J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible (A-) is a rousing and resilient adventure set against the horrific backdrop of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in Thailand. Italian is based on a real-life story chronicled by María Belón. A close-knit family played by talented actors including Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland find their idyllic holiday turns into a nightmare as black water devours nearly everything in its path. In the family’s darkest hour as they are plunged into chaos, unexpected displays of kindness and courage help punctuate their terror. Watts in particular gets an amazing showcase here and displays epic fearlessness and vulnerability, especially opposite remarkable child actor Holland. Cinematographer Óscar Faura should be deeply commended for recreating the disaster and its aftermath with such precision and accuracy. The film is spectacularly exciting and resists a tilt toward sensationalism as it depicts one family’s journey from separation to hope.
A single father/boxer and an aquatic animal trainer reveal physical and emotional wounds and forge an unlikely bond in Jacques Audiard’s French language film Rust & Bone (A-). Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard hit all the right notes in an unsentimental drama that could have veered to all sorts of conventional places. Cotillard in particular is riveting as a woman so complex that losing her legs in a killer whale attack is only a small element defining her character. It’s a rewarding and romantic film discovery.
There are two incredible tales of survival in Director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (A), and whether you’re a person of faith, a stalwart for science and logic or a vessel of varying belief systems, there will be soul stirring in store – and fodder for endless discussion. Actor Suraj Sharma is magnificent as an Indian castaway, often opposite a CGI tiger (at least it’s not a volleyball) in this mash-up of Noah’s Ark, Rudyard Kipling and Disney’s Fantasia. Touches of magical realism tinge the corners of this imaginative tableaux with some of the most gorgeous imagery committed to film. Punctuated with humor, horror and headiness, it is a silver screen wonder to behold.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (D+) just isn’t funny or insightful enough to get away with tackling American slavery. It’s difficult to juxtapose the brutality of heatboxes and lynchings with Quentin’s quips. Christopher Waltz is awesome, Jamie Foxx is wasted as a silent type and Leonardo DiCaprio misfires a bit as the three primary players in this revisionist Western. Everything that worked in Inglorious Basterds doesn’t really resonate this time around in this mileu, and the final hour devolves into tedium beyond belief.
As a movie musical, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (A) gets nearly every sonic and emotional note right. Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne and Anne Hathaway are the standout performers in this silver scall-singing spectacular that toggles between moments both intimate and epic. Fans of the theatrical show will have a lot to love, and the modest revisions nearly all serve to clarify the story in its cinematic translation. Themes of rebellion and redemption ring true through the urchins, anthems, baritones and barricades of a gangbuster movie musical.
Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph (B+) is a highly creative and charming CGI fantasy about an 8-bit ’80s arcade game character who must become a hero of a different kind in today’s virtual age. Waves of nostalgia, knowing in-jokes and clever hazards help this sometimes overlong film please audiences of all ages.
Writer/director Stephen Chbosky has expertly adapted his own novel into a cinematic masterpiece – The Perks of Being a Wallflower (A+) featuring fresh performances by Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and a splendid cast. A rhapsodic, often heartbreaking high school story about the friendships that define us, this one is up there with Breakfast Club, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and Stand By Me in terms of sheer emotional power.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (C) is a not-so-veiled look at a religion not-so-different-from-Scientology with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the chief guru of a peculiar religion, Amy Adams as his wife and Joaquin Phoenix as his apprentice. Once the film gets each of the characters settled into place, however, it doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Rarely has this writer/director seemed adrift, but I’m afraid it seems a bit of an Emperor’s New Clothes moment.
Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (C) is the origin story of a Tampa-based stripper group (ahem, male entertainment) and is made notable by both the titular character played and danced by a charming Channing Tatum and by the veteran emcee and ringleader placed by a wily and entertaining Matthew McConaughey. Alex Pettyfer plays the film’s mangenue, and his and all the film’s subplots are threadbare indeed. As drama, it doesn’t have heft. As escapism, it’s not quite trifle or truffle. It all compares unfavorably to Boogie Nights, which plumbs the adult entertainment industry with much more vivid aplomb. The fun in Mike comes in some of the ribald choreography and music/dance sequences, but I expected Soderbergh to well, step it up. The magic goes poof pretty quickly.
Seth MacFarlane scores big as director, co-writer and voice of Ted (A-), a teddy bear brought to life as the boon companion of Mark Wahlberg in a hilarious Boston-set comedy. The teddy bear is a boozy, profane sidekick who gets his human companion in trouble a bit, especially as he courts Mila Kunis. The film is funny and an insightful look at rejuveniles gasping for childhood wonder and freedom as the onslaught of adulthood hits. The film is vulgar and very funny. Wahlberg deserves a lot of credit for creating a realistic bond with a plush buddy.
Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land (A-) is a thought-provoking small-town parable about the people we become when wrestling with the dual responsibilities of capitalism and being caretakers of the planet. Instead of taking a scorched-earth approach relying on histrionics or heavy-handed plot devices, co-screenwriter/actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski closely observe characters both native and new to town as folks are faced with the potential riches of natural gas beneath family farms. There are shades of The Graduate here as the film passes generational torches. Filled with smart dialogue, fully realized performances and idyllic imagery, it’s a reminder that films can teach without being preachy.
Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (B-) is a bit daffier than its predecessors but entertaining nonetheless. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Patrow are back, joined by Ben Kingsley as a vexing villain. After the other Iron Man films and The Avengers, the plot just doesn’t pack as much punch, but it’s still a lot of fun. Close encounters with treacle such as partnering Iron Man with a kid are thankfully less cheesy than they could have been. Robert Downey Jr. has to do just a bit more heavy lifting holding this third film up!