Her: Ghost in the Machine

by Ethan Alter December 18, 2013 9:31 am
<i>Her</i>: Ghost in the Machine

At first blush, the "Her" in Spike Jonze's exquisitely crafted sci-fi romance Her would seem to refer to Scarlett Johansson's Samantha, the incorporeal operating system who enters the life of lonely letter writer, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), and becomes his best friend and, eventually, lover. But when you step back and consider it for a moment, the title seems to refer not to the presence, but rather the absence of a "her." After all, when we meet Theodore, he's on the verge of becoming a divorcée, many months removed from a failed marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), the woman he previously assumed he'd be with forever. Though he's been encouraged to get back on the dating scene by good pals like his neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), he seems content in his self-imposed isolation. Except he's not really; as he shuffles through his small universe, which consists primarily of his warmly-lit office and his bachelor pad in a sky-high skyrise, a palpable sense of melancholy trails his every step. There's a hole in his world that he's been thus far unable to fill with another human being. So naturally, it will take a voice in his ear to do it.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: He Is Legend

by Ethan Alter December 18, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues</i>: He Is Legend

Successfully sequel-izing any film is a challenge, but the odds seem stacked particularly high against comedies. The peculiar alchemy that had audiences rolling in the aisles the first time around can very easily transform comic gold into lead when the creative team goes back for a double dip, even with all the same players in place.

Out of the Furnace: Hot in Herre

by Ethan Alter December 6, 2013 5:55 am
<i>Out of the Furnace</i>: Hot in Herre

With Gotham City in his rear view, Christian Bale ventures down Appalachia way in Out of the Furnace, the sophomore feature from actor-turned-would-be-auteur, Scott Cooper. Like his debut film, Crazy Heart, Furnace is a ruggedly regional film about working-class men who have long since let go of any youthful ambition and are now just looking to get by, wringing whatever modest pleasures out of life that they can. Also like Crazy Heart, Furnace is simple and straightforward to a fault. You spend the whole movie expecting it to lead someplace challenging or, failing that, genuinely interesting, only to arrive at the end credits without it having ventured any further than surface-level.

Frozen: She’s As Cold As Ice

by Ethan Alter November 27, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Frozen</i>: She’s As Cold As Ice

In 1989, an aquatic princess named Ariel lifted Disney out of its decade-long doldrums, ushering in a new period of creative and commercial success for the once-dominant brand in family animated entertainment. Two decades later, a well-coiffed royal scion named Rapunzel performed a similar feat, righting the Mouse House's course after it struggled to find its sea legs in a new (and largely computer animated) family entertainment landscape dominated by companies like DreamWorks, Blue Sky and, of course, Pixar. And so the hugely enjoyable Tangled beget the equally enjoyable Wreck It Ralph, which in turn beget Frozen, a spirited romp through a traditional Disney princess narrative that ultimately tweaks the formula in ways that make it exciting and new.

Oldboy: It’s Not Terrible, Guys!

by Ethan Alter November 27, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Oldboy</i>: It’s Not Terrible, Guys!

If somebody had to remake Oldboy, I'm glad it was Spike Lee. Arriving a full decade after Park Chan-wook's original film warped peoples' fragile little minds, setting off the South Korean New Wave in the process, this Americanized version is a surprisingly faithful re-do at least in terms of the general arc of the plot. Once again, a drunkard (Josh Brolin this time) wakes up from night of alcohol-fueled revelry to find himself locked in a hotel room, where he proceeds to spend the next twenty years of his life. When he's unexpectedly released one day, he embarks on a mission of vengeance that takes him to some dark, messed-up places that if you've seen the original you already know about and if you haven't, I'm not about to ruin it for you. Where the film establishes its own identity, however, is in its style; while Chan-wook's Oldboy constantly teeters on the edge of the absurd -- finally tipping over in the final act -- Lee rushes full-bore into Crazytown early on and the results are fun to watch, even when Oldboy 2.0 threatens to dissolve into a blood-red puddle of pure ridiculousness.

The Hunger Games – Catching Fire: Now This Is More Like It

by Ethan Alter November 21, 2013 11:55 pm
<i>The Hunger Games – Catching Fire</i>: Now <i>This</i> Is More Like It

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire instantly goes on the short list of sequels that not only surpass the original film, but the source material as well. (For the record, I'd also put the second James Bond outing From Russia with Love and Peter Jackson's thrilling distillation of The Two Towers in that rarefied air.)

Thor: The Dark World: It’s Hammer Time, Again

by Ethan Alter November 8, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Thor: The Dark World</i>: It’s Hammer Time, Again

The original Thor was a timid movie made by a timid studio, still uncertain how fantastical they could make their superhero spectacles lest audiences revolt. That's why the title character -- a godlike being who hails from the otherworldly realm of Asgard -- spent so much time on boring old Earth, where he engaged in lots of lame fish-out-of-water comedy, middling action set-pieces that all seemed to occur in the same three-block radius of a fake, set-bound town and a chemistry-free romance with a visibly bored female lead. So whatever its flaws, Thor: The Dark World leaps and bounds over its predecessor simply due to the fact that it embraces, rather than runs from, its fantasy origins. Much like Thor himself, Marvel has matured since their early days (banking more than $600 million on an unprecedented superhero team-up movie helps with the growing-up process) and is now more willing to take chances, trusting that audiences are with them for the long haul.

Indie Snapshot: Blue is the Warmest Color

by Ethan Alter October 25, 2013 5:55 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Blue is the Warmest Color</i>

You can't get more art house than a Palme d'Or winning, three-hour long, sexually explicit French film chronicling the rise and fall of a lesbian love affair. (If Seinfeld were still on the air, that sounds like it would be the logline to the inevitable Rochelle, Rochelle sequel). But Blue Is the Warmest Color mostly defies such easy designations, telling an absorbing, relatable story while also achieving an intimacy and raw emotional power that has deservedly made it a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic… though not always for reasons stemming from the movie's quality. Ever since Blue's triumphant Cannes premiere in May, controversy has dogged the production, as the behind-the-scenes tensions between director Abdellatif Kechiche and stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux has spilled into the public arena. (As if that's not enough, the author of the graphic novel the movie is based on, Julie Maroh, has repeatedly expressed her dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the film.) As juicy as those stories are, try not to let it distract from the film itself, which succeeds (and, in some ways, fails) entirely on its own merits.

All Is Lost: The Sea Will Probably Kill Ya

by Ethan Alter October 18, 2013 6:00 am
<i>All Is Lost</i>: The Sea Will Probably Kill Ya

After his acclaimed directorial debut Margin Call, a movie that was awash in talk (specifically of the Wall Street variety) writer/director J.C. Chandor throws out a change-up with his sophomore effort, All is Lost, where nary a word is spoken. Instead, the majority of the sounds heard during this filmed sea voyage, aside from a stringently-used score, are elemental: the lapping waves, the howling winds, the breathing of the nameless lone sailor (Robert Redford) and -- in some of the most affecting moments -- the simple sound of silence. To paraphrase the immortal words of Missus Mia Wallace, that's how you know when you've found a special movie: when it can just shut the eff up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.

Five Questions for <i>All is Lost</I>‘s J.C. Chandor and Robert Redford

It may bear a superficial resemblance to Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea -- being that it stars 77-year-old Robert Redford as a lone sailor whose ocean voyage gets in a spot of trouble -- but J.C. Chandor's All is Lost very much emerges as its own unique (sea) creature. It's an impressive tour-de-force for both Chandor and Redford, who anchors the film in a largely wordless lead performance, surviving conditions that would even make those astronauts in Gravity say, "Whoa." Prior to the film's premiere at the New York Film Festival (it opens in theaters on Friday), Redford and Chandor spoke about their own personal experiences at sea and the film's deliberately mysterious ending.

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