Here's me catching up on some movie reviews from the last couple of months.
12 Years a Slave is probably the best movie I've seen this year and I'm sure will be at the top of the Oscar nominations. It's the stunning true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York sold into slavery in Louisiana in the 1850s for you guessed it, 12 years before he was rescued. It's based on his memoir he started writing a year afterwards, which I'm reading now. The movie is faithful to the book and stunning in its impact. Better than anything I've seen it gets across the horrors of slavery but not in as pummeling a way as say Schindler's List. That was a magnificent movie but not one I've wanted to sit through again. While not a happy tale by any stretch, I'm looking forward to seeing 12 Years a Slave again. Director Steve McQueen has an art background and really understands composition and timing and is using the medium to manipulate your emotions. Watching it I was thinking this was like Kubrick but not boring. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, and Michael Fassbender give astounding performances in difficult roles. Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, and Adepero Oduye are also fantastic. It's a great film, go see it. And read this article on Steve McQueen.
My next favorite film is Gravity. As I said briefly before "it's just a completely immersive experience with stunning visuals and sounds." If you like the trailer, you'll like the film, it's basically action like that for 90 minutes with (just) a few pauses to let you catch your breath. It's worth seeing it in 3D and in a theater (I didn't see it in IMAX but that would be good too).
I just saw Captain Phillips today and I really liked it. It's directed Paul Greengrass so yes there is more shaky-cam than I would have liked but it wasn't badly done like I find with JJ Abrams. I was quite surprised that the movie kept me in suspense the whole time wondering how things would work out. Tom Hanks will probably get another well deserved Oscar nomination (as will the first time actor playing one of the pirates). I've seen some things questioning the accuracy of Phillips' actions, but if the SEAL team rescue was at all accurate, it's pretty amazing. I liked this much better than say Zero Dark Thirty.
Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof. A Texas bigot scraping by as an electrician, rodeo cowboy, gambler and petty thief. He's diagnosed as HIV+ and in 1985 there aren't any approved treatments. He starts getting AZT illegally but ends up working with a doctor in Mexico in getting alternative treatments for himself and ultimately selling them others. This gives him two conflicts. The first is that his customers are mostly gay men he despises, the second is the FDA who don't approve of selling drugs they don't approve of. Matthew McConaughey is great is in the of Woodroof but Jared Leto is better as his transsexual business partner. It's a solid movie with a story that moves and interesting characters. It's a little one-sided against the FDA though they certainly had issues at the time. If you're interested after the movie, WonkBlog explains What ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ got wrong about the AIDS crisis.
Philomena is getting a lot of buzz for Judi Dench's performance as an older catholic who starts searching for the son she was forced to give up 50 years prior. She was put into a convent when she became pregnant out of wedlock, then to pay for the child's care she was forced to work and only allowed to see her child for one hour a day until the child was adopted without her consent. Steve Coogan is the jaded journalist who decides to tell this human interest story and helps her track down her son. Part of this is a road trip with a mismatched pair but the film avoids cliches and there were a few surprises. This is one of those films that I wouldn't have seen without an (expected) oscar nomination and I'm glad I did see it.
Nebraska is a little independent movie that's about family. Bruce Dern is an old man in Billings Montana who's a bit senile and of course stubborn. He wasn't a great father but now his sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) and they have to drop their own struggles to deal with keeping him safe. Dern misinterprets a magazine sweepstakes and now wants to go to Nebraska to collect his $1 million winnings. Eventually Forte concedes to a short road trip and they stop over in the small town they're originally from and stay with family they haven't seen in years. It's a good movie, touching at times and funny at others (though not uproarious). It's filmed in black and white so it's trying to be somewhat serious. The dialog is slow enough that I'd like to cut out about 20 mins of pauses but others in the group I saw it with said that's just the way they talk there.
All is Lost is a shipwreck movie with Robert Redford. He's sailing the Indian Ocean alone, his yacht is damaged and there's almost no dialog. We watch as he tackles one problem after another in efforts to save his ship and survive. It's good and it's an impressive performance but the film give no background info at all. I saw it with a group and people got different emotions out of it based on different assumptions about him. Was he arrogant sailing alone and not taking more precautions? Was he competent and efficiently dealing with a deadlier and deadlier situation? I suppose that's interesting, but it's not really what I want from a film. I'm ok with some ambiguity. For example, if it fully explores two possible outcomes but leaves what does happen to the viewer to fill in, but if you're not giving me any details and asking me to fill in all the blanks, you can set up that premise in a 5 minute short rather than a 90 minute feature.
In Prisoners a six year-old girl (and her friend) goes missing. Jake Gyllenhaal is the cop looking for her, Paul Dano is the creepy suspect and Hugh Jackman is the father upset about how slow things are going and wanting to take matters into his own hands. It was billed a taut thriller which raises serious moral questions and really strong performances. I mostly agree with that but at 2.5 hours it felt overly long and it didn't raise anything new for me on the morality front. The plot is fine and has appropriate turns and Jackman does well in his non-Wolverine, non-singing everyman role. It's better than average summer fare and it's not quite Oscar bait, so its September release was I guess appropriate.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen brothers' latest film about the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in 1961. It follows a down-on-his-luck singer who's lost his partner and is staying on friends' couches and barely squeaking by. It's a character study and in a Q&A with the star Oscar Isaac I saw he said "they added a cat because they needed a plot" which seems exactly right. Some odd characters and interesting performances, but it's all following an anti-hero. It's mostly a series of performances but since I'm not particularly interested in folk music the film didn't do that much for me.
Catching Fire fixed a lot of problems I had with the first movie. The books are all about Katniss' inner monologue but the first movie had no narration and IMHO didn't do a good job making up for it. I really liked the world building that happens in the earlier parts of this film. The suffering that was visible, the effects on the characters and the conversations they had all allowed much more emotion to be conveyed. Also, way less shaky-cam. At 2.5 hours the movie is long, but the second half still felt a little short in the characterizations of other tributes and the big action piece.
Enough Said is an out of the ordinary romantic comedy. First off the stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini are 50 years-old. Both are divorced and have kids heading off to college. There are interesting supporting characters, particularly Catherine Keener and Toni Collette. It works. It's entertaining and it's touching and it's more true-to-life and a lot quieter comedy than the average Aptow-inspired things I've seen lately. I really appreciated that different characters had different opinions on something and the film doesn't feel the need to define one of them as right. It's sadly one of Gandolfini's last roles and I had heard great praise about his performance, but I found it just good not amazing.