Here be the January roundup of films I caught this month. Spoiler-free capsule reviews, alphabetized (definite articles are ignored) and slapped with a star rating. No stars for wastes of celluloid or digital storage space, four stars for the absolute cream of the crop.
AHI VA EL DIABLO ««
(Adrián García Bogliano, 2013)
Sexually charged horror is Rosemary’s Baby by way of Lucía y el Sexo. Tween siblings go missing for one night but return home behaving like somnambulistic body snatchers. The intransigent Bogliano clutters his film with so many genre tropes that most of them are dealt with unsatisfactorily. Released abroad as Here comes the Devil.
BELL WITCH HAUNTING, THE «
(Glenn Miller, 2013)
Production company Asylum, known for its shoestring imitations of blockbusters, tries its gnarly hand at the found footage genre and delivers, quelle surprise, a laughable piece of guano. If you take a shot of Jim Beam every time you spot a grammatical error in the various title cards, you’ll be on life support long before end credits roll.
Never comfort your terrified daughter without turning on
your trusty camera first.
(Kimberly Peirce, 2013)
Zealous woman disapproves of her bullied daughter’s telekinetic powers. Film at eleven. Leads Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore cannot be blamed, but this third adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel is witless and bland. A more fitting title would have been “Carrie 90210.”
(Claran Foy, 2012)
After his heavily pregnant wife is attacked by the hooded freaks from David Cronenberg’s The Brood, Scotsman Tommy develops a severe case of agoraphobia. Ambitious horror deals with both social issues and one man’s PTSD, but the plot contains more holes than a chunk of Gouda. The profane vicar and his idiot lectures got on my nerves.
ENDER’S GAME ««1½
(Gavin Hood, 2013)
A young boy is deemed “the one to save the universe.” Sounds familiar? It’s quite obvious that the studio dusted off this 1985 book by bigot author Orson Scott Card hoping to jumpstart a new book-based franchise in the vein of Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. Problem is that Ender’s Game is a “cold” story, taking place on a military basis populated by stand-offish characters. Too long and convoluted for the intended audience, it’s no wonder this one hardly broken even at the box office. Probably would have worked wonders as a mini-series. Asa Butterfield is fine as Ender; Harrison Ford looks old and tired as Colonel Graff.
GRUDGE MATCH ««
(Peter Segal, 2013)
Farce about two rival pugilists coming out of retirement for their long-awaited third fight. These aging sportsmen are portrayed by actors who once upon a time starred as famous boxers: De Niro played Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull; Sylvester Stallone reprised his role as Rocky Balboa no fewer than five times. As was the case with most recent De Niro comedies, Grudge Match relies on a tried, tired sitcom formula. Additional points deduction for the horrible CGI in the opening sequence. Kim Basinger looks as lovely as ever.
(Spike Jonze, 2013)
In the near future, lovelorn Theodore is a copywriter who excels at penning commissioned love letters. One day he downloads a personal organizer app voiced by the hoarse Scarlett Johansson … and falls in love with “it.” This easily could have been the sort of ludicrous comedy Adam Sandler has a monopoly on, but writer/director Jonze presents us with an unpredictable, poignant, thought-provoking tale of love (in the digital age). In need of light pruning.
Theodore and his, um, pocket-sized lady friend.
HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, THE ««½
(Peter Jackson, 2013)
The further adventures of a reluctant Hobbit warrior. I maintain that turning Tolkien’s slender children’s book into another 9 hour saga is needlessly excessive, but at the very least this intermittently entertaining second chapter is better than the humdrum An Unexpected Journey. Dragon Smaug is a triumph of digital wizardry.
HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE , THE «««
(Francis Lawrence, 2013)
After surviving a post-apocalyptic survival of the fittest, new iliads await rebellious teen Katniss. The second book in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy disappointed me, so I initially passed on the adaptation when it hit theatres. Verdict: this is one of those rare instances where I enjoyed the film better than the source novel. Lawrence, taking over directing duties from Gary Ross, brought a tripod to the set. Bliss.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS «««
(Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 2013)
An account of fiddler Llewyn Desmond’s week on skid row. It’s a cinch that even though I enjoy Coen Brothers movies, I never much care for their characters. (The Coens always seem to invite us to laugh at their personages, never with them.) Bearing in mind that I have little patience with bluegrass music, I expected sitting through the bros’ latest would prove trying. I’m happy to say the film turned out to be a treat. I tapped my footsies to the tunes and emphasized with Davis’s plight.
(Franck Khalfoun, 2013)
Remake of 1980 video nasty that sent the late Gene Siskel running is told entirely from killer Elijah Wood’s perspective. The idea came, I suppose, from Halloween’s famous opening shot, which made the audience observe the world through the peepers of a madman. Sustaining this trick for a film’s duration is perhaps too much of a good thing, especially when shots keep changing from wide to medium and back again without Wood moving so much as a single muscle. Still, it’s an interesting genre piece with good acting and a delicious score.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES ««
(Christopher Waldon, 2013)
High school graduates wielding a video camera discover something weird is going on in their tenement. Could it be something … paranormal? Why Paramount presents this installment as a spin-off in lieu of “part 5" is a question worth considering. Either way, The Marked Ones is better than it has any reason to be, rocking some funny bits and ending on a decidedly crackpot note. Enough is enough, though.
(Mick Garris, 1992)
Oldie but baddie. My appreciation of Stephen King the novelist is only exceeded by my dislike of Stephen King the screenwriter. Everything that makes the Master of Macabre’s bibliography compelling is absent from his scripts. Sleepwalkers, written directly for the screen, revolves around mythical humanoids whose sustenance is the “life essence” of virgins. King repeatedly nixes every potential scare by including such elements as shape shifting automobiles, juvenile one-liners, and pointless cameos by novelists and filmmakers.
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE «««½
(Steve McQueen, 2013)
True story of free black Solomon Northup, kidnapped by conmen and sold into slavery. We know upfront that a happy ending is in the cards for Northup, so the film works best when it focuses on the general monstrosities of slave trade. Weighed down by distracting celebrity cameos.
(Francis Ford Coppola, 2011)
Oy vey. From the once great Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now) comes this critically drubbed horror tale of a hack writer (Val Kilmer, looking like he spent too much time at the old country buffet) entangled in a supernatural murder mystery. Coppola is still enough of a talent to keep things visually arresting, but this project is tainted by a paucity of vigor. Shot in 2011, released in 2013.
Stocky Val Kilmer is on sale. A steal at 19,99!
VIE D’ADELE – CHAPITRES 1 ET 2, LA «««
(Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
After a fling with classmate Thomas, unassuming teen Adèle falls for gay art student Emma. Thusly begins a romantic epic that chronicles their relationship from “meet cute” to “pink goggles come off” to “neck or nothing.” Just Palm d’Or winner is a powerful affair deserving of its many accolades, but I found fault with the film’s long sex scenes, which tread a fine line between frankly intimate and gratuitous. I’m no prude; I even enjoy exploitation cheapies that feature scantily clad women beating up vile menfolk. (I’m fully aware that these aren’t so much female empowering showcases as fetishistic fantasies of male directors.) But La Vie d’Adèle is a serious drama, which makes it lamentable that Kechiche foregoes his cínema vérité approach whenever the leads disrobe, capturing the nubile women’s naked bodies from every possible angle as they bathe, masturbate, perform cunnilingus, and suckle each other's nipples. (The actresses have gone public with their dislike of Kechiche’s intimidating on-set behavior.) There are additional flaws: much is made of Adèle’s friends and parents’ conservative stance on relationships, so why are these parties unceremoniously dropped from the storyline once Adèle moves in with Emma? All things considered, La Vie d’Adèle is a very good film with more than a few false notes. International title: Blue is the Warmest Color. Based upon Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Dark Angel.
WOLF OF WALL STREET, THE «««½
(Martin Scorsese, 2013)
Scorsese’s best and most energetic outing since Goodfellas (1990). It’s no coincidence that Wolf, too, deals with the rise and fall of an unlikable crook addicted to money, sex, and a variety of illegal substances. Whereas the dark Goodfellas crackled with ultraviolence, Wolf successfully tries to tickle your funny bone with its antihero’s clandestine hijinks. Adapted from the memoirs by Jordon Belfort.
YOU’RE NEXT «««
(Adam Weinbaum, 2013)
Tense family reunion is cut short when masked killers come barging in. Darkly comic slasher pleased mainstream critics but antagonized horror puritans. With Umberto Eco’s definition of postmodernism in mind, I’m not above taking my 21st century horror films with a scoop of irony, thanks heaps. The filmmakers also deserve a pat on the back for steering the narrative into several unconventional directions.