Genius

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Genius  (B).  This movie isn’t doing too well with the critics (current score of 56 over at metacritic.com) but I think they are somehow overlooking the fact that Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm) is in the movie.  Just kidding!  Anyhoo, perhaps my low expectations led me to enjoy it more than I otherwise would have.  It’s a biopic about editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth, The King’s Speech) and novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).  Back around the year 1929, Wolfe was a manic would-be writer out of North Carolina with a married mistress (played by Kidman), and Perkins was a buttoned-down family man with five daughters.  The movie basically just tells the story of their sometimes-difficult relationship as Perkins shaped Wolfe’s thousands of pages into manageable novels that met mainstream and critical success.  Other authors that Perkins edited also pop up, like a washed-up F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce, Memento) and a macho Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West, 300).  And the always-welcome Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes) has a small part as Mrs. Perkins.  I thought it wasn’t a bad movie.  It may have helped that I had actually read one of Wolfe’s novels, Look Homeward, Angel; you can read my review here and see if it sounds like your cup of tea.

The Best Movies I Saw in 2014, by The Movie Snob

Welcome to The Movie Snob’s “Best of 2014” column.  I will look back over the 71 movies I saw in the theater last year and tell you which movies you need to see if you haven’t already done so.  As happens every year, some of the movies mentioned will be releases from the previous year (2013), just because I didn’t get around to seeing them until 2014.

Movie of the Year.  I gave out seven “A-“ grades this year, which seems like a pretty high number for a tough grader like me.  It’s tough to single one out, but I’m going to go with Fury, an intense WWII combat movie starring Brad Pitt as a seasoned tank commander in the vanguard of the final American charge to Berlin.  It had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.  Not for the squeamish, to be sure, but it’s a great adventure if you have the stomach for it.

Runners-Up.  I’m going to pick two this year.  One is a sentimental little movie called St. Vincent, starring a decidedly unsentimental Bill Murray as a cantankerous and boozy geezer who just might have a heart of gold.  Maybe.  The other is Jersey Boys, a biopic about the rise of pop music sensations Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  I think it was considered a bit of an underperformer, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Hands down, my pick for this category is Edge of Tomorrow, a twisty time-travel/sci-fi story starring Tom Cruise and the delightful Emily Blunt.  This movie totally underperformed at the box office, and it deserved much better.  They’re trying to re-brand it on DVD by essentially renaming it “Live. Die. Repeat.,” so don’t be confused when you rush down to the Redbox to rent it.  As runner-up in this category, I’ll give a nod to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which I thought was the best movie in the Hobbit trilogy.  For lack of anywhere else to put it, I will also recommend Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the biblical patriarch himself.  As long as you don’t insist on a literal retelling of the Genesis story, you should like it fine.

Best Animated Movie.  I think it was a 2013 release, but Frozen was the best of the few animated features I saw in 2014.  Enough said; Elsa doesn’t need any promotion from me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category.  I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel quite a bit, but it is hardly a straight comedy.  The same goes for the Woody Allen flick Magic in the Moonlight, which is a bit of a romantic comedy but has a little philosophical steel to it.  As for the new movies I saw that were straight comedies (e.g., 22 Jump Street, Neighbors)—forget about them.  They were terrible.

Best Documentary.  For sci-fi geeks like me, it would be hard to beat Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about a visionary science-fiction movie that never got made.  I also enjoyed Tim’s Vermeer, about an inventor who tries to figure out how Vermeer painted such awesome paintings, and Life Itself, a biopic about my late colleague Roger Ebert.  Particle Fever, about the superconducting supercollider in Europe, was also interesting and enjoyable.

Best Drama.  Well, the two best dramas I saw last year were foreign films, so I’ll save them for that category.  Instead, I’ll give this honor to a 2013 release, Philomena (which was apparently an American-British-French co-production).  It’s a sad movie, based on a true story about an Irish woman trying to find her son, who was taken away from her and adopted out decades earlier because she was an unwed mother.  Judi Dench is great in it, but then she’s always great, pretty much.  I also liked The Fault in Our Stars pretty well.

Best Foreign Film.  The Polish film Ida was one of my absolute favorite films of the year.  It’s a beautiful movie about a young woman—an aspiring nun—in 1960s Poland who must learn about her family’s mysterious and tragic past before she can decide how to move forward with her own life.  Close behind is The Past, a French/Iranian movie about some Iranians in Paris who are trying to sort out their very complicated domestic relations and move on with their lives.  And I’ll mention a third very good foreign film, the Swedish movie We Are the Best!, about a trio of teenaged girls who try to form a punk band in 1982.

Best Science-Fiction MovieEdge of Tomorrow is the clear winner here, but I already used it for Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Setting that film aside, I would pick Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as intrepid astronauts trying to find a new home for humanity as Earth gradually becomes uninhabitable.  I also recommend the goofy Guardians of the Galaxy as a fun romp through space.  With a talking raccoon.

Honorable Mentions.  Here’s where I dump the best of the rest—movies that are worth your time and attention when you’re looking for something to “stream” on your fancy television.  In the drama category, consider The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  Based on the trailers for the recently released Unbroken, the two movies have a lot in common, but The Railway Man also has Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  I also recommend Heaven Is For Real, based on the true story of a little boy’s account of a near-death experience.  Begin Again is a nice little story about music and musicians, and it has Keira Knightley in it.  I also enjoyed the similar movies Tracks and Wild, based on true stories about women hiking alone through the wilderness.  The Hundred-Foot Journey is a pleasant dramedy, while The Skeleton Twins is a rather darker look at family, and specifically sibling, dysfunction.  For your Amy Adams fix, watch the current Tim Burton release Big Eyes.  If action is more your cup of tea, check out Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, the truly original Snowpiercer, or the more familiar comforts of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  And if you can handle a truly cheesy B-movie, give Pompeii a try.  Kiefer Sutherland makes a truly ridiculous evil ancient Roman senator, let me tell you.

And a few more oldies.  Thanks to the Magnolia Theater, I enjoyed several other classic movies in re-release that I had never seen before.  Robert Altman’s Nashville is an interesting slice of 1970s Americana.  The French Connection is a cop movie starring Gene Hackman that stands the test of time.  For an old-fashioned nail-biter, see Sorcerer, starring Roy Scheider.  I liked the old comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe.  I enjoyed Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston as a corrupt cop in a dystopian future America, and Scarface, starring Al Pacino as a ruthless Cuban crime lord.  Double Indemnity is a solid film noir, and Harold and Maude is . . . well, it’s kind of hard to describe, but if you like quirky you should give it a try.

Happy New Year!

Before I Go to Sleep

The Movie Snob takes one on the chin.

Before I Go to Sleep  (D).  Good grief!  The Dallas Morning News ran a rave review of this new suspense movie starring my beloved Nicole Kidman (The Railway Man), and so I dutifully hurried out to see it.  I mean, Nic’s overdue for a good movie by now, right?  Well, now she’s even MORE overdue.  She plays a British woman who has that weird kind of amnesia that makes you forget everything every time you go to sleep.  (Didn’t Drew Barrymore have that in some lame rom-com not too long ago?)  Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight) plays the husband that she wakes up to every morning thinking he’s a complete stranger, and Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes) plays a doctor who is trying to help her on the sly, without her husband’s knowledge.  Both are vaguely sinister.  Whom can she trust?  Who cares?  This is a lame woman-in-peril story that should have been made for cable, without Nicole Kidman.   Too bad, because writer–director Rowan Joffe also wrote The American, starring George Clooney, which I rather liked.

Magic in the Moonlight

A new movie review by The Movie Snob.

Magic in the Moonlight (B). Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) returns to a favorite preoccupation of his—the practical consequences of atheistic materialism. (See, e.g., Vicky Cristina Barcelona.) But he does it with a reasonably light touch, and this slab of hip nihilism is sprinkled with enough confectioner’s sugar to make it go down easy. The year is 1928, and Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth, The Railway Man) is our Woody Allen stand-in. He’s a traveling magician by trade, an evangelical ultra-rationalist by philosophy, and an avid debunker of spiritualists and mediums in his free time. A buddy of Stanley’s persuades him to visit the south of France, where a lovely young American seer named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone, Crazy, Stupid, Love) is beguiling her way into a wealthy family’s good graces. Will Sophie challenge Stanley to re-examine his rationalist prejudices? Will Stanley unmask Sophie as a fraud? And will skeezy old Woody, against all good taste, try to conjure some romantic sparks between the 53-year-old Firth and the 25-year-old Stone? The superficial stuff is entertaining enough, but I also enjoyed Stanley’s clear-eyed admissions that atheistic materialism is not the sort of philosophy that is going to make you very happy; if anything, it’s pretty depressing.

The Railway Man

A new review from The Movie Snob.

The Railway Man  (B).  Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) and the lovely Nicole Kidman (Stoker) star in this drama, which is based on a true story.  (We are told this right up front, to increase the emotional impact.)  The year is 1980.  Eric (Firth) and Patti (Kidman) meet cute on a train in Scotland, and straightaway they fall in love.  But Eric is wrestling with some serious post-traumatic stress disorder, and in desperation Patti seeks answers from one of Eric’s old army buddies, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård, Mamma Mia!).  Reluctantly, Finlay tells her what he knows.  During World War II, both men were captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore, and Eric was brutally tortured in ways even Finlay doesn’t know about.  A great deal of the movie is told in WWII-era flashbacks, and although the torture scenes aren’t terribly graphic by today’s standards, they were plenty strong enough for my taste.  Ultimately, 1980 Eric decides to return to Thailand and attempt to exorcise his demons at the scene of the crime.  Firth gives a nice performance, as does Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), who plays the young Eric.  Kidman isn’t given a whole lot to do but be worried and loving and supportive, but she looks nice doing it.  It’s really a pretty straightforward and predictable movie, but I thought it still packed enough of a punch to justify an above-average grade.

The King’s Speech

A new review from The Movie Snob

The King’s Speech (A-). So much ink has already been spilled about this mega-Academy-Award nominee that I need not say much except that I too really enjoyed it a lot. Colin Firth (The Last Legion) turns in a terrific performance as the stuttering Duke of York who unexpectedly becomes King of England when his older brother abdicates. (But if you want to see a really remarkable performance, get a copy of The Last Legion and watch Firth try to convincingly portray an ancient Roman soldier!) Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) also turns in fine work as the unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue.

The King’s Speech

Movie Man Mike sends us this review

The King’s Speech. (A). Really solid film with terrific performances by Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, and Helena Bonham Carter—but then what would you expect from these actors? This film tells the story of the ascension of Prince Albert (Firth) to the English throne. In many respects, this story is about the relationship between Prince Albert and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Logue is a lowly commoner with no real credentials, except that his own success becomes his calling card. Prince Albert is royalty, but suffers from an embarrassing stutter, which threatens his ability to achieve greatness. When his brother (played by Guy Pierce) abdicates the throne so that he can marry Wallis Simpson, Prince Albert—now King George VI is put to the test as a public figure—particularly because it all comes on the eve of war with Nazi Germany. Logue is endearingly brilliant as he overcomes the prince’s own resistances and forges a friendship at the same time. This film is really worth seeing.

Easy Virtue

Movie Man Mike delivers a different spin on a current release

Easy Virtue. (B+). This was a great light-hearted film. The quick English wit reminded me a bit of an Oscar Wilde play, but this one was based upon a play written by another English playwright, Noel Coward. The casting was spot-on, with Kristen Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) as Mrs. Whittaker, the mother. Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Diary) plays Mr. Whittaker, the father. Larita Whittaker (Jessica Biel, Total Recall) is an American racecar driver who has just married the Whittakers’ son, John (Ben Barnes, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian). Larita is a bit older than John. From the git-go, Mrs. Whittaker makes it clear that she disapproves of Larita and what’s more, she doesn’t want Larita and John to leave their country estate to move to the big city of London. The two women declare a polite war on one another and the fun begins. The butler, Furber (Kris Marshall, Love Actually), also provides some great comic relief. I recommend this independent film to our readers. It’s a refreshing break from the action-packed summer blockbuster movies.

Easy Virtue

A new review from the desk of The Movie Snob

Easy Virtue (C-). What could be more up The Movie Snob’s alley than a movie set in 1920s England and starring Kristin Scott Thomas (Gosford Park) as a snobbish Brit? Throw in Colin Firth (The Last Legion) as her war-damaged husband and Jessica Biel (The Illusionist) as the brazen American race-car driver who marries into the family, and the movie ought to work. But it just doesn’t. None of the characters is very sympathetic–not even Firth’s, who is clearly supposed to be. I guess we’re also supposed to root for Biel’s character, because she bothers to learn the servants’ names and because Thomas’s matriarch treats her so poorly, but I didn’t find her character likeable either. Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian), who plays Biel’s husband, is a total cipher. And, as my movie-going compadre pointed out, Biel’s dramatic speech at the end seems modern to the point of anachronism. I wonder whether it is really part of the original Noel Coward play. I doubt I will ever bother to find out. Skip it.

Mamma Mia!

New review from The Movie Snob

Mamma Mia! (B). I saw the traveling production of the musical Mamma Mia! when it came through Dallas a few years ago, and I was underwhelmed by everything except the volume, which was deafening. As you already know if you have the slightest interest in this musical/movie, it is a very thin plot stretched over a musculature of songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA. I like ABBA’s music (as do many others–Bono included, if I remember correctly), but I did not like the musical. The movie version, however, worked for me. Maybe it actually helped to have people who are not professional singers doing the singing. Maybe it helped to be able to see what was going on, which I couldn’t when I was sitting in the back of balcony at Fair Park Music Hall. Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) sings reasonably well and looks like she’s having a lot of fun. The ingenue (Amanda Seyfried, Letters to Juliet) who plays her daughter is pretty and ingenuous. Colin Firth (Before I Go to Sleep) is pretty much always good. And poor Pierce Brosnan (Mrs. Doubtfire)! Watching him strain to get the words of S.O.S. out is worth the price of admission. (He made a good James Bond, but he can not sing.) I feel safe in saying this one is for ABBA fans only.

The Last Legion

The Movie Snob fesses up:

The Last Legion (C). Can you imagine a swords-and-sandals epic starring Colin Firth, of Bridget Jones and Pride & Prejudice fame, as a Maximus-style Roman warrior? No, you can’t. Nobody’s imagination is that good. Instead, you have to go see this cheesy-in-a-good-way flick. In the waning days of the Roman Empire, 12-year-old Romulus (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, The Maze Runner) is crowned emperor only hours before the city is sacked by the barbaric Goths. The boy Caesar is taken prisoner and has to be rescued by a rag-tag band of survivors. These include doughty Aurelius (Firth), a hippie-looking philosopher played by Ben Kingsley (Transsiberian), and a beautiful warrior from the east named Mira (Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai, Bride and Prejudice). The group decides to head off to Britannia, I guess because they all have British accents already anyway, and on the way they discover Julius Caesar’s own sword, which bears an inscription something like “ES CALIBUR.” Hint! Hint! Firth looks embarrassed throughout, which is amusing during the fight scenes and inexplicable during the scenes when the exotic Mira is making goo-goo eyes at him.

Girl With a Pearl Earring

From The Movie Snob:

Girl With a Pearl Earring. (C) I saw this independent flick last week with a charming, affable, and witty friend of mine from work. The critic in the local paper just raved about this movie, but I was not overwhelmed. It tells the story of Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a Dutch servant girl who gets a position in the home of master painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). He takes an interest in her, and she eventually sits for the portrait that is now known as “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” I didn’t think the movie was all that insightful into the artistic mind or process. Mostly it made me grateful I am not living in the 17th century — especially as a servant girl to a moody artist and his annoying family. My companion loved the movie, especially the part where Vermeer’s creepy old mother-in-law shrieked, “You are a fly in his web! . . . We all are!!!” In fact, she’s still quoting that line this week.

Love Actually; The Quiet American; and several more

The triumphant return of Movie Queen Maggie:

Love Actually (A-) I loved it—loved all the actors—enjoy all their films, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Notting Hill…who can complain about Hugh Grant and Colin Firth in the same movie??!! It was the ultimate girl movie because there were about 7 love stories all going on at once and it had the added bonus of being well-written, well-acted and really funny! I think it is a must-see for all. Boys, take notes and pay special attention to the whole note card at the door thing—girls loved it and will now expect something like it (David, are you paying attention??)!

The Quiet American (A) Great film with Michael Caine (no surprise) and Brendan Frasier (big surprise) about Saigon during the Vietnam war. It was an interesting story with beautiful cinematography and very strong acting. Michael was nominated for an Oscar for his role and deserves it. It is definitely worth the rental fee.

Legally Blonde II (F) Quite possibly the worst movie ever made. I can sum up what I thought of it in one sentence…I had to really consider whether or not I would rank it below the wonderful cinematic genius of Wet, Hot American Summer. YUCK! Bob Newhart—what were you thinking??!!

Terminator III (B) I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. I groaned when my husband brought it home from the video store and wondered, again, why I ever let him go there alone. But, I actually enjoyed it. The special effects were great and the lead, Ben Stahl (I think that is his name), who is now starring in the HBO original series, Carnival, gave a very solid performance. So, all of that plus you get to hear Arnold, now Governor Ahh-nold, say really cool lines like, “I am unable to comply.” I mean, what more could you want from an evening of entertainment??

Daddy Daycare (D) Even though I loved the kid humor, I mean who can resist adorable kids being goofy, this was a very poor flick. Eddie Murphy had his funny moments—but the story was so tired and predictable it just couldn’t be overcome by the presence of cute kids and Eddie. It can certainly be missed.

Bruce Almighty (C) I liked the idea of the story, God giving someone his powers, but it was quite simply a poor movie. Jim Carrey was, well, Jim Carrey and no one else in the movie did anything they should be proud of (Morgan Freeman, sir, you seriously took a step down for this one). It had some funny scenes, most of which you have already seen if you saw the previews, and there were some relatively neat special effects. Other than that, it was forgettable and certainly skippable.