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Robert Horton

‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’: Another stellar McConaughey performance

Matthew McConaughey

A few days ago, Esquire magazine posted an article headlined “Matthew McConaughey Might Be the Greatest Actor of His Generation.”

The overstimulated author of the piece looked at the actor’s recent run of challenging roles and came up with the idea that McConaughey might be “an American Daniel Day-Lewis” based on his most recent performance in Dallas Buyers Club.

Well, let’s take a deep breath. Yes, McConaughey’s current streak is impressive, and movies such as The Paperboy and Magic Mike and Bernie show off different sides of his talent that have nothing to do with being a movie star and everything to do with being an actor. So give him credit for daring choices and for full-on commitment to his craft: For Dallas Buyers Club, he lost an alarming amount of weight to get his look right.

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‘Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction’: He Says Little, Smokes a Lot

David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton does not want to talk about himself. This might stop many potential documentary filmmakers from attempting a profile of the weathered actor, now 87. But director Sophie Huber tried anyway; and if the movie fails to give us much factual information about its subject, it certainly captures the aura that surrounds him. We do learn that Stanton was born in Kentucky, did military service, roomed with Jack Nicholson for a while, and has never been married. He lets a few things slip, including the tidbit “She left me for Tom Cruise”—somehow one of those sentences you never expected to hear from the mouth of a character actor this unglamorous. (The ex-girlfriend in question was Rebecca De Mornay, who lived with Stanton before she met Cruise on the set of Risky Business.)

One thing Stanton does like to do is sing, and the movie is strung together with craftily crooned numbers from the country-folk songbook.

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’12 Years a Slave’: Steve McQueen’s Entry in the Oscar Derby

Chiwetel Ejiofor

How do you tell the story of something as enormous and horrifying as American slavery? In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the subject is played out on human bodies and in objects: a single sheet of precious foolscap writing paper, the juice of berries, a violin. Instead of taking on the history of the “peculiar institution,” the film narrows to a single story and these scattered things.

It is based on a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man from Saratoga, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He is played by English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Inside Man, Dirty Pretty Things), whose Spencer Tracy–like ability to observe and calmly draw us into an experience is quite powerful here.

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‘About Time’: Bill Nighy Excels as Usual

Bill Nighy

If Woody Allen can leaven his comedies with supernatural gimmicks, why can’t Richard Curtis? The British author of Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral has built his latest project around time travel, but Curtis isn’t interested in the vasty reaches of future worlds or anything like that. His focus remains romance, played out on a modest scale.

On his 21st birthday, Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) is taken aside by his father (Bill Nighy) and informed of the family gift: The Lake men can time-trip. There are temporal restrictions, but basically Tim can go back and fix past errors by going into a dark closet and thinking hard about the previous moment in question. This is especially helpful during his courtship of Mary (Rachel McAdams), a cute and funny catch who seems to love him as much as he loves her. This is one of the odd notes about About Time: The central romance pretty much goes swimmingly.

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‘Last Vegas’: De Niro and Company Bet on Boomer Demographics

Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, and Michael Douglas

The four actors assembled for the old boys’ night out that is Last Vegas all have Oscars on their shelves. This movie will not win any of those. Still, it is a measure of their skill that they do not betray a hint of embarrassment or condescension in the course of this lightweight bash. Perhaps they sense the shrewdness behind the project, which combines Hangover-lite hijinks with last-go-round mellowness.

They’re the Flatbush Four, buddies-for-life who gather in Sin City for the marriage of the slickest and most successful of them, Billy (Michael Douglas—who else?). In a spasm of feeling his mortality, Billy has proposed to his 31-year-old girlfriend, and the occasion puts the chums in a variety of moods. Archie (Morgan Freeman) wants to flee the safety of elderly life; Paddy (Robert De Niro) still grieves over his late wife, who chose him over Billy a lifetime ago; Sam (Kevin Kline) has a free weekend pass from his wife to get as crazy as he wants, as long as it snaps him out of his funk. Does Kline seem the odd man out there, somehow an actor of a different generation?

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‘Viola’: An Argentine Charmer

My vote for most delightful movie ending of the year goes to Matías Piñeiro’s Viola, the latest from this spirited young Argentinian director. Even if the film’s unfolding is sometimes puzzling, by the time we reach the tuneful conclusion, sheer charm has won the day. Not that it takes long to reach the end. Viola runs just 65 minutes, as though it leaves out the explanatory material that might make its world more accessible.

Basically, we meet a group of Buenos Aires young people, many of whom are actors working on a Shakespeare production that includes pieces from different plays. The show has an all-female cast, and the film itself is much more interested in its women than its men.

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‘The Counselor’: Stellar cast mired in baffling story

Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender

In his screenplay for The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy leaves out the stuff that usually supplies the pleasure in a crime film: the planning, the suspense, conventional scenes of reward and resolution. And there’s only one car chase.

This approach has potential; the author of All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men is one of America’s best living writers, a brilliant stylist whose vision of the world brings us through different visions of hell.

In The Counselor, by stripping away those pleasures, McCarthy mostly leaves the hell.

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‘I Used to Be Darker’: Baltimore Bursts Into Song

Deragh Campbell

If the Oscar-winning Once opened the door for such a thing as an indie musical, I Used to Be Darker tiptoes quietly inside the subgenre. And maybe “indie musical” is a misleading description of this admirable film, but it’s better than “critically acclaimed Sundance hit”—although that one’s accurate too. We begin with a teenage girl from Northern Ireland, Taryn (Deragh Campbell), who needs a place to crash after her wild American summer hits a serious snag. She rings up her Aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) in Baltimore, but the timing is bad: Kim is about to leave her husband Bill (Ned Oldham). Their daughter Abby (Hannah Gross), an aspiring actress, is happy to see Taryn but nursing some major resentment against her mother.

Kim’s a singer, still gigging and going on the road; Bill has sacrificed his own musical career because he has to pay the mortgage. A handful of musical numbers emerge from the storyline, which director and co-writer Matthew Porterfield (Putty Hill) treats with the unbroken-take method of shooting.

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‘The Last Time I Saw Macao’: A Portuguese Exercise in Film Noir

‘The Last Time I Saw Macao’

The Last Time I Saw Macao serves up a title, plot, and characters that are fragrant with the more exotic strain of film noir. But there will be no Robert Mitchum on hand for this exercise, no trenchcoat in view; and the gunshots that ring out are heard but not seen.

In fact, the plot occurs almost entirely in voiceover. A narrator tells us he has returned after many years to Macao (more commonly spelled Macau), where an old friend named Candy needs his help from threatening underworld figures. The narrator himself might also be in danger.

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‘Zaytoun’: Peace (at Least Between Two Parties) in the Middle East

Stephen Dorff

As deathbed promises go, this one will be tricky: A Palestinian orphan named Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) must return a spindly olive-tree sapling to his now-Israeli-occupied hometown to honor the wishes of his late parents. But it’s 1982, and the roughly 12-year-old Fahed is currently residing in a refugee camp in Beirut. How this kid will get out of Lebanon and into Israel during a war is not something he’s thought through.

Yet the liberal-minded nature of Zaytoun is such that not only will Fahed find a way, but his passage will also involve Israeli pilot Yoni (Stephen Dorff, late of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere), who just parachuted into Palestinian hands after bailing out of his damaged plane.

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Review: ‘Birth of the Living Dead’

The legacy of ‘Night of the Living Dead’

It is a quirk of film history that the rise of the zombie picture grew directly out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Nothing against the wonderful Fred Rogers, that soft-spoken dean of children’s television, but there is a connection.

Back in the 1960s, when Rogers was making his TV series in Pittsburgh, a local filmmaker shot footage for various parts of the show. One segment was a chronicle of Fred’s visit to the doctor to have his tonsils out. “Which remains the scariest thing I ever made,” recalls George A. Romero, the man who filmed the sequence.

He’d know about that. Romero mentions this bit in Birth of the Living Dead, a cheerful documentary about his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, a legendary moment in independent film and the granddaddy of the modern zombie movie. With Romero’s good-humored participation, director Rob Kuhns presents a swift-moving examination of the story behind the movie. Romero made his film independently, with investors pitching in to portray zombies and a local meat-packer contributing the internal organs needed for a key cannibalism scene.

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‘The Fifth Estate’: Predictably, Julian Assange Is This Movie’s Worst Enemy

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl

Say what you want about Julian Assange, the guy is a talented blurb writer. Since reading an early screenplay draft about his WikiLeaks adventures, Assange has fired off a series of withering one-liners about the project. One recent declaration: “The result is a geriatric snooze-fest that only the U.S. government could love.” The adjective there is particularly cruel. Accuse the movie of distortions, or demonization, or of aligning itself with the CIA—fine. But “geriatric” is the kiss of death in Hollywood. What’s worse, Assange actually has a point.

The object of Assange’s displeasure does indeed carry the whiff of, if not old age, at least a pre-millennial’s attempt to understand this newfangled Wiki-world. Whenever director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls) wants to convey the Wild West reach of what can happen with information on the Internet, he uses cornball visualizations: hundreds of wired desks manned by hundreds of Assanges in a warehouse with no end, or fireballs exploding across the same space. The invention looks trite, but the effort is understandable. In some ways, The Fifth Estate lines up as a movie about people sitting at laptops. Sometimes they type.

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‘Wajdja’: This Saudi Girl’s Just Gotta Have That Bike!

Waad Mohammed

Let us assemble the elements of a formulaic story: Spunky pre-adolescent girl, patriarchal society, girl’s dream of owning a bicycle, school contest with cash prize allowing for bipedal purchase. Oh, and there’s domestic unrest in the girl’s home, which helps account for her acting out.

It would be easy to suggest that this formula is redeemed through the sheer novelty of this film’s setting, Saudi Arabia. The stakes are higher, the patriarchy crazier, and the tale of the movie’s making an added value. (Wadjda is the first feature directed by a Saudi woman.) But I think the film is better than its formula and better than its backstory. In fact, it’s pretty awesome.

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‘Captain Phillips’ – Tom Hanks takes control

Tom Hanks (center) as ‘Captain Phillips’

Tom Hanks is no superhero. Therefore this most human of movie stars is just right for the title role in Captain Phillips, a movie that consistently rejects the idea of an indestructible superman in control.

The film is drawn from the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, which was seized by Somali pirates while sailing around the Horn of Africa. Rich Phillips, the captain, was taken hostage when the pirates escaped in a lifeboat; except for a brief prologue with Phillips at home, the film basically covers the pirate drama.

In most ways, Captain Phillips is a tight-wound suspense picture, but it rejects easy hero-vs.-villain button-pushing. Some of that comes from the documentary-like style of director Paul Greengrass, whose main gift is to plunk you into the middle of a crisis as though it’s actually happening at that moment. Greengrass directed United 93 and the latter two “Bourne” spy movies, and you will recognize his jittery style (the guy is allergic to tripods).

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‘Romeo and Juliet’ rehash tepid, but swift-moving

Hailee Steinfeld (center) as Juliet and Douglas Booth as Romeo

Didn’t we just have a big-screen version of Romeo and Juliet, you ask?

Actually, it’s been 17 years since Baz Luhrmann’s imaginative take on the Shakespeare play, in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes played out the tragical tale.

And even if you wonder why the world needs another version of R&J, such doubts are dispelled within the first five minutes of this movie. Oh, yeah, that’s right: This is a cracking good story with rich characters and gorgeous language. I prithee, bring it on.

There’s nothing conceptual or fancy about this version. We’re in the Verona that Shakespeare imagined, caught between the feuding houses of Capulet and Montague. Digital effects stand in for expensive scenery, and the title roles are played by actors young enough to be credible as lovestruck teenagers.

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