Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What to Watch This Weekend: Thanksgiving Edition

Thanksgiving, Hunger Games. Get it? It's also probably the best movie in theaters right now. Jennifer Lawrence returns in Catching Fire, the bigger-budgeted second installment in the blockbuster Hunger Games series. A sense of foreboding lingers as the world and its oppressive government react to Katniss' unanticipated actions during the previous Hunger Games.

One of the few Thanksgiving-themed movies, Steve Martin must travel home for the holiday with an obnoxious slob (John Candy) as his only companion.  If you don't want to head to the theaters, enjoy this streaming movie from the comfort of your home.

Amazon link:

John Smith has much to be thankful for as Pocahontas teaches him about living with nature in this classic Disney animated movie. It's not the most loved Disney movie but it is a good one

Netflix link:

Not exactly a classic movie (RT 40%), but it does have a Turkey on the cover and involves a group of friends who get together for their annual game of touch football.  

Amazon link:
Netflix link:

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Philomena

Release date: November 27, 2013
Running time: 98 minutes
Starring: Judi Dench, Mare Winningham, Michelle Fairley, Steve Coogan
Who to see it with: 


The movie poster for this film is deceiving. From the image, I thought this would be a comedy but boy was I wrong. What you get is a complex detective movie, based on a true story, where Philomena (Dench), an older mother, tries to track down her child that she was forced to abandon years earlier. Philomena, as an old school Irish Catholic, became pregnant with her son Anthony out of wedlock. Because of her religion and the Irish Catholic community at the time, having a child out of wedlock was unacceptable. She teams up with recently unemployed journalist Martin (Coogan) and the two begin a journey to track down Anthony. 

The strongest aspect of Philomena are the characters. Dench is fantastic as Philomena, with the right amount of naivety, optimism, and insight. Initially Philomena appears to be out of her element, yet she occasionally makes some very sharp observations that her world-traveled companion should learn from. Coogan is equally great as a jaded, but genuine journalist who reluctantly agrees to help but eventually becomes very involved in the mystery. You really get to know and love these characters because of the amazing acting and the sharp writing. Both of them are well developed and their interactions form the heart of this movie. The story goes through many different phases, which keeps the viewers guessing. Although there are curve balls thrown here and there, they feel natural and don't seem to be thrown in simply to give the audience something unexpected. The most remarkable aspect of this story is that its based on real events; by the end you will experience a truly unique journey that, thankfully, seems to stick to the more believable end of the "based on true events" spectrum. Philomena is a great journey based on unbelievable events; you get to know and follow two wonderful characters as they take on an impossible task. 

Watch it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What to Watch This Weekend: November 22, 2013

The obvious suggestion for this week is Catching Fire. However, if you'd rather stay home, we've got some great DVD recommendations. Other than Prince Avalanche, we recommend the comedies The To-Do List, The World's End and We're the Millers.

Jennifer Lawrence returns in Catching Fire, the bigger-budgeted second installment in the blockbuster Hunger Games series. A sense of foreboding lingers as the world and its oppressive government react to Katniss' unanticipated actions during the previous Hunger Games.
Prince Avalanche is much more low-key than director David Gordon Green's recent work, funnier than All the Real Girls but less crazy than Pineapple Express and The Sitter. Stern Alvin (Paul Rudd) is reluctantly spending his summer with his girlfriend's dopey little brother (Emile Hirsch) in the hopes that his seriousness will rub off on him. They humor and annoy one another while repainting a highway in a wildfire-ravaged forest. It's a more grounded take on bromance. Film buffs may recognize it as a remake of 2011 Icelandic film Á annan veg (Either Way).

Streaming (Amazon, Netflix): Robot & Frank
In this quirky, sci-fi dramedy, a retired, dementia-suffering thief's (Frank Langella) son opts to give him a helpful robotic companion (voice of Peter Saarsgard) rather than place him in an assisted care facility. It's a fun, initially frosty odd coupling that sometimes explores the harder parts of aging. The supporting characters and story sometimes disappoint, but Frank and Robot's relationship is consistently entertaining.

Amazon link:
Netflix link:

Get ready for Catching Fire by seeing the first film in the series. It's the beginning of one of the better book adaptation series in recent memory, set in a post-apocalyptic world where youth sare annually forced to battle one another to the death in a grim, televised event.

Amazon link:
Netflix link:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: Frozen

Release date: November 27, 2013
Running time: 85 minutes
Starring: Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel, Alan Tudyk, Jonathan Groff
Who to see it with: Your cool friends.


Frozen is a new animated movie from Walt Disney studios. It tells the tale of Elsa (Menzel), a princess with a unique power over ice. She loses control of her abilities and has to flee her village, forcing her sister (Bell) to embark on a quest to convince her to return. The story of Frozen is adequate, and does a good enough job of moving along the movie. It actually has a nice Icelandic feel to it, with some interesting language and imagery that is fun to experience. Since this is an animated movie, I'll let you know that the animation is gorgeous. It's not overly impressive at the start (though it has a really good opening scene involving a lot of ice), but once it gets into the winter scenes it's a thing of beauty. The snow particles are absolutely stunning and the ice is beautiful and accompanied by some really spectacular lighting effects. 

One of the most interesting (and surprisingly good) aspects of the movie is the music, particularly the songs. I had forgotten how the classic Disney animated movies had incorporated songs into their story and I also hadn't noticed how most animated movies these days don't have them. It was refreshing to see singing prominently featured in an animated film and done so well. Sure, some of the songs are a little cheesy, but so are many of the old Disney songs. And they're catchy, I found myself humming them the day after I saw the film. Probably because of Idina Menzel's pedigree, some of the songs have a cheesy Broadway feel. The rest of the cast is good, with Josh Gad being particularly enjoyable as Olaf, one of Elsa's sister's companions on her journey. I came into Frozen with fairly low expectations but was pleasantly surprised by the movie. It was very entertaining with a lot of wonderful aspects. The only negative is a pretty terrible plot twist towards the end of the film, and blemishing what would have been an almost perfect movie. But luckily, there is plenty of cool aspects to Frozen

Watch it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review: Nebraska

Release date: November 15, 2013 (November 22 for DC area)
Running time: 115 minutes
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
Who to see it with: Anyone with a slightly befuddled grandfather


In Nebraska, slightly senile Woody (Bruce Dern) is on a quest to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash an obvious scam sweepstakes check for a million dollars. Despite the urging of his family to drop it, his persistent attempts to go to Lincoln finally cause his son David (Will Forte) to agree to drive him so he can have one last hurrah. What starts as a simple trip soon becomes more complicated as various obstacles get in the duo's way. Some of these are the result of people finding out about Woody's supposed good fortune, and others are simply because of Woody's character. The first, most noticeable aspect of Nebraska is that the film is shot in black and white. This lends a classic, old-time feel to the movie that is helped along by some small touches, such as the vintage Paramount logo at the start of the movie, the relatively advanced age of the majority of the movie's cast, and the slow pace of the film. And in many of the dark scenes, the black and white helps to make the darkness that much more pronounced. But, the greyscale nature can at times be a negative, such as during shots of the American heartland that would have looked stunning in color (similar to shots from Promised Land) but don't have the same effect without it.

A film like this lives and dies by its characters, and luckily Nebraska has some really good ones. They're all very interesting and have unconventional motivations; maybe it's because it's based in the Midwest but I felt like it was fun to get a peek into a small town. The characters all have their quirks and some have a Wes Anderson-type feel to them. The writing is very good, with a dry, slow-paced, Americana-style humor. Many of the jokes are delivered perfectly and naturally. But, this delivery is a mixed bag, with Dern and Forte providing great performances, but many of the other cast members feeling unnatural and their speech too pronounced. The story also starts off slowly, picks up in the middle, but unfortunately drags towards the end. This movie is not meant to be a fast-paced movie, but it feels like the story grinds to a halt in the middle. Nebraska is a charming, interesting road-trip that unfortunately takes a little too long to get to the destination.

Rent it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Release date: November 22, 2013
Running time: 146 minutes
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland
Who to see it with: Fans of the original or fans of good book adaptations


Movie adaptations of popular books are generally tough to do; translating the pages to the big screen will always be an imperfect exercise. There are plenty of examples of movies that get it right (LOTR and Harry Potter), and plenty more where it has not been successful. I felt that the first Hunger Games movie was the former; it beautifully adapted the rich visuals of  the book to the big screen and brought enough of the content to make it enjoyable given the constraints of the film format. Sure, I would have liked a little more back story between Katniss and Gale, but there's only so much you can do in two hours. Luckily, Catching Fire follows in the tradition of the first film with a wonderful adaptation of Suzanne Collins's second novel. The movies starts out, surprisingly, more grim than the first one, doing a great job of setting the stage and giving the viewers a sense of foreboding over the instability of Panem. This sense lingers throughout the film, and it is remarkably well done even when the plot moves to the glitz and style of the Capitol. 

As with the first movie, one of the strongest features of Catching Fire are the overall look and feel of the movie. The movie has to showcase a variety of very different locales. From the bleak District 12 (and the other visited districts) to the fabulous Capitol, to the Games themselves, each location is recreated wonderfully and really gives the viewer a sense that you're in a different world. As before, the Capitol is particularly well done and especially the costumes and hair styles of the fashion-conscious residents; everyone looks unique but at the same time similarly ridiculous. The acting is another highlight of the film. Jennifer Lawrence stands out as being particularly brilliant, with an ability to easily showcase a range of emotions for any scenario. The rest of the cast are equally enjoyable to watch; every character is well cast with an actor / actress who fully embodies them. This is particularly impressive given the variety of characters in the second novel. Donald Sutherland is surprisingly good as President Snow; the aforementioned sense of dread is palpable whenever he is on screen. The story follows the book and, like the book, has an ending that leaves much to be desired, but Catching Fire is a worthy sequel to the original movie. Few movies so fully and vibrantly adapt their source material to the big screen, and fewer still have to deal with the variety of characters and locations that the Hunger Games novels do. Catching Fire does an exceptional job and should not be missed. 

Watch it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What to Watch This Weekend: November 15, 2013

The Best Man Holiday reunites the cast from 1999's The Best Man into a convincing, if overly dramatic friend dramedy. The characters put on believable performances and interact in a natural and convincing way, even if the situations can be a little overblown. Check it out if you want a lot of laughs and maybe a few tears this weekend.
Man of Steel is a worthy reboot to one of the most beloved comic book heroes. It continues the recent DC direction of more dramatic and realistic superheroes and provides a nice contrast to the Marvel franchises. It is a beautifully-done, slower-paced, but more emotional take on the superhero genre.
Streaming (Netflix and Amazon): Skyfall
The third Daniel Craig James Bond film was met with plenty of critical acclaim as it painted Bond as a more vulnerable character than the ultraconfident Bond from past films. The highlight of the film has to be Javier Bardem, but the entire movie is a fun, if extended, ride.

Netflix Link:

The main complaint I've heard from people who've seen Captain Phillips is that the Danish movie, A Hijacking, already did that film and did it much better. Well, now you can see for yourself whether you agree with this. In A Hijacking, the crew of a Danish cargo ship is hijacked by Somali pirates who proceed to engage in escalating negotiations with authorities in Copenhagen.

Netflix Link:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Screening: Saving Mr. Banks

Update: All winners have been notified.  Thank you everyone for entering the contest!

Screening Date: Thursday, November 21
Time: 7:30 PM
City: Washington, DC
Theater: AMC Georgetown

Saving Mr. Banks tells the untold, true backstory of how Disney's classic Mary Poppins made it to the big screen. Walt Disney’s daughters begged him to make a movie of their favorite book, P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins,” and he made them a promise that took take 20 years to keep. The movie stars Tom Hanks as Disney, Emma Thompson as Travers, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, and Jason Schwartzman. Early impressions of the film have been positive, including one from one of our Watch or Pass readers! We have passes for a screening taking place on Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 7:30 PM.
We will be selecting winners on Monday. To qualify, you MUST be a fan of Watch or Pass on Facebook, so if you haven't "liked" us yet, please go there and do so now. After that, please comment on this blog post (using Disqus, so we have an email address to contact you at) with your answer to the question: 

What was your favorite Disney movie growing up?

Trailer: Noah

The trailer for Darren Aronofsky's (Black Swan and The Wrestler) Biblical adaption has been released to the Internet, to what I imagine are a torrent of views and a flood of comments. The film tells a fairly gritty tale of Noah (Russell Crowe), a man who receives a world destroying vision from God to rebirth humanity by building the Ark. In the film, Noah appears to be more hardcore than the biblical representation, depicted almost as a warrior living in a world filled with violence. The film features a star-studded cast; in addition to Crowe, the film stars Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly, and Emma Watson. Look for Noah to float into theaters on March 28, 2014. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: The Best Man Holiday

Release date: November 15, 2013
Running time: 122 minutes
Starring: Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Regina Hall, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long
Who to see it with: Fans of romantic comedies or long-awaited reunion sequels


The Best Man Holiday reunites the friends and lovers of popular 1999 romantic dramedy The Best Man and their relationships are just as dramatic as before. Many of the characters haven't seen one another in years, but old tensions remain while a few new ones have arisen due to TBM's events. Similar to how TBM was set around everyone coming together for Lance's (Chestnut) wedding, a holiday reunion at his house becomes the setting for more relationship drama.

TBM and its sequel seem more targeted towards males than the usual romantic comedy. This may be why the women seem a little underdeveloped compared to the men, some more defined by their relationships than by any innate qualities. This, the preoccupation with long-ago immoral behavior, and the frequent mentions of faith give the movie a moralistic, old-fashioned feel. TBMH also resembles most rom coms with its obvious plot twists and overly silly ending. Still, seeing characters come together in an unexpected sequel is fun. Like the first film, Terrence Howard's Quentin provides much of the comic relief with his trouble-making personality. The cast ably juggles comedy and drama and excel even when the writing lets them down, making it believable that a group of friends can really care for one another despite so much conflict. And a dramatic turn near the film's end, though marked by a few clichés, is more effective than the usual attempt to add meaning to a comedy. The Best Man Holiday is a fairly conventional romantic dramedy, but the reunion of the lively cast will bring laughs and maybe a few tears.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Screening: Frozen

Update: All winners have been notified.  Thank you everyone for entering the contest!

Screening Date: Wednesday, November 20
Time: 7:30 PM
City: Washington, DC
Theater: AMC Georgetown

In Frozen, princess Anna (Kristin Bell) sets off on a journey with mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) to find her sister, and soon-to-be queen, Elsa (Idina Menzel) after their kingdom becomes trapped in a magical, eternal winter. Encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom.  Frozen is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. We have passes for a screening of Disney's latest film for Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at 7:30 PM.
We will be selecting winners on Friday. To qualify, you MUST be a fan of Watch or Pass on Facebook, so if you haven't "liked" us yet, please go there and do so now. After that, please comment on this blog post (using Disqus, so we have an email address to contact you at) with your answer to the question: Who is your favorite Disney princess?

Friday, November 8, 2013

What to Watch This Weekend: November 8, 2013

The Dark World is more epic than the average Marvel movie. It's a big adventure spanning several worlds with battles seemingly inspired by Lord of the Rings and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek films. This seems more fitting than the fish-out-of-water plot of the first, though the culture clash between the Asgardians and Earthlings returns to provide comic relief.
Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx's fun team dynamic liven up this standard, fairly corny action movie. The effects are decent, but much less spectacular than those in Roland Emmerich's past summer blockbusters. I'd take WHD over the year's other White House-related thriller, similarly average but less fun Olympus Has Fallen.

Streaming (Netflix): Computer Chess
Sometime in the early 1980's, teams of computer programmers meet at a weekend conference and pit their machines against one another in games of chess hoping for a chance to take on an expert human player. This 2013 mockumentary looks like it was made decades ago; it's grainy, shot in black-and-white, and features fashion and comically large computers that disappeared many years ago. It's a weird, awkwardly and dryly funny look at geeks and the eighties, enhanced by its ancient presentation.

Netflix Link:
Denzel Washington plays a pilot who, despite landing a crashing plane and saving nearly all its passengers, lands in hot water due to alcohol and drug addictions. Flight's marketing emphasized the crash investigation portion of the plot, but it's really about the personal struggles of its troubled, addict anti-hero.

Netflix Link:
Amazon Link:

Review: The Book Thief

Release date: November 8, 2013
Running time: 131 minutes
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Barbara Auer
Who to see it with: An avid reader.


In The Book Thief, Liesel (Nélisse) is adopted by two childless parents, Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Watson). The circumstances of her adoption are mysterious (and never fully fleshed out) but she is thrust into the heart of Germany right before World War II. Being uprooted is quite a shock for young Liesel; on top of having to adapt to a new culture, she also can't read German. Her adopted father quickly tries to help her learn, but since the family is struggling to get by, Liesel secretly begins to steal (well borrow) books in order to continue her reading lessons. 

One of the things that I really appreciated about The Book Thief is that the plot takes its time to develop. The movie spends a good deal of time laying the story's groundwork. It slowly introduces you to the characters, the town, and the atmosphere of World War II Germany. In fact, some of the most powerful scenes involve the children being indoctrinated into German propaganda as the threat of war escalates. However, this begins to work against the movie later on. Where you initially appreciate the attention to detail that The Book Thief provides, as the film develops, it begins to feel everything just moves too slowly. You have long story threads with little character development, and the movie has some scenes that seem superfluous and only slow down an already long movie. Luckily, since you spend so much time with them, it's relieving that the characters are so well done. The highlight of the film is Rush, who provides an understanding and funny adopted father for Liesel. The amount of effort he takes to make young Liesel feel at home brings a smile to your face. Additionally, Nélisse is wonderfully believable as Liesel. She has the right amount of childish wonder and naive confidence that makes you want to root for her to overcome everything the movie throws at her. Some of the decisions she makes seem short-sighted, but fit with her headstrong young child character. But, the narrator of the movie is out of place; he's hinted at as being Death but he only pops in here and there. He introduces the movie, has an awkward appearance here and there, and then shows up again at the end. I assume this is the movie trying to tie in parts of the original book, but it just feels out of place here. Altogether, The Book Thief is a well-crafted but overly long story that highlights World War II Germany from a new perspective. 

Rent it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Thor: The Dark World

Release date: November 8, 2013
Running time: 112 minutes
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins
Who to see it with: Someone who would like a more epic Marvel movie


The original Thor was a decent Marvel movie, but something about it didn't feel as grandiose as a movie about all powerful gods guarding all of civilization would suggest. The battles felt contained and the fights were mostly Thor plus one or two others against a few foes. Thor: The Dark World ups the scale immediately by depicting a large battle between the Asgardian forces and the newly introduced Dark Elves. The battle has a very "Lord of the Rings" feel, with convincingly epic armies on both fronts waging a large battle with the fate of the universe in the balance. The battle itself is an interesting combination of both fantasy and sci-fi elements. Large ships and laser weapons coupled with armor and swords; it feels like a mix between Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. In other words, it's a fan boy's dream come true! But it also makes sense in the fiction of Thor, which treats magic and technology as one and the same. 

The movie itself is quite entertaining. Hemsworth excels at playing the god of thunder; it seems that both his physique and personality were made for this role. Hiddleston returns as Thor's brother Loki, and is another high point in the film. His dialog and character are wonderful and the interactions between Loki and Thor are some of the most enjoyable of the film. The special effects and sound are as good as you'd expect from a big-budget blockbuster, with plenty of destruction to match the new scale of the conflicts on screen. The writing is clever and a lot of the dialog is more enjoyable than I thought it would be. It feels like Marvel has found the right balance between having its heroes deal with universe-destroying issues while still enjoying moments of levity to lighten the mood. The story does feel longer than the original film--despite them being about the same duration--but I attribute that more to the fact that the second film doesn't have to spend a half hour or more laying character back story and gets right into the main plot. Thor: The Dark World is one of those rare sequels that surpasses the original in pretty much every way. It's a great comic book movie with the right balance of gravity and levity and something that every Marvel fan should see. 

Watch it.

PS - There are two stingers in this film. One partway through the credits and one after the credits end. Make sure to stay for both!

Friday, November 1, 2013

What to Watch This Weekend: November 1, 2013

This weekend, check out a quirky British romantic comedy, a prequel to one of the most beloved Pixar movies of all time, or two "Thor" related streaming movies!

About Time tells a wonderful love story following two unlikely lovers, Tim and Mary. All the men in Tim's family have the ability to travel back in time, and Tim uses it to try and control all aspects of his life.  Eventually, Tim learns how much of life is simply beyond your control. It has a great British charm, clever writing, and an endearing story. 

Monsters U is a very good movie. It's not better than the original, but that’s expected when the source material is so good. However, Monsters U is a fun, charming prequel that achieves what so many other prequels fail to do: tell a meaningful, entertaining, and interesting tale while filling in the back-story of the characters and world that you love.

Thor: The Dark World comes out next week, so make sure you've got the back story of this Avenger before seeing the sequel. It's available on both Netflix and Amazon and tells the story of Thor, the god of Asgard who is cast out and forced to live among mortals on earth. 
Netflix Link:
Amazon Link:

Continuing the Thor related movie recommendations, Kon-Tiki tells the story of explorer Thor Heyerdahl's epic 4,300-mile crossing of the Pacific on a balsawood raft in 1947, in an effort to prove that it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. Kon-Tiki was nominated for best foreign language film at the 85th Oscars so make sure to check it out for free this weekend.
Netflix Link: