By Robin E. Simmons


It’s been quite a year for movies. Some very hi-profile, tent-pole, over-hyped studio efforts not only tanked at the box office but disappointed legions of ever-hopeful film lovers. Here, with my comments — and in no special order — are some mainstream titles that left me baffled or disappointed.



Frankly, with all the hype for the cinematic rebirth of the vintage, masked, gun toting, dressed in white American pop-culture hero and his ethnic, English-challenged sidekick, I was expecting a reboot along the lines of the darker, grittier BATMAN series from Christopher Nolan. But noooooo. Director Gore Verbinsky chose to mimic the first “Pirates” template (which he directed) and instead we get a hybrid “Pirates of the Purple Sage” — but with two clownish characters who are unfamiliar to the much sought after movie-going demographic. Early on, there were rumors that team Disney was going back to the alleged inspiration for the original radio drama.

Bass_ReevesIt seems there was this charismatic Black outlaw named Bass Reeves who was going to be revived as Bad Ass Bass Reeves. Reeves, after escaping an attempted lynching, dons a mask and connects with a drunken Native American shaman and recruits him on a mission of revenge. Bass succeeds. But wracked with guilt, he redeems himself with brave acts of selfless heroics for the downtrodden! I still want to see THAT movie. Oh well.



Cool trailers and TV spots suggested an intense satire: an over-the-top, intelligent adult comedy from Martin Scorsese about a cynical, greedy, drug-addled criminal. What we get is a talky, boring, three-hour wallow with a bottom feeder. There was one really funny scene about the delayed effects of aged ‘ludes and newcomer Margot Robbie looks great naked, but it’s not nearly enough to save the movie. The 80’s scam story is obvious and tired. We already hate these real life guys from the plethora of news stories. Scorsese is fascinated by these low lifes. There’s a lot of how the scam was pulled off, but zero insight into any of the cartoonish cardboard characters. And most importantly, there’s no “why” into the soul of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). He’s just a psychopath. And that’s too bad. The movie will probably be a hit, but it’s a retread of the criminality Scorsese has already put on the screen. But worst of all, there’s no one to root for or even care about.



The trailers for this hugely anticipated movie hinted at a far different story than what eventually digitally unspooled on the big screen. Perfect casting for the lead made it even more painful to sit through since the movie was mired in a padded, sci-fi backstory and a laughable, chaotic, endless battle at the finish. Not a lot of goodwill remains for any subsequent film in the franchise. So what’s the deal with BATMAN VS SUPERMAN?



Can director M. Knight Shyamalan’s street cred get any worse? With this dismal outing, M’s only a hired hack to helm Will Smith’s vapid vanity production intended to make son Jaden a star. And, as many others have questioned, is this big budget fiasco merely thinly disguised Scientology propaganda?



The opening scenes in this fifth installment were great, but they were over all too quickly and then the audience was hijacked by what seemed to be another film. And it was a terrible one. Poor on-screen Bruce Willis looked as bored as those staring back at the screen. If he could, I wonder what Willis would say to all the good people who paid their hard -earned money to be entertained. The humor was non-existent, the snappy dialogue was absent and the effects looked cheap and hastily stitched together. Movie audiences hate being exploited and having their expectations dashed when it becomes obvious that the premise of the poster is a lie.



First of all, and early on, director writer JJ Abrams lied that Benedict Cumberbatch had been cast as Captain Kirk’s arch-nemesis Khan. And then, Abrams by the numbers take on this latest iteration of the TV show was a jumble of dumb, incomprehensible space action. At least the lens flares were kept to a minimum. Hard core fans felt betrayed. Even so, this Trek outing is better than the Marvel movies that look like they were costumed in Target’s Halloween clearance isle. Is Abrams still attached to the new STAR WARS? Hope not.



On a vacation at an exotic ocean paradise, Naomi Watts and Robin Wright each have affairs with the other’s son. I was creeped out. The audience stayed away in droves. Enough said.




Patched together and confusing, featuring self-absorbed, shallow, one-dimensional (I’m being generous) characters speaking hideously laughable dialogue, Paul Schrader’s low budget foray into So Cal’s fringe world at the crossroads of valley porn and Hollywood dreams failed big time. But I still have hopes that the scorned but talented Lindsay Lohan will redeem herself. It’s not over yet.



I was not impressed with how writer-director Steve McQueen portrayed Solomon Northrup’s tragic real life on screen. (Northrup was a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the mid-1800s.) The movie struck me as heavy-handed and preachy. I learned nothing new and when Chiwetel Ejiofor stared at the camera — I guess that means he’s looking at “us” as if we too are guilty of the horrible abuse he has just endured — it took me out of the movie. Quentin Tarantino’s over-the-top DJANGO was better at depicting the horrors of slavery and the blatant racism of the era. And FRUITVALE STATION was superior to either in creating an authentic-looking slice of life that said it all. Many critics and moviegoers are afraid to be critical of 12YAS because of the subject matter. Truth is, a serious subject rendered as bad art deserves criticism. It’s like noting the difference between a Kinkaid painting and a Rembrandt.



If you think about it, the 2013 movie year was top-loaded with stories about lone individuals surviving extreme circumstances. I never felt one second of authenticity in Redford’s portrayal of an old man at sea. It all looked fake to me. Watching the movie, my mind wandered: were some of the ocean scenes filmed in a Beverly Hills’ swimming pool? Has Redford had ever actually been sailing? There’s not much of a story here and we know nearly nothing of Redford’s character. Did he even have a name? Throughout the movie, I kept hoping that Redford would cross watery paths with Hanks’ kidnapped Captain Phillips.

Sadly, bad movies proliferated in 2013. Space does not allow for a full indictment of all the titles that deserve to be shamed.


Last year was full of excellent films in all genres. I was especially fond of the low budget indie flicks that struck a nerve as well as the rare, big, popular global hits. Here in no particular order are ten of my best movie picks (there were many others).



Now on DVD and Blu-ray, this joyous, poignant and overdue celebration of great background singers, who are little known by the general public, is not to be missed. I’ve seen it multiple times with different audiences and the result at final fade out is always the same: tears and big smiles. A wonderfully rich soundtrack and terrific new interviews with background singers and some of the biggest stars in the music industry make this an experience that reminds of the healing power of not just song, but the human voice.



It’s as if a contemporized Mark Twain wrote afresh of life along the banks of the Mississippi as experienced through the eyes of two early teen boys. They are not quite Tom and Huck, but close enough to evoke a timeless rural life just off the edge of the grid we all share. Matthew McConaughey steps away from his tired rom-com pretty-boy act to play a determined, gun-toting fugitive befriended by young Neckbone and Ellis. Writer-director Jeff Nichols gives us a compelling and tense adventure that explores love and revenge in a setting that makes it fresh, relevant and real.

This is a good year for McConaughey. He is a wonder in the terrific DALLAS BUYERS CLUB as an emaciated AIDS activist seeking to distribute unsanctioned meds to fellow victims of the disease. He will likely up for a Best Actor nomination. But his co-star Jared Leto is a sure thing in a supporting role award.



Brie Larson is terrific as Grace, a damaged helper in a foster care facility for at-risk-teens. The often visceral interactions of the staff and residents of the home are at the heart of this drama that is raw, honest and inspiring. And marvel of marvels, it never resorts to clichés. But it is Brie’s Grace you will long remember as she struggles to finds solutions to her own issues. And you will longer remember Brie the actor: she shines in every frame she’s in with an authenticity and naturalness that is nothing less than astonishing.



Chad Hartigan’s ultra low-budget and low-key film is a revelation of what can be done when everyone is working at the top of their game and sharing the same vision. This simple slice-of-life story is about two men who cross paths at a moment of change in each of their lives. Martin (Paul Eenhoorn), newly transplanted from “back East,” has just started a job as an outreach counselor at a Reno, Nevada, penitentiary after suffering a crisis of belief. Richmond Arquette is Travis, newly sprung after more than a decade in prison. The two men form a connection that is almost a friendship. Eenhoorn’s understated performance is just about perfect, but it is Arquette who makes this micro-budgeted indie film exceptional. His face and hesitant manner ring true as he faces re-entry into the real, bewildering world. His performance is among the best of the year. Check out the diner scene where he meets his grown daughter (Sam Buchanan) after the long absence in her life. I loved this little gem of a film because it focuses on a moment where lives can be redeemed or lost. New beginnings can be anywhere and anytime if we choose to make it so. I like that sublime theme and the exquisite craftsmanship of this little-known film.


Based on EITHER WAY, an Icelandic short film, David Gordon Green’s PRINCE AVALANCHE made me think of Thomas Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” That may not sound like praise, but it is. Shot in two weeks for about $50 grand, the simple, funny, Zen-like story is about two guys (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) who don’t know each other hired to paint a broken yellow stripe down the middle of a little used country road that runs through the striking landscape of a burnt out area. It’s a perfect setting and circumstance for random conversations, interactions and observations as an unlikely friendship takes form during which the odd couple learn about each other, their limitations and themselves.



Set in the near future, Spike Jonz sci-fi comedy/drama plays with the notion of a future generation smart phone app that has true “consciousness” — and a more than disturbing self-awareness. So much so that its owner Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls deeply in love with the evocative voice of the disembodied Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Unsettling and unexpected complications arise in Twombly’s real world. And even more surprising, with Samantha’s virtual world. But is this really a love story? No. For me, it is a frightening and cautionary tale about how our incredible, fast-changing technology disconnects us from what we most desire.



Ryan Coogler’s first film is a powerhouse of emotion. This tragic true story is about Oscar Grant’s (Michael B. Jordan) last day on earth. It follows the 22 year-old Bay Area resident from the time he gets up on December 31, 2008 with new resolve to change his life for the better to his death in the early hours of January 1 in the Fruitvale subway station where BART officers shoot him in cold blood. Brilliantly directed, photographed and acted, this film is as much a celebration of a short life as it is an indictment of the people, forces and mind-set that triggered for his unnecessary death.



This huge global hit is, for me, a deeply spiritual film that’s disguised as an action thriller. I think this cross-cultural break-out film taps into a universal feeling that’s really about our lonely, terrifying and finally transcendent journey across the cosmos toward our true home. Life affirming and exhilarating, it works best on a gigantic screen and in 3D. Sandra Bullock will be nominated for Best Actor. And the movie is likely to win as well.



Maybe the best film of the year, this impeccably crafted, visceral movie takes a close-up look at one tragic incident in the longest war in US history. A war that still continues in Afghanistan. Sandwiched between two unlikely acts of mercy, this morally ambiguous true story forces the viewer to empathize with desperate and unimaginably brutal heroics while also asking in every frame: Is it worth it? It’s a great film, an important one that deserves the widest attention.

I also loved NEBRASKA, a wonderful dramatic comedy of stark rural bleakness. I liked MITTY, a movie that lightly riffs on James Thurber’s 1939 two page short story and I was entertained by SAVING MR. BANKS, blatant but poignant Disney propaganda. The epic 3D HOBBIT: DESOLATION OF SMAUG was far more engaging and action-filled than its predecessor.


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