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Reviews

07 Jan 2014
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Through a partnership of Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi and Search for Common Ground founder John Marks comes Under the Same Sun, set in the near future in Israel and Palestine. The Palm Springs International Film Festival was the site of the film’s West Coast premiere on Saturday, Jan. 4, with both Marks and Zoabi on hand for a discussion of the movie. Before the film started, Marks addressed the audience. “You might find this film to be a fantasy, but the idea is to understand this could happen with the right leadership,” said the founder of the nonprofit organization that seeks to end violent conflict. A Palestinian businessman, Nizar (Ali Suliman), and an Israeli businessman, Shaul (Yossi Marshek), have a secret business meeting in France. Shaul owns a solar-power company and is pitching the idea of selling solar panels to Palestinians, due to the actual facts that Palestinians get the…
03 Jan 2014
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Keanu Reeves drones his way through this disgustingly bad samurai movie—an expensive exercise in excess that should result in some people over at Universal losing their jobs. Who green-lit this thing? Reeves never seems to string more than five words together as Kai, a “half-breed” who is part human, and possibly part demon, or something like that. He can’t really hang with the samurai warriors, so he mopes about looking all sad and bowing to his masters—until somebody is being attacked by something or other, in which case he is compelled to fight for their honor … or something. This is a meandering, listless mess—a clear sign that Keanu has worn out his welcome in blockbuster action films. It’s no wonder he’s pushing for a new Bill and Ted movie; the dude is no longer fun when he’s springing into action. This film is funny for all of the wrong…
03 Jan 2014
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Grudge Match should’ve been really fun. Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro—riffing on their iconic boxing characters Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta—have one last boxing match. It’s a setup for something great, nostalgic and even funny. Instead, director Peter Segal manages to make this undertaking a morose, unfunny slog. Stallone plays a generally unhappy character, while De Niro plays a total asshole. Their characters wind up in a scenario that gets their near-70-year-old bodies into the ring for a rematch 30 years after their last fight. The fight itself is OK, with both men looking pretty fit for their age. However, everything leading up to the fight is oddly paced, and sometimes painful to watch, especially when Kim Basinger is onscreen as a confused love interest. Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart are wasted in supporting roles. This seemed like a sure thing, but Segal blew it. The film takes itself…
02 Jan 2014
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The dream world and reality blend beautifully in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the latest from director/star Ben Stiller. Stiller uses the short story by James Thurber—about a man prone to elaborate daydreams—as a springboard to something altogether new, and surprisingly intimate. This is essentially a $90 million art film that maintains a nice, indie sensibility to go along with moments of grand spectacle. Stiller, in one of his best performances, plays the title character, an introverted man who handles photo negatives for Life magazine. After a vivid daydream in which he saves a cat from a building moments before it explodes, he wanders into Life’s lobby—and finds out the magazine will be going online-only. (This actually happened a while back in the real world. Life has been publishing only occasional special issues for years, and doesn’t even exist as its own full website anymore). In other words, Walter,…
31 Dec 2013
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The Coen Brothers have made films raging from dark-comedy works to Westerns—yet they all have a distinctive, specific Coen Brothers feel. Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, is loosely based on Dave Von Ronk, a Greenwich Village folk singer who tried—and failed—to captivate audiences in the early ‘60s. The story begins in a café. After performing, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is told by the owner that a “friend” is waiting for him outside. When he steps outside, he’s beaten up by a stranger. The struggling musician—his new record isn’t selling—sleeps on the couches of his friends, and he’s trying to come to terms with the suicide of a former collaborator and friend. He ponders returning to the Merchant Marines. Inside Llewyn Davis has some of the dark humor typical in a Coen Brothers film, and the comedy relief is always perfectly timed to break the moments of intense heartbreak you feel…
26 Dec 2013
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Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are charming as Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in this obviously whitewashed look at Disney’s effort to get Travers’ approval to make a movie out of her book. Of course, most of us know he succeeded, but many don’t know that Travers was quite the holdout. The movie splits time between the Disney/Travers business and Travers’ childhood, where we find out that much of Mary Poppins was based on her troubled father (Colin Farrell) and actual nanny. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman are wonderful as the Sherman brothers, who made Mary into a musical, much to the chagrin of Travers. The movie takes a lot of artistic license with the situation. Even though Travers is depicted as difficult here, she was far more adversarial in real life—and never approved of the movie. (Those animated penguins!) Still, the film is fun to watch,…
27 Dec 2013
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David O. Russell continues his impressive directorial roll with American Hustle, a semi-comedic look at the notorious 1970s Abscam scandal. Russell is shooting for Scorsese-style glory here, and while the style of the movie seems copied at times, there’s no denying the power of the ensemble cast. Bradley Cooper scores laughs as a pathetic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and Christian Bale looks great in a combover as the conman forced into an alliance with the law. Amy Adams gets one of the strangest roles of the year as a con artist pretending to be British—and she pulls it off quite nicely. Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in as a seemingly dim Long Island housewife. You also get Louis C.K. as Cooper’s field boss. (He canceled a show for which I had tickets to make this movie. I was pissed then, but after seeing how…
24 Dec 2013
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After nearly a decade away from movie screens, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), the world’s greatest newscaster, has returned for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. This time, it’s the 1980s, and a new media craze called 24-hour news cable networks has Ron and the boys (Paul Rudd’s Brian Fantana, Steve Carell’s Brick Tamland and David Koechner’s Champ Kind) working the late-night shift in New York. The plot is basically just a place-setter for weird, random humor involving bats, sharks, shadows, hair and scorpions in RVs. Ferrell and the crew manage to sell even the dumbest of things—and make so much of it funny. Even the stuff that’s simply strange has its own appeal. Carell goes super-dopey with Brick as he finds a love interest (Kristen Wiig); Champ still loves Ron in a dangerous way; and Brian has a new condom cabinet. I laughed my face off; this sequel continues the comedic…
26 Dec 2013
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Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is an explosive film—like a mortar full of deranged bliss. Leonardo DiCaprio, in 2013’s best performance, plays slimeball stockbroker and convicted felon Jordan Belfort, a real-life scumbag who made millions selling penny stocks at a Long Island, New York, brokerage. The movie, based on Belfort’s autobiography, takes people doing bad, bad things to an unparalleled extreme. The film begins with a rosy-cheeked Belfort starting work at a big Manhattan brokerage firm, where a brash, cocaine-addicted broker (played by Matthew McConaughey, capping off an incredible year) is his mentor. Belfort is ready to take the world by storm in the late ’80s, but 1987’s Black Monday strikes, destroying his new employer and putting him out of work. He winds up in a Long Island boiler room schilling penny stocks for 50 percent commission. No problem: The boy can sell, and people are writing checks.…
19 Dec 2013
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I had the misfortune of watching the High Frame Rate 3-D version of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Man, do I hate technology sometimes. Only a small percentage of movie theaters had the technology for 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but that has changed—so many of us now have the opportunity to see just how bad this technology looks when hobbits are involved. (In fact, four Coachella Valley theaters are showing the film in HFR 3-D.) I am sure there will be films in the future that will be a proper fit for the High Frame Rate presentation—films that are primarily set outside, boast a leisurely pace, and don’t have too much makeup. As for Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot The Desolation of Smaug in HFR 3-D, it’s a disaster: Like its predecessor, the film is a task to watch. The look of the movie simply doesn’t jibe…
12 Dec 2013
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Christian Bale is at his simmering best in Out of the Furnace, a dark, often scary and desolate look at two brothers who get dealt numerous bad hands. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), this is not a holiday-season film designed to send you home smiling. Russell Baze (Bale) is a good-spirited, quiet man working at the town mill. He looks out for his military-vet brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is having trouble adjusting after multiple tours in Iraq that have left him physically and emotionally scarred. This makes Russell ultra-patient when it comes to his bro—even paying off Rodney’s gambling debts behind his back to a local bookie (Willem Dafoe, who somehow makes this sleazy character seem like a nice guy). Russell, after a brutal and costly mistake, goes to jail, while his brother does another tour. When Russell is set free, he has lost his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana),…
05 Dec 2013
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It was a dumb, stupid, asinine, ridiculous, idiotic, energy-wasting, sucky, loser, moronic idea to remake Oldboy, Chan-wook Park’s insane 2003 revenge classic. While I’m fairly open-minded about the idea of remakes, some films should never be touched again. It’s amazing that the original Oldboy—a tale of captivity, octopus-eating and incest—ever made it to the big screen. Then Spike Lee somehow landed the job of Americanizing Park’s film (after Steven Spielberg flirted with the idea)—and he actually does a decent job in the first half. Josh Brolin plays a drunken louse who gets kidnapped and imprisoned in a strange hotel room for 20 years while somebody frames him for the murder of his wife. He is then released, whereupon he starts seeking revenge. The captivity scenes are the best things in the movie, with Brolin doing a good job of losing his mind. The movie falls apart when he gets out,…