Friday, November 22, 2013

12 Years a Slave - 4 stars

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in pre-civil war New York.  He lives with his wife and 2 children, and works as a professional fiddle player.  One day a couple of men show up and offer him a temporary job playing in Washington, D.C.  He agrees and leaves town with the two men.  After a night of drinking, he wakes up to find himself in a cell, chains around his wrists and ankles.  From there he is transported to Louisiana and sold to a plantation owner.

This is a hard movie to watch, but it's incredibly powerful.  We see the horrors that slaves endured in the south.  We see a woman separated from her kids at a slave market, we see how runaway slaves are punished, we see slaves whipped to within an inch of their lives.  The violence is explicit but not gratuitous. 

The casting is perfect.  Ejiofor has a commanding screen presence and he really made me feel empathy for his character.  He has to handle a range of emotions and experiences, and he does it without overacting.  Paul Giamatti plays the man who runs the slave auction, a businessman who views the slaves the same way a rancher looks at his cattle.  Paul Dano plays creepy like nobody else, and he has a few good scenes as a carpenter who is intimidated by Northup's intelligence, which makes him dangerous. 

Benedict Cumberbatch is Northup's first owner, and he's a kind and fair man (for a slave owner, anyway).  But the real horror begins when he is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fasbender), a ruthless plantation owner who measures the cotton picked by his slaves daily, and whips the ones who didn't pick enough.  Epps is married to a woman named Mary (Sarah Paulson) who may be worse than he is.

Even with all these great actors, the standout is newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Patsey.  Patsey is the hardest worker on the plantation.  She regularly picks twice as much cotton as any of the men.  Unfortunately for her, she is also the favorite of Epps, and he often comes to her in the night.  Mrs. Epps is aware of this, and hates Patsey for it.  The things Patsey has to endure are horrific.

The movie is incredibly vivid.  It doesn't feel as written as other movies, meaning everything that happens feels more organic.  It made me feel like I was there on the plantation, feeling the heat of being out working in the sun all day.  It's incredibly well written and directed, and I think everyone should see this movie. 

Delivery Man - 2 1/2 stars

This is a remake of a French Canadian movie called Starbuck, which just opened in Salt Lake back in April.  Directed by Ken Scott (who also directed the original), it stars Vince Vaughn as Dave Wozniak.  Dave is the kind of guy who lets everyone down in his life.  His pregnant girlfriend wants nothing to do with him, he is always screwing up at work, and he owes a lot of money to people who are threatening to drown him if he doesn't pay up.

When Dave was younger, he donated to a sperm bank hundreds of times.  Now 20 years later, a lawyer shows up and informs him that due to a clerical error, his sperm was used hundreds of times over a couple of years.  Now he has 533 children, and 150 of them are suing the clinic to find out who their biological father is.

This is basically a shot for shot remake of Starbuck.  The only difference (besides the language) is the characters play basketball instead of soccer.  I didn't like the original much, and I liked this a little better just because of Vince Vaughn.  But it does seem like he is phoning this in.  He doesn't try too hard, but he does get a few good laughs here and there.

Overall the movie is pretty uneven.  By the end it's supposed to be heartwarming, but it didn't really work.  I laughed a few times, and 2 1/2 stars is probably generous, but the movie wasn't boring.  At least the story itself is interesting, and Chris Pratt is pretty good as Dave's friend and lawyer.

So I can't really recommend it, but if you decide to see it, you probably won't be too disappointed.  It doesn't suck, it just isn't very good. 

Ender's Game - 2 stars

From Wikipedia (because I'm too lazy to summarize):

"After an alien race called the Formics (also known as the "Buggers" in the book) attacks Earth in 2086, the International Fleet prepares for the next invasion by training the best young children to find the future candidate to lead the International Fleet and fill the shoes of the legendary war hero Mazer Rackham. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is pulled out of his Earth school to join the International Fleet and attend the legendary Battle School, located in Earth orbit. He progresses rapidly through a series of increasingly complex war games while simultaneously gaining the respect of his peers. As a result, Ender is soon chosen by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to be the military's next Mazer Rackham. The boy progresses to Command School, where he receives training from Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) himself. After a series of grueling battle simulations, Ender leads his peers into a war that will determine the future of Earth and the human race."

I think the movie did a good job of hitting all the major plot points, but it didn't spend enough time developing the characters.  Harrison Ford and Viola Davis have too many scenes where they have the same argument over and over - whether Ender is cut out to be the leader he's being trained to be, and whether the training is going to psychologically damage him. 

I really liked the zero gravity training room where teams battle each other with laser guns.  It's like playing Laser Tag in space.  I think kids especially will really enjoy those scenes.

But mostly the movie just felt monotonous to me.  He's in class learning battle strategy, he's getting into fights, laser tag scene, Ford and Davis argue, repeat.  I just kind of got bored, and I didn't really feel for Ender as a character.  Unless you're a big fan of the book, you can skip this movie.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Last Vegas - 2 1/2 stars

Last Vegas is likeable and good natured, but it isn't very funny.  There are some laughs here and there, but they're all very broad and easy to see coming.  The guys are old so they don't know who 50 Cent is!  Kevin Kline doesn't know the Madonna impersonator he's hitting on is a man in drag!  Things like that.

Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro were ok but they didn't do anything special.  Douglas is acting like himself - rich, smug and generally happy with himself.  He's about to marry a woman half his age.  De Niro is a grumpy old man the whole time, still depressed about the death of his wife.

The ones who bring the movie to life are Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman.  Kline's wife has given him a free pass to cheat on her, going so far as to give him a card saying "What happens in Vegas ..." with a condom and a viagra.  Kline's character has been in kind of a funk, and he's excited for this trip.  He's so happy his wife gave him a freebie that he doesn't stop to think about what it would be like if he actually went through with it.  He also doesn't realize that good looking young women aren't exactly interested in an old guy like him.  The scenes with him hitting on women are actually kind of cute because he's so clueless and sweet.

But Morgan Freeman is having the most fun in this movie.  I don't think I've ever seen him smile this much.  He's excited to go on the trip because it gets him away from his overprotective son.  He's there to have a good time and he's just a nice, easygoing presence. 

The end of the movie gets rather dramatic and poignant.  Michael Douglas has a really nice scene where he breaks down a little and talks about what it's like to grow old.  I was moved by this scene but it was too little, too late.  Overall the movie is a bit of a disappointment, but it's not too bad.  It's not worth a trip to the theater but it would be ok as a rental.