Shame Review

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Abi Morgan and Seve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale

Sex without the pleasure — and you thought starving to death in an Irish prison was rough. Following Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s new collaboration with Michael Fassbender is a similarly self-destructive character study. Shame stars the latter as Brandon Sullivan, a sex-addicted New York businessman whose explicit lifestyle is threatened by the surprise arrival of his orphaned sister (Carey Mulligan). Loaded with full-frontal male and female nudity and graphic depictions of sex, the NC-17 rated flick may not be coming to a theater near you.

Far from crass or exploitative, however, McQueen’s film succeeds in making Brandon’s many lascivious liaisons feel obligatory rather than erotic. Shame is Requiem for a Dream for sex. A gorgeously shot but emotionally upending orgy late in the film drives home the utter desperation of the act in a prolonged close up on Brandon’s contorted face. Excited yet?

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Hugo Review

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by:  John Logan (screenplay), Brian Selznick (book)
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen

Who is the audience for Hugo? With roots in the fantasy/adventure genres and a comfortable color palette for the Harry Potter and Twilight crowds, “preteen” seems a safe bet. But it undergoes a metamorphosis around the midpoint that fixed my posture and put the kids to bed. Not that I’m complaining.

The two halves of Hugo are at odds. In the first hour, we meet Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield – the spitting image of a prepubescent Malcolm McDowell), an orphan and wee tinkerer living behind the walls of a Parisian train station circa 1930. He lives only to wind the clocks and scavenge parts for his prized automaton – a wrecked robot with sentimental ties to his late father (Jude Law). A chance encounter with a young girl (Chloë Moretz) may be the key to unlocking the secret of his antiquated android.

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The Descendants Review

The Descendants
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause

Alexander Payne paints a different picture of Hawaii. In the opening montage of his new film The Descendants, the director not so gently reminds us that the island “paradise,” with its little-photographed cities and suburbs, isn’t exactly the Eden we’ve been sold. The sequence perfectly reflects Payne’s no bullshit pragmatism, seen last in 2004’s excellent Sideways. For gluttons for Payne, The Descendants has been a long time coming.

Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film follows George Clooney as Matt King, a wealthy lawyer with hereditary ties to Hawaiian royalty, and the sole trustee of his family’s thousands of acres of untapped land. As King circles a buyer for the valuable property, his wife falls off a jet ski and into a coma — but there are no saints in an Alexander Payne movie. Even the comatose Mrs. King has her share of skeletons.

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Tower Heist Review

Tower Heist
Directed by: Brett Ratner
Written by: Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, Ted Griffin (story)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Michael Peña, Gabourey Sidibe, Téa Leoni

Everyone’s excited for the new Brett Ratner movie, right? Jonesing for another marginal action-comedy in the vein of Rush Hour 2? You’re in luck! Tower Heist fits the bill, and despite its allusions to 2011 Wall Street turmoil, the familiar flick feels very much of that era. The Rat-man’s latest is cookie-cutter entertainment at its most transient, but everyone likes cookies. Right?

In Tower Heist, Ben Stiller plays subservient chief of staff at a ritzy Central Park apartment complex — but when a tenant (Alan Alda) swindles him and his workforce out of their pensions, it’s no more Mr. Nice Josh. He masterminds a robbery with the help of his concierge (Casey Affleck), an elevator operator (Michael Peña), a downtrodden former resident (Matthew Broderick), and a Jamaican cleaning woman (Gabourey Sidibe). Unschooled as they are in the art of the steal, Josh also employs the aid of petty criminal “Slide,” (Eddie Murphy) who gives the crew a crash course in crime.

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Paranormal Activity 3 Review

Paranormal Activity 3
Directed by: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Written by: Christopher B. Landon
Starring: Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Lauren Bittner

Reigning king of the “Gotcha!” moment, Paranormal Activity is back – and though the premise may have worn thin, (how many compulsive videographers can one extended family have?) its minimalist scare tactics are as effective as ever. Scream for scream, the theater experience is without rival; hushed gasps, nervous tittering, and shrieks of surprise are empirical evidence of the films’ effectiveness. Hence the backlash when Paranormal Activity hit home video: these movies cater to a crowd.

A prequel of sorts, Paranormal Activity 3 rewinds the franchise to 1988, illuminating the origins of the Presence that ran amok in parts one and two. Helmed by Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the flick treads familiar territory, but keeps the audience on its toes. One of the major criticisms leveled against Oren Peli’s original was its predictable cycle of daytime exposition and midnight scares. Rinse and repeat.

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50/50 Review

Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Written by: Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston

50/50 is the anti-MOW. Hot off the festival circuit as the much buzzed-about “cancer comedy,” its hype doesn’t tell the whole story. Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), 50/50 is a dynamic blend of offhand humor and compelling character study. Just don’t go in expecting one or the other.

Loosely based on his own experiences as a twenty-something cancer survivor, screenwriter Will Reiser assembles a flawed cast of characters for his retelling – himself most of all. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is not a take-charge kind of guy. He greets his diagnosis with cynicism and reclusiveness, and at his age who can blame him? Holding his life at arm’s length, he severs ties rather than strengthening them.

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Moneyball Review

Directed by: Bennett Miller
Written by: Steven Zallian, Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), Michael Lewis (book)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Kerris Dorsey

Take my review of Moneyball with a grain of salt. Its two-and-a-quarter-hour running time probably rivals the aggregate amount of professional baseball I’ve watched over the past three years – which is to say, not much. I’m not the target audience for any sports flick, but a great cast delivering an Aaron Sorkin script put me in the seats. On that level, Moneyball delivers.

Sorkin has a knack for finding the humanity in black and white statistics. It’s in part what made his telling of Facebook’s success story (last year’s brilliant, brainy The Social Network) so remarkable. A fitting – if inferior – follow-up, Moneyball is as much about business as it is about baseball. In fact, the thesis of author Michael Lewis, upon whose book Sorkin and co-writer Steven Zaillian sculpted the screenplay, is that victory on the field can be reduced to mere mathematics.

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Drive Review

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman

After a summer of cheap thrills, Drive delivers thrills on the cheap. With a budget Michael Bay might have allocated for a single effects sequence in Transformers 3, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made one of the best movies of the year. Following Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn crafts his most polished, commercial work yet, while retaining all the ambiguity and unbridled aggression of his tough-as-nails art house pictures.

Bearing thematic resemblance to Darren Aronofsky’s recent output, Drive is like Black Swan in overdrive. The film pins its headlights on the dark implications of unchecked obsession and good intentions gone haywire. That dangerous duality – humanity on the razor’s edge of animal brutality – is played to unnerving perfection by Ryan Gosling.

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Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn Can’t Drive

It started with a head cold. Hopped up on antihistamines, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn recollects a fuzzy first meeting to discuss Drive with its star, Ryan Gosling. Dinner preceded an awkward ride home in Gosling’s passenger seat (Refn doesn’t have a driver’s license), and in his hazy medicated high, he was brought to tears by “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” by soft rockers REO Speedwagon as it drifted over the airwaves.

Yes, the same Nicolas Winding Refn who helmed the hyper-masculine Bronson biopic and the gritty Pusher trilogy. As it happens, Refn is the 180-degree antithesis of the man his films conjure. As if torn from a Calvin Klein ad, he wears jeans and a white button-down with the cuffs turned out, and stylish, thick-rimmed glasses. And his embarrassing moment of unchecked sentimentality was the inception of the year’s most brutal and effective thriller.

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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Review

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Directed by: Troy Nixey
Written by: Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins
Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson

Horror is kind of like porn. Either it’s convincing and effective or it’s embarrassing and laughable. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the latter, and there isn’t even any nudity. This haunted house of clichés shepherded by Guillermo del Toro brings nary a new idea to the table, and doesn’t even execute on old ones effectively. Chalk that up to first time feature director Troy Nixey, who does suspense about as well as Jenna Jameson does acting. And in the end, it’s the audience that gets screwed.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A family at odds moves into a charming old mansion with a (gasp!) terrifying secret. If, during Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, you find your mouth agape, it’s more likely your letting loose a yawn than a scream. Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes play parent and guardian respectively to Sally (Bailee Madison), a sulky Los Angeleno forcibly relocated to Rhode Island and relinquished into her father’s care. While exploring the nooks and crannies of her lonely new home, Sally awakens a long-dormant evil, and yada yada yada.

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30 Minutes or Less Review

30 Minutes or Less
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Written by: Michael Diliberti (screenplay), Michael Diliberti & Matthew Sullivan (story)
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Michael Peña

Jokes are overrated. The best comedies cull humor from character flaws, and while the cast of 30 Minutes or Less has those to spare, human foibles have little bearing on the way these people behave. Instead, it’s about one-liners and crass one-upmanship in a string of exponentially less believable scenarios. First time screenwriter Michael Diliberti (previously credited as executive assistant to producer Scott Rudin) blunders his way past a great premise to lowest common denominator comedy.

Nick (played by Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network) is a pizza delivery boy who gets jumped by a pair of goons (Danny McBride, Nick Swardson), and strapped with a bomb and an ultimatum: rob a bank within ten hours or face the explosive consequences. Sounds exciting, right? Wrong.

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Cowboys & Aliens Review

Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by: John Favreau
Written by: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (screenplay), Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (comic)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Abigail Spencer, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Clancy Brown

Cowboys & Aliens sticks to its guns. Symbolically, that might suggest a certain strength, but in truth it means the filmmakers couldn’t have played it any safer. The story is a weak hodgepodge of ideas riding past the point of homage clear into Cliché County. The crisp, colorful visuals likewise present an unmemorable wallpaper of established western and science fiction iconography devoid of individual vision.

It’s a clear case of too many cooks. Credited to a screenwriting seven, their conglomerated output is anything but magnificent. With a cast of caricatures that includes an amnesiac outlaw (Daniel Craig), a bumbling medicine man (Sam Rockwell), and a grizzled cattle rancher (Harrison Ford), director Jon Favreau’s crack team of creatives had their bases covered with western stereotypes. Their failure is in their unwillingness or inability to add anything beyond extraterrestrials to the mix.

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