This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of October to December 2013


“Gangster Squad”-I’m a sucker for stories about Los Angeles in the height of its Hollywood days (1930s-1950s). While Hollywood really doesn’t play a role in this film, the LA of the late 1940s does. In this fantasy based on real life figures in Los Angeles of 1949, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) of the LAPD chooses tough Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to head up a squad of cops to undermine by whatever means the activities of mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). O’Mara, with the help of his clever wife Connie (Mireille Enos), chooses a group including Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) (who joins reluctantly), Office Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and tech expert Officer Conrad Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). Inviting himself into the group is Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña). Parker’s instructions are to do everything they can to disrupt Cohen’s mob activities, a considerable undertaking considering that Cohen has bought almost every official in sight and has henchmen, armed with machine guns, seemingly everywhere. And there’s one more problem, Sgt. Wooters has fallen for Cohen’s girlfriend, the beautiful Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), but it helps to have a little romance in the middle of the violence. The premise is interesting and the action is reasonably entertaining although the film creates a moral issue of cops killing an awful lot of people with little real legal authority. My biggest problem with this film is that while it pretends to tell a true story, it’s nowhere near the truth. Check up on Mickey Cohen’s life, and you’ll find that unlike the events implied in the film, Cohen’s stay in LA didn’t end in 1949 or 1950 and he never went to prison for anything other than tax evasion. Also, while the film makes Chief Parker look like he’s about to retire in 1949, the fact is that Parker didn’t actually become LAPD chief until August 1950. One more thing: Sean Penn who over-emotes as Mickey Cohen appeared to be wearing makeup aimed at making him look like a comic book figure out of a Dick Tracy story. Otherwise, the cast is pleasant and fun to watch despite the violence. B- (12/26/13)


“Elysium”-This sci-fi film from Neil Blomkamp, the creator of the very successful “District 9,” had a lot of potential: Blomkamp as writer/director, Matt Damon and Jodie Foster as stars, and a premise that could have been used for a significant theme of social commentary. But the filmmakers let us down. It is the late 21st century and essentially the 1% are living on Elysium, a gigantic planetoid space station approximately 20 minutes above earth. The planetoid has beautiful upscale geographical features, looking something like Beverly Hills or Honolulu, and it also has machines in every home which provide instant cures for medical problems. These are available only to the wealthy citizens of Elysium. Elysium is run by Delacourt (Jodie Foster) with some supervision from President Patel (Faran Tahir). Down below on the ruined Earth, the other 99% live in filth and chaos, breathing unclean air, and staring at ubiquitous graffiti. Max (Matt Damon) is a brutalized factory worker who has dreamed since childhood, with his friend Frey (played as an adult by Alice Braga), of making it to Elysium. So there is the potential premise for an interesting take on the struggle between the 99% and the 1%. But instead of a thoughtful drama about this modern issue, what we get instead is not much better than a video game of a battle between the good and the bad. This battle action goes on almost incessantly and Damon, a fine actor, has little chance to emote. He’s too busy holding his broken arm, worrying about the radiation he’s been exposed to by a malicious executive from Elysium, and trying to survive the bullets and rays aimed at him. C- (12/25/13)


“The Lone Ranger”-I grew up watching “The Lone Ranger” on 1950s black and white TV. He was a masked hero, rode a white horse named Silver, and had an Indian sidekick, Tonto, who called him “Kemo Sabe.” Never quite knew what it meant, but it was a nice affection. It was always exciting to see and hear the opening as The Lone Ranger was stirringly introduced to the sounds of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The two went out and solved crimes or saved damsels in distress. And there was always that important question at the end? “Who was that masked man?” This movie bears no resemblance to the Lone Ranger I grew up with. Here, he’s portrayed as a confused semi-idiot (played by Armie Hammer) who, for most of the film, is at odds with the weird and overly madeup Tonto (Johnny Depp, an actor who seems to be making more and more wrong calls on his films). But as bad as it ultimately gets, it starts with a really dumb scene in which a young boy dressed as a cowboy and a mask attends a museum display in the 1930s and finds himself talking to a statue of the “noble savage,” who just happens to turn out to be a very aged Tonto who proceeds to tell him the ridiculous story of how the Lone Ranger and Tonto met. And then there’s the rest of this disaster. This film is so over-over-over-the-top with nonsensical hyper action that it is practically blinding. The one moment in the film that made me smile was when the the William Tell Overture started near the end, but unfortunately that was just the beginning of the worst. It was even more downhill, literally and figuratively, from there. D (12/20/13)


“Searching for Sugar Man”-This is a tremendous documentary about a very talented American folk singer in the early 1970s with an intriguing voice, who wrote memorable melodies and insightful human lyrics and who for some reason never caught on in the US. Some in the music business who knew him felt his songs were more powerful than those of Bob Dylan. His name: Rodriguez. Without his knowledge and the royalties he should have received, however, he did catch on in other parts of the world. But he didn’t know it until much later in his life. Rodriguez was tremendously popular in South Africa with young liberal whites who were opposed to Apartheid and the film centers on a few, in the late 1990s, who had heard rumors that Rodriguez had died in a variety of spectacular ways and wanted to discover the truth. Not only did they find out that he wasn’t dead, they discovered that he is alive and kicking in Detroit. As a result he (with his daughters) was invited to South Africa to perform by people who weren’t convinced until they saw and heard him that he was the real “Rodriguez.” It turned his life around (although he has apparently given away most of the money he’s made and still lives in his inexpensive Detroit home). His songs are now on iTunes. This tremendously heartwarming and Oscar-winning documentary is highly recommended. A- (12/17/13)


“The Great Gatsby”-Director Baz Luhrmann can’t seem to help himself. He seems to feel the need to make over-the-top films (from the awful “Moulin Rouge” to the acceptable “Australia” and now to this remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”). Filmed with surrealistic images of a Long Island, Queens, and Manhattan that never really existed, “Gatsby” begins with hyper physical and musical action involving New York revelers pouring into the mysterious Jay Gatsby’s Long Island mansion in West Egg, NY, for all-night fun (with a couple of very strange hints of hip-hop sounds, considering the story takes place in the 1920s). But we see all of this from the point of view of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Gatsby’s West Egg neighbor, who doesn’t quite know what to make of it. But Nick nevertheless proceeds to tell the tragic tale of Gatsby’s attempt to recreate his old relationship and love for Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is married to the vulgar and super-rich Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) of East Egg, just across the bay. Thankfully, Luhrmann settles down into the story, but at almost 2 1/2 hours, it drags. Frankly, I think I could have read Fitzgerald’s novel in a shorter amount of time. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly handsome and mysterious as Gatsby. Tobey Maguire is fine as Carraway, but I wonder about Carey Mulligan. It occurred to me while watching that she might be a little overexposed and overrated as a young up and coming star. Since Luhrmann is Australian and he made this film in and around Sydney, the cast is loaded with Australian actors including Joel Edgerton who seems stiff and uncomfortable as the upper class Buchanan. Finally, there is the disturbing portrayal of the middle world of Queens (between the Eggs and Manhattan), portrayed as an ugly heap of dirt with bizarre signs including the iconic eyeglasses of an optometrist’s advertisement. Located here is Myrtle Wilson, Buchanan’s unlikely red-headed mistresss (Isla Fisher, almost unrecognizable), whose fate also seals Gatsby’s fate. And then there is Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”), another Australian, as George Wilson, the always greasy and sweaty garage owner and husband of Myrtle. Luhrmann tells Fitzgerald’s tale, but it’s a long journey to the sad end. C+ (12/15/13)


“Frances Ha”-Do you like upbeat films? Well, “Frances Ha” may not seem upbeat at times, but with the delightful Greta Gerwig as Frances, you can’t help but smile at the end of this film. Directed (and co-written with Gerwig) by Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”), “Frances Ha” is the story of a young New York woman in her early 30s who is far from settling into her life. She moves from apartment to apartment, sometimes having no place of her own. She thinks she’s a dancer but looks awfully awkward when she actually does dance moves (you’d think she’d get the hint when the head of the dance company she occasionally is involved with, Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise), offers her a job as the company secretary). Delightfully, she runs through the streets of the city, sometimes with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and she interacts well with her friends, including roommates Lev (Adam Driver) and Benjie (Michael Zegen). On occasion, she looks a little depressed and maybe even jealous of others, but she never lets it get her really down. “Frances Ha” is filmed in black and white. Not the crispest black and white I’ve ever seen. And occasionally the main characters are in shadows and hardly visible. I presume this was intended. But overall, this is a film worth watching. Recommended and watch carefully at the end as the amusing reason for the title of the film is revealed.. B+ (12/13/13)


“Red 2”-The first film in this series, “Red,” was an unmitigatingly funny thriller with a superb cast. “Red 2” isn’t quite as good as the first for the very reason that it’s no longer a surprise, for example, to see Helen Mirren, as a cold-blooded assassin handling a machine gun with ease. But watching a tongue-in-cheek thriller with a cast of Bruce Willis, Mary Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, Brian Cox, and David Thewlis, you can’t go wrong. The plot, which has to do with the search for a secret weapon of mass destruction, isn’t worth going into although it should be noted that it centers around former black ops operator Frank Moses (Willis) who is in the category of “retired, extremely dangerous” or “red,” his girlfriend Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), and his wacky compatriot Marvin (Malkovich). What is worth noting is that the cast clearly is having a great deal of fun playing these amusing characters and the viewer undoubtedly will too. I must note, though, that Mary Louise Parker, with her big eyes and lovely innocent face, steals the film. B (11/30/13)


“Before Midnight”-Oh, the differences between how people relate during youthful infatuation and romance, and, in contrast, following two children and years of marriage. As in the earlier “Before Sunrise” (1995) and “Before Sunset” (2004), “Before Midnight” presents us with a good two hours of intelligent conversation between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), including a charming interlude with friends in the lovely Greek Peloponnesian peninsula. Whereas the first two films were an exploration of the differences and charms of the two primary characters, intermingled with a great deal of philosophy as they discovered each other while walking through Vienna and Paris (where they now live in “Before Midnight”), this film explores the weaknesses in a long-term relationship, especially one in which Jesse has a son by a prior marriage who lives in Chicago and is having thoughts about spending more time with him. Celine’s immediate hostility to even the mention of the possibility of spending time in the US begins the process of deconstruction. Although the dialogue between the characters is smartly written (by director Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke), it began to wear on this viewer after a time. Celine, who is very insecure due to the changes in her body over the years, walks out of their hotel room a couple of times in anger, only to return almost immediately. And while the argument ends on something of an upbeat note, it’s the only artificial moment in the film. B+ (11/29/13)


“Barbara”-This German film presents us with the sensation of how gloomy life must have been for many in East Germany. It is 1980. Barbara (the excellent Nina Hoss), a physician, has been exiled to a remote hospital from Berlin after she had made a request to exit the country. When she arrives she is somewhat morose and very suspicious of those with whom she is working, including the charming André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the head doctor in her department who immediately takes a great interest in her. We soon learn that Barbara has a western boyfriend who is helping her plot a way for her to escape East Germany. But everything Barbara does out of the ordinary, such as traveling by train away from her new home, results in a visit from the Stasi, the East German secret police. It’s telling that the characters speak in low volumes, almost as if they suspect the Stasi is listening. Barbara, who rides her bike between work and her dreary apartment, finds herself changing as she meets different people, including one teenage girl patient to whom she becomes attached. "Barbara" is a well-acted intelligent film about life in a dreary totalitarian society. (In German with English subtitles.) B+ (11/21/13)


“Parkland”-Needless to say, this is a timely film as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy approaches. But, although based on the Vincent Bugliosi book that concluded Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin, it isn’t about the actual assassination or the conspiracy theories that exist about JFK’s death; rather it centers on the emotional reactions of a variety of individuals involved in the events of November 22, 1963. Beginning with real images of JFK and his wife Jacqueline arriving in Fort Worth and then in Dallas, “Parkland” passes over the actual shooting in Dealey Plaza quickly, in order to show the reactions of the nurses and the doctors at Parkland Hospital to dealing with a fatally injured president and, later, the wounded and dying accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Zac Efron, as Dr. Carrico, seems appropriately shocked at first to be treating JFK with the help of Dr. Perry (Colin Hanks) and several nurses, including Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) who makes a valiant effort to keep Secret Service agents and others out of the ER room. The film does a particularly fine job of portraying the emotions of Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), a local women’s clothing manufacturer, who is at first excited about taking movies of JFK’s visit with his Bell & Howell camera, only to find himself shocked and depressed after the event and after he becomes the center of attention of the Secret Service and FBI as they attempt to get his soon-to-be-famous home movie processed. “Parkland” also presents the poignant reactions of a top Secret Service agent, Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) to losing "his man," and FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) who had had some contact with Lee Harvey Oswald and, not knowing he was about to be accused of killing the president, did nothing. Finally, the film presents the reactions of Oswald’s brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), and mother, Marguerite (Jacki Weaver), who is portrayed as being self-oriented and a little nuts. As a drama, the film is effective. But the presentation, while attempting to avoid the conspiracy theories, makes the poignant point that everyone immediately concluded that because Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested he was necessarily the lone assassin. B+ (11/19/13)


“The Last Days on Mars”-If you have seen the recent films “Prometheus” and “Europa Report” you don’t need to see this film. Because all three tell very similar sci-fi tales of a group of humans traveling to another planet or moon to investigate for life, and, surprise, surprise, things do not go according to plan. Whereas “Prometheus” and “Europa Report” provided many more details about the motivations for the outer space expeditions, “The Last Days on Mars” presents us with a crew which has been on Mars for six months and is ready to go home. But, of course, at the last moment one of the crew insists on leaving the compound to check a soil sample and is told to come back before dark. You can probably guess what happens next. The remainder is utterly predictable. The film is directed by Ruairi Robinson, directing his first feature. It shows. The cast includes some enjoyable performers, including Liev Schreiber as Vincent, Romola Garai as Rebecca, and Olivia Williams as Kim. However, I think I can sum up this film by comparing it to another recent sci-fi film in this way: “The Last Days on Mars” could well be the prequel to “World War Z.” C (11/1/13)


“Emperor”- Under the direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), takes on the investigation of Emperor Hirohito’s responsibility for the invasion of Pearl Harbor. “Emperor” is a small history-minded film but falls down when the filmmakers create a fictional romance for an apparently single Fellers with a young beautiful Japanese woman (Aya Shimada) that dominates the story. In real life, Fellers had a Japanese woman friend but had been married with children long before WW II began. “Emperor” is mildly entertaining as Fellers finds himself dealing with the ancient and mysterious ways of the Japanese. Tommy Lee Jones’ part is relatively small, with Fox as the primary character in the plot. C+ (10/25/13)


“The Bling Ring”-Directed by Sofia Coppola, whose films such as “Lost in Translation” have generally been intriguing, and with a cast headed by former Harry Potter star Emma Watson, “The Bling Ring” is a major disappointment. Based on true-life events, “The Bling Ring” attempts to tell the story of a group of high school teens in Hollywood who break into the homes of celebrities, including Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan, in order to admire and steal their garish possessions. Katie Chang plays Rebecca, the initially celeb-obsessed teen and ultimate ringleader, with a heart of steel. She barely has to suggest to young Marc (Israel Broussard) an invasion of Paris Hilton’s home before he agrees. As the group grows to include Nicki (Emma Watson), her sister, and others, a glaze seems to come over the eyes of this creepy group. They are shown having absolutely no difficulty entering the homes (is it really possible that these celebs had almost no security systems and Paris Hilton left her key under the doormat?) and having seemingly no compunctions about their criminal activities, although Marc is occasionally shown suggesting that they should leave. The major weakness with “The Bling Ring” is that it adds up to very little. The vast majority of the film consists of repetitive scenes in which the teens are cruising through the homes admiring the clothes, jewelry, handbags, perfume and art. Even when the law finally gets involved, the film zips through the judicial process (the court scene consists of a courtroom door closing and then opening) and leaves us almost completely unsatisfied. C (10/16/13)


“World War Z”-Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karin (Mirelle Enos), and their two daughters are driving through downtown Philadelphia when all hell breaks loose. Things are exploding, cars are crashing, and crazed humans are attacking each other madly. Gerry leads his wife and kids to safety as we discover that something is turning humans into zombies, but not the classic slow-moving kind. Instead, these zombies move fast and immediately head for the jugular. Gerry, it seems, is a former UN worker now called back to help find and stop the cause of this world-wide calamity. In the process he picks up a companion, Segen, a young Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz). That just about sums up the entire film, for the rest is pretty much Gerry and Segen versus the zombies as Gerry attempts the seemingly impossible task of finding a cure. There’s not much to this film unless you like seeing actors contorting their faces and providing otherwise weird demeanors as they attack each other without any substance. C- (10/11/13)


“Not Fade Away”-This film is not recommended despite the fact that it is the product of David Chase who was responsible for “The Sopranos.” “Not Fade Away” is intended to be the story of a group of mid-1960s teens in New Jersey who decide to form a rock band. But the film has a mediocre script, surprisingly weak directing (by David Chase, of all people), overly murky cinematography with far too many scenes in the dark, a lack of dramatic tension, weak transitions and segues, and some mediocre performances. Let’s put it this way--most of the young stars are not likely to be memorable, at least for this film. John Magaro tries hard in the lead role as Douglas. 30-year old Jack Huston, who is excellent in “Boardwalk Empire,” seems totally out of place as a teen member of the rock group. The late James Gandolfini is barely present as Douglas’ Italian-American New Jersey father of the 60s who simply doesn’t understand his son’s interests and behavior. The film contains some annoying characterizations intent on demonstrating the cultural divide of the mid-1960s, the worst being that of Douglas’ mother (Molly Price) who appears dressed in bathrobe and curlers in far too many scenes. And for a film about the birth of a rock band, the rock music seems almost like an afterthought (and it didn’t help that we knew right from the start whether or not the band would succeed). I was in my teens in the 60s. I really didn't recognize it in this not particularly entertaining film. D (10/5/13)


“Star Trek Into Darkness”-With an amusing cast once again providing renewed life for the old favorites from the TV series, “Star Trek Into Darkness” reintroduces an old nemesis of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, played with evil pizzazz by Benedict Cumberbatch. The special effects are fun and the cast does a fine job of recreating the original TV series characters, including Simon Pegg as Scotty, Karl Urban as Bones, John Cho as Sulu, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, and Anton Yelchin as Chekhov. Zachary Quinto eerily brings Mr. Spock to life, although Spock seems to have a few more emotions than when played by Leonard Nimoy (who also appears briefly) in the original series. The only crew member who doesn’t seem much like the original version is Chris Pine as Captain Kirk (it’s apparently not easy to duplicate the one-of-a kind William Shatner), but he does a fine job anyway as the leader of the Starship Enterprise. I won’t go into any detail about the plot except to note that it lacked the moral theme of the original Star Trek series which, of course, was at its heart. But the story, for whatever it’s worth, does serve the characters well and makes for a reasonably enjoyable Star Trek experience. B (10/1/13)

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