Passengers

New from The Movie Snob.

Passengers  (B).  The critics haven’t been too kind to this new sci-fi flick, but I liked it pretty well.  For this particular movie it’s kind of hard to know what would count as spoilers, so first I’ll just say what the movie is about based on the first ten minutes:  an awesome starship from Earth is on a 120-year journey to a new world, with 5,000 passengers and a couple hundred crew members all sleeping the voyage away in suspended animation.  But a little problem crops up, and a single passenger—a lowly engineer named Jim (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World)—is woken up 90 years too soon.  There’s no way he can put himself back into hibernation, and communicating with Earth is impossible, so he faces living the rest of his life completely alone.  The movie is about how he deals with that fate.

 

The rest of this review might contain spoilers if you haven’t seen any previews for this movie.

 

As the previews show, and as even the movie’s posters give away, Jim doesn’t stay alone.  Another passenger, the lovely Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook) also wakes up.  How that comes to pass, and how she and Jim get along after she wakes up, are among the most interesting parts of the movie.  Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy) turns up as Arthur, the robotic bartender.  The movie’s final act gets rather less interesting as coincidences and unbelievable events pile up.  Still, I liked the movie overall.  I thought Pratt and Lawrence were very likable, kind of like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land.  If you like science fiction, I say give Passengers a try.

Joy (a second opinion)

The Movie Snob takes in a biopic.

Joy (B).  So, I saw this movie about inventor and marketing mogul Joy Mangano a couple of nights ago.  As I was driving home, I thought, “How odd that I have never seen or really even heard of this person before.”  When I got home, I retrieved my mail, and, lo and behold, there she was on the cover of a Bed Bath & Beyond flyer, touting her redesigned Miracle Mop.  Anyway, I basically agree with Mom Under Cover’s opinion that this is a pretty good movie.  It’s Jennifer Lawrence’s picture all the way, and she (Winter’s Bone) delivers her typical go-for-broke performance.  Like Mom Under Cover says, Joy is basically a human weeble–she continually gets knocked down, but she always gets right back up.  I enjoyed watching her fight to realize her dream, with various degrees of help and hindrance from her divorced parents, her beloved grandma (Diane Ladd, TV’s Alice), her ex-husband, her jealous half-sister, and her dad’s flamboyant foreign girlfriend, played with flair by Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet).  Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) has basically a glorified cameo as the QVC manager who gives Joy her big break.  The ending wrapped up a little too quickly and easily for my taste.  But on the whole, I enjoyed it.

Joy

Mom Under Cover send in this new review.

I saw Joy recently and would give it a solid B.  The third movie directed by David O. Russell starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro has much the same feel as Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.  This movie is loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the miracle mop (among other items) that sold like hotcakes on QVC and later HSN (Home Shopping Network).  Ms. Mangano had consulting credits and apparently approved of the film but the story deviates quite a bit from her life.  Joy (Lawrence) pitched her mop to a QVC exec (Cooper) after a cash infusion to make parts for the mop by her father’s (De Niro) girlfriend played by Isabella Rossellini.  Russell throws out every imaginable obstacle to thwart Joy’s success but Lawrence’s Joy isn’t down for long before she overcomes.  I found the movie a little long and slow in parts but it made me curious enough to Google Joy Mangano–and learn enough to wonder if the movie would have been better if it had stuck closer to her story.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

New from The Movie Snob.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (B-). Here is yet another movie full of comic-book mayhem, the seventh movie in the X-Men franchise. I thought it was a mixed bag. On the plus side, the movie’s central character is Wolverine, and I just can’t help liking good old Hugh Jackman (The Wolverine) in that role. There are some decently cool action sequences. Some other quality actors turn up and give good performances (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle; Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave).  On the minus side, there’s a fair amount of tedious exposition. The CGI magic eventually starts to feel less than magical. Cute little Ellen Page (Juno) is wasted in a tiny part. And the whole movie is about time-traveling to save the world, a gimmick that is getting a little tired.

Here’s a fun game you can play. Before I saw the movie, I read the beginning of one critic’s review in which he asserted that the whole movie is mediocre except for one stand-out, clever, delightful scene. I deliberately read no further in the review, and when I saw the movie I tried to guess which scene he was referring to. Turned out, I guessed right. See if you can too! I think this link will get you to his review.

American Hustle; Philomena

Mom Under Cover sets the record straight.

I liked American Hustle more than The Movie Snob.  I would give it an A and totally understand why it won the Golden Globe for best comedy/musical.  I found the opening scene a microcosm of the entire movie and a comment about life.  Christian Bale (who underwent quite a physical transformation from his Batman days) is putting the finishing touches on his elaborate comb-over as he prepares to leave for the day.  The things we do to feel comfortable going out in the world are a little bit of a con job.  How much of it do we believe?  How much are we really fooling others?  In some ways, we are all conning each other and ourselves—just as these characters do.  Sometimes we want to believe the façade we see even though clues abound.  Bradley Cooper’s complete and utter confusion when he realizes Amy Adams’ character is not British is a good example.  Cooper has the finesse to be totally believable as the FBI agent who thinks slightly higher of himself than he ought. J. Law rocks the ‘70s hair and makeup.  The crazy schemes are a wacky laugh-out-loud romp.

Another good movie I saw recently was Philomena. B+.  Judi Dench and Steve Coogan bring life to a real woman’s story about being forced by nuns to give her son up for adoption as an unwed, teenager mother.  Stephen Frears (The Queen; High Fidelity) directed a well-paced, heartwarming tale in the style of an odd-couple buddy movie.  The Catholic Church is scrutinized and found wanting for its treatment of young girls and their fatherless infants.  You will leave the theater googling to find out how much is true (hint:  all of it).  Seeing the real Philomena at the Golden Globes was a kick.

 

American Hustle

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

American Hustle (B).  Here’s the much-anticipated new movie from director David O. Russell, whose films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook I liked a lot.  He unites four of the main cast members from those movies for this fictionalized tale about the “Abscam” scandal of the late 1970s–Christian Bale and Amy Adams plays a couple of small-time con artists, and Bradley Cooper plays a loose-cannon FBI agent who traps them into helping him set up a sting operation that gets increasingly crazy as it goes along.  Current It Girl Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s wife, and she’s more than a bit of a loose cannon herself.  There’s a lot to like about the film.  It’s got a lot of energy, and the actors and actresses are at the top of their games.  But I didn’t love it, or like it as much as Russell’s last two films.  I think I just don’t like movies about con games.  Most of the time I get totally confused and have no idea what’s going on.  The con games going on in American Hustle aren’t as complicated as some, so I think I basically followed what was going on, but the movie just didn’t grab me.  Still, it’s a decent flick, and it apparently got seven Golden Globe nominations, so by all means, check it out and see what you think.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

New from the desk of The Movie Snob.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire  (B-).  I still haven’t read the books, so I went to this sequel simply as a moviegoer who likes sci-fi and who enjoyed the first installment.  (See my review here.  And other reviews of the first one here and here.)  On the plus side, the movie moves along nicely and held my attention throughout its almost 2 1/2 hour running time.  Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) is good like she always is, and I thought a couple of the new arena fighters, Finnick (Sam Claflin, Snow White and the Huntsman) and Johanna (Jena Malone, Pride & Prejudice), were pretty cool.  But I just didn’t enjoy this film as much as the last one.  The idea that an oppressive regime would use these complicated and drawn-out gladiator contests to keep the restive provinces subdued just seems too far-fetched for me.  The bland guy who’s in love with Katniss (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right) is just as much a helpless Harry in this one as he was in the first one.  And the arena part of the movie ultimately felt more dutiful than exciting this time around.  Oh well, two down, two to go….

Silver Linings Playbook

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Silver Linings Playbook  (B+).  Beneath all the stuff about mental illness, Silver Linings Playbook is a very conventional movie–much more conventional than I would have expected from director David O. Russell (The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees).  As the film opens, a guy in his mid-30s named Patrick (Bradley Cooper, Limitless) is getting released into his parents’ custody after spending eight months in a mental institution.  We quickly learn that he suffers from bipolar disorder, that he got locked up after nearly killing a man that he caught having sex with his wife Nikki, and that he is deeply obsessed with getting Nikki back (despite a restraining order that forbids him to contact her).  Soon after his release, Patrick meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone), a young widow who has plenty of mental-health issues of her own.  Tiffany says she’ll deliver a letter from Patrick to Nikki, but he has to pay her back by being her partner in a dance contest.  (Seriously?  A dance contest?)  There’s also a subplot involving Patrick’s somewhat OCD father (Robert De Niro, Stardust), who is risking his life savings doing some illegal bookmaking.  Anyhoo, the movie did not feel very honest to me, especially the part about mentally ill people being as put-together looking and attractive as Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.  But, in my humble opinion, romantic movies don’t have to be too honest if the romance works, and this one does.  Cooper is good, but I thought Lawrence was phenomenal, dominating every scene she was in as the vulnerable-but-kind-of-scary Tiffany.  In sum, I didn’t believe it, but I did enjoy it.

Yet Another “Hunger Games” Review

This one’s from The Movie Snob

The Hunger Games (B).   Like Movie Man Mike, I haven’t read the book, so I have to take the movie on its own merits.  As action flicks go, it is very good.  Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) is great as heroine Katniss Everdeen.  (If you liked this movie, you should really seek out Winter’s Bone, in which Lawrence’s character is surprisingly Katnisslike.)  The special effects are good.  It’s true that the editing is choppy, which is obviously to keep the gore factor down and the PG-13 rating safely in place, but I didn’t find it too distracting.  On the downside, the movie is very dark, since it is, after all, about 24 teenagers murdering each other for the entertainment of the cheering masses.  Even with the choppy editing, some of the carnage was a little hard to stomach.  I also can’t shake a feeling that the premise of the Hunger Games just didn’t make any sense.  The annual sacrifice of 23 kids was supposed to be a sign and strengthener of unity throughout the country?  For that to work, shouldn’t the capital city people have been sending two of their kids to the Games too?  And is it remotely plausible that the Districts are going to feel more united with each other and the capital after watching their kids kill each other?  But during the movie itself, I can’t deny I was pretty captivated by what was going on onscreen.

The Hunger Games

New review from Movie Man Mike.

Hunger Games (B-).  Given how this film has performed at the box office, I’m probably one of the last to see it.  First: the negatives: Surprisingly, this film left me wanting to check my watch 2 or 3 times to see how much longer it had to go, which is a shame.  The pace should have been driven by the action, but it was edited in such a way that the action didn’t really drive the pace.  Many things could have been improved in the way this was presented.  I would have liked to have seen a little more definition of what the relationship was between Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).  The filmmakers go to the trouble of showing you what great strength Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has, but then you never get to see him use any of that strength.  Donald Sutherland plays President Snow and he delivers a good performance as usual, but you don’t get enough of a glimpse of what motivates him.  Finally, I would have liked to have seen a little more character development of the bad guys.  You barely get a glimpse of who they are.  I also never really got a good feel for the relationships of the various districts to one another and to what seems to be the capitol city of the planet.  I am sure the books could afford to go into greater depth, but for someone who hadn’t read the books, I was left wanting more.  I had so many questions, like what were the other districts like?  Who was Seneca Crane and how did he get that position?  What was Donald Sutherland’s relationship to it all and how did he get his position?  What did Effie Trinket and Haymitch Abernathy do when they weren’t training and escorting District 12’s Hunger games participants around?  Now the positives: Woody Harrelson.  He delivers a great performance as Haymitch Abernathy-a former winner of the Hunger Games.  Stanley Tucci also gives a nice performance as Caesar Flickerman, the emcee of the games.  And I liked the idea for the story itself—a dystopian society where each year two participants from each district are selected to be part of the hunger games, which are a fight to the death.  The purpose of the games is to serve as a reminder of an ugly rebellion by the districts.  And, as Donald Sutherland puts it, the reason there is a winner at all is that it gives the people something to hope for.  What this film gave me to hope for was better presentation, more detail.  And it is for that reason (hope) that I will probably see the sequel.  Maybe then some of the background detail will be made more evident.

X-Men: First Class

The Movie Snob declines to be assimilated

X-Men: First Class  (B).  The Borg Queen panned this movie a few weeks ago (see her review here), but I have to disagree.  As everyone knows, this is a prequel about the origins of the mutants and Charles Xavier’s school for same.  First, we get a quick look at the childhoods of two of the first mutants, the telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Becoming Jane) and the metal-manipulating Erik Lensherr a/k/a Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Centurion).  Flash forward to the early 1960s, when the CIA becomes aware that sinister forces seem to be driving both the United States and the Soviet Union towards a nuclear confrontation.  The ubiquitous Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) plays the savvy CIA agent who discovers that those sinister forces are evil mutants, and she seeks the aid of Xavier (at first not knowing he is a mutant himself).  I was surprised to see that Mystique (played here by Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone) is roughly the same age as Xavier, since she looks much younger than he in the later movies.  Anyhoo, I thought the movie was generally a good ride.  The X-Men movies in general seem to try harder to get at the humanity beneath the awesome superpowers.  The movie has its shortcomings–it’s too long, some of the characters seem to switch sides with little or no motivation, and the Borg Queen is right that there is a gratuitous scene of a bunch of half-naked women.  Also, I was annoyed when I sat through all the closing credits to see the usual final scene, only to discover that there wasn’t one.  But on the whole the movie was definitely worth watching.

The Movie Snob’s 2010 Year in Review!

Welcome to The Movie Snob’s annual list of the best movies of the year. As usual, if I saw a movie in the theater in 2010, I may include it in this column even if it was technically a 2009 release. For the record, I saw 58 movies at the theater in 2010, and these are the ones you should try to see if you haven’t seen them yet.

Movie of the Year. This was not a tough decision — the year’s highlight for me was The Social Network, the popular and critically acclaimed dramatization of the invention of Facebook. It’s an engrossing story about how a bunch of greedy nerds built an empire — and then sued the pants off each other. I just saw a news item that the Winklevoss twins are trying to undo their $65 million settlement because they think they’re entitled to even more. Or maybe they’re just trying to lay the groundwork for a sequel.

Runner Up. It didn’t do so well at the box office, but I thought Never Let Me Go was an excellent adaption of a phenomenal book. I can’t say much about the plot, but it’s a sad tale set in a dystopian alternative reality. Thought-provoking without being (in my opinion) preachy. Put it in your Netflix queue. Wait — read the book first. Then put it in your Netflix queue.

Best Action/Adventure Flick. Will I lose my license to critique if I pick the remake of Clash of the Titans? As a kid, I loved the original, and I enjoyed the remake enough to see it twice in the theater — NOT the 3D version, which was brutally panned by the critics. It’s just good, stupid fun with mythology. Oh, I should mention Inception, because it was a fun, roller-coaster ride of a movie, even though I didn’t know what was going on half the time. And even though I’ll look like an idiot for preferring Clash of the Titans. Alice in Wonderland was pretty good too, and Alice’s duel with the Jabberwocky at the end was pretty action-y, so I’ll mention it in this category too.

Best Animated Movie. Unlike 2009, 2010 featured a bumper crop in this category. I’d give top honors to Toy Story 3, which had more exciting action and adventure than anything in the preceding category. But the quirky Fantastic Mr. Fox was also excellent, if a little offbeat. I also liked The Princess and the Frog quite a bit. But in addition to those films, I’d also recommend Megamind, Despicable Me, and How to Train Your Dragon as being well worth your time.

Best Comedy. I’m always hard-pressed to label any comedy “good,” much less recommend it as worth seeing. But I really, really liked a little-seen movie called City Island, starring Andy Garcia as an ordinary, blue-collar guy — a prison guard no less — who starts taking acting lessons on the sly. His wife thinks he’s having an affair; his teenage kids are complete mysteries to him; and then he inexplicably volunteers to take an ex-convict into his home. The plot clicks along very nicely, and I just enjoyed the heck out of it. The few other comedies I saw were wretched and don’t deserve a mention.

Best Documentary. I’ll go with the Johnny Depp-narrated When You’re Strange, which is about the short, strange career of the rock band The Doors. Nipping at its heels are the space documentary Hubble 3D (narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, I believe), and nature documentary Oceans (narrated by Pierce Brosnan).

Best Drama. Lots of strong contenders in this category this year. Maybe it’s just because I saw it very recently, but I’ll pick The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams. It’s just a solid boxing movie with an underdog hero you can’t help rooting for. Too cliched for your taste? I understand. Turn the clock back and go with An Education, a dark tale about a bright but naive British girl on the verge of womanhood who gets seduced by a sleazy cad. Or stay closer to home with the even darker Winter’s Bone, about a courageous teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence, in her breakout performance) who has to stand up to her seriously dangerous, meth-cooking relatives in the Missouri Ozarks if she wants to save her family’s farm. One last honorable mention: I really liked The Young Victoria. You don’t have to be an Anglophile to empathize with a spirited young woman born into the straitjacket of royalty.

Best Foreign Film. I would like to pick The Concert, a moving melodrama about a blacklisted Soviet music conductor who schemes his way into a comeback concert. I really enjoyed it at the time. But it did resort to an unpleasant Jewish stereotype to get a cheap laugh once or twice, and I have a hard time recommending it unreservedly. I also really enjoyed Kisses, an Irish movie about a couple of poor kids with bad home situations who decide to empty their piggy banks and run away from home. Honorable mention to the Italian movie Mid-August Lunch, which is a short, sweet little movie about a basically decent guy who is strapped for cash and agrees to take in a few elderly women for the weekend while their own children go away on holiday.

Honorable Mentions. I’ve already mentioned most of the worthwhile films of the year as honorable mentions in the specific categories above, but I can rattle off a few more that are worth a look. Michael Douglas turns in a good performance in Solitary Man. He plays a shallow, Gordon Gekko-like character, but on a much smaller scale. I didn’t see the Wall Street sequel, but this movie had to be much better than that. I liked The Kids Are All Right, about a very unusual family situation that develops when a couple of kids being raised by lesbians look for and find their sperm-donor father. Although it’s not the action movie it was purported to be, I liked The American, starring George Clooney as a world-weary hit man. (Be warned, it’s got some pretty graphic sex scenes in it.) Ben Affleck’s latest movie, The Town, is an entertaining film about a gang of Boston bank robbers. And still in current release you can catch Natalie Portman as a ballerina who’s not-so-slowly losing her marbles in Black Swan.

First Seen on Video This Year. Just one movie I simply must mention: The Big Lebowski. How did I miss seeing this movie? I found it completely ludicrous and utterly hilarious. OK, one more — The King of Kong, about a nice guy who just wants to compete fair and square for the title of Donkey Kong champion of the universe. I defy you not to get hooked on this movie.

So that’s my 2010 in a nutshell. Thanks for reading, and please post a comment!

Winter’s Bone

From the desk of The Movie Snob

Winter’s Bone (B+). Life is hard in the grim Missouri Ozarks. A 17-year-old girl named Ree Dolly struggles to finish high school while taking care of her two younger siblings and their mentally ill mother in their poor little house. Then bad news arrives. Her meth-cooking father has jumped bail after signing over the house and land, and if he misses his court date the family will be evicted. Someone in her extended family probably knows where he is, but in this culture people don’t talk, and asking questions will get you beaten or worse. But Ree will not be deterred, and the tension steadily mounts as she pursues her quest. It’s a good movie, and I think Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree, deserves an Oscar nomination.