Reviews

Review: The Congress

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poster for The CongressAri Folman, director of the bleak animated history Waltz with Bashir, adapted a novella by acclaimed Russian author Stanislaw Lem for the screen in the movie The Congress. Folman's take on Lem's The Futurological Congress is only vaguely true to the source material.  Instead of a male hero, we have actress Robin Wright... playing actress Robin Wright. If only this cinematic work didn't hold the talented actress back. While Lem's novella is (supposedly, I haven't read it) a black comedy, Folman's half-animated film is dark and troubling.

Bravo to the director for selecting an older -- by Hollywood standards, anyway -- actress to base this film around. Much is made of Wright's Texan background and decision to age naturally; actually, much is said about Wright, as she sits silently and takes criticism. To put it in terms today's teens will recognize, there is a lot of mansplaining going on here.

Conversations in the first half of The Congress happen to her, with men spouting monologues about their early lives or breaking down for her the mistakes she made in her career. The film opens to Wright quietly crying as her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) berates her for her faulty decision-making. These men want what's best for her, you see. They just want to profit off her as well.

Wright is convinced by her agent and studio head Jeff Green (Danny Huston, John Adams, Children of Men) to have herself scanned so Miramount Studios will own her image for 20 years. During that period of time, she can't act, but can do whatever else she likes. She almost refuses, worrying that "the gift of choice" is taken from her if she signs. But at no point in this film does it ever seem that she is given any choice. She signs the contract because her son is ill, falling into the archetype of the weary, long-suffering mother. Wright's character has no desires or wants for herself, no power and no real agency.

Review: The Trip to Italy

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The Trip to Italy

The Trip to Italy is easily the most sumptuous movie of this year, taking us to fine restaurants with stunning Italian surroundings as we listen to a soundtrack of classical music.

But like a tasty meal with somewhat stingy portions, The Trip to Italy isn't fully satisfying. Or at least not as satisfying as its predecessor, the hilarious 2010 film The Trip.

The sequel reunites Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon and writer/director Michael Winterbottom for another culinary-centered road trip, this one to the Italian locales of Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi and Capri. (Like The Trip, The Trip to Italy is a theatrical cut of a three-hour, six-part BBC TV series.) Coogan and Brydon once again play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves as they tour Italy in search of great food, lodging and sightseeing. To give their adventure some literary gravitas, they travel to sites visited by the English romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who spent time together in Italy starting in 1818.

Lone Star Cinema: Spy Kids

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Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara and director Robert Rodriguez during filming for SPY KIDS

When the recent news broke that Alexa Vega will play a recurring character on the upcoming season of country music soap Nashville, now seemed like a perfect time to revisit the original Spy Kids. I tend to picture Vega as she appeared in the Robert Rodriguez film, but she has grown much since then. She's even married... twice.

In 2001, she and co-star Daryl Sabara (whose first role was as Murphy's baby on '90s cultural touchstone, Murphy Brown) played Carmen and Juni Cortez, troubled private-school kids. Their parents Ingrid (Carla Gugino, Karen Sisco, Sucker Punch) and Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) are consultants who have not yet admitted to the children that they used to be secret agents (who met cute at the Hotel Belen, better known as the Omni Hotel downtown). 

When evil genius/children's TV show host Floop (a colorful Alan Cumming, The Good Wife, X-Men 2) and his Minion (Tony Shalhoub, post-Galaxy Quest, pre-Monk) capture the elder Cortezes, their secret comes out. Carmen complains to family friend Felix (Cheech Marin, Up in Smoke, Nash Bridges), "My parents can't be spies -- they're not cool enough!" Of course it is now up to the younger generation to save the parents, using tech made by Machete (Danny Trejo, Machete, From Dusk 'til Dawn).

Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Marv from Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForTrue confession time -- the first time that I watched Sin City (2005), I wasn't enthused due to my naivete. However, a recent viewing with the mindset of watching a graphic novel brought to life changed my perspective drastically. I found myself engaged by the characters, and therefore I was anxious to see what co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller had in the cards with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

This film is both a prequel and sequel at the same time, as we learn more about the central characters from the first installment -- Marv (Mickey Rourke) is still bashing in heads but this time he gets called in to help Nancy (Jessica Alba) and Dwight (Josh Brolin) with their own personal vendettas. Nancy grieves for the death of her childhood hero and only love, Hartigan (Bruce Willis), who keeps his promise to never leave her even if he is a tormented ghost witnessing her demise.

An interesting subplot serves as the prequel that explains why Dwight's face had been transformed after his encounter with the deceptive and psychopathic Ava (Eva Green), who leaves men in her wake including police partners Mort (Christopher Meloni) and Bob (Jeremy Piven). We also learn more about the loyalty that Gail (Rosario Dawson) and the rest of the women of Old Town have for both Dwight and Marv.

Lone Star Cinema: Giant

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Giant

A poster for Giant billed the iconic Texas film as The GIANT of Them All.

The poster hardly exaggerated. Running more than three hours, starring three of Hollywood's biggest stars of the era, spanning more than two decades and set against the vastness of a cattle ranch, Giant seemed as big as Texas itself when it was released in 1956.

To the film's legions of fans and many critics, Giant is still a giant. No other film captures the mythical Texas -- if not the real one -- quite like George Stevens' epic story. Countless films have been made here, but with its swaggering view of life in the Lone Star State, Giant may be the most Texan (again, in the completely mythical sense) of all.

Based on a 1952 novel by prolific novelist and playwright Edna Ferber, Giant is the story of the Benedict family, owners of a 595,000-acre West Texas cattle ranch. The film opens in the early 1920s, when Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) travels to Maryland to buy a prized stud horse. He meets the horse owner's daughter, socialite Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), and the two marry after a whirlwind romance.

Review: Mood Indigo

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Mood Indigo posterIf one can expect anything from Michel Gondry, it is that along with the whimsy and touch of the bizarre inherent in his work is an element of truth.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind uses erasure imagery to illustrate the pain of heartbreak. Be Kind Rewind has friendly video store employees creating their own versions of Hollywood hits for their neighborhood.  Gondry's latest film, love story Mood Indigo, however, is utterly drowning in whimsy and lacking any figment of truth.

Debonair and bearded Romain Duris (Populaire, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) stars as Colin, living off family money in a spacious Paris apartment. Audrey Tautou (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) plays cute Chloe, whom Colin meets at a party. The plot goes something like this: guy meets girl, guy and girl fall in love and marry, flower grows in girl's lung.

There's also a B-plot, involving a friend (Gad Elmaleh, Priceless, Midnight in Paris) Colin loans money to court a woman (Aïssa Maïga, Cache, Bamako), which is just as confusing as the rest of the film. The fever dream of a movie is full of fantastic visions, but the story is ridiculous beyond measure. Is fate written out for us by a room full of random people on vintage typewriters? And if so, who cares?

Unpredictabilities may rule Mood Indigo, but the film still follows the overly-familiar classic "movie cough" rule. It used to be that any time someone in a movie coughed, they were terminally ill -- after all, nobody has allergies in the movies. And indeed, as soon as Chloe adorably coughs post-honeymoon, things start going downhill for the couple. 

Review: The Giver

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The GiverReleased in 1993, the 1994 Newbery Medal winner The Giver by Lois Lowry has been one of the most controversial and influential novels of the 1990s. Banned from schools across the nation for being "violent" or "unsuited for younger age groups," this dystopic tale centers around Jonas, a young boy who lives in a literally colorless world of contentment.

Screenwriters Robert B. Weide and Michael Mitnick have adapted this book in the sci-fi thriller film The Giver, directed by Phillip Noyce (Salt, The Patriot Games).

In what at first appears to be an utopian society of "Sameness" with absence of pain and suffering, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) seems content with his friends and family. He lives with his parents, the dutiful nurturer Father (Alexander Skarsgard) and his more stern and unyielding Mother (Katie Holmes). His classmates Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are frequent companions, and prepare to receive their life assignment as even choices have been eliminated in this seemingly perfect society.

Jonas receives the most prestigious and ominous assignment of all -- as the Receiver of Memory, he must learn and keep the dark history of the Community to guide the Elders and prevent the tragic mistakes of the past. However, as he begans to learn from the current Receiver who is now referred to as "The Giver" (Jeff Bridges), he discovers the dark history behind his community that has led to the absence of joy, pleasure, and color from their lives as well.

Jonas is faced with the difficult choice of accepting the role that he has been given, or do what he can with the aid of others to bring the Community back to the "real" world. Either way he must deal with the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), who is fearful and distrusting of human nature in his journey.

Review: Calvary

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Calvary

The Catholic Church's seemingly endless scandals have been fodder for many great films, from the searing documentary Deliver Us from Evil to the star-studded critical darling Doubt to last year's sleeper indie hit Philomena.

The latest movie to address the church's sex scandals, the Irish drama Calvary, is one of the darkest. Equal parts whodunit (actually, who will do it), character study and meditation on faith, Calvary is a thoughtful film with a cold, grim heart.

Calvary's protagonist, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), is a marked man from the film's opening scene. During a confession, a bitter parishioner vows to kill Father James as retribution for being raped by another priest decades earlier.  The parishioner doesn't accuse Father James of any wrongdoing; in fact, he singles him out for his innocence. "There's no point in killing a bad priest," says the anonymous voice in the confessional booth, "but killing a good one -- that would be a shock."

Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

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Poster for The Hundred-Foot JourneyNew release The Hundred-Foot Journey is a beautifully-shot drama produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, who likely hope it will prove a hit along the lines of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Formidable British actress Helen Mirren gets top billing as strict French restauranteur Madame Mallory. Her establishment has a Michelin star and brings in big name political figures. However, Madame Mallory's work and life isn't the main focus of this colorful film from Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), adapted by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) from a novel by Richard C. Morais. 

A family of refugees, the Kadams from Mumbai, moves into the vacated building across the street from Madam Mallory's restaurant. Papa (veteran Indian actor Om Puri, Gandhi) wants to open an Indian restaurant in this quiet French village, with the help of son and aspiring chef Hassan (Manish Dayal, 90210, Switched at Birth) and other adult children (Amit Shah and Farzana Dua Elahe). Even the two much younger siblings help out.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is really Hassan's story. The film opens to his narration, and lots of exposition. As soon as cute Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, Yves Saint Laurent, Mood Indigo) comes on the scene -- she's sous chef for Madame's kitchen, of course -- it is a given that she's the love interest for Hassan's character. The film deserves some credit for following the success of a character of color, but his plotline drags during the second half; this causes the movie to feel longer than its actual two-hour length.

Review: Get on Up

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Get On UpThe average music biopic has become so riddled with cliches in recent years that the entire genre was spoofed in a parody (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) that managed to be spot-on and over the top at the same time. In Get on Up, director Tate Taylor, coming off his successful big-screen adaptation of The Help, brings together a gifted cast and crew to tell the story of "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business," but it falls into many of the traps that made the biopic format so easy to mock in the first place.

James Brown's life began in 1933 while the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Get On Up doesn't start with his birth, but rather opts to open with a bizarre incident in the late 1980s with him running around his office in a green velour tracksuit brandishing a shotgun to determine who had just used his bathroom. Brown is portrayed by Chadwick Boseman (who also took on the role of the legendary Jackie Robinson in last year's 42) and his dedication is clearly evident, especially during the recreation of the live concert sequences. In one of the film's many odd creative decisions, he frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience and explain his motivations. 

As we weave in and out of over 50 years of history in the making, the curious structure and tone of Get on Up become increasingly problematic. One moment we are running in the woods with Brown as a child playing with his mother and shortly after we're on a flight to Vietnam that is being shot at with his entire band on board preparing to land for a USO concert in 1968. We catch glimpses of Brown's difficult childhood and how he eventually ends up being raised in a whorehouse by his aunt (Octavia Spencer), but these moments only serve to feed more into the myth of James Brown instead of shining a light on the man he became.