Saturday, July 26, 2014


I saw A Most Wanted Man today and felt compelled to write one of my mini-reviews. I then realized I had a list of 88 films I've seen over the last 15 months or so that I really should review. So, I decided to review the most recent four I've seen and the earliest four on my list. Oddly enough, 2 were written by John Le CarrĂ©.  So, here's my little offering. Perhaps the reviews will help you choose what you'd like to stream -- and perhaps you'll really disagree with me, so let's talk.

A Most Wanted Man

It's summertime, yet here's an intelligent movie for adults: a John Le CarrĂ© thriller starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a subtle, brilliant performance. Rachel McAdams, Willem Defoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin, and Robin Wright also deliver excellent performances. No guns are fired and no major cities are blasted to smithereens. It's all about spies and terrorism and "making the world a better place."


Ida is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but I was mesmerized by this spare, terse, elegantly photographed Polish film. Set in 1962, it's the story of a young woman in a convent about to take final vows who learns she is actually a Jewish girl sent to the nuns to protect her when Hitler was ravaging Poland. For the first time in her life she comes face to face with the outside world and has her own version of an Amish rumspringa.

The Grand Seduction

So disappointing! Usually Brendan Gleason films blow me away (The Guard, In Bruges). Mr. Gleason does his best with a weak script that one reviewer called a cross between Local Hero (watch it if you've never seen it) and Waking Ned Devine. Set in Newfoundland (it won't make you want to go there), it's the story of a seen-better-days fishing village that needs to seduce a physician into making his home with them so they can get some conglomerate to build a factory. Really? Sadly, skip it.

Edge of Tomorrow

Sounds like a soap opera, but it's a Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller with a Groundhog Day plot. Like Bill Murray, Tom has a lesson to learn. In this film, it's how to eradicate the aliens who are ravaging the earth. It's a lot better than it sounds. No one does this kind of film better than Mr. Cruise, although he now seems to be on the down side of his boyish charm. Emily Blunt is amazing -- as she usually is -- as The Angel of Verdun -- a nod to the 100th anniversary of World War I. There is a lot of killing, but with aliens as disgusting as these, you get over it.

A Dangerous Method

I liked this much better than the Rotten Tomatoes Audience (only 50%).  Michael Fassbender (as Jung) can do no wrong and neither can Viggo Mortensen (Freud). People complained about Keira Knightley's performance as Jung's mentally disturbed patient, Sabrina Spielrein. But she succeeded in making me feel very uncomfortable in the way any severely mentally ill patient probably would.  She wasn't a tidied up mental patient. Definitely worth a look.


Not so subtle satire makes this a delicious romp among the sort-of-privileged New Yorkers who try to get their kids into the right schools and try to make them behave (sort of). Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz (always amazing) have a grand time. Stream it some winter evening. You're bound to feel better about your parenting skills.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I've read the book, I've seen the marvelous Alec Guinness mini-series -- I still didn't understand what was going on in this version.  I watched it a second time after reading a summary and felt a bit better, but that's a lot of work for a so-so movie.

The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep did a great job channeling Margaret Thatcher, but it wasn't enough to carry this movie. If it comes on cable, give it 20 minutes, and see if you like it.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Movie Reviews Backlog

Being so far behind in reviewing movies I saw last year and this year, I've decided to offer some one (or two or three) line reviews:

The Hunger Games
Terrific adaptation of the book. Jennifer Lawrence is a force to be reckoned with.  Rent it.

Arguably the best movie I saw last year.  Stunning performances show why we still read every word Shakespeare wrote.  Rent it.

The Deep Blue Sea
Depression in post-war England. Rachel Weisz does a good job but movies about depression and aimlessness are . . . depressing.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
A movie about the pursuit of excellence that makes all of us look like slugs.  I'm glad there are people like Jiro and I'm glad I'm not one of them. Rent it.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wallace and Gromit animation is delightful. Lots of humor to delight adults. Surprised my grandson Eli loved it and found it humorous on an entirely different level.  Rent for the kids.

A Kid and His Bike
Wonderful French film about a troubled boy abandoned by his father and the woman who wants to love and take care of him.  Painfully honest about how difficult love can be.  Rent it.

The Avengers
Perhaps the best fun superhero movie ever made.  Full of action, but it's the relationships among the heroes that make this movie so watchable.  Rent it and make sure you watch past the credits.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Everyone seems to love this movie but me. I found the neo-colonialism offensive.  Old English people come to India to show their little brown brothers how to succeed in business, love, sport, and life. Skip it.

Monsieur Lahzar
One of the best films of last year. An Algerian immigrant teaches grieving Montreal children whose teacher committed suicide in their classroom. And Monsieur Lahzar has his own grief.  Rent it.

The movie that reminded me why I love Jack Black.  Based on a true story, the film tells the wild story of the most lovable guy ever who just happens to be a murderer.  Don't miss it.

Habemus Papam
"We Have a Pope" is a mess of a movie.  A newly elected Pope refuses the office and the cardinals and minions do everything they can to change his mind.  So many missed opportunities for great comedy and drama.  Skip it.

First Position
A documentary that follows six young dancers from around the globe as they prepare for and compete in the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix. Don't miss it.

A comedy about the invention of the vibrator in the 19th century.  It's hysterical. Rent it.

Moonrise Kingdom
It's got everything.  A great cast. A great director.  Wonderful humor.  But, it just misses the mark for me. However, rent it and make up your own mind.

People Like Us
A man's father dies and he discovers a sister he never knew about.  Will they have a relationship? Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks give it their all, but the film never seems to go anywhere. Skip it.

Your Sister's Sister
A terrific movie about grief, loss, family, and love.  Rent it.

Madagascar 3
Took Eli to see this, dreading it every step of the way.  It was actually charming and funny. Rent it for the kids.

The Dark Knight Rises
Saw this about five days after the Aurora theater killings.  That tragedy definitely colored my perception.  I could see it was well acted and that the story was good, but gunmen mowing down people . . . much too much.  Rent it and make up your own mind.

Safety Not Guaranteed
A classified add appears: a man looking for a companion willing to time travel. Three reporters investigate and one builds a relationship with the crazy guy who believes he can time travel -- but is he really crazy? What's real?  What's not?  Rent it.

The Amazing Spider-Man
Andrew Garfield nails it as Spidey in this reboot of the comic classic.  The story is familiar but fresh.  Rent it.

The Untouchables
So many good French films this year. This unsentimental movie tells the story of Phillippe, a quadriplegic, and his caretaker -- an irreverent, sexy, spontaneous man who manages to give Phillippe a new lease on life. Rent it by all means.

Farewell, My Queen
Another good French film.  The story of Marie Antoinette's last three days with her servant Sidonie, her reader. The revolution has begun but Sidonie chooses to be loyal to her mistress. Their relationship is the jewel at the center of this subtle film.  Definitely rent it.

To Rome with Love
Woody Allen's attempt to recreate the magic of Midnight in Paris. The result is a disjointed set of stories which have relatively little relationship to one another.  Easily skipped.

Premium Rush
Stunningly photographed, the film follows a bike messenger extraordinaire on a deadline as he caroms around New York City, taking chances, risking his life, and making our hearts skip beats. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is reliably awesome.  Rent it.

Celeste and Jesse Forever
Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) decide to get a divorce even though everyone thinks they're a great couple.  They're convinced they can hold on to the good parts of their relationship, but, as they start to date other people, their best intentions go awry. A delightful comedy drama to rent.

This feature-length cartoon was a bit inaccessible for a 7-year-old -- and I fell asleep in the middle of it. Not much of a recommendation.

The Master
Yes, so many critics say the film is brilliant.  A new kind of cinema!  Won't be understood or appreciated for years!  For me: Fine actors in a tiresome story.  If this is the thinly veiled saga of Scientology, I can only wish the veil were a lot thicker.  Skip it.

A confident, cocky member of the 1%, caught in a web of his own pride and arrogance.  This film was definitely under-appreciated.  No one does confident and cocky as well as Richard Gere. A modern fable with a timeless message.  Watch it.

Ben Affleck's film about rescuing embassy workers during the Iran Hostage Crisis is deftly constructed, always entertaining, and deserves the praise heaped upon it. Make sure you see it.

OK. I'm a sucker for a good time travel film (NOT The Lake House).  Combine a great story with the gloriously talented Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Bruce Willis being a great Bruce Willis -- and you have a film that will become a science fiction classic.  Rent it and enjoy the mind games.

Cloud Atlas
Seemingly disparate stories interwoven through time and space with actors appearing over and over again as characters in one story or another. Lovely idea but, in the end, quite pretentious and spending too much time celebrating its own supposed profundity. Skip it.

If Denzel Washington were not in this film, there'd be no reason to watch it.  He brutal performance saves the movie and should make us all want to smell the pilot's breath the next time we get on a plane.  Do see this one.

Pitch Perfect
An above average college comedy which manages to satirize Glee in an oblique way. Anna Kendrick delights as always and Rebel Wilson, the Australian actress who caught our attention in Bridesmaids, is terrific as Fat Amy. Rent it for the music jokes if nothing else.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
An above average high school comedy which manages to be so much more than I'd expected. Reminded me of Ordinary People -- but with lots of fresh humor.  Excellent performances by several young actors -- especially Emma Watson. People are going to love this film for a long time.  Rent it.

My favorite film of 2012. Saw it twice. Yes, there are flaws.  The opening scene is schmaltzy and the the movie should have ended as Lincoln walked out of the White House the last time, but the rest of the film is gloriously led by the fully embodied acting of Daniel Day Lewis.  Lincoln lives and you know you would have voted for him.  Rent it, of course.

The Sessions
Helen Hunt should win the best supporting actress Oscar for her performance in this movie.  She won't, but she should. Her acting is fearless in this wonderfully unsentimental story. (Well, William Macy is a bit too cute as a priest with a generous heart, but he's so lovable!) Rent this one for sure.

A dark Bond film with heartbreak and vulnerability.  Daniel Craig continues to do the role justice and Judi Dench wows us as usual.  Javier Bardem is a worthy villain and, thank you, for casting Ben Whishaw as M. Made my day.  Rent it.

Silver Linings Playbook
I've seen it twice for good reasons: terrific performances, terrific story.  Bradley Cooper completely surprised me; Jennifer Lawrence did not.  I knew she'd be terrific, but Cooper was a revelation. See this one.

Life of Pi
A very close retelling of the book -- which no one seemed to think was possible.  Stunning special effects which never distract us from the story.  See it on the big screen if you can; otherwise, rent it or buy it. A film about grief and loss that doesn't make us sad.  Instead, it steps us into a new world.

Anna Karenina
I'm not sure this film will be appreciated in 2012 or 13.  It dares to tell the familiar story in a new way: set on a stage but not as a play. Stylized dancing. Fashions of different eras piled on one another.  It's a stunner.  A metaphor for 19th century aristocratic Russia poised for destruction.  Watch it.

Despite fine performances by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, there was something missing at the center of this film.  I watched, anticipating some meaningful insight, but it never came.  No need to rent it, but I did also enjoy Scarlett Johansson's Janet Leigh and James D'Arcy's Anthony Perkins.  Actually, D'Arcy's Hopkins was so spot on, it was kind of creepy.

Django Unchained
Until the last 30 minutes, I was in love with this movie, especially Christoph Waltz's performance and the in-your-face reworking of the meta-narrative of slavery. The writing is brilliant, but the carnage of the last half hour was just too much. Revenge is never sweet, no matter how absolute. See it and make up your own mind.

The Hobbit
As my friend Matt said, "It's just good to be back in Middle Earth." Well, it doesn't have the gravitas of LOTR; after all, it IS just about a bunch of dwarves trying to get their money back.  But . . . it's wonderful.  I saw it both ways: in ordinary film and in 3D at 48 frames per second.  I liked both the experiences.  The second format was especially good for the Goblin King scenes.  See it at the theater if you can.

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D
What a disappointment! The film weaves spectacular moments from seven different Las Vegas shows into what it hopes will be a compelling story.  It just doesn't work.  It's a bit of a hot mess. Skip it.

Broken City
Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg -- lots of promise, but, given a trite, ordinary script, they are not allowed to shine. Don't waste your money.

Zero Dark 30
The last act, the assault on the compound, is an amazing piece of film.  I'm no expert, but I think it must be much closer to what such military actions are like than we have ever seen at the movies before.  The torture at the beginning of the film is difficult to watch and the middle, which focuses on the search for Bin Laden, was frankly a bit boring. See it and make up your own mind.

A well-acted, very difficult film that is brutally honest about the ravages of dementia and the stress of being a caretaker. Honestly, the experience depicted was so close to my own experience with my father during the last 4 years of his dementia, that I feel I can't evaluate this film.

Side Effects
Lots of twists and turns in this film about unexpected side effects from a drug prescribed by a psychiatrist (Jude Law).  The first act seemed straightforward; the second was confused and muddled; the third explained it all.  Net net, a disappointing film that needed another rewrite. Skip it.

A pleasant film about former professional classical musicians and opera singers who live together in a retirement home.  Maggie Smith is her serene, regal self; and there are fine performances from Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly, and Ronnie Fox.  The standout is Tom Courtenay, who, as a young man, wasn't much of a looker, but has gotten downright sexy in his old age. Rent it only if you love these actors.

Beautiful Creatures
A bit of snappy dialogue among teenagers, appealing young stars, and accomplished older stars (Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson, and Eileen Atkins) can't save this film from the trite bell, book, and candle story that surrounds it.  Skip it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Here are my top 15 movies of 2012.  I hadn't seen Amour when I made this list at the end of last year.  I still wouldn't change it.

  1. Lincoln
  2. Silver Linings Playback
  3. Argo
  4. Arbitrage 
  5. Anna Karenina
  6. Looper
  7. The Sessions
  8. Farewell, My Queen
  9. Premium Rush
  10. The Intouchables
  11. The Hunger Games
  12. Flight
  13. Life of Pi
  14. The Hobbit 
  15. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: The Artist

Nonna's Rating: $$$1/2
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Audience: 90%

What a lovable movie! How lucky we are that the filmmakers who had the notion to bring back the silent movie decided to focus on the early years of Hollywood and populate the film with charming, emotive actors and one very talented dog. So, it's been done -- and I don't think it can be done again successfully any time soon -- even with an entirely different subject. This is a film that should be seen in the theater where we can give it our full attention. At home we are given to distractions, pauses, and multitasking. It deserves better.

Nonna's Rating

$$$$ = Worth paying the Friday evening
$$$ = Worth paying the Matinee price
$$ = Worth a rental
$= Wait for cable
# = Skip it

Review: Melancholia

Nonna's Rating: $$$$
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Audience: 71%

This movie is not for everyone. You are either going to love it or hate it -- and maybe walk out of it. The film is visually stunning but difficult and uncomfortable to watch. I've never seen a movie quite like it. I'm not giving too much away to say that the film begins with an apocalypse and then retraces the events leading up to the cataclysm. However, the movie that unfolds underscores the ambiguity of that end-of-the-world scene. Is its subject the apocalypse? Or is it one woman's depression? Whatever you decide, the film will haunt you long after you've seen it.

Nonna's Rating

$$$$ = Worth paying the Friday evening
$$$ = Worth paying the Matinee price
$$ = Worth a rental
$= Wait for cable
# = Skip it

Review: The Adventures of Tin Tin

Nonna's Rating: $$$1/2
Rotten Tomatoes: 74%
Audience: 78%

The Adventures of Tin Tin was most definitely the best animated film of 2011 -- yet it wasn't even nominated in that Academy Award category. Nevertheless, it was thoroughly engaging and reminiscent of the first Indiana Jones movie: nonstop action, well-paced with an engrossing story line. The animation is stunning with its extensive use of motion capture. Within a few minutes of the beginning of the film, I had forgotten I was watching a cartoon. Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock is especially notable. Several reviewers suggested he should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Spielberg delivers a stunner in this film. Don't miss it. It delights both children and adults.

Nonna's Rating

$$$$ = Worth paying the Friday evening
$$$ = Worth paying the Matinee price
$$ = Worth a rental
$= Wait for cable
# = Skip it

Review: Young Adult

Nonna's Rating: $
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Audience: 58%

I'm beginning to suspect that when movies are so uniformly mediocre (as they were for most of last year), film critics conspire to give better-than-deserved reviews to some films in order to make sure people keep going to movies and they still have jobs reviewing them. I suspect Young Adult is one such film. Charlize Theron does a decent job portraying the main character, Mavis Gary, a hometown high school honey who has moved away to the big city -- Minneapolis -- and is the envy of all those who stayed behind. But Mavis has a problem: she's an alcoholic who has never outgrown the mean girl inside of her. She decides to go back home in order to seduce her high school boyfriend, now happily married with a new baby. The film attempts to be a black comedy, but it doesn't measure up. When all is said and done, it's just sad and shallow, and Mavis remains the same depressed, drunk woman she was in the beginning.

Nonna's Rating

$$$$ = Worth paying the Friday evening
$$$ = Worth paying the Matinee price
$$ = Worth a rental
$= Wait for cable
# = Skip it

Review: War Horse

Nonna's Rating: $$
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Audience: 73%

Many movie critics have made the point that this film harks back to the golden days of Hollywood storytelling. Indeed, it made me think of How Green Was My Valley. But that comparison unfortunately calls up all the flaws in this well-meaning film. I disagree with some critics who have said today's audience just cannot abide such a slow-paced film. This movie is not just slow-paced; its pacing is off and it's boring. Somehow we never connect with the characters; their relationships with one another aren't compelling at all. I wasn't even moved by Albert's (Jeremy Irvine) relationship with his horse Joey. The cinematography of the film has been praised, but I find fault even with that. It's very derivative -- again of the great narrative films of the late 30s and 40s. There is one scene near the end, back on the farm, which is back lit by the setting sun. The sky is shot with orange clouds. It's pure David O. Selznick Gone With the Wind schmaltz.

Nonna's Rating

$$$$ = Worth paying the Friday evening
$$$ = Worth paying the Matinee price
$$ = Worth a rental
$= Wait for cable
# = Skip it

Review: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Nonna's Rating: $$$
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Audience: 85%

It is what it is -- a very well-executed, very entertaining action movie. Who of us doesn't go to the movies every once in a while just to be guilelessly entertained? Amazing stunts and an interesting plot make this film delightful from beginning to end. And Tom Cruise, no longer the boy of Risky Business, defies aging by performing his own stunts.

Nonna's Rating

$$$$ = Worth paying the Friday evening
$$$ = Worth paying the Matinee price
$$ = Worth a rental
$= Wait for cable
# = Skip it

Review: The Descendants

Nonna's Rating: $$$1/2
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Audience: 91%

Without George Clooney, The Descendants wouldn't have garnered much notice, let alone be nominated as Best Picture. Clooney brings his ability to portray an ordinary, sincere guy convincingly to this movie. He manages to capture the angst of being a father raising daughters who have swum beyond his ken, the angst of being a husband cuckolded by his wife who recognizes the role he has played in her disaffection, and the angst of the hope and despair of waiting for someone to die in a hospital in the 21st century. He's honest, he's goofy, he's at loose ends. The film is finally remarkable in that it celebrates the ordinary moments of life, those that can pass us by without our noticing how filled with glory they are. Clooney's character learns to stop and notice.

Nonna's Rating

$$$$ = Worth paying the Friday evening
$$$ = Worth paying the Matinee price
$$ = Worth a rental
$= Wait for cable
# = Skip it