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Mr. Brown Plays Catch-Up

Well, that' it: I thought I could do it but honestly, i've run out of sentences, adjectives, verbs, putdowns, and grievances to finish reviewing the last of the Twilight movies, Breaking Dawn - Part I and the newly released Part II. That, and i've been busy with classes and work to actually post anything - a review, thoughts about the circle jerk that is Awards season and upcoming movies i'm just damn excited to watch in 2013. In the last month though, i've seen a bunch of movies: some that are the best of the year and deserve to be serious contenders come Oscar time and one that I still can't wrap my head around.

Flight - I've long been a fan of Denzel Washington's body of work, but for the lat several years he's been resigned to easily marketable action fare like Unstoppable (the last collaboration between him and director Tony Scott, who went on to commit suicide in August), The Taking of Pelham 123, Out of Time, Deja Vu, Man on Fire, The Book of Eli and Safe House. There was Riddley Scott's explosive crime-drama American Gangster, but we haven't really seen him in a film were we see his talents to find the humanity in his characters since then. In comes Flight, a drama that holds you in it's vicegrip from the start where Whip Witaker (Washington) saves 96 of the souls on-board a commercial flight by flipping the plane on its side in order to make an emergency landing and doesn't let go for a moment. The press hail him as a hero for his amazing skills. The catch? He was drunk off his ass the night before, was hopped up on blow before his scheduled flight and had vodka in his system while flying. Sounds utterly preposterous, but it's Washington and Robert Zemeckis (his first feature back to live-action since 2000's Cast Away) who make you believe the ethical tightrope Whip is walking. He's a man in free fall, and his journey to oblivion is one of the hardest-hitting things i've seen in quite sometime. I dare anyone to watch the scene where Whip is hung over and has to call  up his dealer buddy (the scary funny John Goodman) to get him straight, via lines of blow, before his public hearing with a prosecutor (Melissa Leo) who wants to nail his ass to the wall for the six lives lost, and not rush out in a break of cold sweat.  All praise goes to Washington, who doesn't sugarcoat the nature of an addict who can't come to the realization of what he's become.  

*** 1/2 stars out of ****

The Master - Let me just say this right now: Paul Thomas Anderson's latest character centered drama isn't as good as his last movie, the breathtaking and bold epic There Will Be Blood, and it's not as powerful as his multi-layered character drama Magnolia, a movie I consider one of the greatest movies to have come out of the 90's. Yet, even on his worst day, Anderson is still the most exciting director out there. His latest film, The Master, much like P.T.'s previous films, has much more going than what we see at the surface: Freddie Quell (the volcanic Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to adjust to life after World War II. He's a drifter who stumbles upon a charismatic preacher - or is it cult leader? - Lancaster Dodd (a never-better Phillip Seymore Hoffman) who takes the disturbed Navy vet under his wing and introduces (or indoctrinates) him into "the Cause". His wife (the excellent Amy Adams) sees Freddy as nothing but bad road and someone who's beyond help, but Dodd sees something in Freddy that compels him to start "processing" so that he can be accepted into the Cause. If this sounds a bit like a blast on Scientology, then you're only half right: Anderson used L.Ron Hubbard's Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health , as a backdrop to the film, but he's hunting bigger game: he's tackling how we sell ourselves for institutions (religion in particular) that demand unwavering allegiance and have little room for doubt. The ending where Freddy and Lancaster meet in London, the preacher trying to hold onto his fallen pupil, is a hypnotic and haunting thing of beauty. Phoenix gives the performance of his career, playing this raw nerve of a man who's bound to erupt at a moment's notice, and Hoffman is brilliant as the preacher who is drawn to the drifter like a moth to a flame. Again, it's not my favorite of the now six films Anderson has made. The message of the movie is too cryptic and there are more questions than answers as to the fate of Freddy, but Anderson has never been one to wrap things up nicely for his audience. This, like the rest of his films, is made to challenge its audience and have them thinking critically about what they're seeing. Anderson refuses to treat the audience like they're fucking sheep. and I can't thank him enough for it.

*** 1/2 stars out of ****

Life of Pi - Wow. Just wow. I'm going to have more to say about this astonishing piece of filmmaking by director Ang Lee, but for the moment, all I can say is that this is a film of sweeping beauty and haunting, hypnotic power that deserves the extra $3-4 extra to see in 3D. What you should know is that film, based on the novel of the same name by Yann Martel , tells the story of Pi Patel (newcomer Suraj Sharma), who is trapped on a life raft with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker after the cargo ship carrying his zookeeper family after the ship inexplicably sinks to the bottom of the Pacific. Much like Zemeckis' Cast Away and Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, this is a one-man show, and in the wrong hands the whole movie would have sunk. It doesn't. Sharma gives a fearless and fierce performance that never rings false and should be considered for a Best Actor nomination. Life of Pi is a movie that engages the senses, challenges the mind and gives you new hope for the future of movies and this new medium.

**** stars out of ****

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - This has to be one of the most genuine surprises i've seen in all the years i've been watching movies. I knew this was based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Stephen Chbosky (who also served as writer and director) and I knew that this was Emma Watson's first major role post-Harry Potter. I also knew that I would probably like this movie, given the subject material of a loner high school student Charlie (Logan Lerman) who finds refuge from the beast that is high school and adolescence in friends Sam (Watson) and her gay step-brother, Patrick (Ezra Miller, from We Need To Talk About Kevin), partly because I can relate to being a wallflower myself. What I didn't expect was for this dramedy to be this honest about the wonderful yet terrifying experience of youth. I didn't expect Lerman to nail every nuance of his emotionally bruised character  nor Watson to nail the American accent to a "t" or to deliver the kind of delicate performance to a young girl who's just as fragile as Charlie, if not more so. I didn't expect Ezra Miller to walk away with the show as the proud, flamboyant Patrick who harbors a secret romance with the school's star QB. Mostly, I didn't expect Perks to be this good, this honest and this sympathetic about the perils of growing up. I haven't walked away this taken aback by a movie of this genre sine Zach Braff debuted his talents as a writer/director with the brilliant Garden State back in 2004. 

**** stars out of ****

Lincoln - Let's get the obvious out of the way: Lincoln is too long, too talkative, and too dry for it's own good. Despite these faults, Steven Spielberg crafts a near-masterpiece in telling the by-the-book historical drama about how the nation's 16th president cemented his legacy before his untimely death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. Daniel Day Lewis is simply a master actor in top form as Honest Abe, nailing the Midwestern accent to coming up with stories for almost every situation  and problem his cabinet is faced with. He doesn't just play Lincoln, he loses himself in this historical giant. As stupendous as DDL is in this film, it's the supporting actors who shine. Tommy Lee Jones is electrifying as the sharp-tongued abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens; Sally Fields is quietly devastating as Mary Todd, Lincoln's wife who is his closest adviser and harshest critic, especially after the loss of their son, Willie; Joseph Gordon-Levitte is fantastic as the oldest of the Lincoln children, Robert, who is at odds with his parents who don't want to lose another son, but wants to serve in the Army and not feel that he was apart of something greater than himself.  David Strathairn as Lincoln's secretary of State William Seward is excellent and John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader as lobbyists working as Lincoln's dirty deeds men to pressure outgoing Democrats to vote for the passage of the 13th Amendment that would abolish slavery before Confederate delegates arrive to negotiate the end of the Civil War, are a trio of welcome comic relief. Add the swelling score by John Williams, a near-perfect script written by Tony Kushner and a fabulous eye for light and camerawork by longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiski and you have Lincoln, a movie that ranks with E.T., Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters, Jurassic Park and Munich as one of his finest films.

*** 1/2 stars out of ****

Cloud Atlas - Give the Wachowskis (No longer Andy and Larry, after the later got a sex chance and is now known as Lana) and Tom Tykwer this much credit - they've got some serious balls. They set out to film what many thought was unfilmmable - a novel that spans from a voyage in the mid 1800's to San Francisco, circa 1973, to Seoul in the 22nd century. No joke. There are other settings in this experimental sci-fi/drama (the film itself, despite being distributed by Warner Bros., was financed independently, and it's the most expensive movie ever for an independent, costing over $100 million to make), and there are tons of actors (Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim Sturges, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbant, Susan Sarandon, etc.) playing multiple roles, but the movie jumps around so much that I gave up trying to make any sense of it all: not just the narrative of the story, but the filmmaker's message gets hopelessly lost in this confusing, clunky mess of a picture. On a technical level, this is the Wachoswskis at their very best: the sets, costumes, visuals, and cinematography all look top notch. I just wish the interconnecting storylines made some sort of connection. 

** stars out of ****


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