42. Directed by Brian Helgeland. This biopic accomplishes two goals: telling the historically important tale of a groundbreaking athlete and being a feel-good movie for the whole family. Chadwick Boseman, who is not yet a household name (though he may become one thanks to a soon-to-be-released film about “the Godfather of Soul,” James Brown), plays Jackie Robinson with conviction and dignity. Boseman’s Robinson is a fully realized character, running the gamut of emotion as deftly as he runs the bases. Harrison Ford, despite the early hype about a possible Oscar nomination, gives a performance which is too contrived for my taste. His take on Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey is heavy on the scenery-chewing, relying too much on the makeup/glasses (to de-prettify Harrison, of course) and on talking gruffly out of the side of his mouth. Christopher Meloni, still testing the waters after his release from “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” captivity, doesn’t look a thing like Leo Durocher, but I guess we’re supposed to ignore that. (As was the case in Meloni’s “SVU” days, he has shirtless scenes here too.) The best supporting performances are by Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife; Alan Tudyk as the racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies; and Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith.
Her. Directed by Spike Jonze. I know I cheated a little by deciding not to write a “Filmmaker Firsts” post on this film since it was the first time I had seen any feature film directed by Spike Jonze. (This oversight should be excused: I’ve seen so many of Jonze’s directorial efforts for music videos that I already had some idea of his cinematic tendencies and abilities.) I find it amusing that the one Oscar that Her has the best shot at winning is for its original screenplay since I had a lot of problems with the execution of the script. Dialogue didn’t always work like it should have, sounding strained instead of what should have been realistic for those individual characters; the pace draws the movie out by ten or fifteen minutes, adding to the already lugubrious tone. Speaking of… Her is not a comedy. In spite of what the Golden Globes categories might have you think, the majority of the scattered humorous moments are in a dark, dismal vein. You should see the film for the acting (especially Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt and, as you might expect, Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice) and for the music by Arcade Fire, Owen Pallett and Karen O, aspects which give some much-needed dimension to the overall product.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Directed by Don Scardino. Time Out New York trashed this comedy in the extreme in last March’s film review. Contrary to what the consensus was among most critics last year, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable the film was. It’s entertainment, plain and simple. If you like any or all of the main players – Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini – then you’ll probably have a good time. While most (if not all) of the plot points are completely predictable, the characters are likeable. Even Carrey, as the antagonist, is kind of likeable just because he’s Jim Carrey. My favorite performance is by Alan Arkin, which is the same crotchety-old-man shtick he’s been doing for years, but which is wonderful nonetheless. I would be so happy if Alan Arkin could continue his career as Hollywood’s most endearing grump for at least another decade.
In Secret. Directed by Charlie Stratton. Much like the cooled ardor of Thérèse and her lover Laurent’s once-frenzied relationship, my feelings toward this adaptation of the novel Thérèse Raquin are chilly when compared to the intensity previously experienced with Zola’s classic of 19th century French naturalist literature. Too many elements of the novel are changed for the worse or avoided altogether. Those details would have made the screen story much richer. The ending is also slightly modified from the novel’s original conclusion, a move which I guess is primarily intended to satisfy the audience. While the four lead actors (Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange) try their best, they cannot overcome the issues in the telling of the drama. A barefaced Olsen and an unusually muscular Oscar Isaac are disappointing, considering how great they were in their respective roles in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Inside Llewyn Davis. There’s a difference between carrying out the motions of sex scenes and actually imbuing them with chemistry, believability and meaning. Lange is the only cast member who shines, particularly in the last twenty or so minutes when she must forgo speech and convey all of her emotion with her eyes and her body. By the way, In Secret is a really ridiculous title. It’s barely a step up from a choice like Bad Things Happen or Hey, Did You Know That People Have Affairs? Stratton should have kept the novel’s name but amended it to include a subtitle: Thérèse Raquin, or: The Woman Who Pretended to Have One Too Many Migraines. Obviously, the biggest takeaway for a migraine-prone moviegoer like myself is that headaches are never the best excuse to cover up time spent with a paramour.
Oblivion. Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Tom Cruise is not #1 in my book (if indeed I have a “book” of actors), but I guess this sci-fi actioner is OK for one viewing. You get the usual stoic, heroic Cruise saving the day, accompanied by Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The visuals are impressive, though that’s not a shock since the cinematographer is Claudio Miranda (the cameraman who won an Oscar for Life of Pi). The story, however, is totally uninvolving and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. Director Kosinski adapted the film from his own graphic novel of the same title, but it isn’t a patch on his debut from 2010, TRON: Legacy. That film was genuinely exciting, giving new life to the outdated TRON film. The best part of Oblivion is probably the end credits, which features the song “Oblivion,” a collaboration by M83 and Susanne Sundfør.