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1873 reviews in total 
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Bad Words (2013)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Edgy black comedy, 17 October 2014

Sort of a twisted, black comedy version of "About a Boy" (with elements of "Bad Santa" thrown into the mix), "Bad Words" tells of an unlikely relationship between a cynical, child-hating adult and a gregarious ten-year-old who insists on being his friend.

Guy Trilby is a single, hyper-obnoxious 40 year-old elementary school dropout who, much to the consternation of children, parents and contest organizers around the country, has decided to force his way into spelling bees where he competes against - and invariably bests - groups of brainiac youngsters. Chaitanya Chopra is the relentlessly cheery and upbeat child-whiz who tries to befriend - and defeat - Trilby at the Golden Quill Spelling Bee right there on national television for all the word to see.

It's awfully hard to like Trilby at times, as he smugly sabotages the other players' chances at taking home the trophy. Yet, Jason Bateman (who also directed the film) manages to make a potentially repellent character both amusing and oddly endearing. Perhaps that's because Trilby always says what he thinks, cutting through all the BS, skewering social norms and puncturing balloons of political correctness as he goes. What he doesn't count on is meeting his match in the form of Chaitanya, who ultimately wears the middle-aged man down with his open-hearted honesty and frankness. And young Rohan Chand matches his older costar moment-for-moment and scene-for-scene.

Allison Janney, Kathryn Hahn and Phillip Baker Hall round out the cast.

Unsurprisingly, the script by Andrew Dodge does go a bit "soft" at the end, but there was probably no way of avoiding it given the arc this type of story naturally follows. Plus, it provides the context that makes all that comes before it suddenly make sense.

You may be put off by the movie at times, but that's just what makes it so much fun to watch.

Moving portrait of a great artist, 14 October 2014

Even those with little or no interest in ballet will be moved by "Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq," a documentary about one of the finest dancers ever to grace the stage, one who, like Lou Gehrig, was struck down by a disease of unspeakable awfulness in the prime of her life (though, unlike Gehrig, she managed to live to almost 80 despite her illness).

A favorite pupil of famed choreographers, George Ballanchine and Jerome Robbins, Tanaquil, or "Tanny" to her friends. stood out from her ballerina contemporaries due to her unusual tallness and angular frame. The film chronicles her rigorous, sheltered youth, her tumultuous marriage to Ballanchine, her phenomenal success on the stage. And, then, just as she was on the top of the world professionally, tragedy - of a particularly cruel nature for a person used to making a living and perfecting her art with her body - befell her in the form of a severe case of polio, a case so severe, in fact, that she was forced to endure time in an iron lung and ultimately to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Through an abundance of stills and kinescope recordings, we get to see a great deal of Tanaquil's work. These are supplemented by interviews with those who knew Tanny both on a professional level and as personal friends. Most poignant are the recitations of the letters Tanny wrote at the height of her illness, many of them from a rehabilitation center where she was receiving treatment. Her resolve and inner strength, along with and her almost naïve hope for the future, pour forth in great abundance from the writings.

One thing that strikes us most in Tanny's post-polio life is her determination to remain independent in the face of her disability. And, indeed, the movie ends on a high note, as we learn that Tanny spent the better part of her life imparting her priceless wisdom and insight to young dancers from her wheelchair.

The movie provides an inspiring portrait of an inspiring person.

Wes Anderson at the top of his game, 9 October 2014

Wes Anderson's latest cinematic confection, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," is a quirky, surrealistic comedy set at a mountain resort run by a concierge named M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and a "lobby boy" named Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori), whom M. Gustave has taken under his wings to train in the art of service.

Set in a fictional country, the movie begins in 1968, when the Grand Budapest Hotel is just a shadow of its former self, having been allowed to fall into disrepair and currently inhabited by a small contingent of eccentric tenants. One of them is a writer (Tom Wilkinson) who discovers that Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) is now the owner of the once-proud establishment. The elder Mustafa regales him with stories of an earlier time in the hotel's history - the 1930s, in fact - when the palatial inn played host to only the richest and most aristocratic of occupants and guests.

Through dual-narrated flashbacks, then, Anderson weaves a smart and cheeky tale of an enduring friendship that triumphs over class division, a tale that combines wit with imagination and social commentary with visual elegance, set against the writer/director's trademarked air of heightened unreality. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as hotel concierge, the foppish M. Gustave, fastidious in manner and with a poetic quote for every occasion, offers his "personal" services exclusively to blond, fabulously wealthy and emotionally insecure dowagers, one of whom bequeaths to him a priceless painting upon her sudden death. This surprising turn-of-events puts him at odds with a veritable army of the deceased woman's outraged relatives. This leads to a stolen art treasure, a false conviction for murder, a daring prison break and a mad race to stay one step ahead of the pursuing authorities, as M. Gustave endeavors to prove his innocence.

To enhance the dreamlike nature of the material, the look of the film is marked by whimsical art direction and ultra-stylized framing. Even the dimensions of the screen change with the time period of the story - traditional square for the scenes set in 1932 and widescreen for those that take place in 1968.

In addition to the splendid deadpan performances of Fiennes, Abraham and newcomer Revolori in the key roles, the movie provides a veritable sea of familiar faces in supporting and bit parts, many of them members of Anderson's repertory company: Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Owen Wilson, among others.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" finds Mr. Anderson in peak form.

A case of once too often to the well, 8 October 2014

"300: Rise of an Empire" is less of a sequel to the 2007 original and more of a companion-piece, since much of what it chronicles overlaps, rather than follows, the events of that earlier film. The jumbled chronology leads to a great deal of confusion on the part of the viewer, helped not one whit by the fact that all the actors look pretty much the same in their Greek warrior attire, so that one is never quite sure who is fighting where or against whom. And, in all honesty, I'm not really sure it's worth the effort trying to figure it all out.

As far as I can tell, the set-up goes something like this: the effete and cowardly Athenians, who are always going on and on about things like philosophy and democracy, turn to the bellicose Spartans for help in defeating the Persians led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), son of the late King Darius (Yigal Naor). Yet, although Xerxes has been transformed into a gold-plated demi-god, he's really just the puppet of the far more ruthless and conniving, Artemisia (Eva Green), who French kisses decapitated heads and has dreams of bringing arrogant Greece to its knees once and for all for killing her family and turning her into a sex-slave, though she herself is of Greek extraction. The Athenian leader is (the almost unpronounceable) Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who killed King Darius with a very well-aimed arrow through the heart and was rewarded with command of the army in grateful recognition of that feat. Beyond this synopsis, you're on your own.

In an attempt to visually replicate the as-yet unpublished Frank Miller graphic novel that is its source, the movie employs a mix of live action and computer-generated imagery that puts the film in a kind of never-never-land of legendary pseudo-history.

This garish spectacle of stiff acting, gleaming pecs, passionate hate- sex, pop psychology, two-bit philosophizing and slow-motion bloodletting is indeed something to behold, but, frankly, you've seen it all before - only better - in the original film.

A mature look at mature love, 28 September 2014

Usually when movies use Paris as a romantic backdrop, it's a young couple who gets to occupy the foreground. Not so with "Le Week-End," a tale of two aging tourists - he a professor of philosophy, she a teacher - who've chosen to "celebrate" their 30th anniversary in (where else? ) the City of Lights.

Like many couples who have been together for a long time, Nick and Meg Burroughs often seem to have more things that are driving them apart than bringing them together. Not only have they grown tired of each other's all-too-predictable habits and quirks, but Meg, in particular, feels that now, with the kids grown and gone, it may be time for the two of them to move on and to spend what little time they have left getting to know themselves as individuals rather than as a couple.

Because the screenplay by Hanif Kureishi is clearly focused on an older couple, the film captures the paradox that exists at the core of lasting romantic love: that the very same predictable patterns and dull routines that, over time, work to deaden love are also what enhance intimacy and bind us inexorably to one another over the long haul.

Though Meg and Nick are still clearly sexual beings, even that fact has caused some tension and division between them, namely in an affair Nick had awhile back and for which he is perpetually atoning. Yet, the script is smart enough to know that what is said in the heat of the moment is not always indicative of what is in the heart.

Much of the second half of the film takes place at a posh and pretentious dinner party thrown by an old college buddy of Nick's, an American author and intellectual played by Jeff Goldblum.

Director Roger Michell keeps the tone serious and intimate without becoming heavy-handed or preachy. He allows the characters to reveal their depth through conversation and the way they interact with the world and each other. He is aided immeasurably by the skilled and incisive performances of Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, who make us truly believe that they are a couple who have grown both comfortable and complacent with one another over time. Above all, "Le Week-End" acknowledges that relationships are tricky and complex things and come with no pat or easy instructions to make them easier to navigate our way through.

After "Le Week-End," it may not be necessary for Richard Linklater to make another "Before…" movie, after all. I think Kureishi and Michell might have done it already.

Stalingrad (2013)
Banal, stolid WWII film, 24 September 2014

From the war-is-hell department comes "Stalingrad," an old-fashioned World War II movie chronicling the famous siege that devastated that city in 1942 and 1943. This dubbed-into-English Russian film tells of five heroic Soviet fighters who commandeer a shell-shocked woman's apartment out of which they wage their own battle against the Nazis.

With its clear-cut delineation between good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains (except for one momentarily ambiguous Nazi), it's clear that subtlety is not exactly the movie's strong suit. In addition, its complete lack of character development turns the viewers into dispassionate observers of all the brutality and carnage taking place on screen.

Running an overlong 2 hours and 10 minutes, this static and talky and occasionally corny movie seems designed to provide modern-day Russians with a morale boost by giving them a chance to focus on their heroic past. And while the Russians have just as much of a right to engage in this sort of self-congratulatory exercise as anyone else (goodness knows, American movie makers do it often enough), it still doesn't make for very compelling filmmaking or drama.

If you want to see this sort of thing done right, check out the beautiful 1957 Russian classic, "The Cranes are Flying," a true work of art for any season or nationality.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Paul deserves better, 21 September 2014

A high-octane action flick on the order of the "Fast and Furious" franchise, "Need for Speed" features the less-than-impressive first big-screen headliner role for Aaron Paul, the brilliant young star of TV's "Breaking Bad." In it, he portrays Tobey Marshall, an unassuming mechanic by day and by night a street racer whose recently deceased dad was not only the owner of the body shop that Tobey is now trying to rescue from the old man's years of mismanagement but a legend among the die-hard racing crowd. Daddy issues much? Before he knows it, Tobey is wrongly convicted of the death of his best friend in a fiery car crash and, when he's finally paroled, dedicates his life to exacting revenge on the actual culprit, a snooty rival from Tobey's past. And what better or more fitting way than by besting said villain in an illegal cross-country race sponsored by an underground radio announcer played by Michael Keaton?

The plot, such as it is, doesn't require much more in the way of elaboration, other than to say that it's basically just an excuse for a bunch of testosterone-fueled, speed-busting outlaws to careen through the city streets and around the countryside in their fantastically expensive race cars with zero regard for the lives and safety of themselves or anyone else around them. This cavalier attitude is supposed to make the characters somehow cool and charming when what they really are is obnoxious and appalling. And while we're asked to weep when one of their own number gets inevitably killed in an "accident," that same courtesy isn't extended to any of the innocent motorists or law enforcement officials who might get taken out during their high-stakes "playtime." They're all just "collateral damage," I suppose.

One understands Paul's need for a little R&R in the acting department after the intense rigors required by five seasons of "Breaking Bad." Still, one hopes that he'll soon get back to doing what he does best now that he's gotten this little career detour into commercial movie-making out of his system.

Director Scott Waugh pumps up the action scenes efficiently, but he's had far less success with the quieter expository moments. No surprise, given that the movie is based on a video game of the same name.

The supporting cast includes Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Ramon Rodriguez ("Gang-Related"), Rami Malek and the aforementioned Keaton, but, like Paul, they too play second fiddle to the cars, chase scenes and stunt work. And that, I guess, is as it should be when it comes to a movie with a title like "Need for Speed."

Offbeat and funny, 16 September 2014

A familiar face in Britain but a virtual unknown in the States, comedian Steve Coogan has made his name in his home country portraying a fictional radio talk show host by the name of Alan Partridge. Since 1991, Coogan has performed his act on both radio and TV, and now he's branched out to his first feature-length movie entitled "Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa" (just "Alan Partridge" in the United States).

In the film, the station where Partridge works is facing serious cutbacks due to a corporate takeover, changing audience tastes, a drop in listenership and bailing advertisers. Though Partridge himself survives the ax, the same cannot be said for his fellow broadcaster, Pat Farrell ("Hell on Wheels' Colm Meaney), who, upon learning of his dismissal, completely flips out, holding his co-workers hostage at gunpoint while the goofy and inept Partridge is sent in by the authorities to help negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Maybe with our history of gun violence, we're a trifle more sensitive to this sort of thing here in America than they are in Britain, which may explain why some of the laughs tend to catch in our throats at times, particularly when Farrell is threatening to take out a bunch of his own innocent and understandably distraught colleagues as retaliation for the wrong that's been done to him. That being said, the stylish mix of satire, slapstick, black humor and social commentary that Coogan and his various co-writers have come up keeps us chortling through most of the movie.

Coogan makes Partridge a likable everyman character, bemused and skeptical without being hard-edged and cynical. The supporting cast is engaging as well.

Offbeat and funny.

Repentance (2013/I)
Potentially interesting idea frittered away, 15 September 2014

"Repentance" starts off as a reasonably sincere tale of a best-selling author/life coach (Anthony Mackie) who tries to help a grieving man (Forest Whitaker) come to turns with the death of his mother. But at the 35 minute mark, the movie suddenly jumps the tracks, turning into a bizarre, yet strangely conventional, hostage drama, with the psychologically disturbed client kidnapping and torturing the psychologist in an effort to prove which of the two is actually most in need of help.

The movie seems to be making the case that people like the Mackie character are just glib, overpaid shysters, taking advantage of people's suffering by offering them little but shibboleths and bromides to help them cope with their problems - but any message the movie might be trying to convey is subsumed by the unpleasant melodramatics that come to dominate the second half. Yeomen that they are, Mackie and Whitaker work valiantly to overcome the various roadblocks that the script throws in their path, but even these two fine performers eventually have to concede that they're fighting a losing battle here. Even the "surprise" ending and moralistic message can't ultimately redeem this cinematic turkey.

Non-Stop (2014)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Effective within its limitations, 12 September 2014

Those with a fear of flying might want to skip "Non-Stop," an airliner- in-jeopardy thriller that could have you taking trains and buses for quite some time to come.

In another of his increasingly frequent action-hero roles, Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks, a U.S. air marshal who discovers that someone aboard a flight from New York to London is threatening to kill a new passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into an account that has been set up for the occasion. The twist is that the mystery culprit is making it look as if Marks is the actual extortionist and may even be making Marks carry out some of the killings for him.

"Non-Stop" works well enough within the limited confines of both the setting and the hostages-held-for-ransom genre of which it is a part. The whodunit plotting unravels at an appropriate pace, with a whole host of possible suspects for us to choose from, including fellow passengers Juliette Moore, Anson Mount ("Hell on Wheels") and Corey Stoll ("House of Cards" ), as well as Michelle Dockery ("Downton Abbey") and Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave") as flight attendants who demonstrate grace and ingenuity under pressure.

The holes in the plot are probably large enough to fly a 747 through, but you really won't notice or care while you're strapped in for the ride. And to think, most airlines just provide movies as in-flight entertainment.

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