Friday, January 31, 2014

What to Watch This Weekend: January 31, 2014

Here are a few movies you can watch before (or during, if football isn't your thing) the Super Bowl.
The first Cloudy was only loosely based upon the book of the same name. The sequel's premisefood-based creatures are discovered on an islandis unrelated to the books and seems inspired by Jurassic Park and King Kong. Cloudy 2 received a slightly cooler reception than the first, but offers more of the imaginative animation and wacky humor.

I'm not fond of most sports movies, but Rush's performances and races make it better than most. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are great as dueling racers battling to become Formula One champions. Like most "true stories", it's been criticized for inaccuracies (like their duel being exaggerated), but the tale that's been crafted is pretty captivating.

Within an underground bunker, soldiers and scientists struggle to solve the problem of the world being overrun with zombies. George Romero's favorite of his original Living Dead trilogy received mixed reviews from critics and audiences. Many praised the special effects, makeup and the story's ambition but thought it was slower and more depressing than its predecessors. 

Director Greg Whiteley followed presidential candidate Mitt Romney from 2006 and 2012 as he embarked on two failed runs for President. Interestingly, his documentary places greater emphasis upon the ways that the stressful campaigns affected his life and family rather than the campaigns themselves. It's an intimate portrait of a memorable politician's home life, but may dissatisfy those hoping for greater examination of his campaigns' controversial moments.

Friday, January 24, 2014

What to Watch This Weekend: January 24, 2013

It's another weak theater release week so we recommend catching up on some hits from last year or catching some recently added streaming movies.

DVD: Captain Phillips
Based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, this movie stood out because of Tom Hanks's sensational acting and the amazing sense of tension the film creates.

The story of a deeply troubled New York socialite who, in denial of her current fortunes, is forced to impose on her sister in San Francisco. Cate Blanchett won audiences over with an Oscar-worthy performance (nominated for Best Actress) and Sally Hawkins, who plays her sister, also got the nod for Best Supporting Actress.

Grumpy pensioner Arthur honors his recently deceased wife's passion for performing by joining the unconventional local choir to which she used to belong, a process that helps him build bridges with his estranged son, James. Critics forgave the movie's weak points because of the touching story and tear-jerking moments.

The Bling Ring tells the story, inspired by actual events, of a group of fame-obsessed teenagers who use the internet to track celebrities' whereabouts and burglarize their homes. The story is an interesting one and it's surprising how easily the group of teens can gain access to the celebrities' homes and the brash nature in which they do it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What to Watch This Weekend: January 17, 2014

This romantic comedy about two divorcées (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini) awkwardly trying to reenter the dating game stands apart from most with its natural dialogue and the lead's performances. Genre conventions are not totally absent, but the acting and writing are generally a step above its peers.

Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar Grant III in this dramatization of the last day of Oscar's life, a day when he was controversially shot by police. The film takes a fair look at the positive and negative aspects of Oscar's personality, aside from a moment that feels overly manipulative.

Like Captain Phillips, this Danish thriller focuses on a ship hijacked by Somali pirates and gives equal attention to both the captors and the captives. It was streaming back in October but mysteriously disappeared. Now it's back!

An Israeli Palestinian doctor (Ali Suliman) is shocked to learn that the perpetrator of a suicide bombing is someone very close to him. His search for insight into her reasons why is difficult, and he receives cold receptions from both his angry neighbors and the people of his homeland. The Attack examines the relationships between attackers and their targets as the doctor struggles to deal with the grief and shocking revelations of this event

Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Release date: January 17, 2014
Running time: About 105 minutes
Starring: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, Alec Utgoff
Who to see it with: Your friend who really liked The Sum of All Fears


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is Paramount's attempt to reboot Tom Clancy's main character after 2002's The Sum of All Fears. In Shadow Recruit, Jack's story is completely retold with a more modern setting and crises. Jack, a recently recruited CIA analyst is sent to Russia to track down some suspicious transactions, hoping to follow the money to an imminent attack. Obviously, his adventure quickly puts him in dangerous situations he's not trained for and he has to use his quick wits and military skills to survive. 

The Jack Ryan character has been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and now Chris Pine. Pine does an admirable job as Ryan but his character develops strangely. He plays a brilliant economist / marine well, and he comes off as a generally likable character, but he goes from green recruit to badass a little too quickly for me. The refreshing part of the movie is seeing Kevin Costner back on screen. He does a great job as Ryan's mentor and an old player in the spy game. Kenneth Branagh is sinister as a cold, ruthless Russian businessman but unfortunately, Keira Knightley's performance just doesn't grab you.

Although Shadow Recruit's strongest aspect is probably the performances (especially seeing Costner back on screen), but the plot is probably the weakest. The movie starts off trying to lay the groundwork of Ryan as an all-American hero and new CIA recruit. However, once the film goes to Russia, the plot kind of falls off the deep end. The scenarios and situations become pretty unbelievable and too Hollywood for my liking. Ryan's character, who was well developed and defined by his limitations, suddenly becomes a super agent overnight. It's sad because this could have been an interesting story, having him solve situations using his wits and limited by his physical issues, but the movie resorts to typical Hollywood tropes. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit should probably go back to the Farm before taking on its next mission.


Friday, January 10, 2014

What to Watch This Weekend: January 10, 2014

Instead of going out and enjoying the warmer weather, you can watch some movies! There is also a pair of interesting, new to DVD documentaries: Inequality for All and Linsanity.

When their patriarch disappears, the large Weston family comes home to assist his sick wife Violet (Meryl Streep). Unfortunately, Violet's incredibly toxic personality makes her reunion with her daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis) and their dysfunctional families a very stressful event. This incredibly uncomfortable family reunion is sad but often bitterly funny and the relationships between Violet and her daughters feel authentic, but some may be overwhelmed by the continual entrance of subplots that are sure to go south and the sometimes overly loud acting and dialoguelikely related to its origin as a play.

Richie (Justin Timberlake) is not only a financial genius who left Wall Street to pursue a master's at Princeton, he's also a poker expert. When he loses to a cheater in an online game, he decides to confront the guy (Ben Affleck) and gets drawn into some kind of online gambling criminal underworld. It's kind of slow and not very thrilling for a crime thriller, but Timberlake and Affleck are fun to watch.
In the wake of tragic news, waitress Amélie (Audrey Tautou) decides to make an effort to bring happiness into the lives of others, often utilizing fairly complex schemes. This French romantic comedy is known for its charming lead actress, colorful and imaginative visuals, and greater intelligence than the average feel-good movie. Fans of short-lived Pushing Daisies may appreciate this film; it seems that ABC and creator Bryan Fuller's appreciation of the film inspired some aspects of the show's production.

Amazon link
Netflix link
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) works in a small town's kindergarten.and is liked by much of the community aside from the divorced wife with whom he fathered a teenage son. His reputation takes a beating when a seemingly innocent kindergarten girl ignorantly makes very damaging statements about him. The Danish film is a well-acted, maddening look at the dangers of hysteria.

Netflix link

Review: Lone Survivor

Release date: January 10, 2014
Running time: About 120 minutes
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch
Who to see it with: Someone who liked Black Hawk Down or Act of Valor


Lone Survivor follows a group of Navy Seals during a dangerous mission to take out a high value target. As is generally the case in these movies, the mission goes south and the team is forced to deal with a rapidly deteriorating situation. This situation is pretty horrendous, and it's made all the more impactful knowing that the story is probably faithfully told. The movie does a great job of initially setting the stage. It starts with scenes of seals training to give a sense of just how rigorous the process of becoming one of these elite soldiers actually is. After this, the movie depicts the soldiers in camp, relaxing and preparing for the future mission. It gives a great glimpse into the quieter, less serious parts of the soldiers lives and it provides a nice contrast to the chaos that occurs later in the movie.

The actors have completely transformed for this movie. Emile Hirsch looks like a completely different person and I didn't even recognize Taylor Kitsch until someone mentioned it. Additionally, the sound might be the best part of the film. The explosions, the gunfire, the cries of the battlefield are all amazingly done. But, the quiet scenes are additionally noticeable. They provide a great contrast to the chaos of the fighting and this provides a great sense of tension when the sound finally dies down. The story is probably the most unbelievable part of the movie, but it's based on a true story. Lone Survivor is a paintful film to watch, but that is because you're forced to watch an unbelievable and terrible situation unfold in front of you. It's a good film to watch, but the effects and experience might be too extreme to take in theaters. 

Rent it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Review: August: Osage County

Release date: December 25, 2013 (January 10, 2014 in DC area)
Running time: 121 minutes
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale
Who to see it with: Someone with a dysfunctional family, or who wants to see some spectacular acting.


Dysfunctional families have been done before in movies. However, it is rarely done as genuinely as in August: Osage County. The movie doesn't just do a dysfunctional family, the movie builds one from scratch, adding layer after wonderful, terrible layer to this situation. Each member of the Weston family has their own quirks, phobias, and conditions, but it doesn't feel contrived in this movie, it feels like a natural extension to a terribly messed up family. Each new revelation is fitting to the characters and situation that this family is living under; and as they build, the characters grow gradually and naturally. 

As mentioned above, the characters are all dysfunctional and feel like a natural cast of differently messed up people. None of the family members are the same, or are even similar, and their growth throughout the film is wonderful. And those characters are brought to life by some truly amazing acting. Rarely do you watch a movie where every actor gives such a natural and amazing performance for so complex a character; each one could be nominated for their own respective best actor/actress category. And the writing is also great. Probably because the movie was originally a play, the dialog is sharp and economical while still providing plenty of context for the viewers to follow along. It doesn't feel like any lines are throw away lines, each one is placed for the benefit of the audience.

This care also translates into the overall movie. The film has a relatively simple setup, with most of it taking place in the old family house with a small group of characters. And yet, there is plenty for the audience to see, plenty of new situations and locations for the audience to experience. The dinner scene is probably one of my favorite scenes in any movie, simply because it was a simple setup that highlights how great the characters and writing are. There really isn't much to criticize about August: Osage County. It's a decidedly dark movie, much darker than any of the trailers let on, but it's an experience that is worth having. The performances, the characters, everything about it feels genuine and lovingly crafted. 

Watch it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: her

Release date: January 10, 2014
Running time: 120 minutes
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt
Who to see it with: Someone looking for an original, genuine, and off-beat romantic movie.


her is a fresh, interesting romantic movie. After watching the trailer, I had an inclination that I would love it. After experiencing this complex look into both traditional and more abstract relationships twice, I can honestly say I loved this film. Spike Jonze's film is set in a believable near future where Theodore (Phoenix), a lonely writer, develops a relationship with an artificial intelligence. This seemingly preposterous setting acts as a launching pad for a deep look into both traditional and unconventional relationships in an increasingly connected and tech dependent society.

What stands out about this film is the brilliant performance of Joaquin Phoenix. By being the only on screen presence for the majority of the movie, he is asked to carry much of the film and does so amazingly. His conversations with "Samantha," the AI (Johansson) have a very real quality to them, from an initial hesitance born of the new situation and inherent awkwardness, to a more comfortable honeymoon stage in a relationship, you are easily drawn into these two characters and want to believe that their romance can succeed. Part of the credit also goes to Johansson for delivering a great performance that is both realistic but also pleasantly confined to the limitations of what a artificial intelligence might be able to know. 

Additionally, Spike Jonze's cinematography is absolutely stunning, with some beautiful shots lit to perfection. He has an amazing eye for film and the beauty of the "paradise" world is perfectly contrasted with how lonely a large portion of the population are. It's such an interesting premise and is realized perfectly. Everything about this unbelievable story is believable. The technology, the fashion, and the mannerisms of the populace all feel like something that we could have in a couple decades. In the end, what Spike Jonze has managed to accomplish is create a genuine, believable movie about a wholly unbelievable situation. 

Watch it.