Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Capsule Reviews for the Dog Days of Summer

With the fall festival season just around the corner and pundits gearing up for the months-long deluge of awards hopefuls, now seems like a good opportunity to take advantage of the calm before the storm by catching up with some summer releases I never got around to writing about. Here are some 1-or-2-sentence reactions to various films:

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Alex Gibney's dense portrait of the infamous website and its creator Julian Assange pulls back from a seemingly idealistic crusade to reveal a morally murky issue, in which the ethics that govern freedom of information are ironically hypocritical and rife with dilemma.
*** out of ****

Despicable Me 2
More of the same from Illumination Entertainment, whose modus operandi is simply to throw in any gag they think will make kids laugh. Inevitably, the end result is indeed a lot of laughs, but highly forgettable ones. To call it a marginal improvement over the first isn't saying much.
** out of ****

Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig grow a witty and incisive character study about the self-imposed purgatory of prolonged adolescence. To offset the low-key humour, black and white photography underscores the bleak outlook of quarter-life crisis.
*** out of ****

This Is The End
Both an hilarious send-up of celebrity perception and a clever spin on social collapse, but undermined by reliance on gross-out humour that it doesn't need in order to produce laughs, especially from a crackling ensemble that otherwise produces them so effortlessly.
**1/2 out of ****

Fruitvale Station
The concept of discovering the value of one life by following it around for a day is a compelling one (with a wonderfully humanistic performance by Michael B. Jordon), but rookie helmer Ryan Coogler's execution needs some refinement. A bit too eager to exploit ominous foreshadowing of Oscar Grant III's tragic fate.
**1/2 out of ****

Spring Breakers
A shallow skin-flic that masquerades as an art film, exploiting mesmerizing mise-en-scene even more than its scantily-clad antiheroines. Though boasting a charismatic turn by James Franco, it can't fully redeem Korine's dull-as-dishwater dialogue, thin characterizations, and slipshod story construction.
*1/2 out of ****

The Butler
Lee Daniels' schizophrenic movie attempts to juggle (with partial success) several movies at once: a greatest-hits history lesson of the civil rights movement, a gong show of oddly casted presidential cameos, and a dynamic family portrait featuring great performances from Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo.
**1/2 out of ****

Blackfish
Does grow a tad repetitive in its cataloging of orca attacks at marine parks, but that's the point. "50 years from now we'll look back and think, God what a barbaric time," forecasts one of the former Sea World trainers interviewed for the film. Watch it yourself and I'm sure you'll agree that we don't need to wait 50 years to make that observation.
*** out of ****

The Grandmaster
Luscious photography keeps the eyes from wandering, but not the mind in this esoteric saga of kung-fu master Ip Man and the geopolitics of martial arts. Even the beautifully choreographed fight set pieces feel like they grow increasingly redundant as the film plods along.
** out of ****

The Conjuring
A fine example of how execution can make all the difference, even when the material is mediocre at best. The strength of James Wan's very well handled exorcism movie is how it's able to conjure (haha) such terrors with the most simple of techniques, perfectly applied. Joe Dzuban's creepily effective sound design and the textured art direction stand out.
*** out of ****

The Lone Ranger
A train wreck in more ways than one. An hour overlong, riddled with plot holes, a painful framing device (complete with rubbery old age makeup that reflects poorly on the rest of the fairly good character designs in the bulk of the picture), and Johnny Depp doing his same-old Jack Sparrow shtick but in politically iffy "red"-face.
*1/2 out of ****

Epic
All superficial FernGully comparisons aside, Epic deserved a fairer shake than it got this year. It works perfectly fine within the confines of the formula it applies, but thankfully avoids the same sort of immature humour and forehead-slapping dialogue that plagued other American studio toons this year (I'm looking at you, Croods and Despicable Me 2!). Even its exposition of character and backstory is handled with relative elegance. That said, I'm not sure choosing to have the forces of growth and the forces of rot waging a war against each other sends the right environmental message. Kids should understand that the relationship of growth and decay is a cycle, not a conflict, and one that is essential to the long term health of any ecosystem.
**1/2 out of ****

8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Will you review "Lee Daniels' The Butler"?

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    1. How good is the makeup job in the Butler? Was it as impressive as people are saying?

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    2. The makeup was quite good indeed, but subtle, which might not fare too well as far as awards prospects go.

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    3. The Butler doesn't have the same Best Picture heat that Lincoln had, which is why a makeup snub wouldn't shock me as much as the one Lincoln suffered.

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  3. Ah yes. Blackfish. The movie that changed Pixar's Finding Nemo sequel ending.

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