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The Monuments Men: It’s History, Man

by Ethan Alter February 7, 2014 6:05 am
The Monuments Men: It’s History, Man

The obit for George Clooney's latest directorial effort was written when this World War II period piece unceremoniously bumped from its original awards season berth and slotted into an early February release alongside other postponed 2013 rejects like Labor Day and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. So let's not spend too much time piling more dirt on its coffin. The Monuments Men is a dud: a nobly-intentioned feature that lacks the discipline and focus to unite its disparate elements -- among them a heavy-hitting cast, picturesque European settings and a great subject -- into an effective whole.

The Wolf of Wall Street: Never Cry, Wolf

by Ethan Alter December 25, 2013 6:05 am
The Wolf of Wall Street: Never Cry, Wolf

Although it would be inaccurate to label The Wolf of Wall Street a sequel (direct or spiritual) to Martin Scorsese's modern-day gangster classic, Goodfellas, the connection between the two movies -- as well as the less widely-loved Casino -- is hard to miss. Structurally, for instance, Wolf, which was written by Sopranos heavyweight Terence Winter, follows its predecessor's first-person narrated account of one crook's rise and fall. It even opens with a scene that shows our "hero," dethroned financial king Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) who wrote the book on which the movie is based, firmly ensconced in his high-flying lifestyle, followed by a lengthy flashback that shows us how he arrived at that point and then, once we're synced up, carrying his story through to its apocalyptic conclusion. (The exact line that serves as our gateway into the past isn't, "As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," -- but it's close.)

Lone Survivor: Duck and Cover

by Ethan Alter December 25, 2013 6:00 am
Lone Survivor: Duck and Cover

As penance for inflicting Battleship upon the moviegoing public -- and the brave men and women in our nation's military -- Peter Berg tries to atone for his sins by helming Lone Survivor, a based-on-a-true-story combat picture that's as spare and stripped-down as Battleship was outlandish and over-the-top. Specifically, Berg is dramatizing the 2005 SEAL-led mission Operation Red Wings, in which a four-man squad was dropped into a remote area of Afghanistan to capture and/or kill a high-ranking leader in the Taliban. Despite their superior training and weaponry, a series of unforeseen circumstances left the team outmanned and outgunned, desperately trying to stay alive in the face of a larger, well-armed army until… well, the title pretty much sums it up, doesn't it?

Saving Mr. Banks: Two For One

by Ethan Alter December 13, 2013 1:27 pm
Saving Mr. Banks: Two For One

Caveat emptor, Mary Poppins devotees. Although the trailers for Saving Mr. Banks make this PG-rated period biopic look like a fun, family-friendly behind-the-scenes tour of the making of the classic Disney musical, that material only accounts for about half of the finished product. There's another film wrapped into the narrative, one that's darker, more depressing and, to be perfectly honest, not especially good -- especially for very young kids who just want to know when those dancing cartoon penguins are going to show up.

American Hustle: Do the Hustle

by Ethan Alter December 13, 2013 9:31 am
American Hustle: Do the Hustle

Ever since his sophomore feature Flirting with Disaster, I've been rooting for David O. Russell to score a big, fat commercial hit. (I also enjoyed his debut, Spanking the Monkey, but a dark comedy about incest is never going to be Top 10 box office material.) But when the writer/director finally achieved that goal with last year's Silver Linings Playbook, I found myself in the odd position of feeling happy for him while also being disappointed that it wasn't for a better movie. (Granted, The Fighter earned a fistful of dollars as well, but it didn't join the same financial weight class as its successor.)

Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom: Great Man, Mediocre Movie

A modern-day hero whose life is still a source of inspiration, Nelson Mandela has been the subject of numerous films over the years, in which he has been portrayed by such actors as Dennis Haysbert (Goodbye Bafana), Morgan Freeman (Invictus) and Terrence Howard (Winnie Mandela). The majority of these films have opted to laser in on a specific period of his life or, as in the case of Winnie Mandela, present his experiences through another person's eyes. What makes the newest entry in this burgeoning biopic sub-genre, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, somewhat unique is that it takes a pillar-to-post approach, packing his entire life into two-and-a-half hours. Director Justin Chadwick's ambition appears to be nothing short of creating the Gandhi or Malcolm X of Mandela movies: the definitive dramatized account of this extraordinary man's biography.

Dallas Buyers Club: What a Sell Out

by Ethan Alter November 1, 2013 6:00 am
Dallas Buyers Club: What a Sell Out

Let's get this out of the way right up front: Matthew McConaughey is absolutely guaranteed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club and seems the most likely candidate to nab the statue in the (hopefully unlikely) event that voters decide to pass over 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor. As Ron Woodroof, McConaughey delivers the kind of star turn that the Academy loves. Not only is his character 1) Based on a real person, who 2) Suffered from a serious illness (in this case, AIDS), but he also gets to play out the kind of redemptive character arc -- going from homophobic bigot to an outspoken activist for AIDS victims' rights -- that sends viewers out of the theater feeling uplifted rather than emotionally wrecked, as is the case with Ejiofor's devastating work. Best of all, he gets to suffer manfully while still retaining that classic McConaughey swagger, the thing that made him a star all those years ago in Dazed and Confused and gives crowd-pleasers like Magic Mike and The Lincoln Lawyer their extra charge.

The Fifth Estate: WikiStinks

by Ethan Alter October 18, 2013 6:00 am
The Fifth Estate: WikiStinks

Now that the last two Twilight movies are safely in his rear view, Bill Condon is making a bid to recover some of the artistic cred he perhaps sacrificed by agreeing to close out that sneeringly-regarded (if financially lucrative) franchise. Frankly though, the "Team Edward"/"Team Jacob" nonsense that drove Twilight is more entertaining and nuanced than the "Team Daniel"/"Team Julian" conflict that's at the center of The Fifth Estate, an attempt at a modern-day All the President's Men that instead plays like a non-comedic version of the Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams-do-Watergate picture, Dick. It's amusing that the real Julian -- as in Assange a.k.a. That WikiLeaks Guy -- has been so up in arms about the movie's release when he actually comes out looking fairly good, all things considered. And besides, he can take heart in knowing that nobody is going to see this thing anyway.

Captain Phillips: Rough Waters Ahead

by Ethan Alter October 11, 2013 6:05 am
Captain Phillips: Rough Waters Ahead

Though it barely made a ripple when it was released in theaters earlier this year, the Danish-made A Hijacking remains one of 2013's best movies, a white-knuckle depiction of modern-day piracy that plays out largely at the negotiating table rather than on the seized ship. It's no big surprise that the American-made pirate picture Captain Phillips reverses that order, emphasizing the on-board action rather than the behind-the-scenes negotiation. What is a real surprise, though, is that Phillips turns out to be almost every bit as good as A Hijacking despite playing out in a different key. If you see Captain Phillips in theaters -- and I highly advise that you do -- make sure to track down A Hijacking immediately afterwards (provided your nerves can stand it) since the two movies inadvertently complement each other quite well.

Indie Snapshot: Parkland

by Ethan Alter October 4, 2013 12:24 pm
Indie Snapshot: Parkland

Sneaking into theaters before the impending wave of news reports and documentaries tied to the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination next month, Peter Landesman's Parkland is a dramatic recreation of the events of November 22, 1963 with a variety of big-name actors playing individuals (both real-life and fictionalized) who were on the ground in Dallas when Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fatal bullet at the President's motorcade. In that way, it's not entirely dissimilar to the all-star disaster movies of the '70s, when A-listers like Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman, Dene Martin and Faye Dunaway played out cataclysmic scenarios for our enjoyment. For obvious reasons, Parkland isn't focused on entertainment value, instead treating Kennedy's death and its impact on both the movie's characters and the country as a whole with the appropriate respect and resonance. But there's also little insight to be gleaned from this stolid docudrama that wouldn't be covered in one of those soon-to-arrive non-fiction accounts.

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