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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
A Simple But Thrilling Spy Tale
Well made, excitingly paced action, spy pic. All of the lead actors were exactly what was needed: Chris Pine, soft on the eyes, action hero, an average Joe in for more than he bargained for, but a soldier first and foremost; Keira Knightley, the pretty innocent who tags along, and then is up to the tasks at hand; Kevin Costner, the old mentor and Kenneth Branagh, who gets special mention for playing a Russian flawlessly. The plot was not complicated, easy to understand, but exciting even with its simplicity. And the plot was thoughtful in our contemporary times: full of technology and ideas of economic terrorism. The films was pleasant in its setting: lavish apartments and office buildings, high tech screens, exteriors in Moscow.
The Rocket (2013)
Forget Bad Luck, This Film Soars
Don't be misled by the trailers about a boy that brings bad luck, which is a cheap version of this deep, moving story, set in great native beauty, Laos. This film brings great dignity to the poor of the world. The story is carefully laid into the history of Laos: people who are picking up bombs dropped by Americans, the background of their governing communists, and as a country that sells electricity to their neighbors; but all of this is only in the background. The story is good, gripping, moving, with dramatic turns to move it from act to act. The native actors, and in particular the children, are all perfect. The children demonstrate joy in the midst of being dirty poor. This film truly soars.
Lone Survivor (2013)
Our Wounded Warriors
I'm usually not a fan of flag-waving war movies. But this one had a lot of nice elements. What carried the narrative along, so that it wasn't just a shoot out, (although one of those scenes went on too long for my taste), was careful editing, back and forth between two or three narratives. And what carried the day, was not patriotism, but the the band of men, fighting together. The four men, were admirable, although I wasn't completely happy with either Mark Wahlberg's character or acting, I'm not sure why, I seemed to have the sense that he wasn't in the fight as much as the other men, as if the star needs to be saved at the end, and I dislike having to say that, because I am sure the real life hero fought as bravely as the others. The script and dialog were tight. The film showed war at its bloodiest, most fatal, hand-to-had combat. And also had an interesting plot twist at the end showing the humanity of a culture other than our own. Interspersed with the fighting shots were wide angle natural beauty: supposed to be a mountainous range in Afghanistan; the film was shot in New Mexico. The film's credits at beginning and end - stay all the way to the end - nicely framed the picture in our real country's heroes. The entire theater audience with whom I saw the picture, applauded the film at the end, and at the end of the credits. Films don't often get that kind of praise.
La migliore offerta (2013)
A Mystery With Its Clockwork Showing
A mystery film, and what it about mystery films: their plots seem contrived, more obvious like their slips are showing. There were about three or four parallel plot threads that keep the story rolling along Still, the story was interesting enough. It had some nice sets and scenery (Italy, Prague and Vienna), and it's a vicarious thrill to see how the rich really live. Ditto for the profession of a auctioneer. The film is nicely carried by Geoffrey Rush, who with Donald Sutherland in the film - you don't get better first rate actors than these. The other younger players do a fine job. I found the musical score a bit heavy handed as well.
La grande bellezza (2013)
A Great Work of Art
For me, this film goes to the absolute limits of what can be achieved in a film. Each shot, each scene is a thing of great beauty. The plot is secondary. It was a delight to watch. I might admit a bias: I am an Italophile. And this film has all things Italian: style, of course, but more than that it's the attitude that no matter how they look, they're confident in themselves. There were lots of ironic moments in the film as well: almost as if it were the Italians mocking themselves. Film centers around a main character, and Toni Sevillo is perfect. His character is memorable: he stands out like a character in a great novel. All the other actors, almost stock characters are perfect too. The film's got some ideas too: ideas about art, and life, and transcendence, but somehow one doesn't pay much attention to these too, given all this beauty.
August: Osage County (2013)
A Tragic Midwestern Family
Most plays don't make great movies in my book, although this perhaps does better than most. Partly it's the dialog: a play is more poetic, less conversational. And partly it's the set, although for this movie they open things up with great wide shots of Oklahoma plains. The story here too is tight, too tight: almost ever character has a tragic story line. I give most of my points for the performances. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch are all first rate. Second rate, or perhaps the characters were Juliette Lewis and Dermot Mulroney. Margo Martindale, who seems a natural comic actress to me, overplayed her part for my taste.
The Invisible Woman (2013)
A 19th Century Affair
A jewel: the 19th century and Charles Dickens come alive in this jewel directed and starring Ralph Fiennes. The heavily garbed women, great sweeps of countryside, and living in little houses "in town," and even the poor and "fallen women" on the streets of London come to life. Charles Dickens too: a entertaining man in real life, not just in his fiction and plays. An interesting plot with sympathetic treatment: how could one have an affair in the 19th century, examined from every perspective: from the great man, who also loves his public - Dickens is a superstar - his best friend, Wilkie Collins, the mystery writer, who doesn't believe in the institution of marriage, the woman Dickens loves, her mother, the great man's wife, the whispering public, a non-judgmental vicar. Dickens seems a man for our own time. No wonder Fiennes wanted to bring him to life. Felicity Jones co-stars, and she brings virginal purity, and passion and ferocity at times to the part. A good acting company as well. The kind of production one expects from the British.
Pretty But No Consciousness
A pretty film (Spring color palette), well directed, well acted, and a contemporary topic to think about, but ultimately left me flat, almost like video games or chat rooms with avatars instead of real life challenges and relationships. Spike Jonze does a great job directing, using extreme closeups, many of Joaquin Phoenix's face, and shots of images to show past memories. Phoenix using his talents well: he's likable, and even geeky enough, but not too much. Scarlett Johansson should get a special Oscar for her voice part. We seem to have needed a film about artificial consciousness, which calls to mind Frankenstein, but I still had a need for the protagonists to be changed in the course of the narrative, for me that didn't and that's where the film fails.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
I've Been Fleeced
I saw the trailers. I was all in. The movies was going to be bigger than life: ride the tail of a major swindler, see what life was like among the obscenely rich and luxurious. The film is uneven: it's bigger than life, but it's also sad and painful to watch, and it's also funny. There's lots of great scenes, but it just doesn't hang together. I was willing to bet on a winner by Scorsese. Lots of amazing performances. Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better. He's in great shape. At times, he reminded me of a young Jack Nicholson. Jonah Hill is great, and steady through out. Some wonderful small gems of parts played by Matthew McConaughey, (who doesn't seem fully recovered from the Dallas Buyers Club), Rob Reiner, Joanna Lumley and the French handsome leading man, Jean Dujardin. The film made me feel as though I'd been taken for a ride, and it's too long ride at that, at 3 hours.
Likable "Zoning Out"
Nice looks: both Life Magazine and the adventures to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan. Ben Stiller is likable as ever, and a good match for the character of Walter Mitty. Sweet performance by Kristen Wiig. Perfect cameo by Sean Penn. Solid comedic performance by Patton Oswald. Nice plot development: Walter gives up his fantasies for reality; Walter's outer quest changes him inwardly. Pleasant romantic comedy thread. Other minor performances, including Shirley Maclaine, Jon Daly, Kathryn Hahn and Adrian Martinez, good enough. I did a search for the last Life magazine cover: there was a weekly (1972) and a monthly (2000). The movie does a better look, for Life. So kudos to Ben Stiller as director as well.