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G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, D.J. Cotrona, Channing Tatum
Director: Jon M. Chu
Plot: After seeing the entire G.I. Joe team wiped out by enemy agents, and on the run from the US Government headed by an impostor president, a handful of elite commandos make a desperate bid to stop the villainous Cobra organization from taking over the world.
Review: Based on a line of toy action figures and a sequel to the brash, fx-heavy G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a back-to-basics sort of restart to the franchise. Sure, it follows the story and characters (or at least the villains) first set up in 2009, but this time around it's a bit more down-to-earth. OK, maybe not. The Bond-style world domination plot is a must, the exposition pieces are downright silly (but do provide added fun) and the gun fetishism is definitely at play, but it's an entertaining outing that manages to keep you jazzed instead of frazzled. Putting a director whose only previous work was on teen dance movies like the Step Up movies seemed like a recipe for disaster, but Chu gets the character interaction - as limited as they are - and assails himself quite well with the action sequences, even if none but one - a ninja-on-ninja battle on the side of a cliff - is really noteworthy. For sure, a G.I. Joe movie can't be a gritty, R-rated affair, but they have pushed the intensity and violence to a point where this isn't for kids anymore, at least not youngsters who would have watched the original cartoons (or the previous outing). The cast also does better: Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson proves once again he's a formidable action star with a mischievous grin even working with a limited script, and Willis - in a supporting role as the original Joe - is a hoot, as is Jonathan Pryce, who gives a deliciously villainous performance as the fake president. And let's not forget Channing Tatum, whose original cameo role was extended by a few more minutes for his fan base, delaying the movie's release by 8 months. Go figure. It's all pretty intense stuff, with video-level violence and sequences that do well by minimizing the special effects of its predecessor, yet ends up delivering formulaic fluff with little impact. It's utterly forgettable - and the ending is hilariously dumb - but as a mindless Hollywood diversion it's definitely worth a shot.
Entertainment: 6/10

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz
Director: Sam Raimi
Plot: A small-time magician and con-man escapes the circus in a balloon, only to be swept by a tornado into the magical land of Oz, where he's mistaken for the powerful Wizard who will bring balance and peace back to the land.
Review: A sequel to the beloved musical The Wizard of Oz was perhaps inevitable, so it's surprising that we've waited 75 years for Oz the Great and Powerful to reach our screens, a prequel / origin story on the titular charlatan whose legend has shaped the world of Oz. Considering the end result, perhaps it could have waited a bit longer to gestate. Following his razzle-dazzle trilogy adaptation of Spider-Man, director Raimi was an easy choice to attempt to bring back the cinematic magic that was Oz. And it's clear that every effort was made to try to capture the sense of fun and wonder, doubling its chances (or pushing its luck) by referencing everything it could like providing a background story to the characters and bringing into play all the elements that made the first so enjoyable - flying monkeys, yellow brick road, Munchkins, et al, plus bringing in some of its own like in a flight across colourful poppies in a soap bubble. The visuals are imaginative, detailed and sumptuous, bringing the world of MGM's 1939 film to a modern HD feel with the best computer-aided special-effects could offer. Alas, this simplistic story isn't so much non-family-friendly as just plain dull. For sure, Raimi never allows it to be boring - there's enough flair and energy to keep us interested if not engaged - but neither can he craft it to capture the charm , humor or enchantment required, leaving us with only nostalgia for the original. Part of the blame is the bland script, but just as much falls at the feet of the casting choices, foremost with Franco as the con man / magician, who feels like he's sleep-walking through his performance to get a pay check, clearly lacking the sense of disbelief, surprise or fervent wit required for the part. At least Mila Kunis and Weisz vamp it up as the Evil Witches, playing Hollywood evil to the hilt - not the best work these fine actresses has done, but it's at least more fun to watch. All this clever display only ends up as a flimflam trick worthy of Oz, the charlatan - there's brains and courage on display, but oh so little heart or wonder.
Entertainment: 5/10

Django Unchained (2012)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Plot: After agreeing to partner up with a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. 
Review: Right from the opening song you know the mishmash homage that is Django Unchained is in good hands. Loosely based on the 1966 cult classic B-movie spaghetti western Django, it's a vicious, delicious, enthralling and highly entertaining concoction. Think what you will of the egotistical auteur Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction), he is a capable director whose main mission is to cross the line in search of daring entertainment, something he usually does with more verve, smarts and excess than most of his colleagues in Hollywood. This is wild grindhouse exploitation mixed in with social commentary, an underhanded and sometimes scathing critique on racism and slavery. Tarantino's talent is in creating characters so well defined and interesting you can't help but get emotionally involved: Django himself is played with gusto by the talented Foxx as blaxploitation's answer to Eastwood's The Man With No Name, but is rather unremarkable apart from being a bad muther who's particularly deadly with a pistol. The supporting cast, however, gets the best material: Waltz is insufferable and charming as the German bounty hunter, and DiCaprio - in a dangerously meaty role - is mesmerizing as he espouses some damn scary ideas as a slave owner and educated racist. Last, but not least, Samuel L. Jackson is given a surprising, daring role as an Uncle Tom who runs the slave household and plantation with even more racist ardor than his master - utterly, grandly despicable. Filled with both tense and magical moments that show a great love for cinema, the long, dialogue-filled scenes are more captivating than those well-staged scenes of action and mayhem. In counter-point, the script is all over the place and at almost three hours the movie does feel bloated even if it's always fun, the script sometimes showing Tarantino's gift - and his weakness - for gab. And yet it's also no surprise he won the year's Oscar for best original screenplay. But don't be deceived: there's enough gun-toting, bullet shooting stunts to top up most audiences' fill, with the last act cornering the blood-squib market in its final act. And a night sequence with a bumbling Ku Klux Klan posse, led by Don Johnson no less, is downright hilarious. And let's not forget the Ennio Morricone score, too. Django Unchained does what its 60's and 70's brethren did best - hit you with powerful social commentary while tickling the funny bone and giving in to R-rated violence. It's a powerful, heady mix.
Entertainment: 8/10

Amour (France - 2012)
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Director: Michael Haneke
Plot: Georges and Anne, two retired music teachers living comfortably in Paris, see their bond severely tested as they must face their own fragility when Anne suffers a paralyzing stroke.
Review: The "love" the title suggests isn't your typical emotion of impetuous youth; instead, the haunting Cannes Palme d'Or winner Amour is about the unpleasant subject of growing old and the inevitable moment of death. Love isn't measured by exceptional, glamorous moments but by the sacrifices and loyalty to the other as they slip away. With much candor and a complete lack of sentimentality, the film captures how old age peels away our dignity, our independence and our self-worth. Austrian director Haneke, the icy, controlled helmer of such critical successes as The White Ribbon and Caché, surprises with a deeply emotional take on the subject. There's a deliberate pace here, meticulously shot to increase a sense of dread, but with its horribly intimate and moving narrative it's absolutely gripping, all the more so in that it masterfully taps into our universal fear of aging. As the eighty-something couple, French legendary actors Emmanuelle Riva - her face a portrait of agony and desperation - and Jean-Louis Trintignant - as a man resigned to sacrifice himself to take care of her - deeply impress in performances that stay rooted in small, daily events. They are quite simply spectacular. There is no happy Hollywood ending here - how could there be? - but the gut-wrenching finale is, quite unexpectedly, quite touching. A film of surprising power and beauty, Amour is an unforgettable gem of a film that ends up being an amazing expression of life.
Drama: 9/10

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles
Director: David O. Russell
Plot: Released from a mental institution and trying to reconcile with his ex-wife, a bi-polar former teacher returns to his parent's home in suburban Philadelphia only to meet a strange young widow who may just be as disturbed as he is.
Review: The success of Silver Linings Playbook, a drama on mental illness, is not unexpected. Based on Matthew Quick’s novel, the story is pure Hollywood crowd pleaser, something like Shall We Dance mixed with a touch of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Add the handsome Cooper (a man with no social filter to his speech) and the pretty Lawrence (a straight-talking widow on similar anti-psychotics) as two amiably awkward neurotics fated to fall in love, and it's pure formulaic material. But in the hands of writer / director Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter) it's better than just clichéd fare; his script is full of incisive dialogue ably capturing both the odd-ball comedy and psychological frustration - and the intriguing chemistry - between these two pariahs. There's some real angst, too; one psychological episode, late at night as Cooper goes nuts trying to find an old wedding picture is frightening. For the most part, though, it's the tale of two people coming to terms with their condition and reaching out to someone. In that, both leads manage a raw emotional delivery that bellies the hi-jinks of the well-drawn supporting cast. And what a supporting cast: there's a grand De Niro as dad, a superstitious sports fan, Jacki Weaver as mom, Anupam Kher and Julia Stiles as the unraveling best friend and his kept wife, and funny-man Chris Tucker as a fellow inmate always on the lam. By the time the climactic dance competition coems around and romance blooms, we're too invested in these characters to really care that the movie has veered into rom-com territory. Working with, rather than against, plot conventions, Silver Linings Playbook is a scrappy romantic drama whose enduring positive outlook makes it an entertaining winner.
Drama / Entertainment: 8/10

Cloud Atlas (2012)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy & Lana Wachowski 
Plot: Stretching across centuries, from a 19th century lawyer's trip across the ocean to a far-flung future, human lives intersect and the actions and dreams of individuals ripple out in time to inspire revolution and hope.
Review: It's always interesting to see proven filmmakers take on the daunting task of adapting to screen novels that have been deemed un-filmable. Case in point: David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, a literary opus whose stories set in the past and future attempt to show how we're all connected, and how an individual's acts of kindness or selfishness ripples across multiple lives. This is five (wait, six!) movies in one - there's the 19th century costume drama, the early 20th forbidden romance with a gay composer, the geriatric comedy (with a terrific Broadbent in the lead), a 70's conspiracy thriller (with Berry as the hard-nosed reporter), a sci-fi rebellion against a dystopian society, and a post-apocalyptic adventure. Lives are linked thorugh the centuries, and bounce off one another in sometimes clever ways. Even at almost three hours there's a lot of ground to cover, leaving some passages a tad shallow and characters getting short-thrift. What is surprising, though, is that the movie never fails in keeping us engaged in the multiple, intermingled stories that merge into an overall arc involving such heady themes as love, death, life and after-life. And all this in a pulpy, Hollywood smorgasbord of genres. The actors go all-out in different roles and in different eras (made mostly believable thanks to a grand dollop of makeup and prosthetics), in what amounts to an amusing game of dress up: it's great to see Barry on the screen again in a few meaty roles; Hanks is as watchable as ever, be it as a villainous 19th century doctor or a conflicted future tribesman; Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and other familiar faces round out the supporting roles, but it's Broadbent who really stands out when all is done. The co-directors - the Wachowskis (the siblings that gave us The Matrix and Speed Racer) and Tykwer (the German filmmaker best known for Run Lola Run) - have split helming the film's specific eras and giving an variation to the narrative, each using their own distinctive style to provide visual cues to dramatic and thematic connections between stories. Cloud Atlas is Art film sensibilities attempted as big-budget, mainstream entertainment, a tough sell that many audiences will find more confusing than fun; but rousing success or corny failure, it's an imaginative, ambitious, imperfect film that dares and dares big.
Entertainment: 8/10

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