Spiritualism in movies can be pretentious and overblown — think of the trailer for CLOUD ATLAS (and presumably the picture itself — I just couldn’t get it up to go) — keeping audiences away. Or spiritualism can stem from a tale told thrillingly and beautifully, its spiritual concerns clear and comprehensible — as is the case with this majestic adventure, deemed risky for Fox pre-release, but opening strong and destined, like Pi himself, for big things. A rumination on the many ways to enlightenment, a transmutation of unbearable reality into something easier to grasp, a solo (in a sense) acting exercise in which a newbie shines like a pro, and perhaps the most seamless use of CGI yet, this movie takes a highly evocative novel and finds the visual equivalents to illustrate its world, both literal and thematic. It’s structured much like Tom Hanks’ CAST AWAY — the set-up, the ocean ordeal, and a coda — but instead of Wilson, we get Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger who accompanies, hungers for, lives alongside, and ultimately abandons Pi. Unlike many films where you slog through the preliminaries to get to “the good stuff” and then look at your watch during the wrap-up, the framing device is the key to what this movie is really about: what we can learn from personal crisis, the absence of God, the presence of God, coping mechanisms and the uses of imagination. Some artists find variations on the same subject for each of their works; they don’t repeat, they find new facets every time they return to familiar material. Other artists, and director Ang Lee is one of them, astonish each time by taking on something entirely different from what they did before. Here, Lee’s utterly natural use of 3-D never goes for cheap effect and his storytelling is as lean and fat-free as Pi himself after weeks adrift. LIFE OF PI is a triumph. — Jeff Schultz
LIFE OF PI is one of the most visually striking movies I’ve ever seen. The scenery, the CGI animals, the cinematography and the 3D all combine for a completely unbelievable sensory experience. The rest of the movie is good, not great. The acting is decent and is generally overwhelmed by the feast for the eyes. The story is basically a tale about religion. It’s something of a dark fable about belief, what you believe and why you believe it. At the end it turns into a freshman year religious studies/philosophy class. The story is interesting and the best moments are the small moments of humor, but not as fascinating as what you’re looking at. It’s like great art. You can interpret it however you like, but a beautiful painting is a beautiful painting. It’s a feast for the eyes. And that’s reason enough to see LIFE OF PI. — Alan Yudman
LINCOLN might be better titled The Politics of Ending Slavery. Because it is just as much about how the 13th Amendment was passed by a severely divided House of Representatives, as it is about the President who pushed so hard to make it happen. We get a look at Lincoln the politician, the back room dealmaker and the persuader. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the great man as weary from four years of war, and a shrew of a wife who will not let him forget the death of their son Willie. All of this has Lincoln hunched over from the weight of history or his own demons. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is given to spinning tales to make his point. He mostly practices the gentle art of persuasion, but occasionally allows fits of temper. Overall, Lincoln comes across as human, but slightly better than everyone around him. Despite being about 2:30 long and mostly dialogue, the movie moves fairly well and almost never feels preachy or ponderous (two things Steven Spielberg movies can sometimes be). Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer Jarusz Kaminski chose to show these United States as gray and dreary and I suppose that fits the mood. While all the technical aspects and very good and the screenplay by Thomas Kushner (from Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book) is very good, the real treat here is the acting. The audience feels as burdened by his troubles as Day-Lewis’ Lincoln. He struggles with sorrow, regret and ego as he attempts to seize a moment in history that only he seems to grasp. The supporting performances are outstanding. Tommy Lee Jones as a Pennsylvania Congressman hell-bent on abolition, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, a bloated James Spader as a political dealmaker, and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln steal almost every scene they are in. And I was pleased to see such great TV actors as Walton Goggins and Michael Stuhlbarg play small but wonderful roles. As a student and lover of history I thoroughly enjoyed LINCOLN. And as a film critic, I was entertained and captivated, but not moved as passionately as I could have been. LINCOLN is flawed, but ultimately worth seeing. — Alan Yudman
Some of the best thrillers are the ones where less is more. Session 9, The Hitcher, just a couple that come to mind. Those movies show you just enough to creep you out…then let your imagination fill in the blanks. That’s why SINISTER works on a creepy good level. To discuss why this movie works would give away the genuine chills that hit you at unexpected moments. Ethan Hawke is the audience as he finds answers to a family’s gruesome murder. His reactions mirror ours as the truth is uncovered one tiny shocking detail at a time. A slow boil to an explosive climax, SINISTER rises above what currently passes for a scary movie these days by actually being scary.
LOOPER starts off SUPER but ends up in the POOPER! After a fantastic setup and story, the movie loses its intelligence and originality and falls into a mishmash of predictability and simple explanations. Bruce Willis has a few moments to shine but JGL (who I think is great) gives a one note performance. I think if a plot element involving a kid was removed this would have been great. Instead lazy writing mucks up the last half of the movie.
The latest version of James Bond is not the suave, sophisticated and worldly assassin with a gleam in his eye as portrayed by Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. As “M” tells him in Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s Bond is a blunt instrument with a dark and troubled past. And as SKYFALL plays out, we learn a little more about what made the man. That said, this isn’t a Deep Thoughts Bond. There is everything you want to see in a Bond movie. Car chases, motorcycle chases, beautiful women, international locations are all a part of this movie. Oh, and lets not forget the psychopathic villain, expertly played by Javier Bardem. The man can play crazy better than any current actor, and the weird blonde hair and slightly asymmetrical face help him sell the international wacko villain. But Craig’s Bond is darker and more brooding. A troubled man who knows how to channel that into love of country and duty to the Crown. There are also ready quips, knowing winks and peril galore. The movie is beautiful thanks to Academy Award winner Roger Deakins. It also stays pretty well focused thanks to Sam Mendes. Craig just keeps getting better as Bond. People need to stop comparing him to Connery. He’s not and never will be. Take him as he is and you’ll realize how great he really is. Add one of the best Bond movie songs (thanks Adele) in more than a decade and you have a fantastic action thriller that gives Bond fans everything they want. It feels current and on par with Bourne. A modern Bond for modern times, but still rooted in the old traditions that more can be done with a bullet than a computer. SKYFALL belongs with the best of the Bond films and I look forward to the next one. — Alan Yudman
The moment that gets this movie going is the plane crash, but FLIGHT isn’t about a plane crash. it’s about a man’s crash. The plot is familiar. An alcoholic ruins his life and the lives of those around him. He lies and does horrible things all because of the booze. We’re only waiting for his moment of redemption. The moment when he realizes who he is and decides to change. So since we can all see what’s coming, the drama is all about how we get there. Here, that is all about Denzel Washington. He makes us feel sorry for Whip Whitaker, then he makes us loathe him. Washington drags us through the mess that Whitaker has created and finally to the realization that his life cannot be a constant drug and alcohol fueled roller coaster. Robert Zemeckis does a decent job, mainly by getting out of Denzel’s way. His main contribution is the drama and execution of the plane crash. The supporting cast is more than capable and for the second movie in a row John Goodman steals every scene he appears in. But this is Denzel’s movie and he should get his tuxedo ready, because he will be one of the five best actor nominees next January. — Alan Yudman
A bait-and-switch that plays out the switch part capably, so you only feel mildly betrayed. Let’s just say the trailer gives you no idea of what this is really about. The first half-hour contains the set-piece: a spectacular plane crash, thrillingly done, action movie exciting, and pretty much the only thing you see in the ads. But in the ensuing two hours (it’s long) the movie takes a hard turn, which entirely changes its tone. Suddenly, we’re in CLEAN AND SOBERland. (And I was expecting something more like Michael Crichton’s “Airframe”.) But there are lots of great performances. Washington is subtle; he only gives so much, but what he gives just nails it. Kelly Reilly, new to me, has a touching vulnerability: watch her sitting on the hospital stairway with Denzel and a cancer patient simply called “Gaunt Young Man”. That patient is played by James Badge Dale, and based on what he puts into his one scene, you’re going to want to see more of him. And John Goodman is all swagger and stoned self-confidence. It’s talky, but there’s a parallel NTSB investigation plot (with a not very original part for Don Cheadle) which adds a bit of suspense, including a tense Q-and-A between Denzel and Melissa Leo. But you know how it’s gonna end way before the ending comes. And when it comes, the wrap-up feels a bit limp. — Jeff Schultz
Spectacularly good. Funny as can be, well-acted, deeply emotional (maybe even a bit intense for the littler ones), and the literal definition of eye candy — this sweet melt-in-your-heart confection frames the familiar find-yourself-and-embrace-who-you-are theme inside several video games and their characters. Much credit to director Rich Moore and his three writers (and perhaps the overriding presence of EP John Lasseter) for keeping a complicated story simple with people (and creatures) we enjoy. (It’s as economical in its way as the short “paperman” that precedes the feature). Standout voice: Jack McBrayer, who brings the same sweetness and innocence (with a touch of savvy) of his Kenneth from “30 Rock” to brave little Fix-It Felix. And you’ll laugh when Alan Tudyk’s King Candy insists his palace isn’t pink, but salmon. Jokes like that, and other older people references (Lara Croft, a pun about breaking glasses) mix with silly stuff for all, like Laffy Taffy and Oreos come to life largely through their very names. This picture represents the best of what a great studio like Disney can do when working at its peak. — Jeff Schultz