Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner

Award winning Canadian director, Jean-Marc Vallée directs this biopic about Ron Woodroof, a con man who defied the odds, and the law, to get the medicine he needed to survive; and in the process brought hope and peace to many others.  It is a well scripted, if linear, film that unfolds as McConaughey’s Woodroof learns about himself and the world around him at the height of the HIV scare in America.

What I liked:  It’s no wonder the Hollywood machine has been buzzing around the performances of the two lead actors, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.  Quite simply, the heart and soul of the movie is in the acting.  Both McConaughey and Leto utterly, and literally, morph into their characters – a scheming rodeo bigot and suffering transvestite.  It is rare that such prominent Hollywood personalities would be unrecognizable but such is the case thanks to Vallée’s brilliant directing and seamless performances from actors who didn’t just lose weight but altered their mannerisms, their features, their voices and even something as simple as a smile. There is a moment at the end of the film where Woodroof, exhausted and achingly thin walks into a room of familiar faces and smiles.   That smile expresses all of the film’s tension, emotion and beauty because it is so clearly Woodroof’s smile, not McConaughey’s.

What I didn’t like:  My only complaint about the film is that there’s nothing new in the telling.  After a mind-blowing experience watching Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club felt a little flat.  I recognize that the two movies are not comparable but I still wanted perhaps more artistic license and vision from a  director who has proven capable of both.

Last thoughts: As usual, Hollywood is placing more emphasis on the physical transformation of the actors than on the performance itself.  Granted, McConaughey is so physically transformed that at times it’s tough to look at his sickly frame but I would hope that if either of them win the Oscar it’s for their performances and not because they know how to diet for a role.

My rating: Between this and Mud, McConaughey has two of my favourite performances of the year.

My IMDb Rating: 8/10     tomato:  94%

Gravity (2013)

Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris

Every once in awhile a movie comes along that reminds you to believe in possibility.  3D film was developed so that visionary filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón could make movies like Gravity.  Quite simply, it is a groundbreaking, jaw-dropping experience of visual beauty and vicarious terror that leaves you breathless.

What I liked:  This is not the transcendent wonder of Kubrick’s 2001.  This is a physical and visual encounter with cinema.  For the record, I love 3D movies but not for the sake of it.  I enjoy new ideas being translated through a relatively new facet of technology.  Gravity left me feeling as though I knew what it would be like in space and that is no small feat.    Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have given us a visual story that previously was beyond my imaginative scope.  Just brilliant.

What I didn’t like:  As with most ground breaking films, what Cuarón was trying to accomplish cinematically overshadowed character and dialogue.  This is a rare exception where it’s okay with me.  The movie is not about Bullocks’ back story.  The movie is entirely in the moment and succeeds as such.  Bullock and Clooney are commendable and convincing but their familiar faces within this magical moment of experiencing something new in film, for me, was almost distracting – or a disappointing reminder that it was just a movie.

My rating:  Truly magical.

My IMDb Rating:  9/10        tomato: 97%

Rush (2013)

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Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Peter Morgan
Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara

It’s my firm belief that if you have to start a movie in medias res and go back to the beginning, then your original beginning isn’t strong enough.  This holds true in Ron Howard’s latest film about F1 racing legends, the Maverick Brit James Hunt and his prickly Austrian rival Niki Lauda, where the movie opens at a critical moment only to immediately go back in time to recap.   Ron Howard knows how to create drama, pace and suspense perfectly but there seemed to lack a cohesive narrative thread that would have made Rush outstanding.

What I liked: The movie is as slick as a race car and the racing scenes are wonderfully executed, especially when there is poor weather conditions.  The movie is certainly entertaining. The characters and relationships however are underdeveloped and, frankly, a little wasted; except for Daniel Bruehl who plays Niki Lauda and adds all the heart and soul to this film.   He is brilliant and seemingly reaches beyond the written character, if I am to compare him to Chris Hemsworth’s less dynamic portrayal.  Somehow, while Hemsworth is convincing his character, ironically, lacks the charm to carry the emotion of each short scene, whereas Bruehl’s Lauda grows on us and stays with us.  The best moments of the film come late when we come to respect the rivalry as they do.  I enjoyed that there is no definitive hero and both characters make for a series of well captured scenes but…

What I didn’t like: The film unfolds like a feast of tasty appetizers that never settles into a meal. The story is interesting and there are well-executed moments of real connection and emotion but they never last long enough or fit properly to create a fluid whole.  The camerawork by Anthony Dod Mantle was electric and worked very well in some seems but, again, seemed to piece together different moods or ideas that contributed my overall sense of disharmony.

My rating:  Wishing for an Oscar nod for Daniel Brühl.

My IMDb  rating:  7.5/10     tomato : 88%

Captain Phillips (2013)

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Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray (screenplay) and Richard Phillips (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman

Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) knows how to build suspense.  His latest action/adventure Captain Phillips, based on the true 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship for ransom by four armed Somali pirates, is no exception.  The movie creeps, crawls, rises and falls throughout its 2h15min running time.  Tom Hanks delivers but the Somali pirates are the real stars of the film.

What I liked:  Greengrass goes from 0-100 in a matter of seconds.  The movie has a brief and awkward start but with one flicker on the radar and a hand-held camera we are engulfed in foreboding.  The action gives the movie a frenetic pace but the performances win the day.  Hanks is the everyman we can all relate to and be terrified for but it’s the Somali pirates who offer us more than stock villains, even with stock dialogue.  Newcomers Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman are smart, devious, famished, suffering and wilful.  They tug at our heartstrings even as we root for them to fail.  They are the driving force behind a film whose conclusion made headlines.

What I didn’t like:  Why did they cast the wonderful Catherine Keener if she was going to end up on the cutting room floor? This frustrated me to no end when the movie was over.  I can also understand why the Navy hasn’t exactly applauded the film because despite their oppressive presence they don’t actually seem to do or accomplish anything.  I understand the need to draw out action in order to build a climax but I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the sequences were just add-in plot points to embellish the drama rather than actual events.

My rating:  Requires big screen viewing.

My IMDb rating: 7/10      tomato:  94%

Don Jon (2013)

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Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Written by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlet Johansson, Julianne Moore, Brie Larson, Tony Danza and Glenne Headly.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is an interesting one.  To its credit it is new, interesting and entertaining.  Gordon-Levitt clearly has a message as he plays the eponymous Jon who escapes into his obsession with porn rather than connect with another person or learn about himself.  I give credit to Gordon-Levitt for making me think during a film that could have been reduced to a romantic comedy with a twist.  At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a self-indulgent project or a meditation on isolation and the misrepresentation of relationships in a sex obsessed culture.  Where Gordon-Levitt falters is in his character portrayal but, overall, I was impressed with his writing, direction and wit.

What I liked: Gordon-Levitt’s use of repetition works.  His narrative framework is based around a series of mundane events – home, porn, sex, clubbing, the gym, cleaning, church and family dinner – that convey his character’s disconnectedness and masked despair.  Gordon-Levitt also conveys his ideas with an artistic flare that is thought-provoking, witty and fearlessly uncomfortable.

What I didn’t like:  His characters, while at times endearing and relate-able, are no more than caricatures, which is probably why he is being taken to task for what the Italian American One Voice Coalition believes are “racist stereotypes” rather than developed characters.   I think Gordon-Levitt pulls off his Jersey Shore-type character with flare, because it is so outside our perception of him as an actor that beneath his empty façade we recognize the scrawny do-gooder of 50/50, (500) Days of Summer or even Batman.  The rest of the characters offer no such recognizable depth other than Julianne Moore who escapes the stereotype and offers the real soul of the film.  To be fair, Scarlett Johansson has fun with her role and is both convincing and comical as the romance obsessed love interest.  While I imagine creating such extreme characters was the point, I still can’t quite figure out why since many of us ‘real folk’ often feel the same way or limit ourselves to routine so I can see how the message was lost.

My rating:  An admirable first effort and worth watching, because it is new.

My IMDb rating:  7/10      tomato: 83%

Before Midnight (2013)

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Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
Starring: Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke

This is the third installment of the 20 year relationship between Jesse and Celine.  We were first captivated by this couple when they met on a train in 1995.  In 2004, they reunited in Paris.  Now in 2014, we meet them again in Greece.   The movie, which is essentially a dialogue about relationships, men, women and a study in character development, is interesting in its uniqueness, honesty and its ability to engage our attention for a sweeping 2hours, despite being more suited to the stage.

What I liked:  These characters (and actors) are so comfortable with each other that you inevitably feel as though you’ve stumbled into their bedroom.  They are interesting, quirky, maddening and humourous, and have been since the beginning; only now they have matured and grown together.  Their dialogue is less self-conscious than the first, and less excited than the second. They have come into their own, so much so that it’s hard to remember that Jesse and Celine are characters.  I had forgotten Hawke’s charm as an actor and Delpy’s grace.  Linklater, once again, does a tremendous job easing the story forward by following the movements of a relationship in its natural habitat.  It is mesmerizing, heartbreaking and uplifting.

What I didn’t like:  The high ratings.  This will surely disappoint many who expect something quite different than what is actually presented onscreen.  What has elevated the ratings in this case, are those people who have seen the previous two or simply those who are excited about the possibility of filmmaking.   Linklater’s latest visit with these two characters exceeded my expectations.  The movie is not perfect and at times I was frustrated by the poignantly natural dialogue but Before Midnight is the smoothest and most heartfelt of the three.

My rating:  Couldn’t resist re-watching (and loving) the other two immediately after.

IMDb: 8.5     tomato: 98%

The Heat (2013)

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Directed by:  Paul Feig
Written by:  Katie Dippold
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Jane Curtin, Spoken Reasons, Taran Killam and Bill Burr.

I love Melissa McCarthy.  From her turn in Bridesmaids, to her two hilarious gigs hosting SNL, McCarthy had me in stitches.  Admittedly, I shied away from Identity Thief certain I would be disappointed (even though I love the cast) by the excessive slapstick shtick that I assumed would substitute for storytelling (the reviews lead me to believe I was right to avoid it).  With The Heat, I was unsure.  I give credit to the preview for not spoiling the movie’s funniest moments, but at the same time I felt it protected its jokes by solely promoting its cast; so much so that I had little desire to see another buddy cop flick about two mismatched cops forced to work together and take down a drug lord, in what looked like a carbon copy of everything that came before.   I’m happy to report, I was not disappointed.

What I liked:  McCarthy is hilarious, and arguably carries the movie, as the foul-mouthed, salt-of-the-earth cop who enjoys the misfortunes of others.  Bullock is perfect as the FBI agent and McCarthy’s uptight foil.  I commend her for downplaying her role enough to give McCarthy the spotlight, in fact, I found it made her funnier.  The two have great on-screen chemistry and it’s no wonder a second movie is already in the works.

What I didn’t like:  There is nothing new here other than unique performances.  As I expected, the movie is a carbon copy of everything that came before.  What makes it funny is that this time around the two mismatched cops are women, which offers a spectrum of reinvented jokes about the same tired scenarios.   The story takes a back seat to the slap stick humour but Bullock, a seasoned vet at this type of comedy, and McCarthy deftly endear  us to their characters.  I was also disappointed by the limited screen time for the supporting cast which could have been very funny.

Not to be missed: McCarthy’s scene with Buster Bluth (Tony Hale). Priceless.

My rating:  Women cops are funny.

IMDb: 7.1    tomato: 63%

Now You See Me (2013)

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Directed by: Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, Transporter 2, The Incredible Hulk)
Written by: Ed Solomon (screenplay), Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt (screenplay and story)
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine

I’ve learned to distrust trailers, as much as I enjoy them.  More times than not, a movie doesn’t live up to the hype presented in a 2min clip (Warm Bodies being the current exception).  In this case, the how’d-they-do-that thriller had me from the trailer and I rushed out to see it.  The movie, about four magicians who conduct a series of heists and the cop who is trying to capture them, has a great premise but it flounders as it tries to focus too much on a story that isn’t deftly constructed.

What I liked:  The movie is, quite simply, entertaining – if you ignore the holes.  It moves forward fluidly with a chuckle here and there and the characters are engaging if underdeveloped, to the movie’s great misfortune.  The Four Horsemen: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco have characters that suit their strengths as actors, which would be great fun if they were ever onscreen as more than a plot point.  Their grand spectacles are funny and baffling but fail to generate any tension.  Mark Ruffalo carries the film as the frustrated cop trying to catch up to their trail of larceny.  Riding his wave of frustration is the best part of the movie.

What I didn’t like:  Again, the premise is what engages but the follow-through is lacking.  For a movie that claims it is smarter than we are, I was overtly aware that it wasn’t, on most counts. That said, I did enjoy the trick reveals and the magicians’ great spectacles.  However, the movie never delves any deeper than the heist itself.  As David Denby noted in his New Yorker review, “It seems that the director, who also made “The Incredible Hulk” and “Clash of the Titans,” will do anything to distract us from the emptiness to which he has devoted himself.’  That said, we don’t all need depth to be entertained and I would recommend the movie as a fun summer flick.

My rating: Enjoy it for what it is, not for what it isn’t.

IMDb 7.5     rotten 47%