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June 2013

Take It to the Streets

Centro histórico (2012)

International Film Festival Rotterdam

"I have been involved in this kind of thing before. It never works." Ahead of the Edinburgh screening of "Centro histórico," Pedro Costa's comment could have been about the dubious nature of portmanteau films; in this case four stories set in the Portuguese city of Guimarães by Aki Kaurismäki, Mr. Costa, Victor Erice and Manoel de Oliveira. Afterward, and filtered through an idiosyncratic Q. & A. with the director, it could just as easily have been a sign of Mr. Costa's professed wish to keep faith with an uncompromisingly political cinema and reach audiences who may not be receptive to his methods. Either way, it surely echoed the sentiments of the film's backers, who having commissioned it to promote the city's status as a 2012 European Capital of Culture and received a work deemed unreleasable, have now cast it onto the waters of the world's film festivals while hoping for the best.

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Rhode Island Dead

The Conjuring (2013)

Michael Tackett/Warner Brothers Pictures

To say that things go bump in the night in "The Conjuring" does an injustice to the volume of the film's audio mix, which has been calibrated to loosen your dental fillings. And to say that there isn't an unpredictable second in the film doesn't make it sound as much fun as it actually is, given the lengths that director James Wan goes to in keeping this particular haunted-house caper barreling forwards. Downplaying the Sam Raimi-flavor pastiche that tends to gum up this kind of exercise — at least until the end — it's a straightforward piece of mostly gore-lite atmospheric scaremongering, in which several fine actors make one another jump out of their skins while a punch-up breaks out in the orchestra.

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Broken Home Invasion

You're Next (2013)

Corey Ransberg/Lionsgate

You would be forgiven for thinking that Adam Wingard’s low-budget slasher horror was another straight out of the mold, paint-by-number copycat, but you would be so very wrong.

In all honesty, the first 10 minutes do nothing to allay the fear that you’re going to have to sit through another cheap and tactless John Carpenter rip-off. You’ve seen all this before: a masked killer, a half-naked teenager, a brutal murder. However, it soon becomes apparent that you’re dealing with a different kind of beast once the dysfunctional family, about to be accosted by said masked killers, assembles in the nearby house (or rather, mansion) for a long-overdue reunion. Then the bickering begins — particularly the long-standing browbeating that son Crispian (played in wonderfully understated fashion by A. J. Bowen) receives from his smug brother Drake (Joe Swanberg, landing some of the most delicious lines). Drake is the character you love to hate, and is a clue to where this very black comedy is heading.

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Stop Worrying and Love the Gun

Red 2 (2013)

Jan Thijs/Summit Entertainment

In “Red 2,” Bruce Willis’s retired C.I.A. operative Frank Moses and his former unwitting hostage/ward, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), very briefly enjoy their domestic bliss shopping at Costco before Marvin (John Malkovich) suddenly emerges from the next aisle urging them to join him. A Cold War-era document concerning a missing nuclear weapon has surfaced online (opportunity to name-drop WikiLeaks/Reddit/2chan missed), implicating Frank and Marvin by name. Just about every major power’s intelligence agency, infiltrated by its own bloodthirsty warmonger, wants to capture the two in order to secure the weapon of mass destruction and serve its particular agenda. And Frank’s friend (Helen Mirren), foe (Lee Byung-hun) and old flame (Catherine Zeta-Jones) have each enlisted to be hot on his trail.

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Off Their Rockers, but Not Hung Over

Last Vegas (2013)

Chuck Zlotnick/CBS Films

With Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline as best pals gathering in Sin City for a bachelor party, “Last Vegas” has been dubbed “The Hangover” for the sexagenarian set. But anyone actually expecting amnesiac high jinks and excessive debauchery will be in for a big disappointment. The film is about as exciting and hilarious as watching a busload of seniors from the home take a field trip to church, then stop by Olive Garden to take advantage of its unlimited soup, salad and bread sticks before an afternoon at the bingo parlor. But unexpectedly, “Last Vegas” turns out to be a pretty moving drama about the price one pays for lifelong friendships.

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Loath Thy Neighbor

The Complex (2013)


Presumably by choice, "The Complex" finds Hideo Nakata retrenching so firmly onto more comfortable territory after the misfire of "Chatroom" that the whole enterprise seems distressingly familiar. Mr. Nakata had a big hand in forging a flavor of J-horror with solid international appeal when he made "Ringu" back in 1998; but that tone and style (and visual shorthand, and volume level) have become a rigid template, and "The Complex" opts not to rock the boat. Rigidity also brings the risk of incidental humor: This film features the most useless screen exorcism ever, a protracted ceremony of wailing, chanting and food preparation that produces no discernible reaction from the evil spirit infesting a haunted apartment building, but which could easily prize a guffaw from an audience.

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The Music Lovers

Breathe In (2013)

2013 Sundance Film Festival

Male midlife crises don't come much more photogenic and tastefully shot than the one endured by music teacher Keith (Guy Pearce) in Drake Doremus's "Breathe In," a film of quiet pastoral anguish that almost entirely does without the loud urban variety. Barring a certain amount of crockery damage and tearful car-driving toward the end, Mr. Doremus keeps the nature of Keith's wandering eye nicely understated, a 17-year itch with roots lying further back than the audience can see. In the absence of explanatory shouting, the air is filled instead with tasteful silences, classical cello and the frequent sighs of Guy.

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Internship for Credit

Monsters University (2013)

Monsters-university-movie-review-james-p- sullivan-mike-wazowski-sulley

Caveat: This review of “Monsters University” will spare no spoilers. These are ultimately immaterial to your enjoyment, but by all means read no further if you do not wish to be spoiled. Alonso Duralde over at The Wrap very aptly compares the film with “The Internship,” and that comparison is not as far-fetched as one might think. The two aren’t almost identical, say, the way that “Olympus Has Fallen” and “White House Down” are: “Monsters University” is naturally far superior just as one would expect from anything by Pixar. If nothing else, it’s actually hilarious whereas “The Internship” was not. Nevertheless, both films involve a lovable odd couple rallying a squad of misfits through a series of obstacles in hopes of attaining the holy grail — in the case of “Monsters University,” seats in the prestigious scare class as opposed to lucrative full-time gigs at Google.

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Olympus Has Fallen Into Habit

White House Down (2013)

Reiner Bajo/Columbia Pictures

First things first: Is “White House Down” essentially the same movie as “Olympus Has Fallen”? The answer is a resounding yes. Here you have Channing Tatum standing in for Gerard Butler as the unlikely (read: non-Secret Service) saver of the day. Then you have Jamie Foxx stepping into the Aaron Eckhart role of the incorruptible president of the United States. Richard Jenkins is the Morgan Freeman House speaker/acting president. As Mr. Tatum’s daughter, Joey King here functions as the adolescent liability much like the president’s son in “Olympus” played by Finley Jacobsen.

Beyond the two films’ obviously shared premise of a White House under siege, their villains are similarly motivated by the prospect of controlling America’s nuclear arsenal. Then again, both are basically “Die Hard” set inside the White House, so it’s not like “Olympus” could lay claim to originality just for hitting the multiplexes three months earlier. The most pronounced difference between the two movies is a political one: Whereas the antagonists in “Olympus” were North Koreans, in “White House Down” they are radical right-wingers, racist zealots, wanton hackers, cracked soldiers and the entire military industrial complex at large. So which of the two you would find more enjoyable is dependent entirely on whether you’re a hardcore xenophobe or a hardcore liberal.

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The Dying Game

Byzantium (2013)

Patrick Redmond/Studiocanal

Neil Jordan's taste for merging Celtic blood lust with languid fairy tales has sparked life into supernatural stories before, especially the sprawling canvas and drenching atmosphere of "Interview With the Vampire" nearly two decades ago. "Byzantium" works on a smaller scale. It's at least as interested in the position of women in both civilian and secret societies as it is in the consequences of immortality, and concludes that life is no picnic in either camp. Livened up more than strictly necessary by Mr. Jordan's eye for detail and the endlessly fascinating face of Saoirse Ronan, "Byzantium" holds its own against the expectations raised by this director returning to this particular arena, as well as the inconvenient fact that vampires have been overexposed to death on screens large and small since he was last here.

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