Saturday, December 21, 2013

Capsule reviews for the first day of winter

Up here in the icy GTA (which felt not unlike the glacial Arendelle of Frozen this past week) it's easy for me to forget that winter hasn't officially hit us until today. Perhaps that because I so closely associate winter with the Oscar season, which lasts much longer than a mere three months. For me, that means a glut of November/December prestige titles to catch up on; more than I can possibly write full reviews for. So here are some 1-2 sentence reactions to various films I've taken in so far. I may add more as I see them.

Despite a stock screenplay that doesn't mind indulging in thriller clichés, Villeneuve's direction has this slow-burner of a film wound tighter than a drum. Excellent performances from everyone involved, especially those forced to flesh out underwritten characters. And oh, yeah: Deakins is still a god (in case you'd forgotten), evoking the bleak late-autumn atmosphere like a film noir in colour.
*** out of ****

This touching drama about an ambitious girl daring to find her own way in a world that constricts her free spirit is not only an interesting commentary on religion and values in contemporary Saudi society, but essentially just a wonderful story told with economy, gentility, and care. Haifaa Al-Mansour's layered screenplay rings with wit and honesty, beautifully acted by all involved, especially young Waad Mohammed as Wadjda.
***1/2 out of ****

The Broken Circle Breakdown
Maudlin and melodramatic domestic drama only really comes to life when the Greek chorus of bluegrass musicians periodically pipe in, adding much needed jolts of flavour to this otherwise paint-by-numbers exercise. Jumpy chronology doesn't seem to serve much purpose besides to mix things up.
**1/2 out of ****

The Hunt
As a male member of the education profession, I gotta tell ya: this is the scariest horror film I've seen in 2013. The situation is so f***ed up that it threatens to stretch credulity, but stop and think about it for a moment and you'll realize that, yeah, people do always assume that children tell the truth. It's agonizing to watch the life of a decent man (the excellent Mads Mikkelsen) suffer such irreparable scars as a result of a little girl's foolish lie, but writer-director Thomas Vinterberg is such a fine dramatist that we cannot look away.
*** out of ****

The Place Beyond the Pines
Although it takes a while to get going, this meticulously scripted saga of guilt and legacy continues to mark Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) as a talent to watch with a distinct artistic voice. The ensemble is excellent with high marks to Bradley Cooper who commands his third of the film as a rookie cop disillusioned by corruption and haunted by his “heroic” actions.
*** out of ****

Ain't Them Bodies Saints
David Lowery's mise-en-scene (which bears some resemblance that of certain masters) does exude a hypnotic vibe, thanks in no small part to Daniel Hart's score, but the overall effect leans more towards 'put-you-to-sleep' hypnotism than 'mesmerized-in-awe' hypnotism.
** out of ****

Out of the Furnace
Scott Cooper improves on his debut feature Crazy Heart with this richly evoked revenge thriller, demonstrating an elegant grasp of storytelling economy. Christian Bale gives a somber, deeply felt performance that allows for supporting players Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck to do some scenery-chewing. Dickon Hinchliffe's acoustic-over-strings score creates a perfect unified voice for the film's soundtrack.
*** out of ****

The Book Thief
Though populated with lovely performances (especially from its young lead Sophie Nélisse), it can't shake the predictable movie-of-the-week strokes that make it feel like every scene is trying to be the poignant scene of the film. Nor can it shake its literary source material, with a script that seems like it could be a transcription of the novel on which it's based.
** out of ****

20 Feet from Stardom
A modern history of music as seen (and sung) by the best background vocalists in the business who never “made it big”; either because of conspiring obstacles or because they were simply unwilling to accept the pressure of a solo career. Music fans will undoubtedly respond to the film's killer soundtrack and the subjects' passion for their art, but that can't undo to stigma of too many talking heads reminiscing about the past.
**1/2 out of ****

Lone Survivor
As far as action movies go, Peter Berg's Afghanistan-set war film about a special-ops mission that goes horribly south has some stellar craft on display (especially Wylie Stateman's sound design and the grisly makeup effects), but the group dynamics of the imperiled soldiers feels somehow put on. It also rubs the wrong way how a number of directorial choices here depict the marines with unfailing nobility, while their enemy is painted in simplistic “evil” brushstrokes.
**1/2 out of ****


  1. How was John Williams' score on The Book Thief?

    1. It was decent, but I can't say I'm all that worked up about it.

    2. Will the quote-unquote "bigger" movies this holiday season (i.e. American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, Saving Mr. Banks) get full-fledged reviews or just smaller two-sentence reviews here?

    3. They'll probably get full reviews.