By Bob Gibbons
[Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to introduce Bob Gibbons as Digital Cinema Report’s new film critic. He’s a longtime industry friend and, as a passionate movie lover, has been reviewing films online and in newspapers for many years. This is a list of releases from January through June of 2013 that he previously reviewed. His reviews of current releases will appear here regularly. We hope you enjoy them and welcome your comments.]
The Place Beyond the Pines. This is a movie about the decisions we make, the burdens we carry, and the violence we do to ourselves – and to one another – along the way. It’s about heroism and guilt, about who we are and who we pretend to be. It’s about shame and self-respect, about redemption and responsibility – and about trying to be a good Dad. This is a movie that knows exactly where it’s headed and goes there; the ending is thoughtful, conclusive, satisfying, and exactly right. Derek Cianfrance, the director, has a unique take on stories of dysfunctional families and the story he tells here is complex and involving, sometime infuriating, but it’s the performances we remember most of all. Ryan Gosling makes Luke a kind of child-man – naïve, determined, directionless, making it all up as he goes along. Bradley Cooper, especially in his earliest scenes, shows the same depth of character he brought to “Silver Linings Playbook.” Eva Mendez provides continuity through every act – altering her performance slightly to reflect her changing realities, while Ben Mendelson plays Luke’s boozy and carefree backwoods friend so convincingly that when he and Gosling are on screen together, we find ourselves watching Ben. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is two hours and twenty minutes long and it feels like it could have been trimmed by at least 30 minutes – and would have been better for it. But if you love independent movies, this one needs to be on your list.
Trance. Maybe Danny Boyle is just showing off. This is the director who gave us “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” and “Trainspotting” and the childlike fantasy “Millions” and, well, now this. To Boyle’s credit – and to the credit of Anthony Dod Mantle, his cinematographer -- this is a beautiful-looking movie; it’s just not a movie that always makes much sense. The British have a wonderful expression: “Too clever by a half” and this movie is at least that – maybe “too clever by three-fourths” – as it keeps winding back on itself, daring us to peel off layers, revealing something different, surprising – and too often, confusing – underneath. Every time it seems we are gaining traction on the plot, it slips sideways, going someplace else. Past and present -- and dreams and realities -- keep colliding, colluding, struggling against one another for screen time as potential endings pile up and get delayed because it seems that Danny Boyle has one more direction he wants to take, one more thought that just occurred to him, one more idea he wants to explore. Some of those inclusions are brutal and bloody; some include sex and full-frontal nudity; but so many just seem so contrived; they must have been included just because he wants them in here. And, at the end, we only partially know ‘what’ happens – and we’re never sure ‘why?’ Maybe Danny Boyle is just showing off.
42. This is a story about racism and restraint -- and about two extraordinary men during three formative years in American baseball. It’s not just a “baseball story,” it’s a human story that’s often touching, funny, and tough. In 1945, Bible-quoting Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) was General Manager and President of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He decided the time had come to desegregate baseball – for a simple reason: he was in the baseball BUSINESS. “Dollars,” he said, “aren’t black or white. They’re green.” It would take an extraordinary player to be the first Black major leaguer because he had to be an athlete who could take all the racial abuse Rickey knew was coming and “…have the guts NOT to fight back.” He found that athlete in Jackie Roosevelt Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), former student at UCLA, Army officer in World War II -- and a decided troublemaker. This is the story of their struggles – together – to change the game. “42” was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, writer of “LA Confidential” and he knows that the best movies – like the best baseball games -- are made up of special moments. He’s found those moments here and knit them together to tell a story that’s both highly entertaining and, in the best sense of the word, educational. The racial epithets are too harsh and too insistent for small children; but for those old enough to understand, this is movie-making at its best, an ultimately uplifting film for the family.
Spring Breakers. Every year, I try to see at least one hundred movies in theatres – and I’ve done that for several years. In all that time, I have walked out of no more than three or four movies – and then, only after careful consideration because I have this naïve sense of faith that movies will improve as they go along; it’s only when I find I’m obviously wrong that I finally leave. And so tonight, I did something that I haven’t done in hundreds of movies, in several years: I left ‘Spring Breakers’ at about the half-way point. It was all I could tolerate. The only reason I went to this movie is because its reviews have been so positive – even from reviewers like Richard Roper, whom I respect. Have those people lost their mind? I was not offended by its rampant sex, nudity, drug use and language – I was offended because it had nothing else except those. It all just seemed so desperate, so lacking any sort of talent on the part of anyone involved. Werner Herzog called its director, Harmony Korine “…the future of American cinema…” You have to hope that’s not true.
The Call. The sound you hear is my heart still pounding in my chest. This is what a tight script, taut direction, tension-building editing, and a two-thirds-terrific – and sometimes terrifying – movie looks like. There is little blood, no ghosts or vampires or other-worldly creatures, no chainsaws, long bloody knives, or men in Halloween masks; there is just a woman on the phone, a young girl in the trunk of a car, an evil man at the wheel, and a number that brings them all together: 911. ‘The Call’ is a straightforward story, made suspenseful by strong writing and committed performances from a small cast in a setting that feels very realistic and informative. Halle Berry finds the empathetic humanity in her character as Justin, the 911 operator; Abigail Breslin is convincing as a girl kidnapped, freaking out and terrified of where she’ll end up; and Michael Eklund is somewhere near perfect as the slimy and sweating perpetrator. So all of that makes this a terrific movie…but then comes the third act where the movie takes a ‘left turn’ onto the Street of Implausible Plots. What the first two acts built up, the third act unravels. And all of that weakens what is otherwise, a really good and suspenseful film. Still, if you like suspense, I think this one is worth seeing.
Admission. Despite never having seen even one episode – or even a partial episode – of “30 Rock,” I think I would like Tina Fey as a person. She appears to be warm, friendly, smart, in control, maybe even attractive in a girl-next-door sort of way. On screen, she seems natural, as if what she is doing is somewhat effortless – and yet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in anything that makes good use of her talent. I think she could be edgy, a touch outlandish; I think she could be really funny – and she just never is, especially not here. Because, this movie is a bland, vanilla, breezy, harmless, piece of beige. There is one use of the ‘F’ word; what sex there is happens off stage. Unless you are really easily offended, you won’t be offended by this. The problem is, you may not be much surprised by it either; it’s for those times when you want to dial down your expectations and put your mind on “coast.” The movie just perks along in its friendly way, with likeable people and a script that tries its best not to be predictable. Everything about it is just…well… fine. “Fine” is OK for Netflix; it’s not OK when movies cost $10 a ticket.
Ginger & Rosa. “I don’t want to die,” Ginger (Elle Fanning) says at one point in this quietly-insightful film. “I want to grow up and do things.” What Fanning is “growing up” to do here is to deliver a performance that’s knowing, captivating, pitch-perfect beyond her years. She brings the innocence of a child into the insanities of an adult world. In London, 17-year-olds Ginger and Rosa (Alice Englert) have been friends since they were born in the same hospital, on the same day. But it’s 1962, and the possibility of nuclear war threatens to annihilate everything. Ginger is terrified; Rosa goes along, but her heart’s not in it. She wants “…to find true love that lasts forever, if there is a forever…” The girls are drifting apart as Director Sally Potter takes their story deep, delivering a movie filled with painful sensitivity, with real fears, with human understanding. The result is a demonstration of what independent movies do so well – fill our hearts with people we care for and leave us richer for having shared their experiences. With the amazing talent of Elle Fanning, Sally Potter has created an extraordinary movie.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I am a huge fan of magic. I love the childlike sense of believing that anything is possible, that the normal rules of the universe don’t always apply, that something can turn into nothing – and then into something else entirely -- at the flick of the wrist. I like to be entertained, to be thrilled, to spend time in world of fantasy and wonder and delight. Which is why I hated this movie. This isn’t magic, this is Las Vegas lounge sleaze. It’s the angry and cynical, boring and shallow story of two men (Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi) who’ve lost the fun of doing the tricks they do – and one man (Jim Carrey) who plays a total blithering idiot who ends up drilling a hole in his brain. (Maybe it will help.) There’s no fun for anyone in here – not for the magicians and not for us. Even in magic, some things just aren’t very thrilling – and this is full of those things. If you love good movies, or good magic, stay away from this one. It’s neither. The most ‘incredible’ aspect of this movie is the fact that Don Scardino (the first-time feature director) attracted actors of this talent for this mess. Hopefully, it will disappear from theatres soon.
Emperor. This is the behind-the-scenes story of the decision that gave the Japanese the will to rebuild their devastated country after World War II. It’s a true tale of two very different cultures. The tragedy of this movie is that so few people will see it. It’s an independent production, playing on relatively few screens, out-promoted by larger and louder movies that prove Hollywood is mostly out of fresh ideas. This film has its flaws, but it’s so much more interesting that some of what’s currently bringing in big money at the box office. Here, the great Tommy Lee Jones is General Douglas MacArthur who has ten days to decide Emperor Hirohito’s guilt or innocence for World War II. He sends a trusted General to gather evidence because MacArthur wants the answer in black and white; yet the senior Japanese military officers speak in shades of gray. Their culture differentiates between the way things appear -- and the way they actually are. In fact, that’s what this movie is really about: the essential differences between the US and Japan -- and a Supreme Commander who may not have understood them, but made a humane decision that changed everything. If you love history, you could love this.
Snitch. What the opening credits giveth, the closing credits taketh away. Consider: both the poster and the opening credits says this movie was: “Inspired by true events.” (I would, of course, have no idea what a ‘false event’ might be.) The last of the closing credits (yeah, I stay for them) says: “This work is fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” So, I can only imagine that if there were an actual event, it didn’t involve these people. What some credit should have said was: “Inspired by a whole bunch of movies you’ve seen before.” The acting is decent, and so are the dialog and the direction, but the plot heads in a predictable direction without any surprises or much suspense along the way. This is one of those low budget (about $15M) action pictures that attracts a few name actors and gets released this time of year to fill up the schedule. In a couple of weeks, it has already taken in twice its budget. That may make it successful, but it doesn’t make it worth seeing.
Oz the Great and Powerful. How good could a movie be if five different men received at least partial credit as directors – and nineteen writers contributed to the screenplay? And, what if the most evil and imposing character in the movie was a five-foot tall former kindergarten teacher; and her nemesis, the symbol of goodness, was fifty-four years old? What would you call foolishness like that? Well, you could call it a classic because those are some of the true facts behind ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – and now, seventy-four years later, this is its prequel, the story of how the wizard got to Oz in the first place. This is the story of a small-time con-man and philanderer, Oscar Diggs (James Franco) who takes off from Kansas in a hot air balloon, is caught up in a tornado (of course), and ends up in Oz. There, he gets an education in witches, and despite being a having no real magical powers, he works with others to save the kingdom. There is a good lesson here – “Goodness is better than greatness” -- a bit of humor (courtesy mostly of the monkey) and some emotional moments with the wonderful China Doll. But I wish it had more of a sense of fantasy and innocence, more characters I could fall in love with, and at least one song that stuck in my heart.
Jack the Giant Slayer. Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum. I smell a movie that’s just ho-hum. The original fairy tale was the story of a boy and his mother, and the cow he traded for five magic beans. Jack climbed a beanstalk to steal gold coins, a magical hen and a talking golden harp from an angry giant – and then chopped down the beanstalk to kill the giant and end the story. Here’s what they kept for the movie: Jack and the beans. Here’s what they changed: everything else. Gone is the simple innocence of the original tale. It’s replaced with monks with magical beans, a king with a magical crown, a daring princess and a duplicitous prince. There are also a hoard of angry giants, violent battles, and a plot with as many twists as the snaggly vines of the beanstalks that keep springing up.
We never really find the good guys heroic; the evil-doers aren’t particularly despicable. There’s not much character development but then, there never was in the original story either. What we have here is a brave young man and a damsel in distress with lots of action before they end up together. Maybe that’s all we can expect of a fairy tale.
Safe Haven. There is an adage about the difference between school and business: In school, you fail once, you’re out; in business, you succeed once, you’re in. Nicholas Sparks (a fellow Notre Dame graduate – 19 years after me), the writer on whose novel this is based, continues to prove that movies are, in fact, a business. Some years ago, he wrote the novel “The Notebook,” which spawned the hugely popular movie of the same name (sponsored, I think, by Kleenex) and since then, he’s written an unending stream of light-weight, sentimental, highly-predictable crap. Which, of course, has been made into movies by Hollywood, which is more than willing to produce crap of any variety, as long as people want to see it. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I found this one ‘not awful,’ including the twist at the end that some reviewers are calling “phony” and suggesting it wrecks the movie. For me, it brought back memories of a 1981 movie with Cissy Spacek called “Raggedy Man” and made “Safe Haven” stick in my mind longer than romantic comedies usually do. I’m not suggesting you see this one but some night, in the future, when you’re standing front of Redbox at the local supermarket and looking for something ‘not awful’ for the evening, this might be a ‘not awful’ choice.
Identity Thief. Director Seth Gordon’s last movie was the very funny ‘Horrible Bosses.’ This one is just horrible. In fact, at what seemed like the five-hour point in this not-quite two-hour film, I seriously thought about leaving because this was a little too crude and too unfunny for my taste. It had been going nowhere but around until that point and it still didn’t look like it had found a sense of direction. I should have left; it did not get better. Melissa McCarthy can be very funny in an ‘out-there’ sort of way. Jason Bateman can be entertaining in a boy-next-door sort of way. But in here, they’re both victims of a flimsy, implausible plot that gives them little to do but physical pratfalls that cease to be funny after about ten minutes – but continue for much more than another hour. I thought this film was never going to end – although I kept hoping it would.
McCarthy does everything she can to keep this movie alive – she sings, she falls down, she improvises – all to little avail. Bateman mostly just winces. Nobody else in the cast lives up to their potential. And then, in the end, since the contrived comedy scarcely worked, the movie tries to turn sweet and human and redemptive. Give me a break. This movie is not worth seeing. Don’t let the big box office numbers deceive you – what ‘Identity Thief’ wants to steal from you is your ticket money.
A Good Day to Die Hard. Where did all these old guys get the idea that they still can be action heroes? Just in recent weeks there was Arnold, then Sly, and now Bruce, all past their prime, in movies that struggle to be much more than loud. This one dispenses with the usual elements – a coherent plot, intelligent dialog, well-drawn characters – and replaces them all with endless rounds of ammunition. Cars, trucks, buildings, ballrooms, bars, helicopters, a nuclear power plant – if it’s in here, it’s soon gone. It’s been twenty-five years since the first “Die Hard” movie. John McClane is back for the fifth time and this time he’s in Moscow. Before the movie concludes, there will be other chases, hugely-improbable stunts, and lots of smirking. Willis slips in an out of firefights with the same ease that many actors in the film slip in and out of Russian accents. In no case does anyone use a pistol when a submachine gun is available; every opportunity to exchange gunfire calls for thousands of rounds to be fired. But, there’s more humor in here than any other movie in this series. Willis is either grimacing or grinning, and when an automatic rifle isn’t available, he grabs for the nearest punchline. And when it all ends violently, we aren’t really sure what happened, except that the bad guys died hard and the good guys lived to die another day.
Parker. What a long, boring, predictable, time-wasting piece of nonsense. What is this Parker guy about anyway? He says: “I don’t steal from anyone who can’t afford it and I don’t hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it.” And then he robs the Ohio State Fair and burns down several tents and the rest of the movie is about him getting even with his partners. Does that make much sense to you? Me neither. So, why would I see a piece of junk like this? Well, it’s got a great pedigree. It was directed by Taylor Hackford who directed ‘Ray,’ ‘The Devil’s Advocate,’ and ‘An Officer and a Gentleman.’ It was written by John J. McLaughlin, who wrote ‘Black Swan;’ and it’s based on a story by the late Donald E. Westlake who has written a number novels, including my favorite, ‘Kahawa.’ But sometimes even great DNA goes wrong – and oh boy, did it go wrong here. This is a crime-heist-revenge-shoot-em-up that’s loopy, derivative, and really far-fetched, with a cast that shows less than the minimum-required amount of talent. In fact, no one in this movie is much good although they are all trying to stay through the end, if only because the only other alternative is to die or be dropped from the plot -- and neither is especially good for their career. So, I know there are not a lot of good movies now playing, but even if you are desperate for movies to see, skip this one.
Side Effects. What an intriguing little movie. Every year, around this time when so much garbage is clogging up movie screens and studios are releasing disappointing junk into our world, along comes a ‘little movie that could’…could be entertaining, could be different, could be worth watching. It’s about time someone (Steven Soderbergh) made a convincing psychopharmacological thriller – and this is it. Jude Law is very good as the mild-mannered, ready-to-go-along doctor, committed to his family and shocked by the personal ramifications from a drug he so innocently prescribed. Rooney Mara is terrific. She makes character complex -- a loving wife, a depressed young woman, a drugged and dazed zombie -- a fighter trying to use drugs for what they are intended to be – a way out of the madness. This movie’s ‘about’ several things: the power of drugs – and the companies that make them. The responsibility of those who take those drugs – and of those who prescribe them. But, above all, it’s about the power of the human mind and the tenacity of the individual spirit. The movie twists and turns – and surprises. At a time when there is little worth seeing on movie screens, this one is. The side effects – a feeling of watching a talented young actress (Mara) work her magic – and having been entertained – are worth it.
Broken City. This is a thin story with too many loose threads, partially-developed characters, and potentially interesting ideas abandoned too soon. It turns what should have been a tight thriller into a movie that follows as crooked a path as the politician whose story about a tight mayoral race it tells. Parts are entertaining – and the underbelly of New York City looks slick and polished in the neon light – although most of the film was shot in Louisiana. Every member of the cast has done better work before, including director Allen Hughes who (with brother Albert), several Januarys ago, gave us “Book of Eli,” an infinitely better movie. There is so much going on here. The problem: we never quite what most of it is. Too many characters start a story arc they don’t complete. The film adds layers of complication it doesn’t need. And while the real estate business can be complex, never has the buying and selling of a piece of property been made less understandable. The ending is more predictable than satisfying. In this mayoral election, we’re left with too many hanging chads.
Gangster Squad. The clothes fit these actors much better than their roles. There is lots of pseudo-style here, not much substance. This is a throwback to the film noir movies of the yesteryear and it comes from Warner Bros. who once upon a time released a lot of those movies. But too much of this seems like a ‘lets-pretend’ trip back to that era, with guides who get the words right and the inflections wrong, who are acting tough, but not really as tough as they act. We never particularly believe these guys or empathize with them, although they’re fun to watch and – if you’re not offended by excessive violence (of the ‘Al Capone shoot everyone with tommy guns variety’) the movie is marginally entertaining – but very, very strained. Everybody is trying way too hard and, as a result, coming off as fake. On the plus side, the city – Los Angeles, 1949 – sparkles in the evening neon and may be the movie’s best character. This movie – the opening credits say – was inspired by a true story. How much is inspiration and how much is elaboration is too tough to say. It’s not awful, it’s just awfully predictable.
Quartet. There is a sense of reverence, respect, and charm to this movie, a feeling that age and accomplishments should be remembered and celebrated. In this, his directorial debut, Dustin Hoffman gathered a number of actors and other artists – including musicians and singers – and brought them together on stage for a curtain call. There’s a story here, but it’s gratuitous at best, maybe even a bit contrived, essentially not important. What’s important is that the characters here are endearing, the actors who play them are enduring, their situations seem real. And while the result seems a bit effortless, the movie feels a bit narrowly focused: if you don’t love opera and/or are not well into retirement age, you won’t find much here. When I saw this on a Wednesday night, the theatre was about a quarter full with those who met the requirements above. As they were leaving, some couples were discussing their need to go to the restroom; when they found it was upstairs, they decided to “…wait…” While there may be a tendency to compare this to ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ – they both have aging British stars in a home for the aging – the movies are very different in tone, plot, and pace. ‘Quartet’ is quieter, not as broadly entertaining, with less to say and much less to show. So, is this a movie worth seeing? Depends on how old you are – and the older the better.
Warm Bodies. February is the month of romantic movies. This one differs from most in at least three ways: it has better music; its story is not by the writer of “The Notebook;” and it has the courage to admit that one of its characters actually is a zombie. Really, it’s also just Romeo and Juliet updated to the post-apocalyptic future. The female lead is named Julie, the male lead is “R” (he can’t recall the rest of his name), she lives in a high-walled fortress, and there’s even a balcony scene. William Shakespeare was a better writer, but the movie, thankfully, contains no rhyming couplets. We know where this story is going; we hope it finds imaginative ways to get there. There are wit and wonder here, but the movie’s reach for humor often exceeds its grasp. At one point when “R” observes, “God, we move slow,” he seems to be talking also about the movie. Too often, the film cuts back and forth between the present and the past, inexplicably and illogically, as it explores universal themes – intolerance, change, the power of dreams. Zombies aren’t the only ones who lurch – the plot does also. But the music is terrific and as Director Jonathan Levine takes us on a walk along that fine line between the living and the dead, he delivers a movie that is unexpectedly entertaining.