Barbara – 8.5

Another psychological thriller from the bad old days of East Germany. Maybe it’s easier to make a compelling movie about times, like World War II, when things are so black-and-white. Here, everyone is under constant strain, not just to be a good person, but to live up to your own principles while suffering under the unfair demands of the state. Maybe we can fault the film for presenting Dr. Reisen as impossibly good – smart, selfless, attentive to his patients, a reader, a cook and a hunk – but maybe that’s just the way Barbara sees him. Barbara is the interesting one, and the personal choices she has to make are excruciating but ultimately convincing and heartwarming. The fact that Nina Hoss is descended from a Cranach painting adds to the cool Germanity of this tightly plotted, nicely faceted period piece.

Sister (L’Enfant d’en Haut) – 4

Perfectly well made movie, and Lea Seydoux was luscious, but I spent the whole film hoping, waiting for the little thief to get caught, and the last half-hour waiting for the film to end. I don’t know if we were supposed to feel sympathy for the poor 12-year-old Simon, “forced” to steal in order to eat, but my sympathies were with the skiers who came out of their lunch breaks to find their skis and goggles missing. With nothing to root for, I just wanted the whole thing to go away.

Disconnect – 8

The problems are well-worn: a journalist’s too-close relationship with a source; a couple’s inability to communicate after a child is lost; teens hazing a classmate who is ‘different’; parents and teens navigating the shoals of adolescence. What is new is the setting, the world of the web and social media, where communication is typed and no one sees, or even really knows, the person you are dealing with.  Identity theft, online pornography and viral media make this movie seem oh-so-of-the-moment (hello, Manti Te’o!), but the underlying themes, needs and frustrations have been with us forever. This film was powerful, using Crash-like parallel stories that started quietly then built to a violent crescendo that resolved nothing but somehow satisfied.

Rust and Bone – 7.9

A physical cripple bonds with an emotional cripple in a movie so gritty and realistic that we overlook the implausibilities of plot. TK is a feral animal with no apparent sense of responsibility, living on instinct and the occasional stolen sandwich, locking up the worst-father-of-the-year award in his spare time. Anna is beautiful but somewhat cold, loath to become dependent, even when she loses both legs to an orca. Somehow their encounter softens them both until we reach an end where they are able to live happily ever after. The ending makes no sense. but after being put through director Jacques Audiard’s ringer for two hours, we don’t mind being eased back into the more familiar world outside.

Life of Pi – 6.5

Call me stupid, but I didn’t understand the book and I didn’t understand the movie. What was the absurdly unbelievable tale of coexisting on the Pacific for 225 days with a Bengal tiger about? I gather it is meant as a parable, or allegory, but of what? On top of that, my anti-Indian prejudice based on encounters in the ’70s with waiters at Indian restaurants in New York made all the enunciations of “Richard Parker” less than charming. On the other hand, Ang Lee’s film earned points for its majestic beauty and all the wonderful animals, especially in the zoo. And the sheer magic of how you could make such a film.

Zero Dark Thirty – 6.5

What one thinks of this movie will depend on the views one brings into the theater. For me, I think the “war on terror” is the gravest policy mistake our country has made since the Vietnam War. Of course, any and all who perpetrated the horrors of 9/11 should have been pursued and brought to justice (or simply killed), but that is different from invading Iraq, invading Afghanistan, conducting drone attacks throughout the Middle East and making everyone take off their shoes before boarding an airplane. To watch a movie that accepts and implicitly celebrates this war on terror made me uncomfortable, starting, obviously, with the scenes of torture but continuing through all the evidence of the billions of dollars and human lives being expended on a misguided venture. Instead of feeling exhilaration at the climactic murder of Bin Laden – as I did when reading initial reports in the press – all I could see was the incredible mismatch: 20 heavily armed, technologically outfitted Seals, plus one dog, shooting largely defenseless and operationally marginalized Arab men and women. It was not a cathartic experience.                                                                                                                                   In fairness, the movie was not propagandistic, and there was one line from the CIA station chief, telling Maya to let go of Bin Laden and worry more about protecting America from future attacks, but the overarching dramatic theme was a confirmation of Maya’s obsession: she’s the one who got it done!

As for the movie itself, it was too long. The attack on Bin Laden’s compound went on forever – how many doors did we have to see get blown up? The director’s interest in recreating the actual raid obscured her dramatic sense – another example of hewing to the truth damaging the fiction. I felt the same about the torture scenes. We got the point, and wallowing in it didn’t help the story. Jessica Chastain’s performance was more problematic. She is more convincing as a suburban housewife than a CIA agent. Maybe it was her red hair, maybe her décolletage, maybe her pouty lips, or maybe her acting, but it seemed as though she were superimposed on the movie, rather than being integral to it. Part of the problem was the lack of set-up: we never knew where she came from, or why she had this obsession with Bin Laden. Another problem was her Zelig-ness: the story placed her in the middle of every terror attack of the decade. One minute she is stuck at a desk in Washington (100+ days!), even though she is a field officer; the next minute she has morphed to the attack base when the decision to launch is made. And, of course, she is on hand when Bin Laden’s body is brought in to make the “visual identification,” even though she has no more seen Bin Laden than anybody else with a TV.

Argo is a useful comparison. There, a true incident was used as a basis for a taut, entertaining political thriller, in which the bad guys lost but weren’t demonized and the story was leavened with humor. ZDT, by contrast, seemed confused as to whether it was documentary or drama, the tone was unrelenting, and the politics were unpleasantly one-sided.

This is 40 – 5

There are a bunch of jokes that make you laugh, but never uproariously, and that’s about it. Overhanging what there is of a story is a monumental disconnect: husband and wife are both in low-paying (or non-paying) jobs and they are facing bankruptcy, yet he drives a BMW, she a Lexus; he gives his father – an annoying Albert Brooks – $80,000; they go to a resort in Laguna Beach and order the entire room service menu; he has a huge blowout birthday party; he flies aging rockers over from London on his credit card – and somehow we’re supposed to think they’re cute, or sympathize with their situation? The kids (Apatow’s own) are cute, and the wife (also Apatow’s own) is beautiful, but all the others just remind us they’ve been in better, funnier movies.

Les Miserables – 7

The music is kind of blah, the lyrics sophomoric, and the movie played like a stage musical, with pauses for applause after every set piece. When I saw Les Mis in the theater I found it a derivative and lukewarm Phantom of the Opera. What was notable in the film version were the performances – scintillating by Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne, amusingly adroit by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, suitably noble by Hugh Jackman, but excruciatingly weak by Russell Crowe. Horribly miscast, he projected none of the menace or dogged determination needed from Javert – and why did he care about Jean Valjean in the first place? I should also single out Aaron Tveit and Samantha Barks, wonderful in their minor roles; but again, this emphasis on the singing leads and the tremendous production numbers made this seem less like a coherent movie than a spectacle. Les Mis either makes you cry or it doesn’t. For me, it didn’t.

Django Unchained – 8.4

Pitch perfect. The ultimate Tarantino. Gratuitous violence has never been so fun. A miscast Leonardo DiCaprio – although not as bad as Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds  – was my only quibble, but all the other actors were so great it hardly mattered. Samuel L. Jackson was Oscar-worthy, but Christoph Walz was on a higher plane still; just seeing his character’s picture in a newspaper makes me smile.  Part of the movie’s brilliance was that while the subject of slavery was never absent from the picture, it was never its overt subject. Instead, the plot revolved around bounty-hunting! Dr. King Schultz expressed his disdain for the practice but then accepted it as a given; so we in the audience had our emotions entangled without being beaten over the head. All the scenes caused visual echoes of deeply embedded images from childhood Westerns, and then there was the incongruous music, from spaghetti western to hip-hop to Jim Croce, making you feel, but keeping you just enough detached or off-balance. What’s coming next? Who knows, but it’s sure to be violent and fun.

Flight – 6.5

Denzel Washington walked an impressive tightrope: keeping us rooting for his character while continually disappointing us with his conduct. His co-star was very appealing, and John Goodman was a pleasure, as always. In the end, though, this was strictly a one-trick pony, and that trick wasn’t all that engaging.