In 1941, a girl climbed off a train in Los Angeles. She was the daughter of a North Carolina farmer and a housekeeper, had grown up bitterly poor, and had few prospects in life. But her older sister had married a man who owned photo shops in New York City. He had taken a picture of the girl and put it in the window of his Fifth Avenue store. An MGM office boy spotted it; she got a $50-a-week contract at the studio and a train ticket to the West Coast.Read more
The box-office surprise of 2013 is a cheaply made, unbelievable, unfunny comedy-drama with a Mexican star-writer-director you’ve never heard of, who isn’t the least bit amusing, doesn’t act very well, and writes even more poorly. Imagine Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy crossed with Three Men and a Baby, Kramer vs.Read more
It is said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king—and when it comes to American movies, the land of the blind is the Sundance Film Festival. Every January, independent filmmakers looking for distributors fight to get their films shown at the festival in Utah.Read more
The horrendously titled Short Term 12, a no-star independent film about a young woman working at a foster-care facility in Los Angeles, is receiving rapturous notices of a kind its young writer-director Destin Cretton could hardly have dreamt of. It has a 98 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and almost all of the reviews the site aggregates are unqualified raves.Read more
Has there ever been a more melodramatic director than Lee Daniels? The man screams out movies at the top of his lungs. Even the titling of his films becomes an occasion for histrionics. In 2009, he made a movie called Push, only to discover there was a science-fiction film with the same name. So he retitled it—and oh, how he retitled it. It became Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire.Read more
Elysium is another ruined-planet movie, the third this year after Oblivion and After Earth. Such movies come in two forms: Either the Earth has gone wild and uncultivated so that it’s entirely covered in grass and trees, or it has become a giant and overpopulated garbage dump where the use of road-surfacing equipment has become obsolete, and every time a vehicle drives anywhere or flies anywhere, a tremendous amount of dust is kicked up.Read more
The Way Way Back, a little movie about a 14-year-old boy who goes on an extended summer vacation with his divorced mother and her belittling boyfriend, comes close to being a classic. Close. Which poses a dilemma for a critic: I don’t know whether to concentrate on the marvelous qualities it possesses or on the weaknesses that prevent it from being the masterpiece it might have been.Read more
By now, it no longer matters that the new version of The Lone Ranger is a remarkably entertaining, amusing, and exhilarating romp—not to mention eye-poppingly beautiful. In contrast to every other big-ticket film of the past five years, The Lone Ranger doesn’t exhaust you by the time the final action sequence sets in. Instead, its final 20 minutes feature a chase scene in which the villains and the good guys leap back and forth across two speeding trains, and the whole shooting match is one of the damndest things I’ve ever seen.Read more
So I saw World War Z, the new Brad Pitt movie about a worldwide zombie outbreak, and here’s the surprising thing: I can’t decide whether it’s the most anti-Semitic movie ever made, or the most Zionist movie ever made.Read more
Critics aren’t crazy about Man of Steel, the new Superman movie. It has a 56 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the site that aggregates reviews. But audiences love it; the Cinemascore poll gives Man of Steel a grade of A-.Read more
The “state of grace” is not, to put it mildly, a Jewish idea; in fact, save for Christ’s divinity, it may be the least Jewish concept in all of Christianity. So it is a fascinating irony that the first movie written and directed by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish filmmaker seems to embody the state of grace—albeit in an aesthetic way. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a film as eerily perfect in tone and taste as Fill the Void.Read more
Not once, not twice, but three times in the course of the 86-minute running time of the extravagantly praised Frances Ha is the title character shown running through Manhattan. Once, we see her running with her best friend. Another time we see her running to find an ATM. Then we see her running while improvising dance moves.Read more
The new film version of The Great Gatsby is, shockingly, terrific—opulent, powerful, and thrillingly gorgeous. Baz Luhrmann, the director and co-writer, plays it as high melodrama, operatic both in intensity and the lushness of its settings and costumes. This turns out to be the best possible approach. After a dreadful first five minutes, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is never less than immensely entertaining, and it moves splendidly. The re-creation of prewar New York and the bacchanalian revelry of the Jazz Age are on a scale I’ve only seen attempted once (in, of all things, Peter Jackson’s wildly underrated 2005 remake of King Kong), and the cinematic results are jaw-droppingly spectacular.Read more
The new movie about Jackie Robinson’s entry into major league baseball paints its characters with such an unmitigatedly saintly brush that Parson Weems himself might come back from the grave to say, “Speaking as the man who invented the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, fellas, that was a bit much.” Writer-director Brian Helgeland, who seems to have studied Barry Levinson’s fussy and romanticized direction of The Natural (1984) the way a forger studies a dollar bill, is a hamfisted scenarist whose didactic dialogue sounds like the script for one of those 15-minute plays they stage at history museums.Read more
What does it mean to say a movie is an “epic”? An epic uses its characters and plot to illuminate a place, an era, an entire society. We are constantly being reminded, through camera work and art direction, that what we’re watching is something larger and more socially significant than its plot. The action is always placed within a wider context, historically and geographically, and the characters we’re watching move through the story as though they are actors on a grand stage.Read more
Trance has to be judged one of the great disappointments in recent cinema, given that it is only the second movie Danny Boyle has made since Slumdog Millionaire. That Oscar-winning worldwide smash may have been the best film of the past decade.Read more
The surprise of The Sapphires is how unpretentious and unportentous it is, considering that its plot hinges not only on racist Australian policy but also the Vietnam war. Based loosely on a true story, The Sapphires is about four aboriginal girls (ranging in age from 15 to mid-20s) who turn themselves into a girl group and go on tour in Vietnam in 1968 entertaining the troops.Read more
I've spent worse hours at the movies than the ones I spent watching Oz the Great and Powerful, which purports to tell the story of how the Wizard gained his dominion over the Emerald City. It has a great title sequence, there are a few good lines, and there’s an absolutely magical conceit involving a broken China doll that, once repaired, turns into an enchantingly bossy 10-year-old. My kids, 8 and 6, liked it fine, weren’t bored, sat without fidgeting.Read more
Is there any fairytale more maddening than “Cinderella”? Other classic stories force their heroes and heroines to undergo a journey from innocence to experience in which they are punished for immoral choices and tested to show their moral worth; Cinderella is rewarded for doing nothing much, asking for nothing much, and being nothing much.Read more
As a general rule, movies about electoral politics are so awful we should all be glad there are so few of them. Elections are wildly dramatic events, but the drama unfolds over a long time. Thus, naturally impatient moviemakers insist on stuffing them with transparently absurd melodramatics or ludicrous comic confrontations. The evildoers in these movies are invariably amoral political consultants who are out to corrupt the idealists. They are the serpents in Eden.Read more
Someone living in Barack Obama’s America, circa 2013, says these words to you: “I’m so behind.” In previous epochs—say, the Age of Lewinsky, or of disco—this might mean any number of things. A person might have failed to collate the year’s receipts for his accountant. Another might not have completed the longitudinal analysis necessary for her dissertation. A third might not have cleaned out the attic.
No longer. In Barack Obama’s America, those words refer to only one thing: the inability to keep up-to-date with a serialized television program.Read more
Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is one of those rare movies that spends an hour seeming to be one thing until it pivots, about two-thirds of the way through, and becomes something entirely different.
The other weekend, a movie starring Sylvester Stallone called Bullet to the Head died at the box office. It made $4 million against a reported budget of $55 million. It was preceded in death by a picture starring Arnold Schwarzenegger called The Last Stand, which made about $6 million against a budget of $30 million. These twin disasters have cast in doubt the future of a weird mini-genre that came out of nowhere a few years ago: the Activia action picture, starring 1980s movie stars banding together to shoot some guns and beat up much younger men.Read more
In 1962, Donald E. Westlake created his pulpiest character, the sociopathic criminal-of-all-trades named Parker, who became the protagonist of two dozen novels (written under the pseudonym “Richard Stark”) before Westlake’s death in 2008. In doing so, Westlake became part of an innovative movement in crime fiction: novels told from the point of view of the crooks, not the good guys.Read more
Like Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino has now made an American slavery film to go with his Holocaust film (Inglourious Basterds, 2009)—and like Spielberg, he secured Best Picture nominations for both of his epic journeys into shameful human history. But while Spielberg treats his topics with terrified reverence, Tarantino does not. Quite the opposite. Their grand themes are deployed almost exclusively to provide shock value.Read more
Director Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker after a career of making worse-to-middling action pictures, is a visionary of the grubby. In that 2009 Iraq war movie, and in her new one about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, sand and dirt and grime and mold and mildew and puddles become characters as vivid as, if not more vivid than, the humans. Bigelow anthropomorphizes grubbiness—investing it with menace, or despair, or sadness, or pathos, or rage, or whatever the scene calls for.Read more
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