Nebraska is an outstanding example of back-to-the-roots filmmaking. It stars Bruce Dern as an elderly alcoholic with early dementia who becomes convinced he's won a million dollars in a junk-mail sweepstakes. To claim his prize, he keeps trying to walk from his Montana home to the sweepstakes office in far-away Nebraska. Unable to dissuade him, his adult son (perfectly played by Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte) finally relents and agrees to drive him there. The journey becomes a tragicomedy of mishaps and strange encounters with old friends and relatives. June Squibb and Stacy Keach have standout supporting roles as Dern's long-suffering wife and his slippery former business partner. The writing, acting, directing, and black-and-white cinematography are universally excellent.
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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second installment in a novel-based trilogy that eventually will be stretched to four films. In other words, don't expect a neat ending to this one. Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss Everdeen, a young archer who lives in a future dictatorship that televises annual "games" in which the youthful contestants fight to the death. Having won the most recent competition (The Hunger Games, 2012), she now must endure a government-sponsored victory tour she despises. Although her fellow survivor (played again by Josh Hutcherson) is equally dispirited, they must pretend to be national heroes or face punishment. But their defiant victory has stirred a popular rebellion, and the government is brutally cracking down. This fast-moving film skillfully captures their moral dilemma and is a creepy extension of our own media-mad culture. It doesn't really catch fire, though, until it repeats the first film's greatest drama: the deadly games. The brewing revolution is a less interesting subplot that wants to be the main plot, probably to the detriment of future sequels.
All Is Lost is a skillful exercise in pure cinema of a kind rarely seen since the silent-film days. Except for sound effects, music, and a few brief lines of dialogue, it's an uncluttered visual experience. Robert Redford stars as an aging sailor whose solo voyage across the Indian Ocean is interrupted by a derelict shipping container that gores the fiberglass hull of his sailboat. The movie says nothing about his previous life, his occupation, or the purpose of his journey. Of his personality, we learn only by watching his reactions to adversity. And the sea soon becomes a formidable adversary when a gale threatens his emergency repairs. In lesser hands than those of writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, 2011), this picture might resemble an interesting film-school experiment in minimalism. Instead, the screenplay, direction, cinematography, soundtrack, and cast all come together to create a finely crafted drama that's almost a film-school education in itself.
Ender's Game is an excellent adaptation of the 1985 science-fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. Screenwriter/director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, 2005) and child star Asa Butterfield (Hugo, 2011) bring life to the central character, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a videogame prodigy recruited by the military for his special skills. Placed 40 years after Earth repels an alien invasion at great cost, the story begins with Ender's difficult path through military school en route to a counterattack on the alien's home planet. Butterfield's performance not only captures the physical and mental stresses on a child soldier but also a moral dilemma that does not trouble his pragmatic adult leaders. Co-stars Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, and Ben Kingsley add weight to the cast, and the shiny special effects fully visualize the novel, but this picture hinges on Butterfield, who doesn't disappoint. The only discordant note is the final scene, which is implausible but paves the way for future adaptations of the two sequels in Card's trilogy: Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide.
>> See more mini-reviews, including Captain Phillips ... The Fifth Estate ... Gravity ... Elysium ... Blue Jasmine ... Despicable Me 2 ... The Heat ... Oblivion ... The Place Beyond the Pines ... Much Ado About Nothing ... Star Trek Into Darkness ... The Great Gatsby ... The Company You Keep ... 42 ... Oz, The Great and Powerful ... On the Road ... and many more!
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