According to Steven Soderbergh, this is the last feature film he intends to direct, which I find hard to believe given that, between September 2011 and this one coming out, earlier this year, he directed four movies (and, since his "retirement" hasn't precluded his making the sublime Behind the Candelabra, premiering on HBO Sunday AND YOU BETTER BE PLANNING TO WATCH).
But let's pretend Soderbergh means it: As a finale to a filmography as celebrated and varied as Soderbergh's, Side Effects is not so grand, but it's worth seeing. Rooney Mara plays a young woman dealing with the return of her husband (Channing Tatum) from prison, where he was serving a sentence on some kind of financial hoo-ha; Jude Law is the psychiatrist who treats her after she starts showing signs of a mental breakdown, and who soon comes to think she may be a more complicated patient than he'd thought. The plot is satisfyingly twisty, and if Mara never plays anything but barely stable waifs from now on (see also: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), we'll probably all be just fine with that.
If you read the huge story in The New Yorker last fall about the making of Cloud Atlas — three directors, a gigantic budget, a protracted development process — you would probably assume that the final result would be a mess. And it is. Kind of.
Cloud Atlas is based on a very fancy novel, with six story lines taking place over a span of hundreds of years. The movie's conceit is to have the same actors pop up in all six story lines, sometimes playing opposite-sex characters, sometimes playing characters of other ethnicities (the latter choice leading to criticism of the film for putting several non-Asian actors in "yellowface"). Unlike the book, the film cuts among the story lines from scene to scene, which can be disorienting, but the effect works. Kind of. Cloud Atlas isn't the kind of film one can recommend unreservedly — it's crazy long; it's also just crazy — but I'll say this for it: I was never bored.
A while back, author Nicholas Sparks explained to Entertainment Weekly that he figures out the plot for his next book by making sure it differs in some significant way from his last: "I just wrote The Lucky One. So the next one won't be a military story. I know that right off the bat. These characters were in their 20s, okay, so the characters are not in their 20s. Okay, so if you're in your 40s, what are the dilemmas? Oh, wait, I've got Nights in Rodanthe coming out, and that's a love story with characters in their 40s, so if I come out with a book just like that, people will think I'm not original." Aw, Sparksy. People will think you're not original no matter what you do! ’Cause you're not!
David O. Russell's follow-up to The Fighter deals, once again, with the question of male aggression, only this time the fights are all strictly amateur. (Still violent, though!) After discovering his wife cheating on him, Pat (Bradley Cooper) assaults the man who's cuckolding him and ends up getting treated in a mental institution. After returning home to live with his parents in Philadelphia, Pat is determined to give himself a whole-life makeover so that his ex-wife will find him worthy again, despite the fact that she has taken out a restraining order against him. But his path keeps crossing that of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who's dealing with her grief by teaching herself ballroom dancing.
Playbook was an awards monster: Its stars were nominated in all four acting categories at this year's Oscars, with Lawrence taking home her first Academy Award for playing Tiffany. The two leads have nice chemistry despite the fact that she is clearly way too young for him, but midway through the movie tries to make you forget that it's been making Tiffany's depression, Pat's bipolar disorder, and Pat's father's OCD seem like cute personality quirks, as opposed to debilitating mental illnesses, by turning into a dance movie. But hey: If you rent it this weekend, you kind of get two movies for the price of one.
Gangster Squad was originally supposed to hit theaters last summer, but after the shooting at a Colorado screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Squad was quickly yanked so that it could be edited: Originally, it also featured a shootout in a movie theater. The scene excised, it was rescheduled for January, which might have been a better place for it all along — January, of course, being the month when the studios dump all the garbage they don't actually expect you to watch.
As the 2013 Best Picture Oscar nominees continue limping onto VOD, the latest entry is also the penultimate one. Amour, see you whenever. Django, welcome to the living rooms of America. No, we haven't seen a, er, "an African American" on a horse before. (If you haven't seen the movie yet, the original line is just slightly different. Keep an ear out for it!)
Just kidding: If you only know one thing about Django Unchained, it's probably that a hateful term for African Americans is used, like, hundreds of times — but not so much that you ever get used to it. What else you need to know is that, as in his last film, Inglourious Basterds, writer-director Quentin Tarantino deals with a hideous chapter of human history by creating a parallel universe in which the oppressed contrive to destroy their oppressors, period accuracy be damned. As usual, Tarantino has too hard a time editing himself, but the film is still, at turns, funny, poignant, gory, and tense. Amid it all, stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz (who won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), and Samuel L. Jackson seem to be competing in a "Who's Having the Most Fun?" contest. (I'm pretty sure no one does that in Amour.)
After going the better part of a decade without making a film after the Best Picture Oscar nominee The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick is on a tear, following up 2011’s Tree of Life with To the Wonder (available on demand the same day as its theatrical release), less than two years later.
While Malick's most recent films may seem daunting in their scale — set against the backdrop of World War II (in the case of Line), or trying to cover all of life on Earth through the lens of a single family (OK, I never saw Tree of Life, but I know I saw dinosaurs in the trailer) — To the Wonder features a story that actually seems like a topic that could be fully covered on film. Ben Affleck returns to acting in someone else's movie to play a man torn between his love for two different women: a beautiful European (Olga Kurylenko) who's moved to the U.S. to be with him, and an American (Canadian Rachel McAdams, stretching) he's known since they were kids. Also present — and forebodingly narrating the trailer — is Javier Bardem as a priest, and let's hope one who sticks closer to the Eat Pray Love end of the spectrum than, say, Skyfall.
Opportunistic Backlist Revival Theme of the Week: "April Foolishness"
"April Fools" is the (very) loose peg for this very random collection of silly, dirty, or otherwise outrageous comedies, including Wayne's World, The Birdcage, Baby Mama, Old School, both Bill & Ted movies, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, The Hangover, Billy Madison, Date Night, Best in Show, Dodgeball, Austin Powers, and one of my favorites, Zoolander.
Last week's big On Demand release was the controversial Zero Dark Thirty, which found itself in the middle of the debate about "enhanced interrogation techniques." This week's is the controversial Lincoln, which found itself in the middle of a debate about its accuracy, and about the way its story sidelined the African Americans it was ostensibly about to tell yet another story about a white messiah.
My pros and cons about the movie have nothing to do with these issues; I am not a historical scholar, nor did I read Team of Rivals (the Doris Kearns Goodwin book on which the film is loosely based). The pros: Daniel Day-Lewis's performance in the title role, which joins his Daniel Plainview and Bill the Butcher to make a hat trick of classic American historical characters; the bevy of beloved character actors who dot the film that will have you yelling, "What the hell, HIM TOO?" in just about every other scene; the delightfully baroque insults politicians hurl at each other in the halls of power. The cons: Tommy Lee Jones's ratty wig; the oppressively dim lighting; the comically long running time. On balance, it's worth seeing — but maybe break up your viewing with a nap or two.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and co-screenwriter Mark Boal's follow-up to The Hurt Locker — an Oscar winner in the categories of Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, among others — is, depending on your interpretation, a gritty, almost journalistic dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, or a propagandistic endorsement of torturing detainees. One thing is for sure: Zero Dark Thirty is the only movie newly available On Demand this week to have elicited criticism from actual lawmakers. (Better luck next time, Bilbo.)
The Academy Awards are now behind us (for another 11 months or so, anyway), but On Demand is doing us all a solid by giving us a chance to catch up on yet another Best Picture nominee: This week, it's Life Of Pi.
Though Silver Linings Playbook was based on the book of the same name, and Les MisÚrables was based on a musical based on a book, Life of Pi is the most literary (you have to read it with an English accent) of this year's Best Picture nominees, having been adapted from Yann Martel's Booker Prize–winning novel, in which Pi Patel watches his whole family, and most of their zoo animals, die in a shipwreck, only to survive along with an unlikely companion: a tiger. Some of the film's impact may be lost in your home theater — even people who hate 3-D loved the 3-D Life of Pi — but it should still be evident why Ang Lee was this year's Best Director Oscar winner.
After seeing the trailer, I assumed that Wreck-It Ralph would be a feature-length nostalgia-fest for '80s kids, what with the 8-bit game the titular character hails from and the cameos from Pac-Man ghosts and the like. So when I actually saw the movie, I was not just pleasantly surprised to be wrong, but thrilled to have seen such a sweet, charming, genuinely funny story that I really hope joins the pantheon of classic Disney films.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson follows There Will Be Blood with The Master, another story about a monomaniacal sociopath who ruins the lives of virtually everyone he meets — even those whose lives were in ruins to begin with. Philip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the titular Master, Lancaster Dodd, who (modestly) describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher." To the viewer, however, he mostly seems like a cult leader and a con artist, peddling nonsense to weak-minded acolytes — none weaker or more vulnerable than maladjusted WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar).
Anderson has been coy in interviews about whether The Master is a fictionalized biopic of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
Apropos of nothing, have you read Lawrence Wright's Going Clear? Both it and The Master are interesting works of very different stripes, and are both worth checking out.
In the midst of the revolution in Iran in 1980, six employees of the American Embassy in Tehran slip away from the building when it comes under siege and hole up at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Back in Langley, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) comes up with a crazy idea to get them out: He'll create a fake movie production and have the diplomats pose as members of its crew who are in Iran to scout locations. If that sounds just crazy enough to work, that's because spoiler, it does. Or, I guess, it's not really a spoiler, since Argo is based on true events that happened in 1980 and were only recently declassified.
The most important thing you should know about the latest James Bond film is that it's better than Quantum of Solace. (Granted, that's grading on a serious curve, but still.) That said, it's less about Bond (Daniel Craig) than it is about M (Judi Dench), who finds herself targeted by a former asset turned enemy of the state. As her antagonist, Javier Bardem is convincingly conflicted in his attitude toward M: The reason he wants to exact revenge against her is that he feels she abandoned him, and is lashing out like a child having subjecting his mother to a temper tantrum — admittedly, one in which a bunch of people get violently murdered along the way.
Though the movie is longer than any action movie needs to be, it is fun to watch, particularly if you don't think about it too hard; by the time Albert Finney shows up for the Home Alone homage, you kind of have to give up on coherence. The additions of Ben Whishaw (as Q) and Ralph Fiennes (as an M antagonist within the government who isn't killing her assets willy-nilly) are good signs for the longevity of the franchise. My biggest complaint is that the film introduces the suggestion that the Big Bad is going to try some gay stuff on Bond, but that nothing comes of it. Aren't we, as a society, ready for a Bond who neutralizes his male foes through sexual conquest as much as he has female ones?! I just feel like once we accepted that James Bond could be blond, pretty much anything goes.