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by Robert Horton


‘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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Arnold and Sly together at last in ‘Escape Plan’

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Escape Plan’

This time it won’t be just ’80s nostalgia fueling ticket sales. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have gotten themselves into a decent 21st-century movie.

Not a minute too soon, as recent solo vehicles Bullet to the Head and The Last Stand tanked badly earlier this year. This team effort is called Escape Plan, a straight-ahead prison picture that lets the two stars do their thing.

Stallone is a jailhouse escape specialist — yes, that’s his business — in consultation with prison systems about making their facilities stronger. But when he is placed in a fearsome secret prison called the Tomb, he’s cut off from his usual support system. It seems somebody wants him out of the business.

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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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‘We Are What We Are’ walks a fine horror, art house line

I keep mis-remembering the title We Are What We Are as “We Are What We Eat.” And it seems that’s not so far off. Spoilers allowing, maybe we can get to an explanation. In the meantime, this supremely creepy film finds a groove between arty horror and throttle-out craziness.

Director Jim Mickle, who did a cool job with the vampire movie Stake Land, adapted this one from a 2010 Mexican movie. He and co-writer Nick Damici have considerably changed the story around, and set it in the backcountry of the U.S. Northeast.

Our focus is a reclusive family, whose world is rocked when the mother dies suddenly in an accident, during a rainstorm of biblical proportions. The patriarch (Bill Sage, an underrated actor) runs his household according to what appears to be a long-standing religious cult. He informs his teenage daughters that they must take over their mother’s duties during an annual family ceremony, due this week.

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‘Escape From Tomorrow’: Disney Wants You to Avoid This Movie

‘Escape From Tomorrow’

Turns out those kids who dread going inside Space Mountain or the scary Cinderella Castle have been right all along. Something sinister lurks inside the Magic Kingdom; scratch the surface and evil comes leaking out. That the “Happiest Place on Earth” might hide a shadow beneath the sunshine isn’t an especially bold idea, and—to its credit—the brand of creeping horror found in Escape From Tomorrow is more than a specific attack on a rather easy target.

First-time filmmaker Randy Moore shot his movie at Disney World and Epcot Center without asking permission, an act of bravado that made it instantly notorious at Sundance this year.

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‘Gravity’: Suspense in space sends you into orbit

At first glance, the title Gravity sounds like a useful, if generic, handle for a suspense movie about astronauts who become stranded in orbit when disaster strikes. If you see this movie — and you should see this astonishing movie — you’ll understand that “gravity” suggests an idea that goes beyond the subject of space travel.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in ‘Gravity’

The film begins during a routine spacewalk, as we meet a veteran astronaut, Matt (George Clooney), and a medical expert, Ryan (Sandra Bullock). She’s on her first mission, a newbie who needs his wisecracking reassurance.

This dreamy opening (you might want to sit in the back rows if you’re prone to motion sickness) is invaded by news of dangerously fast-moving debris in orbit, and the film kicks into an eye-filling suspense picture for the remainder of its incredibly tense running time.

It’s a survival story, like many set at sea or in the desert. The difference is there’s no solid ground, or even a horizon: just the stars hanging in space and the Earth — in oddly close proximity — below.

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‘Haute Cuisine’: True-life foodie comedy a little too sweet

Catherine Frot in ‘Haute Cuisine’

Let’s cut to the important stuff first: In Haute Cuisine you will see many shots of food. Gorgeous cakes, well-browned chicken, beef in puff pastry, clams opening up as they are being cooked.

This kind of foodie movie relies on such sights, so we might as well acknowledge that Haute Cuisine succeeds on that front. It also tells a story, or at least delivers a slice of life based on a quirky true chronicle.

The script is liberally adapted from a memoir by Daniele Delpeuch, the first female chef in France’s equivalent of the White House, the Palais de l’Elysee. She was summoned from the countryside to be the private cook for Francois Mitterand because the president wanted home-cooked meals the way his grandmother made them.

In the movie this character is called Hortense, a no-nonsense lady who isn’t daunted by the palace’s thoroughly male-dominated kitchen. “That’s the last time I have lunch with those machos,” she tells her assistant after dining with the good old boys on her first day at work.

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‘Bad Milo!’: Worst. Ulcer. Ever.

Gillian Jacobs and Ken Marino

There are places even the celebrated body-horror filmmaker David Cronenberg wouldn’t go. Places—you might say—where the sun don’t shine. Such a place is explored in Bad Milo!, an energetic exercise in execrable taste that locates the source of its protagonist’s problems in the lower gastrointestinal tract. Ken (Ken Marino) carries a lot of stress inside him: His job as a number-cruncher is poisoned by a corrupt boss (Patrick Warburton); his wife (Gillian Jacobs) wants a child; and his father (Stephen Root) won’t speak to him. Ken’s mother (Mary Kay Place) has taken up with a much younger man (Kumail Nanjiani), and they suspect Ken’s physical ailments are a sign of erectile dysfunction.

If only. No, the source of Ken’s chronic stomach pain is the big-eyed, sharp-toothed demon living inside his colon.

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‘Parkland’: Not Even Zac Efron Can Stop the JFK Assassination

Billy Bob Thornton

The only interesting thing about Parkland is that it exists. And it exists because of our collective unwillingness to let go of what happened on November 22, 1963, the day a young prince died and a still-unresolved mystery began.

Culled from Vincent Bugliosi’s 2007 book Four Days in November, the movie presents narrow-gauge vignettes, acted out by supporting players in Dallas during the tragedy. Supporting players, but not peripheral. The most gripping section of the film unfolds at Parkland Hospital, where an unsuspecting overtime ER crew deals with the arrival of a U.S. president with a severe head wound. Marcia Gay Harden contributes her granite professionalism as the nurse on duty; although here, as in other episodes, the cast tends toward the TV-guest-star vein, with Zac Efron and Colin Hanks also pulling duty. (Hanks’ dad, Tom, produced the film.)

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‘Don Jon’: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Garden State Romeo

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson

If Joseph Gordon-Levitt has spent much of his grown-up career running away from the image of a sitcom child star, he couldn’t have devised a better way to cut the cord than this. He wrote, directed, and stars in Don Jon, the story of a porn addict who’d be right in place amongst the braying loudmouths of Jersey Shore. That Gordon-Levitt is still as likable as he was back in the days of Third Rock From the Sun—or the more recent 50/50 and (500) Days of Summer—goes a long way toward explaining why we stick with his obnoxious character here. The movie’s first twist is that although Jon is introduced to us an Internet porn addict, he’s no antisocial nerd: He’s got local fame as a ladies’ man, prowling the disco with his buddies and searching for a “dime” (a “10,” on the immortal scale) to take home on a Saturday night. Yet that success leaves him unsatisfied, so his laptop porn rituals are repetitively chronicled in near-NC-17 detail.

An encounter with the lushly named Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, in a deft caricature) suggests that our boy may have found authentic love, but Gordon-Levitt throws in some reasonably fresh variations on the tale of an addict redeemed.

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