1. Admission: Tina Fey is Portia Nathan, a mildly compulsive Princeton admissions officer—they jokingly call her their “golden retriever” because of her record of recruiting a-plus students—who leads a quiet, ordered life with professor Mark (Michael Sheen). They share a love of poetry, hatred of kids and not much else. Her well ordered life is thrown into disarray when John Pressman (Rudd), a free-spirited former classmate and now teacher at an alternative school, introduces her to Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), a brilliant young man who may be the child she gave up for adoption seventeen years ago. “Admission” is familiar enough to not jar the sensibilities of undemanding rom com fans, but there is more here than immediately meets the eye.
2. The Bling Ring: Based on actual events, “The Bling Ring” centers around a group of narcissistic Los Angeles area teenagers, Rebecca (Katie Chang), Marc (Israel Broussard), Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Fermiga) and Chloe (Claire Julien).
Their modus operandi? They track the comings and goings of their favorite celebs on via internet. While one-named millennial stars like Paris, Lindsay, Megan or Audrina are out on the town or out of town completely, the Ring “go shopping,” breaking into their homes and help themselves to jewels, designer clothes and loose cash. More than that, they live vicariously through the lives of the rich and famous folks they’re burgling.
“The Bling Ring” plays like a “Law & Order” episode of “The Hills.” The crime spree is device that keeps the story moving forward, but the fascinating thing is the portrait of these self-absorbed kids who aspire to hosting reality shows or becoming a “lifestyle brand” as a career. They want fame and money, but are so tied up with the idea of fame and money they are blind to virtually everything else.
“The Bling Ring” is a fascinating art-house glimpse of fame found, just not the fame the thieving teens sought. They are the robbers TMZ made famous, a group of kids who redefined narcissism in an already narcissistic town.
3. The East: Britt Marling stars as corporate spy Jane Owen, code name Sarah. Her latest job involves going deep undercover to infiltrate a shadowy group of eco-terrorists called The East. The collective—think real life activists Anonymous—run by the charismatic anarchist Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), is on the eve of their biggest demonstration yet, an act of sabotage that will make headlines and make a very public statement of their anti-corporate stance.
Sarah is accepted by the group, save for the truculent Izzy (Ellen Page), and begins to develop Stockholm syndrome. Or does she?
It’s a morally complex movie, with Sarah at the center of the ethical hurricane as she starts to question her role as both a spy and a would-be member of the radical group. She weighs the morality of both sides and… well, go see the movie.
“The East” deliberately paints shades of grey into the story, allowing for good and bad, evil and sympathetic characters on both sides. It may be too nuanced for folks who like their spy stories to take sides, but Sarah, as the source of the plot’s push-and-pull, is too complex a creation to play it straight. Marling brings strength and fighting spirit to Sarah in a performance that could finally make her a star.
4. The Iceman: Based on “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” by crime writer Anthony Bruno the movie begins on Kuklinski’s first date with his wife to be Deborah (Winona Ryder). He’s quiet and reserved, but charming and she is won over by his charisma. They marry, have kids and lead a normal life. At least at home. Deborah had no idea her mild mannered husband was an expert assassin, who paid for the kid’s private school and her jewels by slicing throats, shooting and choking the enemies of his boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta).
Kuklinski was dubbed the Iceman for two reasons. When he was arrested police found a stash of bodies he had frozen to obscure time of death and because of his icy demeanor. It’s a role Shannon was born to play. From certain angles he looks like an everyman, the kind of guy who goes home at night to his wife and two kids. From other angles he’s menacing, the kind of guy you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.
Shannon is cooler than Mr. Freeze as the title character in “The Iceman,” and he’s joined by Chris Evans in a career making performance as a ice cream truck driving killer, Liotta in mobster mode—between Shannon and Liotta it’s a showdown of the steely stares—the welcome return of Wynonna Ryder and David Schwimmer playing against type as a slimy mafia enforcer.
5. The Last Stand: Near the beginning of the movie the head lawman of the sleepy border town of Summerton Junction, Sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), says, “Should be a quiet weekend.” Of course whenever Arnold, or any eighties action star says, “Should be a quiet weekend,” you know all hell is about to break loose. And break loose it does.
In a parallel story ruthless drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) stages an elaborate escape and heads for the Mexican border, which just happens to lie outside Arnold’s… er… Owens’s town. As Cortez speeds toward the border he has a quick cell phone call with Owens. “Do you wanna play?,” he yells. “Let’s play!” And play they do… with big guns.
Schwarzenegger is moving noticeably slower these days—How are you Sheriff? “Old,” he says.—but his comic timing is still there and no one else can battle through this kind of cheesefest and emerge with his action cred intact.
“The Last Stand” is not a movie to be taken seriously, but it wasn’t made to be taken seriously. Why else would cult director Jee-woon Kim cast Johnny Knoxville?
6. The Lone Ranger: Set against a backdrop of corruption during the building of the railway’s westward expansion through Native American territory, this is the origin story of how attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer), a law and order man who doesn’t believe in vengeance, met Tonto (Johnny Depp) and became the Wild West’s masked crusader.
The unlikely pair are brought together by their mutual enmity toward Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), a cannibalistic outlaw who Reid wants to bring to justice and Tonto wants dead. That pursuit uncovers massive corruption during the building of the railway’s westward expansion through Native American territory beginning with a conspiracy to start a war between the US Calvary and the Comanche Nation.
“The Lone Ranger” is state of the art nouveau Western, complete with circling vultures, unspoiled landscapes, gruff, unshaven men and even a beer drinking horse. Surprisingly nimble footed for a two-and-a-half hour epic, it is unexpectedly funny but more violent than your typical summer tent pole flick.
7. Pacific Rim: Director Guillermo Del Toro has made an end-of-the-world scenario fun.
In the world he creates in “Pacific Rim” the planet is threatened with destruction by Kaijus, colossal beasts with an appetite for destruction. Coming to our world through a breach in a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean, the earth is losing the war against these beasts. The main of line of defense, giant robots called Jaegers—operated by pilots who mind meld with the metal behemoths; the deeper the connection, the better they fight—are being decommissioned in favor of a giant wall. “Kaijus are evolving,” says one military man, “and we’re losing Jaegers faster than we can build them.”
In the months before the machines are made obsolete a driven colonel, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Alba), assembles a crack team of Jaeger pilots—including burned out former pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie “Sons of Anarchy” Hunnam) and talented but untested trainee Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to launch one last attack to close the portal and save the planet.
Del Toro has supersized a Godzilla story, adding in 50s b-movie tropes with state of the art sci fi to create something fresh. It’s a thrill ride from the beginning, a giant action movie that doesn’t just rely on a cool premise.
In other words, “Battleship” this ain’t.
8. Pain and Gain: Near the beginning a voiceover says, “Unfortunately, this is based on a true story.” It’s the real-life tale of three Miami-based body builders (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie) chasing the American Dream. Pumped up and steroid crazy they abduct a prominent local businessman (Tony Shalhoub). They beat and torture the self-made millionaire until he signs over all his wealth—houses, cars, boats and money. The story eventually becomes so outlandish Bay flashes up a graphic in the last half hour reminding us that this is “still a true story.”
This is a seriously weird movie. It’s Bay working with a tiny—for him—budget of just $26 million. The guy has made commercials that cost more than that, but has delivered the darkest comedy—imagine if the Coen Brothers did gruesome slapstick—to come down the pike in a while.
9. Rush: When we first meet Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) they are third stringers, talented Formula 3 drivers desperate for a chance to move up to the big show. Lauda makes a financial deal that lands him on Team Ferrari while Hunt uses tenacity, charm and a touch of desperation to grab a spot with the McLaren team.
Bad blood flows between the two, stemming back to an incident when Hunt edged Lauda off the track the first time they faced off against one another. That rivalry spills over from the track as the two engage in name-calling and spar in the press.
In the 1976 season Lauda seems unstoppable, a sure bet to reclaim his World Champion title. Then tragedy strikes as Lauda is badly burned in a fiery crash. During his recuperation Hunt rises in the ranks, leading to a showdown, just 50 days after Lauda’s accident, for the World Championship at the Japan Grand Prix.
“Rush” is more than “Rocky” on four wheels, it’s an exhilarating, stylish film with pedal-to-the-metal verve.
10. The Sapphires: The year is 1968. Dave Lovelace is an English (Chris O’Dowd) piano player with a love for Otis Redding and booze. While hosting a talent show in remote Australia hosting he discovers three sisters, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsekll), Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), with amazing voices but a tired country and western style repertoire. Adding cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) as background singer and dance captain, he molds them into the Australian Supremes and gets them their first gigs—in Vietnam singing for the troops.
“The Sapphires” is a feel good movie that succeeds despite the cliché story. It’s based—one imagines very loosely based—on a true story, but make no mistake, this is a Hollywood-ized (filtered through an Australian sensibility) version of the tale.
Authenticity aside, it’s the performances and the music that make “The Sapphires” worth a look. We first noticed O’Dowd on this side of the Atlantic as the charming love interest in “Bridesmaids.” He brings it again in “The Sapphires,” mixing roguish appeal with bang on comic timing.
“The Sapphires” is a slight, but entertaining take on the effect of music to change people’s lives.
11. The To Do List: High school valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) is an overachiever. She’s the publisher of her own magazine, Women With a Y, a straight A student with a full scholarship to Georgetown University and has a Perfect Attendance certificate proudly hanging on her wall.
She’s also a virgin, a status she hopes to change soon with the help of Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a college surfer stud with a perfect smile. Attacking her new project with the gusto that won her accolades in school, she gets the advice of friends and family (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele and Rachel Bilson) and makes up a “to do” list, applying the same zeal that made her a mathlete to losing her virginity.
Telling the story from a female point of view is a nice turnaround from the usual boycentric sex comedy story.
“The To Do List” is endearingly off-kilter, a different take on the “Porky’s” style of sexual coming-of-age stories usually that are usually headlined by the male members of the cast. I wish it was a bit shorter—did they really need 100 minutes to tell this story?—and a bit funnier, but for anyone who came of age just as The New Kids on the Block were calling it quits (for the first time) there is much to enjoy here.
12. Warm Bodies: Nicholas Hoult plays R (pronounced “arrgghhgghh”), an existential zombie who wants more out of life… or death, or whatever it is you call his current state. “Why can’t I connect with people?” he wonders in the narration. “Why is my posture so bad? Of yeah, I’m dead.” There’s been a plague of some sort which has left him and most of the population hungry for brains, while the sole human survivors live behind a giant wall.
Zombies and humans alike are terrified of the Bonies—evolved zombies who’ll eat anything with a heartbeat. “So will I,” says R, “but at least I’m conflicted about it.”
On a feeding trip R encounters a team of humans on the search for supplies. One zombie attack later he has eaten the brains of Perry (Dave Franco). When he gets a glimpse of Perry’s girlfriend Julie (Teresa Palmer) he loses his appetite. Perry’s memories come flooding into R’s zombie brain and he begins to feel something he hasn’t felt for a long time—human emotions.
It’s “Walking Dead” meets “Romeo and Juliet” with a twist—it just might be that love and hope can still set hearts a flutter, even ones that haven’t beaten in a while.
Any movie with the line, “I know it’s really hard to meet guys now… in the apocalypse and everything,” is OK by me.
13. You’re Next: On the occasion of their parents 35th wedding anniversary the Davidson kids and assorted wives, girl and boy friends gather at a remote Tudor mansion—is there any other type in these kinds of movies?—to enjoy dinner and one another, but instead end up in a fight for their lives. Only one of the guests, Erin (Sharni Vinson), has the know-how to protect herself, but will it be enough?
It’s hard to discuss “You’re Next,” which had its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival Midnight Madness program, without giving away a major plot twist, but I will say there is a Manson Family aspect to the story that really creeped me out. That plus the anxiety-inducing John Carpenter style score throbbing in the background and the “moist” sound effects accompanying the wet work. It’s all effective but it is the idea behind the movie that is truly disturbing.
There is a rawness to the filmmaking—and let’s just say that there are no future Meryl Streeps in the cast—that although there is very little actual gore, is chilling.
I don’t know what it says about my mental make-up, but I really liked “You’re Next.” It’s disturbing, violent and without any redeeming social value, but I enjoyed sitting in the theatre with my hands over my eyes, afraid of what I might see next. I’m not usually a fan of head trauma, but from what I saw as I peeked through my fingers, it works well.