Thursday, January 30, 2014

Margaret (2011)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan. Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kenneth Lonergan. 150 min. Rated R. Drama.

In post-9/11 NYC, a college student (Paquin) innocently distracts a bus driver, causing the gruesome death of a pedestrian. This sends her on a quest to bring the driver to justice, as a means to forgive herself - but is too helpless to reach closure. There's a back-story on how this was written in 2003, shot in 2005 (before Paquin's "True Blood" days), shelved for 6 years, and edited down from 3 hours to 2 and 1/2 for a short 2011 screening. But with its deep drama and heavenly ensemble cast, the film is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Mo says:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

In a World... (2013)

Director: Lake Bell. Cast: Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Eva Longoria, Geena Davis, Cameron Diaz. 93 min. Rated R. Comedy.

The famous Don LaFontaine, one of the few men to enunciate the words "In a world where ..." at the beginning of movie trailers, dies, and voice coaches (including a female) are in a jealousy-laden last-man-standing fight to inherit the role. First directing feature by actress/writer Lake Bell is weak in both acting and directing departments, and the story contains subplots that are there just to lengthen the movie. Other than the somewhat new subject, I couldn't find a reason for the movie's 92% Tomatometer score.

Mo says:

Monday, January 27, 2014

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Director: Morgan Neville. 91 min. Rated PG-13. Documentary.

Anybody ever thought about those backup singers in bands, the ones who are an integral part of the song, whom we hum to their tunes as much as we enjoy the lead singer? This documentary is about those incredible voices, about their egos, their aspirations, and how they're 20 feet away from the lead singer, but miles away from stardom. We meet backup singers who successfully made the leap (Sheryl Crow, Luther Vandross), and those who didn't and live decades in anonymity. With input from giants like Springsteen, Wonder and Jagger, I rarely remember being so engrossed in a documentary.

PS: Believe me, the 99% Tomatometer score is real.

Mo says:


Good Ol' Freda (2013)

Director: Ryan White. 86 min. Rated PG. USA/UK. Documentary.

Freda Kelly: the Beatles secretary who was with them from the time they started, all the way up until they broke up. The fan who treated the thousands of fans the way she would've liked to be treated, leading to her nightly rounds at the four singers' homes to have each sign tens of autographs. I thoroughly invested in and enjoyed this piece about the humble stars and their long-time confidante, although the film never explains why she remained in obscurity for 50 years, and why she decided to speak up now. Still, a must-see for any Beatles fan. 

Mo says:

Friday, January 24, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer (2013)

Director: Zachary Heinzerling. 82 min. Rated R. Documentary.

NYC-based Japanese modern artist Ushio Shinohara creates the weirdest paintings and sculptures, some the result of the old man punching paint onto a huge canvas using boxing gloves - and keeps repressing her artist wife during their 39 years of marriage. There's a message in there on how the artist sacrifices himself and his family to be an artist, and how the wife must either accept to perish, or thrive on her own. Otherwise, the significance of the film (enough to be nominated for an Oscar among this year's great documentaries) was lost upon me.

Mo says:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Dirty Wars (2013)

Director: Rick Rowley. Cast: Jeremy Scahill. 87 min. USA/Afghanistan/Iraq/Kenya/Somalia/Yemen. Documentary.

Investigative journalist pieces together several supposedly unrelated drone/missile attacks in the Middle East and Africa, and realizes they're all carried out by "JSOC" (Joint Special Operations Command), signifying the current administration's drastic policy change on how the US conducts wars: instead of sending troops on the ground, they merely perform limited covert operations without declaring war on the country. Like any documentary, not showing the other side of the argument somewhat affects the film's credibility; but the brilliant film-making makes it extremely hard to ignore the proposed facts. When it comes to war, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama is no saint.

Mo says:

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Square (Al-Maidan) (2013)

Director: Jehane Noujaim. 95 min. Egypt/USA. Documentary/History

Two years of the Egyptian revolution, told through the eyes of revolutionaries, including Khalid Abdalla, star of The Kite Runner (2007). If your country's been through a revolution, you'll see innumerable correlates - how dictatorship is a disease, and as long as you don't eradicate the disease, toppling one dictator will only lead to empowering another. The persistence of Egyptians fighting for their ideal government is admirable, but the film slyly avoids discussing the most controversial aspect of the ordeal: the concept of the military bringing down a democratically-elected president (Morsi), when that president turns out to be a despot.

Mo says:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Top 10 Movies of 2013

Overall, 2013 was not a very good movie year. It started out with dissing the masterpiece called Lincoln and recognizing Argo as the year's best movie (don't make me laugh), continued with the sudden loss of the great Roger Ebert, went through summer mode with only one worthwhile blockbuster, and provided lousy superhero movies: a Thor sequel, a Wolverine sequel to prequel, and an attempt to resuscitate Superman, which failed ... again. And to be honest, I think I was too kind to Iron Man 3.

Don't know - maybe it's because TV got so good this year ("Breaking Bad", "House of Cards", "Game of Thrones", "The Walking Dead", "Downton Abbey", ...), it's become as entertaining as cinema. Or maybe just that the great 2012 movie year spoiled me. A few months ago, I was thinking of listing only 6-7 movies as my favorites of the year.

But then suddenly during the past two months, there was an explosion of surprisingly great movies - to the extent that I had to eliminate some very good films (Oblivion, Frozen, Enough Said, Catching Fire) to narrow the list down to 10. At the last minute I saw The Act of Killing, and was forced to kick the great All is Lost off the list too. In the end, I had a hard time deciding which was my top favorite movie of 2013.

So here's the final list. All have earned the "MoMagic!" score. Yeah ... the year ended that good:

1. The Act of Killing

2. Before Midnight

3. Blackfish

4. Fruitvale Station

5. Gravity

6. Her

7. Philomena

8. Prisoners

9. Star Trek Into Darkness

10. The Wolf of Wall Street

Yep; no 12 Years a Slave, no American Hustle.

So for the favorite movie of 2013: Considering that my main criteria to call a movie "good" is its ability to entertain, and considering how bad the year was going, when I saw Star Trek Into Darkness, I thought: this is it. Nothing will be able to overpower this.

But then Gravity came along, and renewed the feeling of enjoying the moment, the power of 3D, and the philosophy behind watching sci-fi. And then Her happened, which redefined the meaning of human relations, both in the past and in the 21st century, making me think in a way not reading so many books could. These were two movies that disconnected me from this world, and made me want the experience to last a very long time.

Am I allowed only one pick as the best movie of 2013? Okay, if someone was holding a gun to my head, for my favorite movie of 2013, I would go with ... Gravity.

How can you top a movie, that gives the act of Sandra Bullock, all alone in space, woofing like a dog, so much meaning? How can you top that?

For the worst movie I saw this year, I don't care if famed directors made Pacific Rim or Trance (Guillermo del Toro and Danny Boyle, respectively). I thought both were terrible movies. And Trance was a little worse than the other.

Let's see who's nominated for an Oscar tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

August: Osage County (2013)

Director: John Wells. Cast: Meryl Streep,  Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin,Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney. 121 min. Rated R. Drama.

A somewhat "cruel" soap opera, about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family who get together for the patriarch's passing, and dark family secret after dark family secret is exposed till the very end, with no bright moment in sight. So really not much of a story. But then in this star-studded piece, there's Julia Roberts' presence, which is significantly better than her showy performance in Erin Brockovich; and Meryl Streep's every move, every gesture, every word ... which makes you think she's probably the greatest actress alive. Probably the greatest actress that ever lived.

Mo says:

Monday, January 13, 2014

About Time (2013)

Director: Richard Curtis. Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy. 123 min. Rated R. UK. Drama/Romance/Fantasy.

Interesting mix of melodrama and fantasy, from the creators of Love, Acually and Notting Hill. A young man at his 21st birthday learns that males in his family are able to time travel. This could have provided the context for unbelievably deep and wide-ranged story possibilities (can he prevent 9/11?) ... but all he thinks of is winning the girl (McAdams) through trial-and-error of critical points in life, and making sure his family stays safe. The underlying message of "enjoying life's moments as if there's no turning back" is quite fulfilling; ruminating on the message for so long is a drag.

Mo says:

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

Director: Lee Daniels. Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, James Marsden, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Clarence Williams III, Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave. 132 min. Rated PG-13. Biography/Drama.

Somewhat glad I broke my vow to stay away from Lee Daniels: it's my first experience with him not playing the "angry black man". The true-life story of a White House butler who served several presidents through 30 years of contemporary American history, told (occasionally literally) in parallel with the story of his rebellious son, is a toned-down civil rights tale that offers a subtle message of non-violence triumphing in the end. But boy ... that casting director should be exiled! Williams as Eisenhower, Marsden as Kennedy, Schreiber as Johnson, and Cusack as Nixon were horrible. Only Rickman as Reagan works.

PS: It's good that Oprah left her talk show. She's a decent actress.

Mo says:

The Act of Killing (2012)

Director(s): Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous. 115 min. Not rated. Denmark/Norway/UK/Finland. Documentary. 

In a documentary film-making match made in heaven (produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris), mass murderers proudly confess and re-enact their US-backed crimes of massacring up to one million so-called Indonesian "communists" in 1965. Deeply disturbing on so many levels: about how humans will do anything when there's no fear of retribution, about how crowds who were victimized themselves by these thugs 40 years ago now cheer during the re-enactments, about the power of the camera to lure you into becoming a movie star at all costs. And most alarming: The film helps you understand the murderers' philosophy.

PS: The opening quote says it all:

"It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, ... and to the sound of trumpets."

Mo says:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The World's End (2013)

Director: Edgar Wright. Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan, Bill Nighy. 109 min. Rated R. UK. Comedy/Action.

The newest Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy (which you already know is another addition to the numerous 2013 end-of-the-world films) has the main ingredient of great British humor: you're watching the entire movie with a smile on your face, and you're really not sure why. But midway through the film, there was a moment that came as a completely unexpected shock - and any hint or discussion would entirely spoil the fun. So all I can do, is to warn you to avoid any synopsis or trailer or review before seeing the film. Not for all tastes, but pleasantly entertaining.

Mo says:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

Director: Justin Lin. Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Gina Carano. 130 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Thriller.

This movie is pretty much how Hollywood is defined in third world countries - extremely entertaining glamorous brainless junk. A bunch of beefy guys making life and death decisions, and slow-motion scenes of women gyrating around flashy cars ("... Do girls in America always do that around new cars?"). Nowadays, the sturdy guys sit behind big monitors screen too - to find out where the flashy cars are. So the women can dance around them again. Okay ... I'm talking rubbish. At least the tank sequence was cool. And that airport runway at the end went on forever. Okay stop.

PS: First Enough Said, and now this. Watching the last movies of actors who've recently died is weird.

Mo says:

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Wolverine (2013)

Director: James Mangold. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Famke Janssen. 126 min. Rated PG-13. USA/UK. Action/Fantasy.

Nothing new. Just that this one happens in Japan. They didn't even make an effort to title the movie different from the last one. And again, the short post-credits scene is much more interesting than the entire movie. Actually, I'm not even sure I remember what the entire movie was about.

PS: Okay ... there was one funny quote:

"The only available rooms are a dungeon, a nurse’s office, and mission to Mars."

Mo says:

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Past (Le passé) (2013)

Director: Asghar Farhadi. Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa. 130 min. Rated PG-13. France/Italy. Drama/Mystery.

Unfortunately, anything Farhadi does from now on will be compared to his previous films, and in those terms, The Past doesn't live up to expectations. It still delves upon familiar Farhadi themes from both About Elly and A Separation: unhappy gray characters, telling lies for uncertain reasons, with the mystery remaining hidden to both the audience, and the director, till the very end (it's impossible to know the truth). Bejo commands the screen just due to her mere presence, almost glowing from the very first scene. But you never see the dynamic momentum that made Farhadi's prior works so enjoyable.

Mo says:

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Enough Said (2013)

Director: Nicole Holofcener. Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette. 93 min. Rated PG-13. Comedy/Drama/Romance.

A most curious romantic film. Not only is this as realistic as the other great romantic movies of 2013, but also boasts deep dramatic acting by both comedian Louis-Dreyfus, and the late Gandolfini - and never falters a moment. Gandolfini, almost a cuddly teddy bear here, manages to project the deepest emotions with the slightest gaze, while strangely looking no different than the mob boss in "The Sopranos". I don't know whether his recent death made watching the movie a more heartfelt experience (was the Joker any better because Heath Ledger died?), but he sure was a great loss.

Mo says:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Her (2013)

Director: Spike Jonze. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Kristen Wiig, Brian Cox. 126 min. Rated R. Drama/Romance/Sci-fi.

By Her, a film of insurmountable depth, the work of Spike Jonze has reached perfection. It neither contains the complexity of Adaptation or Being John Malkovich, nor the simplicity of Where the Wild Things Are. It's about a very palpable subject (the destruction of human relations due to the advent of computers), and by becoming a paradoxically bitter celebration of life, forces a certain appreciation for the world around us. Powerhouse performance by Phoenix aside, who cares about Oscar eligibility? In a fair world, solely Johannson's voice should win, not an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but Best Leading Actress.

Mo says:

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Director: John Lee Hancock. Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Griffiths. 125 min. Rated PG-13. USA/UK/Australia. Biography/Comedy/Drama.

Let's be fair: this "making of Mary Poppins" back-story, about the quarrels between Walt Disney and writer P.L. Travers, and the flashbacks telling why Travers was such a tough cookie when it came to dramatizing/redefining/animating her characters, does have some good emotional moments, and some good words about the power of storytelling. And Emma Thompson does an unbelievable job as Travers. But there was not one moment I could see Tom Hanks' character as Walt Disney, and not as Tom Hanks. The constant reminder that this is not Disney, was rather annoying, in this otherwise pleasant movie.

PS: Memorable line:

"That's what storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope, again and again and again."

Mo says:

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Director(s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham. 104 min. Ratd R. USA/France. Drama/Musical.

This has all the hallmarks of a great Coen Brothers film. Bitter satire, witty dialogue, thought-provoking moments of silence, and John Goodman in another great role. Add to that mesmerizing gloomy grey cinematography, and an astonishing performance by newcomer Oscar Isaac, and you can't miss. But then ... the movie ends in a mysterious twist, mainly involving an orange cat, and probably concerning "chance or choice". Unlike No Country for Old Men, I'm not sure about the twist's philosophical significance, and I couldn't find a decent 4-star review that explains what it meant. And I'm not playing "Emperor's New Clothes" here.

PS: Here's an explanation on what the cat might mean. The significance is still lost on me. And I don't entirely agree anway.

Mo says: