men
My introduction to writer Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin wrote the screenplay for A Few Good Men, based on his own play, and it was my first exposure to the Sorkin wordplay I would soon come to know and love in his TV series Sports Night and West Wing and movies The Social Network and Moneyball. I remember Jack Nicholson’s big, brief performance, but, other than that, what I think of with this movie is the pace of the story, the building of the drama and the mesmerizing structure that keeps you engaged to the very end. Credit Sorkin and director Rob Reiner for that. And any time I can forget Tom Cruise is in a movie, I’m appreciative.
-I don’t know why everyone hated host Seth MacFarlane so much. He gave us exactly what was advertised: a 14-year old boy in the body of a song-and-dance man. You’re surprised there were boob jokes? Come on. And I have to say I would rather see and hear Seth MacFarlane on stage than Billy Crystal, so it wasn’t unpleasant.
-Speaking of Billy Crystal, what I missed and wanted more of were the bits that Crystal made famous. There were a couple brilliant moments, like the sock puppet reenactment of Flight and Seth and Sally Field in the green room—I loved both—but they were too few and far between. The Sound of Music bit was great too. I know they had it in them, I just wish there could have been more.
-I loved the REAL Dancing with the Stars. Seeing Charlize Theron, Channing Tatum, Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon Levitt dance on stage at the Oscars was genius. These are A-list movie stars putting it out there. That’s why we watch this show.
-Speaking of Daniel Radcliffe, I was struck with two thoughts when he was presenting with Kristen Stewart. One: how much cumulative box office revenue is on that stage (wow) and two: couldn’t Daniel had given Kristen a comb before they went on stage? Or a reason to live? She looked more uncomfortable than Joaquin Phoenix—if that’s possible. click here to keep reading Oscar Post-Mortem »
It’s February, which means I am about halfway through my annual movie theatre hibernation. January and February are the Hollywood flu months: the time of the year when studios traditionally release their contagion onto the world, the movies that only the most immune (i.e. those actually paid to watch brainless drivel and report back to the rest of us) can survive. Nobody pays me to watch Movie 43, so I use this time to catch up on what I may have missed from the previous year.
Here’s what I’ve caught up on so far:
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Thank goodness for Tilda Swinton. She can always be counted on to be two things: interesting and good. It doesn’t seem to matter that she has an Oscar, because her choices are still seemingly driven by a desire to be outside the lines, challenging and potentially career-threatening, instead of safe and sure-fire, as her status would offer. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a movie I’m sad I missed in the theatres in 2012, but was eager to catch on video. Swinton plays a cold and reluctant mother to teenage Ezra Miller (in a stunning breakthrough performance that came out before his equally brilliant scene-stealing performance in The Perks of Being a Wallflower). The mother/son relationship is strained, to say the least, and when the son turns out to be a mass murderer in a Columbine-style killing rampage at his school, the mother gets the blame. Hard stuff, but what I love about We Need to Talk About Kevin, compared to the film Beautiful Boy, which also explores the parental fallout from a child killer, is that this movie actually delves into the nature vs nurture question: are some kids born bad or are some actually pushed in that direction? Besides the sometimes not-too-subtle subtext, what makes this movie so disturbingly good is Swinton’s performance. She is utterly fearless, as usual, and shows no hesitation to delicately dance the line between sympathetic and monstrous. It is a fascinating and horrific portrayal of one of the most dysfunctional families you would ever see, but Swinton’s performance is so riveting, you just can’t stop watching, no matter how sad it gets.
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