Hail, Caesar!

New from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Hail, Caesar!  (B-).  With the glaring and painful exception of Barton Fink, I have yet to see a Coen brothers movie I didn’t like.  (Granted, I haven’t seen them all.)  True Grit, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou? are all classics in my book.  Their current release has its pleasures, but I think it is definitely a lesser entry in the Coen canon.  It’s a pure comedy and a tribute to the movies of the 1940s and 1950s.  (Apparently there are a gazillion references to movies and Hollywood scandals of that era.  They went over my head, but I think I did catch an homage to Fargo.)  Josh Brolin (Sicario) stars as Eddie Mannix, a honcho for Capital Studios who is pulled in a million directions at once as he tries to keep his movies and his movie stars out of trouble.  George Clooney (Intolerable Cruelty) costars as Baird Whitlock, a matinee idol who is supposed to be starring in a big Ben Hur-like production but who has been kidnaped by a mysterious group called The Future.  And there are scads of other stars on hand, including Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) as a fey director of costume dramas, Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) as a pregnant movie star in a mermaid suit, and Channing Tatum (She’s the Man) as the star of a South Pacific-like musical.  I enjoyed the energy of the picture, but it didn’t really seem to add up to much—except maybe to say gee, isn’t show biz crazy?

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Tomorrowland

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Tomorrowland  (C).  Well, director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) kind of laid an egg with this one.  (Per IMDB, its stateside haul so far is only about half of its $190 million budget.)  But it’s not a bad movie.  There’s sort of a prologue in which a boy who will grow up to be George Clooney gets to visit a place of technological wonders hidden somewhere beneath the 1964 World’s Fair and, we expect, fall in love with a cute little girl named Athena.  Fast forward to today, and a brainy, optimistic gal named Casey (Britt Robertson, TV’s awesome Under the Dome) receives a mysterious pin that gives her visions of Tomorrowland.  This gets her caught up in a whirlwind of adventure, about which I will say only that it involves a grown-up and curmudgeonly George Clooney (Gravity).  It’s an earnest and optimistic movie, so maybe it just doesn’t fit the national mood right now.  And it is too long, 2 hours and 10 minutes.  But I still liked it okay.

The Best Movies I Saw in 2013, by The Movie Snob

Once again, it is time for The Movie Snob’s annual “best of” column.  As always, the only rule is that I limit the list to films I saw for the first time during the last calendar year.  Thus, you can be sure some 2012 releases will be sprinkled in among the 2013 releases.

Movie of the Year.  It’s another tough call this year.  I gave three movies a straight “A” grade this year, but one of them was a 1949 release, so I’ll temporarily disqualify that one.  As between the other two, I’ll give top honors to 12 Years a Slave.  You’ve already heard all about this movie, if you haven’t seen it already, so I’ll just say it was an amazing, harrowing experience.  It’s a fitting companion to Lincoln, which was my pick for movie of the year last year.

Runner-Up.  If I had managed to see it in 2012, when it was released, I would have picked Zero Dark Thirty as my movie of the year in last year’s column.  If you missed this movie, correct your mistake and see it!  Jessica Chastain gives a fine performance as a CIA analyst consumed with the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the final act of the movie depicting the raid on bin Laden’s compound is a tour de force.

Old-school runner-up.  The third movie I gave a straight “A” to in 2013 was the 1949 classic The Third Man.  It’s just a great, great movie.  Look it up.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I’ll pick Man of Steel as last year’s best action movie.  This Superman origin story held my interest from beginning to end.  Plus it featured Amy Adams, which is a plus even though she was kind of miscast as Lois Lane.  I still haven’t seen the new Hobbit movie, so we’ll see if it can give Superman a run for his money.  I also liked World War Z, and I think most zombie fans will too.

Best Animated Movie.  I saw and liked two last year.  Top honors go to Wreck-It Ralph, an entertaining and heart-warming story about the lives of a bunch of video-game characters “after hours.”  I also liked The Croods.  I didn’t have high hopes for that one, but the emotional ending really got to me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category, and last year was no exception.  I didn’t think any of the comedies I saw were great, and the ones I thought were pretty good generally weren’t straight comedies.  I guess the best straight comedy I saw was In a World…, about a woman who is trying to grow up while also trying to break into the very male field of movie voice-over work.  Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 had some good moments, but it’s got a lot of very serious stretches amongst the amusing bits.  And I liked Warm Bodies, which is kind of a zombie romantic comedy, or zom-rom-com, but it is certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste.

Best Documentary.  Hands down, my favorite of the year was 56 Up.  But don’t watch it until you’ve seen all the previous installments in this long-running British series of documentaries.  The series follows a double-handful of British kids from different social classes from their childhoods until now, when they are 56 years old.  Find the first one, 7 Up!, and watch them all.  You’ll thank me.  I saw a couple of other good ones in 2013 as well.  Twenty Feet From Stardom was an interesting look at the careers of some rock-and-roll back-up singers.  Blackfish is a grim, if one-sided, look at Sea World’s mistreatment of its captive killer whales.

Best Drama.  I’ll give top honors to The Spectacular Now, an effective dramedy about a high-school senior who needs to come to grips with his burgeoning alcohol problem, fast.  Another very good dramedy is The Way Way Back, about a young teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his mom’s relationship with a new, unpleasant boyfriend, played unpleasantly by Steve Carell.  I also urge you not to miss Woody Allen’s last movie, Blue Jasmine, starring the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett, and Alexander Payne’s last movie, Nebraska, which may produce an Oscar nominee or two of its own.  Finally, Baz Luhrmann is not for all tastes, but I enjoyed his new version of The Great Gatsby quite a bit.

Best Foreign Film.  Setting aside the British documentary 56 Up, mentioned above, I’ll go with the Italian film The Great Beauty.  The movie is languid and episodic, but it’s still an interesting look at the life of an aging hedonist living among the splendors of modern Rome.  I also saw and enjoyed a couple of older Italian movies—Fellini’s 8 ½ and the post-war classic Bicycle Thieves.

Best Science-Fiction Movie.  Here’s another clear winner: Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  Look for some Oscar nominations for this special-effects extravaganza about a couple of astronauts marooned in space.  I also liked the latest Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Gravity.

Honorable Mentions.  What else should you put in your Netflix queue or your streaming list?  Here are a few suggestions.  For drama, you could go with the 2012 release The Impossible, about the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia, or the recent remake of Les Miserables.  The Steven Soderbergh movie Side Effects is a pretty effective and twisty little thriller.  So is Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey.  At the risk of making myself a laughing stock among critics, I’m going to come right out and say I didn’t think The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, was half bad.  Just give it a chance!  Frances Ha is a decent little movie about a young woman trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.  Short Term 12 is a decent little movie about a home for troubled teenagers and the twentysomethings who try to watch out for them.  I liked American Hustle decently well, and you may still have time to catch that one in the movie theater.  Finally, I finally got around to seeing Kubrick’s The Shining, which is a pretty effective and entertaining chiller.  And I don’t usually like horror movies.

And that’s a wrap!

Gravity

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Gravity  (A-).  This is a terrific film.  It’s been the #1 movie in America for three weeks now, I believe, so you’ve probably already seen it.  Sandra Bullock (The Heat) and George Clooney (The American) play astronauts on a space-shuttle mission to work on the Hubble Telescope.  Things go horribly wrong when the Russians attempt to destroy one of their own satellites; although the Russian satellite is a long way off, the attempt sets off a chain reaction that sends a shower of deadly debris smashing into the space shuttle.  Before you can say “Houston, we have a problem,” Sandra and George are fighting for their lives and desperately trying to figure out some way to cross the 600 kilometers between them and Earth in a non-life-ending way.  It’s a taut (91 minutes) thrill ride, and the special effects are spectacular.  I saw it in IMAX 3D, and it made for a truly immersive experience.  I’ve liked all of director Alphonso Cuaron’s films that I’ve seen (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Great Expectations) but this one tops them all.

The Descendants

Mom Under Cover says Hang Ten for The Descendants if you want to be in the know on Oscar night.

The Descendants;  Grade B

George Clooney and Beau Bridges are Hawaiian?  I couldn’t really buy it though I found myself repeating that question in my mind throughout the movie.  Is Clooney’s performance Oscar worthy?  Hard to say.  He is unexpectedly adept at subtle humor.  I will confess I saw this film from the second row—which is way too close—I’m sure that colors my impression.  The screenplay is clever in parts, both drama and comedy, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election and About Schmidt).  The story opens as Clooney’s Matt King finds his wife, Elizabeth, (Patricia Hastie) in the hospital from a boating accident.   I was prepared for a long depressing story of a family dealing with the unexpected death of their mother/wife.  The story unfolds differently but is difficult to explain without giving away too much.  King is in the position of caring for his two daughters (though he apparently has never so much as made a PB and J sandwich) while his wife languishes in the hospital.  Oh, and he learns from his older daughter (Shailene Woodley) that Elizabeth had been having an affair with a local realtor (Matthew Lillard).  Surfers will recognize big-wave surfing legend Laird Hamilton as Elizabeth’s boating partner, Troy.  For my money, this film will probably win more awards than it deserves but it is worth a trip to the theater.

The Descendants

A new review from Movie Man Mike

The Descendants. (B-).  Meh.  I was underwhelmed by this film.   I’ve been hearing the buzz about Clooney’s Oscar-caliber performance and so I decided to check it out.  Yes, Clooney gives a solid performance as the grieving husband in the wake of the coma-inducing accident sustained by his wife.  I actually thought Shailene Woodley, who played the daughter, gave an even better performance.   Part of the problem here is that Clooney’s role wasn’t really written to be Oscar caliber.  The writers injected a little black comedy into Clooney’s misfortune when he learns that his wife had been having an affair with another man and she intended to divorce him before she sustained her injuries.  Frankly, watching the sordid details of this poor man’s misfortune play themselves out on the screen was not all that entertaining.  Perhaps it was because it seemed all too possible and real.  In any event, I wish I had saved the price of admission and my time.  I wouldn’t have missed much.

The Ides of March

The Movie Snob reviews a recent release.

The Ides of March (B-).  This political drama stars the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love) as Stephen Meyer, a talented and idealistic member of a presidential campaign team who gets a crash course in hardball politics in the run-up to the Ohio Democratic primary.  His candidate and apparent hero is Michael Morris (George Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) who is the governor of Pennsylvania and sounds like Barack Obama would sound if he didn’t have to worry about polls and elections.  Rounding out the cast are luminaries like Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Savages) as Morris’s top campaign adviser, Paul Giamatti (Win Win) as Hoffman’s counterpart in the opposing camp, Marisa Tomei (Crazy, Stupid, Love) as a reporter for the Times, and Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler) as a luscious young intern on the Morris campaign team.  The movie kept my interest pretty well, but the whole thing got a little lurid and overheated for my taste.  It’s got a lot in common with the classic Robert Penn Warren novel All the King’s Men, so if you like The Ides of March, do yourself a favor and check a copy of All the King’s Men out of the library.