Monday, December 30, 2013

"Anchorman 2" review



It took over nine years for another Anchorman film to happen, but finally, it's here. The first feature film from the McKay/Ferrell duo has developed a large cult following over the years and it's probably their most famous collaboration so far. Despite the fact that the other three films they made together wound up grossing more money, everyone quotes Anchorman. Sometimes they quote Step Brothers, but really, it's all about Anchorman.

Fans had been begging for a sequel for years but many seem to forget that pulling off a comedy sequel is not a simple job. There have been very few great comedy sequels made over the years with too many of them falling victim to not being able to live up to the first. Many sequels are made just to please fans of the first. There's callbacks to the first movie, rehashing of jokes, an overload of cameos----"Anchorman 2" is guilty of those things here. Luckily, the movie still retains much of the charm from the first film and it has a great concept that very much validates a sequel. McKay and Ferrell allow the characters to grow a little and give them an interesting premise to work with. I just wish they would've done more with it.

When we meet Ron Burgandy, he has a seven year old son with his wife Veronica Corningstone. She and Ron anchor the evening news and all seems well until their boss fires Ron. Naturally, being the egomaniac he is, Ron is not happy about the news one bit. He and Veronica separate. Before he can hang himself to end his life, Burgandy gets an offer to host a 24-hour cable news channel. Feeling reinvigorated, Ron gathers his old news team together (Champ, Brick, and Brian Fantana) and they take a drive to New York City to work for GNN.

Ron's team gets assigned the 2-5am timeslot. While they don't take too kindly to this at first, Ron has the ingenious idea to give audiences what they want instead of what they need. So they start reporting an abundance of stories about cats, car chases... all with an overly patriotic tone that Americans suddenly become drawn to. The surprise success of the timeslot wins over their billionaire Australian boss and Ron gets special attention from his sexy boss named Linda Jackson... even if her skin color initially made him feel uncomfortable.

"Anchorman 2" is packed with jokes and it's at its best when it goes into this fun, new direction with this cast. They're able to mine a lot of material out of the 24/7 news operation, making it an obvious riff against CNN and Fox News, but they only really scratch the surface with it. Again, there are a few too many callbacks to the first film, a few too many repeats of jokes from the first film that kind of bog things down. They just seem so unnecessary and appear to be there for fan service only. When the film enters bizarre territory is when it really shines, like when Ron goes through another downward spiral, starts living in a lighthouse, and bottle feeds his pet shark. McKay/Ferrell have continued to delve into weird territory ever since "Step Brothers" and it's what excites me about their films. They manage to let their comedies go off in strange directions without it going completely off the rails.

That is, until the giant cable news brawl that happens at the end of "Anchorman 2." While cameo appearances can be fun, the need to top the first film's news brawl just felt a little too tacked on especially since the fight seems wedged in towards the end. I won't reveal the cameos, but the scene goes a little overboard after awhile.

In fact, there really was no need to drag the film to a 119-minute running time. What makes "Anchorman" so watchable is that it moves at a brisk 95-minute pace. "Anchorman 2" gets a little too self-indulgent at times and the film is a little too in love with itself. But there are still a lot of great moments that are just pure gold, such as Brick Tamland's love interest (played by Kristen Wiig). 

At the very least, some of the jokes they rehash in the film are well-escalated. But still, some were rather unnecessary. I loved Brian Fantana's stash of condoms, which was a callback to his cologne bar at his old job in San Diego. But we didn't need a reference to his sex panther cologne on top of that. I liked it when they put little twists on jokes they introduced in the first film, I wish they could've just left it at that.

But hey, I can't really complain about what we're left with overall even though "Anchorman 2" really could have been a much greater comedy. There were so many directions they could've gone with their premise, they didn't even need the subplot with Ron's kid. Nevertheless, the chemistry among the four leads is so electric, so fun to watch... honestly, I wouldn't mind seeing an "Anchorman 3." It may not be as memorable as the first, but "Anchorman 2" was still a lot of fun.

Grade: B

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Top 15 Films of 2013

I like making year-end lists. It's nice to talk about the films you've seen over the course of the year and give props to the ones that some may have forgotten about. These types of lists also help to immortalize that particular year in cinema. When you look back at these lists in the future, it gives you a taste on the amount of quality that year had. 2013 will go down as one of the all-time best, I'm confident of that.

There are a number of films that have very narrowly missed the Top 15 cut. And I will revisit the list in late February after I have seen everything (or close to everything, there's just a handful of films that I still need to get to). In February, maybe I will do a top 30 or something. We'll see.

Anyway, it's been quite the year. I think I have become a better writer because of how great this year has been for the movies. There will be some changes in how I do things in 2014, but it's a continuing evolution of myself as a writer. Change is inevitable. I'm entering my fifth year of doing this, after all, if I'm going to continue to do this, I might as well get really good at it. Right?

Honorable mentions: Pacific Rim, This is the End, Mud, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, No, Nebraska, and Before Midnight. Surprisingly, they have all missed the cut. 

So I humbly dedicate this list to Roger Ebert who is no longer with us to give his own list and that feels so wrong to me. Without further ado...

15. Side Effects (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)


Soderbergh's farewell to theatrical cinema may also go down as one of his most entertaining. "Side Effects" is lead by two very strong, confident performances from both Rooney Mara and Jude Law. This film is smart, sexy, and it takes you down a path that is consistently surprising. Using the pharmaceutical industry as the backdrop for a psychosexual thriller, "Side Effects" is the type of genre film that knows how to have fun with itself and lets you in on the fun as well.

14. The Place Beyond The Pines (Dir. Derek Cianfrance)



Perhaps "The Place Beyond The Pines" would not be on this list if it did not strike such a personal chord with me. Derek Cianfrance's much-anticipated follow-up to "Blue Valentine" is a long, straight-forward tale about fathers-and-sons and how the actions we make in the present can haunt us and forever shape our future. Some may call bullshit on such a premise, but I honestly feel that I know these characters. I understand this pain. This wasn't a film that necessarily appealed to me on an intellectual or emotional standpoint, it mostly hit me where it hurts the most: my soul.

13. Blue Jasmine (Dir. Woody Allen)



Woody Allen's best film in years may just contain one of his more heartbreaking and thought-provoking endings. Jasmine has been kicked out of her sister's apartment, her husband's in jail, her son won't talk to her, and her latest lover no longer wants anything to do with her. She has wound up all alone. She's a sad, miserable woman. She may have gotten what she deserved, but I still managed to feel sympathy for her. Cate Blanchett gives an outstanding performance.

12. Prisoners (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)



We have a tendency to dismiss genre films once it gets to be the end of the year, but when a great thriller comes along, it deserves to be cherished. This is a film that still haunts me. These characters, lead by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, never give up the entire time they search for these missing young girls. Gyllenhaal's character gets put through the ultimate test in his young career as a police detective, while Jackman's goes through a moral transformation that he will never come back from. I initially thought the way the film ends was a little bit too obvious, but now that the film has made its way to home video, more people are asking "what is up with the ending of that movie?" Seriously guys? Did you forget what the title of the movie is? It makes me laugh when people don't realize that their reaction to such an ending is a good thing. You were engrossed in the film! It made you feel something, for God's sake. "Prisoners" is not a ride I will be as willing to take the second time around, but only because the first viewing was that powerful.

11. Frances Ha (Dir. Noah Baumbach)



The understatedness of "Frances Ha" is exactly why it appeals to me so much. This sharp, black-and-white, witty little comedy starring Greta Gerwig reminds you that independent cinema has the unique ability to charm and entertain you in ways that mainstream Hollywood just can't. "Frances Ha" feels so off-the-cuff, so alive, so energetic and fresh and yet it's shot in a very formal, classical style. Baumbach's camera (and perhaps, Baumbach himself) loves Greta Gerwig and, by the end of the film, you start to love her too.

10. Upstream Color (Dir. Shane Carruth)



Maddening, twisted, unconventional, incomprehensible---and yet "Upstream Color" is the perfect example of just how powerful cinema can be when it's primarily focused on visuals. I am still struck by how the last half hour of the film features almost no dialogue whatsoever. The film forces us to put the pieces together from a purely visual standpoint. It forces us to watch the film the way we were supposed to watch movies in the first place: with our eyes and our brain, not our ears.

Shane Carruth first broke out with his 2004 film "Primer," but while "Upstream Color" also has a high degree of intellect in its concept, it's the love story between its two leads that makes the science-fiction elements more interesting. The way these two people are intrinsically connected to each other and yet they can't understand why---it's fascinating. This is a mind-bending jigsaw puzzle of a film that will always reveal something different about itself each time you watch it.

9. Fruitvale Station (Dir. Ryan Coogler)



Like a few other films that are on this list, Ryan Coogler dares you to go on this straight-forward journey despite you knowing exactly what the end result will be. Michael B. Jordan delivers an outstanding performance, humanizing Oscar Grant and helping us to understand who he was. He was far from perfect, but he was a man on the cusp of making positive changes in his life. "Fruitvale Station" celebrates a man's life (and the vitality of life in general) just as much as it wonders what could have been.

8.  American Hustle (Dir. David O. Russell)


The next three movies are so ridiculously close together, they might as well be tied. David O. Russell's film is seductive. There may not seem to be much there beyond the surface when you really get down to it, but this is such a fun film to watch that it hardly seems to matter. Unlike another film on this list, "American Hustle" sees the good in its con-artists. Russell has a very romanticized vision of this world, not because he thinks con-artists are good people, he just wants to understand them as people. That's what we get here. "Hustle" is always funny, it's remarkably crafted, and as a piece of entertainment, it's impeccable.

7. Her (Dir. Spike Jonze)


Spike Jonze's "Her" is not about what's there, it's about what's not there. It's about a marriage we only see in flashbacks, and a woman we can only listen to. Joaquin Phoenix manages to give Theodore Twombly enough layers so that he doesn't simply seem like a sad-sack. He's a broken soul, lost in an overly-digitized world. He suddenly finds himself connecting with someone in ways he's never experience before, but in the end, what he really needs is a connection that is palpable. Externally and internally. "Her" is one of the sweetest, most unashamedly emotional films of the year. I marvel at its simplicity.

6. Blue is the Warmest Color (Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)



"Blue is the Warmest Color" is another film that's not particularly ground-breaking in its subject matter, but the director portrays Adele's life with so much detail and nuance that the story manages to feel fresh. We get so caught up in her life from her struggles with her sexual identity to her torrid, passionate love affair with Emma, a woman who will forever change her life. At 179 minutes, we really do grow up with Adele, and when it's over, we can't help but wonder what kind of woman she will eventually become. I did not embrace this film right away because of my own prudish-ness, but "Blue is the Warmest Color" might be one of the best, most wholly-satisfying and realistic romance films I've ever seen...even if the sex scenes are slightly over-the-top.

5. The World's End (Dir. Edgar Wright)


As great as 2013 has been, this has been an incredibly weak year for comedy. "This is the End" narrowly missed the list and I just saw "Anchorman 2" which made me chuckle a few times (a review for that one will be coming soon). The team of Wright-Pegg-Frost is so solid that we almost take them for granted, but that will not happen in a year like this. Edgar Wright completes the Cornetto Trilogy with, perhaps, his most personal and mature film yet. "The World's End" includes a fantastic performance from Simon Pegg who plays Gary King, a sad, lonely individual so desperate to relive his glory days, he does not care who he has to screw over in order to accomplish this goal. But "The World's End" is not just about Gary King, it's about his friends too. King never points a gun to their head, and yet they still agree to the pub crawl anyway. Is it because they feel bad for Gary? Or is it because their own lives has lost a degree of luster as well?

 Ingeniously incorporating a Body Snatchers-esque plot that works on so many levels, "The World's End" is so hilarious that you may not even realize just how poignant it is. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Edgar Wright is the most talented filmmaker of his generation. He makes it all look so easy, and yet he keeps topping himself.

4. 12 Years a Slave (Dir. Steve McQueen)


As much as I greatly admired his first two films, I still was a bit apprehensive about Steve McQueen making this film. The trailer made things look a little too conventional, but watching the film, you realize that's what makes the film so powerful. McQueen tells this story in the most straight-forward and conventional manner possible, but by doing that, he subjects us to some of the harshest, most violent sequences that you will see all year. In order for us to truly understand the horrors of what Solomon Northup goes through, we cannot treat the torture and abuse lightly. McQueen never sentimentalizes, but he's still manages to be responsible for the most heart-breaking ending of the year

3. Gravity (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron)


Again, it's just a testament of how strong this year is, that the most technologically groundbreaking film of the year has been relegated to the #3 spot. Still, don't let its placement fool you. "Gravity" is the best theatrical experience that I've had all year, I just find the top 2 to be a tad more challenging and resonant. "Gravity" is a pure rollercoaster of a film with such incredible camerawork that left me in awe. You can't even fathom just how much work was put into this film, not just from the filmmakers, but Sandra Bullock as well. She responds to the challenge of this role by turning in the greatest performance of his career. I truly felt her terror. The filmmakers gave us just enough to make her a nuanced character but it stays primarily focused on the action at hand. This is a film that never lets you turn away, it never gives you an easy way out, it keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time. "Gravity" is simply superb cinema.


2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. The Coen Brothers)



My initial thought, after I finished watching "Inside Llewyn Davis" for the first time, was that Llewyn was at the right place at the wrong time. He was a struggling folk musician at a time when that scene was just about to explode. After giving it some more thought, however, I don't think Llewyn Davis was ever meant to break it big. Llewyn represents every aspiring musician. He's the one who doesn't make it. He might be a great singer-songwriter, but his stubbornness and inability to have foresight is what cost him in the end. What Llewyn leaves behind at the end of the film are all these paths he could've taken, but somehow he managed to irrevocably screw it all up. He keeps making the same mistakes over and over, which is signified by the palindromic nature of the film. The film begins and ends almost the same exact way with the long, winding road trip being the centerpiece of it all. I initially thought the road trip ran on a little too long, but now I understand just how thematically powerful those scenes were. Llewyn is like the cat he picked up in Greenwich Village. He's lost. He's a stray cat. Yet his story feels so damn universal. Anybody who has ever had big aspirations for their life should be able to relate to this film. There are so many biopics about famous people, the ones who've made it. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is about the one who didn't make it. And thanks to the excellent craftsmanship of the Coen Bros, it's unlikely I'll ever forget about Llewyn's story.

1. The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese)


"The Wolf of Wall Street" just might be one of the greatest satires of our time. You want to know how I know that? Because it seems to gone over the heads of over half of America. After years of making wonderful, albeit rather safe/"crowdpleasing" cinema, Scorsese has come out in full force this time around. "Wolf" completes his historical crime epic trilogy, started by "Goodfellas" and "Casino," and he ends the trilogy in typically controversial fashion. What most people aren't getting is that the world that's being exposed here does not have the same sort of consequences as the worlds of "Goodfellas" and "Casino." These are the guys who do get away with it and it happens all the time. What happens when they get caught? They wind up teaching their methods at seminars across the world! Is that not a kick right in your ass? These are truly awful individuals.

Jordan Belfort does not care about you and he repeatedly makes that clear throughout his narration. This is a movie that  should make your blood boil. It should make you angry. But it also dares you to laugh and have a good time as well. That's the genius of Scorsese. He shows you a world that looks intoxicating and alluring, but from the beginning, he warns you that these are terrible people doing awful things. They begin the film throwing a midget at a bullseye for crying out loud. Do you really think the movie is advocating midget tossing?

This film kicked my ass. It sent a jolt right through my system. It's electrifying, it's mesmerizing, it's the closest I'll ever feel to being hopped up on cocaine, or quaaludes, or crack. Scorsese has mastered this type of filmmaking a long time ago, but it's still a pleasure to see him in "beast mode" yet again. Honestly, it's been a pleasure to live in the same era as Martin Scorsese, and here, he has made his most daring film since "The Last Temptation of Christ." As Richard Brody noted in the New Yorker, that final shot in "Wolf" is like him putting a mirror on us. Look at all the shit Jordan Belfort and his friends were able to do and he's still alive to tell you about it. He feels no remorse. He feels no pain. His only regret is that he was careless enough to lose his job. What are you going to do about this? All you can do is sit and watch. Sure, you can get up and walk away, but it does not change the fact that it happened. You can't shield yourself from this bitter truth forever. If this film makes you angry, then do something about it. Personally, I am too much in awe of this film to do anything right now. Worst of all, I'm thinking about seeing the film again before the year ends.

Dicaprio is the best he's ever been, Jonah Hill is the best he's ever been, and Martin Scorsese brings so much energy to this film, you'd think it was made by a 28-year-old. I watch so many movies per year. To find a new movie that can still make my jaw drop like this is really something to appreciate. So, thank you Mr. Scorsese.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street review



Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street is a dizzying, exhausting, three-hour tale of debauchery and excess. If it does not enthrall or mesmerize you it will piss you off, but either way, the film's doing its job. Its darkly comic approach to the material can be off-putting to some, but you also have to hand it to the 71-year-old director for still being able to make a movie that can stir up such mixed reactions across the board. Like with Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese once again shows a world in the most matter-of-fact, blunt manner possible told from the point-of-view of the film's antihero. The moral judgments have all been left up to you, making you an active participant in the film instead of a passive observer.

As awful as the characters in Goodfellas and Casino are, they at least live in a world that has some sort of moral code. Even the most violent mob criminal has to abide by a certain set amount of rules. If he doesn't, he constantly has to watch his back.  In Wolf of Wall Street, there are no rules. There is no karma. These guys can do whatever they want as long as they know how to cover their ass.  Our capitalistic society has allowed for stockbrokers like these to get as filthy rich as possible and we have given them no reason to tone it down.

They may have "more money than they know what to do with," but Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort definitely tries his best to spend as much of it as possible. Whether it's $2 million trips to Las Vegas, or the hundreds of prostitutes, the drugs, the sports cars, the yachts---there's a reason why Jordan and his pals are unashamedly snorting cocaine on a yacht in the middle of the day, society does not condemn these people the way it does with mafia members and other, more "blue collar" criminals.

Wolf of Wall Street's in-your-face nature is exactly the point. How are these people allowed to get away with this? They con people out of millions of dollars and then, at worst, they spend a couple of years in prison as long as they cooperate. In the mob, cooperating with the Feds can get you whacked, but there's no such thing as "getting whacked" in the stockbroker world. And don't get it twisted: the movie finds the sex, drugs, and criminal activity to be just as rotten as you do, there's just nothing the movie can do about it. If the filmmakers toned down the debauchery and/or forced these characters to pay the consequences, it would be a dishonest film. This is the world these characters live in and it still goes on today. So, go ahead, get angry. It's about time we did.

But why watch the film if it's just going to make you angry? Well, first of all, Scorsese's no-holds-barred approach exposes this world in ways never seen before with an incredible amount of depth, and it's always fascinating. Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo Dicaprio, is as awful as he is charming. He builds up Stratton Oakmont, an over-the-counter brokerage house, with his bare hands. Initially pushing penny stocks to average joes while retaining a huge commission in return, Stratton Oakmont eventually moves up to the wealthiest 1%, aggressively continuing to sell stocks through "pump and dump" schemes. In other words, touting a company's stock "through false and misleading statements to the marketplace." Jordan and his team make a boatload of money screwing people over and how do they spend their money? By performing sexually depraved acts, taking quaaludes, snorting cocaine---"surprisingly", these rotten human beings celebrate their questionable behavior by doing rotten things and Belfort is at the center of it all. He makes the "rock-n-roll lifestyle" look like child's play. It's a wonder how this man is still alive.

But he's also a fascinating character. Here is a man that can pretty much sell anything. He has charisma and exuberance. By all accounts, he is naturally gifted. Unfortunately, he chooses to use his gift to become a scam artist and he lives in a country where the consequences for his actions are relatively minor. He's not so much a sex or drug addict as he is a money addict. He's so addicted to the lifestyle he has created for himself that when he receives an offer to step down as a way out of spending any time in jail, he refuses to do it. He loves the lifestyle too much. He loves making passionate, profanity-laden speeches to his employees. He loves the drugs, the hookers, and the attention. By the end, he winds up looking like the biggest asshole in cinema history.

Another reason why Wolf of Wall Street is worth the watch: this is by far the funniest movie Martin Scorsese has ever made. You cannot help but laugh at the sheer amount of insanity these characters get involved in. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill completely own their roles, with DiCaprio revealing that he's actually a pretty gifted physical comedian. Jonah Hill, coming from the improv-heavy Apatow background, is perfect as the sleazy, overweight right-hand man to Jordan Belfort. The kind of shenanigans this duo gets involved in never stops being entertaining. Their debauchery leads to a night where the two of them test out a special form of quaaludes and it leads to one of the funniest sequences that I have seen all year.

The biggest revelation in the film, however, is Margot Robbie. She plays Naomi, the "Duchess of Bay Ridge," who winds up becoming Jordan's second wife. She is the only one who can consistently keep Jordan on his toes as she's infinitely smarter and more cunning than he is. It probably goes without saying that she is drop-dead gorgeous, but what Margot Robbie manages to bring to this character is very similar to Sharon Stone's performance in Casino. The difference between Naomi and Stone's Ginger is that Naomi always has her act together. She's very much willing to play the role of housewife, but she refuses to put up with Jordan's bullshit. Robbie and DiCaprio are at the center of one of the most intense scenes in the film, a scene that nearly made my heart stop. I won't give it away, but once again... it's a wonder how Jordan Belfort is still alive.

Think about the way Goodfellas and Casino start. The two films begin with violent acts. With Goodfellas, the three leads are driving in a car with Billy Batts tied up in the trunk. To their surprise, the dude in the trunk is still alive. They pull over, Tommy Devito continually stabs him, finishing the job. From the beginning, Goodfellas warns you that violence will be very prominent throughout. The same is true with Casino. That film opens with Sam Rothstein starting up his car and instantly becoming engulfed in flames. Remember: neither film attempts to cast any kind of moral judgment on these characters. The fates of Tommy Devito, Jimmy Conway, Henry Hill, Sam Rothstein, and Nicky Santoro are all related to the world they live in. Devito's irresponsible actions catch up to him in the end. Hill, Conway, and Rothstein all wind up in some form of purgatory.

Jordan Belfort? He's still alive, he speaks at seminars, he still makes a healthy living. Again, the jail time he served was relatively minimal compared to what he deserved. And how does The Wolf of Wall Street begin? Not with a car explosion, not with a stabbing, but with a midget-tossing contest. The Wolf of Wall Street shows what happens when criminals live in a world with such minimal consequences. All three films depict morally questionable characters attempting to live their own version of the "American dream," by the end of Goodfellas and Casino, those characters live in a world where their behavior no longer becomes acceptable. In Wolf of Wall Street, this lifestyle is still going strong. If anything, it's gotten worse. We hear endless amounts of cases of fraud in this industry, just Google "microcap stock fraud" for proof.

Martin Scorsese once again proves that he's the only filmmaker who can make a movie like this. For the third time, he has put his stamp on the "historical epic crime film." He stuffs Goodfellas, Casino, and Wolf with so much information and the films display such an endless amount of bravura that you cannot help but watch. It's been forty years since Scorsese broke out with Mean Streets and he has continually proven that he is one of America's greatest filmmakers. Whether or not The Wolf of Wall Street will rank among his best will be debated for years to come, but it is undoubtedly one of his most challenging and rewarding films.

Grade: A

Friday, December 20, 2013

"Her" review

I'm apparently not allowed to re-post my Her review, in its entirety, on the blog.

But here's a link to it: http://whatculture.com/film/review.php

I still enjoy writing reviews on my own blog, and will still do so for the most part. Whenever I write a review elsewhere I'll always link it back here, at the very least.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

American Hustle is one fine piece of entertainment



David O. Russell is not the same director he used to be. Sure, he's brought elements of his style from his earlier four films into his last three (which include "The Fighter", "Silver Linings Playbook"), but they each have a more mainstream, crowd-pleasing quality to them. They're easier to swallow even if they still contain some elements of his trademark quirks. And look, there's nothing wrong with a good crowd-pleasing film. After all, that word isn't meant to be ironic. If it's pleasing crowds, it must be doing something right. Right?

Well, it doesn't always work like that, but Russell's films do. They are crowd-pleasing films in the best way, and even if they aren't all A-grade quality, they're still fun to watch. The one common thread that makes "The Fighter," "Silver Linings Playbook," and "American Hustle" fun to watch is the amount of attention paid to character. David O. Russell loves his characters, a lot. What sets "American Hustle" apart from the latter two films, and makes it A-grade quality, is how the worlds of each character seamlessly forms the plot. Whereas "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" still had a lingering stench of formula to them (as much as Russell wouldn't want to admit it), "American Hustle" leads you down so many dizzying paths and roads and has a great time doing it. It's always funny, it's always charming, and while on the surface it would seem that it lacks an emotional punch that would bring it all together, it does have some interesting things to say that will resonate with you. The film is based on the FBI ABSCAM scandal that took place in America during the late '70s, but it's much more focused on the characters. Russell mines a lot of humor out of this material, while leaving room for some truly dramatic and tense moments to take place.

The key to "American Hustle" being so successful starts with the acting. Like with most of Russell's films, this film is for people who love great acting. Earlier this week, I saw Christian Bale in "Out of the Furnace" and he could not have been more bland. But David O. Russell is able to get so many interesting elements out of Bale in "American Hustle," which makes him so incredibly watchable. The difference is night and day. The same can be said for Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, each of whom steal the show on a regular basis here. Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner help round out the cast. I liked the interesting line Russell kept having Cooper and Renner balance on. At first, you think Renner's character, Carmine Polito is only well-meaning on the surface, but you soon come to find that he really is who he says he is. Cooper's character, FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, also seems well-meaning on the surface, but soon reveals to be a bit of a con-artist himself.

Of course, he could never top the two masters of con-artistry: Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams). We get to learn a lot about these two when the film first opens. Rosenfeld owns a few dry cleaning stores as well as a loan business that regularly cons people out of money. He meets Sydney at a party where the two bond over their favorite Duke Ellington record. They instantly strike up a connection and soon Sydney winds up being an even craftier con-artist than Rosenfeld could ever imagine. He's in love.

But he's also married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). A stay-at-home wife who already had a kid when the two of them tied the knot. Irving willingly adopted him as if he was his own son and it's the son that keeps Irving from wanting to leave Rosalyn, despite there being no real love between the two of them. While Irving is out conning, Rosalyn's painting her nails, getting drunk, and setting things on fire. She's a bit of a loose cannon who insists on remaining married, despite how unhappy it makes the both of them. This continually drives a wedge between Sydney and Irving.

The wedge is driven even further when they find themselves on the verge of being sent to jail for their illegal practices. Richie DiMaso catches their loaning con in the act, and with the threat of a lengthy jail sentence lingering in their minds, they're both forced to work for the FBI using their conning skills against members of the New Jersey state government.

You know the statement "it took awhile for the film to get going"? That's usually said when the film's plot kicks in a little later than it should have. Well, the plot of "American Hustle" is deliberately put on hold so we can learn more about these characters. The movie is so well-written that when the plot finally starts to come into fruition, you hardly notice. David O. Russell writes these characters so beautifully, and they're each played by such gifted actors, that you would be willing to follow them wherever they go.

What's mind-boggling is that the actual plot to the film has a number of different complicated threads attached to it and yet everything comes together remarkably well. Even if there were some loose ends that weren't tied, because "American Hustle" is so character-based, it doesn't matter. There's still enough going on in this film, the plot is still continually moving forward, and it keeps you hooked throughout. There really isn't much more you can ask for in a movie.

I really enjoyed how this movie is essentially the anti-"Argo." Last year, there were three films that came out that cast the government in a pretty positive light: "Argo", "Lincoln", and "Zero Dark Thirty." I personally enjoyed each of those films, very much so. "Zero Dark Thirty" has a bit more ambiguity than the other two, but I realized with "American Hustle" that it's much more fun to watch a government agency get portrayed as a couple of sleazebags. They're not all terrible people, mind you, and the film places no emphasis whatsoever on depicting the FBI in a positive or negative light. They are who they are. Still, I liked that "American Hustle" was willing to get a little dirty. In exploring the different facets of corruption in government, "Hustle" actually tends to side with the corruptors. It shows how some of these people aren't willingly corrupt, a lot of them are just naive. Some of them are sad, lonely people. Some just want their share, they want a piece of the pie. "American Hustle" doesn't portray these individuals as great people either, it just portrays them as what they are. They're flawed individuals just like everyone else, they just happen to go a little too far.

In a way, everyone is a little bit corrupt. The world isn't fair. America isn't fair. Everyone has their chance to make it in this country, and a lot of people do it via illegal means. We see cases of this everywhere: in sports, in government, in business. Every day, we hear about this. The aim of "American Hustle" is to explore these kinds of people and see what really makes them tick. At the end, you come to respect Irving even with all of his faults. Not only is he amazingly crafty, but he does have a heart. It seems he got into conning people because he had an inherently cynical worldview, when it came to other people. But when he's introduced to Mayor Polito and sees just how genuine and good-natured he is, it melts his heart. He's finally met somebody he doesn't want to con, and in this occasion, he's being forced to by the government.

David O. Russell creates these characters who feel so much like real people (and well, they are based on real people) and he gives each character an honest moment of vulnerability. He presents them as one way at first, but then gradually reveals an emotional core that makes them seem human. It's an old trick, but it's a trick that never fails. And Russell knows that and exploits that for our entertainment. I wouldn't have it any other way.

"American Hustle" is an amazingly well-crafted piece of entertainment. Some will view it as a bit slight because it doesn't pound your head in with its ideas, but if a film does everything it sets out to do and it passes in every category, doesn't that make it a great movie? And it does have the necessary layers that makes it have more depth than what appears on the surface. It showcases the irony that a couple of con artists would be threatened by the FBI to con a mostly innocent, good-natured man which is much more dirty and seedy than anything they were doing in the past. The film is simultaneously both a celebration and an indictment of the sleazebag and it's a crowd-pleaser I have no problem getting behind. I can't wait to see it again.

Grade: A

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Out of the Furnace" review



"Out of the Furnace" tells the most basic story you could possibly tell, given its setting. The story takes place in Braddock, PA which has a very isolated, desolate look with rows of sad-looking homes surrounding the towering, imposing steel mill where most of the townsfolk work. Braddock lies in the outskirts of Pittsburgh and the film puts much emphasis on just how grim this town is. The people who live here are simple, hard-working folk. They go to work at the mill, go to the bar to get loaded, then come home and go to sleep. This is repeated over and over, at least it is for our main character, Russell Baze (Christian Bale).

I liked the atmosphere of this film. The town itself feels deserving of a movie, with its characters trapped in their Rust Belt location, but I'm not sure this movie deserves them. The filmmakers do very, very little with their characters, stripping away anything that would make them interesting and focusing on the most basic details. So, ok, this is a movie that's going to focus more on its plot than the characters. That's fine. The problem is that you could pretty much predict the entire plot of this movie after watching the first five minutes. There's absolutely nothing surprising here. So many of these characters are given so little to do and its main character is literally kept on the sidelines for the entire first half of the film.

Russell is a hard-working honest man who happens to make the mistake of driving way too fast in way too drunk of a state one night. He winds up rear-ending a stationwagon, killing all the passengers in the car as a result. This lands him in jail. His girlfriend, who at this point we've only gotten to know for one brief scene, refuses to see him. Only his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), comes to check on him every now and then. When Russell winds up in jail, we are stuck in jail with him. The jail scenes feel like they last about ten minutes, maybe, and this is literally all that we see: Russell gets visit from brother, then wanders around jail, another visit from brother, then wanders around outside, then an inmate attacks him, then he gets another visit from brother, later he gets a tattoo, then goes to church, then sees his brother again, then gets released. If co-writer/director Scott Cooper is trying to make the point that life in jail is pretty much the same as life in Braddock, then man, point taken. But, just because their town and the jail has absolutely zero life to them, does that mean the same for these characters? If everyone in this town was that bored and lifeless, why aren't they all committing suicide?

The only character who has a little bit of life to him is Rodney, played by Affleck. Casey Affleck always brings this weird energy to every movie he's in. He's not your average actor. He plays his characters in such an offbeat way, which makes him very interesting to watch even in a film like this. What I realized, after watching this movie, is that even though Casey Affleck is always interesting to watch, Christian Bale can be uninteresting. I've never felt that before. Granted, I've never seen "Terminator: Salvation" which I heard was a very bad movie, but I've never felt so let down by a Christian Bale performance. He's way too restrained, way too passive, and I blame this on the way his character is written. He's just never given anything interesting to do until the plot requires it. It's as if he's literally waiting for the plot around him to advance so that he can have something to do.

Back to Rodney. Rodney did four tours of duty in Iraq, and like Russell with jail, it's made clear that Rodney's life in Iraq and in Braddock are not that dissimilar. He is actually told by his mentor, bar-owner/bareknuckle fight bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe) that he's better off in Iraq. We believe him. Rodney doesn't want to work at the steel mill with his brother, even though their father worked there his whole life. So, Rodney has nothing to do all day. Naturally, this means he gets involved in bare-knuckle fighting contests. Even though he reveals himself to be one hell of a fighter with a lot of guts, he's repeatedly forced to take a dive. The first time we see him fight, he winds up winning the match even though he was supposed to lose. This drives John Petty crazy. He's supposed to take a dive, goddammit, what is he doing? "When I'm fighting, it's all a blur," says Rodney. Well, that's convenient. I don't know how bare-knuckled matches work, but I would imagine if a young kid who's just done four tours of duty wants to fight, you let him fight. You let him win, too. You bet on him, maybe. But whatever.

Despite the fact that Rodney cannot take the simplest of orders, he wants to keep fighting anyway. He wants to fight a couple of weird mountain folk in New Jersey. Why? Because we were introduced to them earlier in the movie, that's why. John Petty repeatedly tells him, you do not want to mess with these guys. Their leader, Harlan (Woody Harrelson), is a psychopath. We personally know Harlan is a psychopath because, when we're first introduced to him, he force-feeds a hot dog down a woman's throat. He's a real charmer, this guy. So, of course, Rodney wants to get involved with him because he's a naive, stupid kid. After repeatedly telling him no, John finally relents and gives the kid the fight he wants. Why? Because he apparently has a death wish for the both of them.

Thing is, we know that Rodney is gonna wind up fighting these mountain folk people as soon as we see them in the movie. We are not given any other possibilities. If Rodney doesn't fight them, the movie would come to a complete halt because there's really nothing else happening here.

The only other thing we see is Russell stalking his former girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). When he gets released from prison, his girlfriend has already left him. Once again, we don't know anything about this girlfriend, but she goes from intimately holding him in bed from never wanting to speak to him again. Still, Russell remains hung up on her. She represents the only glimpse of hope in his life, and he can't have her. So, he gives up.

What's so frustrating about Russell Baze's character is that he's too passive, and not particularly smart either. What makes this a problem is that we don't know anything about Russell aside from a few surface details (he has a brother, a dying father, an uncle, works at steel mill, etc.). We are not given anything else. He remains a closed book, and this just doesn't make him very exciting to watch. So when Russell finally has purpose in this movie, you start to realize that he doesn't exactly possess the mental capability to successfully pull off what he's trying to do.

When his brother hasn't returned from New Jersey from his bare-knuckled fighting match, Russell and his uncle wind up driving to the location themselves in order to find him and find Harlan, who is most likely involved in the whole ordeal. While this is where the movie finally starts to pick up, the way Russell attempts to find Harlan is really kind of stupid. And the whole sequence of events really doesn't amount to much, other than a stern warning from one of the town's policeman who tells Russell not to come back. Don't worry, he actually won't. He's that passive.

I'm just going to stop there because there's no point in trying to make sense out of this plot and these characters. "Out of the Furnace" is a film that's so in love with its own grimness that it fails to mine anything interesting out of its subjects. The most interesting character in the film is underused, and everyone else is barely used at all. Sam Shepard, who plays Russell and Rodney's uncle, is given nothing to do. Nothing! Forrest Whitaker, who's apparently the only police officer in Braddock, barely has much to offer. And even though Woody Harrelson tries to chew as much scenery as possible, the bad guy he plays here is so goddamn one-note that he seems no different than any other bad guy that you've seen in other movies.

There's nothing in "Out of the Furnace" that hasn't been done before. It places so much emphasis on plot details which makes you think something interesting will eventually unfold, but nothing does. The movie makes Braddock seem impossibly desolate. This might be an economically ravaged town, but there's no way these characters are that lifeless.

Everything about this film feels calculated. When Rodney is off to New Jersey, Russell doesn't know where he is. He treats this lack of knowledge with such passivity that you wonder why he cares when Rodney winds up missing. What makes it worse is that Rodney actually leaves a note in his room, addressed to Russell where he actually says he just needs to do "one more fight" and then he'll work at the steel mill with him. Not only is this such an unnecessary detail, but it also manages to make this movie even more cliched than it was before. Incredible.

There is one time, before Rodney is missing, that Russell is given something to do. He and his uncle grab a couple of shotguns and go hunting for deer at the very same time Rodney goes to NJ with John Petty. We know it's happening at the same time because it is cut that way. First, a shot of Russell and his uncle driving one way. Then, a shot of Rodney and John Petty driving the other way. They repeat these shots multiple times. Yes, they're both driving further away from each other and something bad is going to happen to Rodney, we get it, thanks for making it blatantly obvious the entire time. The intercutting between Rodney fighting and Russell deer-hunting just makes it even worse.

I think the main problem with this movie is that because it's so deliberately paced, you think it would be a bit more subtle. That is not the case here. Everything is as straight-forward as possible. A good example of a straight-forward movie would be "Prisoners," which is also very plot-heavy but it has enough surprises and left-turns that it keeps you guessing throughout. "Out of the Furnace," on the other hand, is devoid of surprises.

Either this movie should have been 10-15 minutes shorter, or thirty minutes longer where the characters are given something to do that goes beyond the basic plot line. Because, honestly, I actually liked this world. I like the idea of this film. I know I've been hard on it throughout this review, but really, I like where this film could have gone. The movie that unfolded in my head was way more interesting than what actually unfolded. There were so many ways they could've salvaged this and yet they never did anything here that was unexpected. Plus, we are never given the chance to get emotionally involved with these characters. I've never seen Scott Cooper's first film "Crazy Heart," but it garnered a lot of awards and praise for its star Jeff Bridges, so I assume Cooper is a talented fella. But when you manage to make even Christian Bale look lifeless, that's something that's hard to forgive.

Grade: D+

Monday, December 9, 2013

"Inside Llewyn Davis" review




There's been a lot of talk these days about world building in movies. Filmmakers such as Guillermo Del Toro, Peter Jackson, James Cameron---they all create worlds with their blockbuster films. Whether it's middle earth in "The Hobbit" or Pandora in "Avatar," these filmmakers always get credit for how they meticulously craft these worlds. But when you think about it, The Coen Brothers have been creating worlds throughout their entire career. With a lot of their movies, it's not just the believable characters or the clothes they wear, nor is it how they talk. It's the look and feel of each of their films that really put them over the top, to the point where you can really get sucked into each little world the Coens create. Not all of their films are like this, but their best ones are. Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, Big Lebowski---to name a few, these films have such distinct universes and it's the kind of thing the Coens have been mastering for the last thirty years. With "Inside Llewyn Davis," they've practically perfected it.

First, it starts with the cinematography. The Coens' longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was likely too busy to be brought along for "Llewyn Davis" so the brothers hired Bruno Delbonnel instead. Delbonnel is perhaps best known for his work on films such as "Amelie" and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," in "Llewyn Davis," he brings a very distinct and rather muted look. It's cinematography that doesn't call attention to itself, but rather, it helps to further authenticate this world. It makes sense as to why the New York Film Critics Circle singled out the film's cinematography when they announced their awards earlier this week. There have been many beautifully shot films this past year, but none serve the story as well as Delbonnel does with "Inside Llewyn Davis." It makes the cold weather in Greenwich Village seem even colder and the air inside the Gaslight Cafe even smokier. It adds so much depth to the proceedings and helps to make the fictional Llewyn Davis's story seem completely legit. There's a big difference between having a film look like it takes place in the '60s and making the '60s feel like the present as you are watching it. "Inside Llewyn Davis" does the latter.

It's 1961. One year before Bob Dylan released his debut album. Actually, 1961 is the year Dylan arrived in New York City and while he would later go ahead to become a big success and pioneer of the folk scene, our sorry hero, Llewyn Davis, is about fed up with it. He has no set residence, instead being forced to sleep on the couches of friends and acquaintances.

One thing that drives the drama of "Inside Llewyn Davis" forward is a bit of dramatic irony. Knowing what would later happen in the folk scene merely a few years later, it makes its sadder to watch this struggling artist appearing to be at the end of his rope. There's his former music partner who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, there's his former lover who left him for Ohio, and his latest ex-girlfriend who doesn't want to speak to him. Oh, and she's pregnant, and she's demanding that he pays for the abortion due to the slight chance that the baby might be his.

Llewyn has gone solo, and he's paying the price for it. While he'll occasionally work as a session musician for some quick cash, it's his own music that he's passionate about. But, his latest album isn't selling. It's not that it's not selling well, it's not selling. Period. There's no question the guy has talent and potential, but he might just be a little ahead of his time. There's no money in the kind of music he's making, at least not yet. People want happy, novelty songs, not depressing, introspective songs. Llewyn Davis is at the right place but at the wrong time. You want to see him succeed, you want to see him make it, but after reaching dead end after dead end, you can't blame him for wanting to quit.

And that's really all what the film is asking for, empathy. Llewyn is not a perfect guy, his own stubborness is often what does him in. The Coens aren't asking you to feel sorry for him, as they never do with their characters. They just want you to understand him. Understand his plight, his situation. They're simply asking you to live with this guy for two hours and live in this insulated world of Greenwich Village, NY back in 1961, and understand the difficulties these artists went through.

The film has many humorous moments and they're all strictly character moments. The most broadly humorous moments in the film has to do with the cat (or cats) that Llewyn is forced to take care of. There are two golden-furred cats in the film: one that belongs to the Gorfeins (the parents of Llewyn's former partner) and another that's a stray cat. At one point, having lost the Gorfein's cat, Llewyn mistakenly replaces their cat with the stray. Once the Gorfeins realize it's not theirs, he winds up being stuck with this cat, and ultimately has to decide whether to keep it or leave it behind. The decision Llewyn makes here has heavy thematic implications, especially when he eventually returns to the Gorfeins and finds that their cat has found its way back home.

What struck me the most about "Inside Llewyn Davis" is this recurring theme of deja vu. The film opens and closes with the same moments, of Llewyn singing at the Gaslight Cafe then later getting beaten up in an alleyway. For a moment there, these two scenes actually seemed slightly different from each other and I think what the Coens are saying here is that they might as well be. The scene is a microcosm of what Llewyn has been going through since he began his music career: whenever there seems to be a sliver of hope, life winds up kicking him in the face. There are many other moments in "Llewyn Davis" that have elements of deja vu, such as Llewyn once again sleeping on the Gorfein's couch, or the Gorfeins inviting him over for dinner twice and introducing him to two different sets of guests, both eager to try one of Lillian's "famous meals."  Another, bigger example of deja vu would be his most recent ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) demanding that Llewyn pay for her abortion. This is two years after Llewyn dealt with a similar situation with a previous ex-girlfriend. It just appears that Llewyn keeps going through the same motions, the same mistakes, with no end in sight.

Now, admittedly, it can be difficult to watch a likable character such as Llewyn have such bad luck. I don't think the Coens are being cruel, but are merely pointing out that Bob Dylan's success was such a one-in-a-million shot. Sure, he wound up being one of the greatest songwriters of our time, but who knows how many Bob Dylans there were in Greenwich village that wound up having Llewyn's fate?

So much of the film relies on the talents of Oscar Isaac, who plays the title character. Isaac plays Llewyn Davis with the perfect touch. He allows the character to be both flawed and incredibly watchable. I could've watched Llewyn Davis's unlucky adventures forever, except maybe when he's driving to Chicago and back. That's really the only moment of the film that kind of dragged for me and I wish more was done with the characters played by Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman, but that's a very minor complaint. It was still fun to take a ride with John Goodman's character, Roland, even if he's on screen a lot less than I expected. Plus, the Chicago sequence can also symbolize just how long, winding, and empty Llewyn's life has been as a musician and how it seems to be going nowhere.

Another standout in the film is Carey Mulligan, who plays Jean, Llewyn's former girlfriend. She has nothing but contempt for Llewyn and she winds up having some of the funniest lines in the film. Mulligan really goes all out, to the urging of the Coens, making Jean simultaneously mean-spirited and adorable. I don't always love Carey Mulligan, but this film reminded me just how great of an actress she can be. She manages to give Jean enough layers, making her believably angry at Llewyn, instead of merely playing up the mean-ness for laughs.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is pretty much a must-see for anyone who's ever been a struggling artist, or really, anyone who's ever struggled. It's a very relatable film on many levels, despite how specific the time period is. It manages to give you a very authentic glimpse of the life of a folk musician in the early '60s, while also being a careful examination of the hardships people have to go through while trying to reach the next stage of life. In Llewyn's case, he could very well wind up giving up his dream. But the film doesn't really give him any other viable life options either. He's stuck. For how long, who knows? But it was a pleasure getting to know him, nonetheless. When Llewyn Davis sings, he's not asking for help, he just wants a little empathy. And perhaps, a couple of dollars... and a couch to sleep on if it's not too much trouble. This is one of the year's best films, and a movie that begs to be seen more than once. The Coen brothers have created a world that is definitely worth revisiting.

Grade: A

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

NYFCC Winners

It's always interesting to see how the awards season takes shape, and the New York Film Critics' Circle officially kicks off the critics awards that are given out every year from critics of many different regions across the country. This year "American Hustle" wins big with Best Film, Screenplay, and Supporting actress. Cate Blanchett continues to get recognition from her work in Blue Jasmine, Rob Redford win in All Is Lost (which is surprising, to say the least), and Steve McQueen wins best director.

One thing's for sure: while it's a sign of things to come awards-wise, the Academy Awards could wind up looking very different. After all, "Wolf of Wall Street" had been screened just yesterday for the New York Film Critics. And while a late screening worked in Zero Dark Thirty's favor, in a year this strong, it's tough to weigh out which film is better in less than 24 hours.

Needless to say, like anytime awards are given out, take this with a very big grain of salt. Hopefully "Gravity" doesn't continue to get shut out by other critics and such. I'll kinda be pulling for 12 Years a Slave since it's the more important film, but there are about 5-6 other films that could win and I'd have no problem with. Either way, this will be a very fun, occasionally frustrating, sometimes bewildering awards season and I can't wait to witness the insanity.

The 2013 New York Film Critics’ Circle Award Winners:
Best Film:
"American Hustle"
Best Director:
Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave"
Best Screenplay:
Eric Singer & David O. Russell, "American Hustle"

Best Actress:
Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine"
Best Actor:
Robert Redford, "All Is Lost"
Best Supporting Actress:
Jennifer Lawrence, "American Hustle"
Best Supporting Actor:
Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club"
Best Cinematography:
Bruno Delbonnel, "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Best Non-fiction Film:
"Stories We Tell," directed by Sarah Polley
Best Foreign Language Film:
"Blue is the Warmest Color," directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Best Animated Feature:
"The Wind Rises," directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Best First Feature:
"Fruitvale Station," directed by Ryan Coogler

Monday, December 2, 2013

"Catching Fire" review




It's tough to be in a situation like this. I assume a lot of people watching The Hunger Games movies do so because they like the books. Since college, I have watched way more movies than books. If you want to watch as many movies as I do, while still allowing yourself time to go outside and have a normal life, some sacrifices must be made. So, no, I have not read any of the Hunger Games books, but as I have preached countless times on this site: a movie is a movie. A movie should work on its own. No matter how faithfully a movie follows a book, the movie ultimately has to make some sacrifices in order for the material to make cinematic sense. In summation, this review doesn't go beyond what the movie provides. If anything, it's better that I haven't read the books because I can evaluate the movie purely on its own terms.

And judging the first Hunger Games movie based on its own terms, I maintain that it's a disappointment. Despite Jennifer Lawrence's strong performance, the movie ultimately felt bland. It held your hand through every single action beat or major plot development. Everything felt too calculated for the film to be enjoyable. The film, for me, doesn't work by itself. It may enhance the book for those who love the books, but that doesn't make for much of a movie.

Now I note these things in my original "Hunger Games" review, where I go further into detail about all that stuff. The reason why I'm rehashing those details is due to how much I actually enjoyed "Catching Fire." There were a couple of things I noticed in the second film that were major improvements from the first: the overall look, tone, style, and feel of the film felt much more cinematic. This felt like a big movie, as blockbuster movies should feel. The stakes were raised to the appropriate amount, so despite my relative lack of enjoyment of the first film, I was able to get on board with the plot of "Catching Fire" for the most part. Jennifer Lawrence was even stronger in this film than in the first and the film allowed some time for humor. Woody Harrelson was able to do more, and newcomers to the series such as Jena Malone and Jeffrey Wright added an extra dosage of energy to the proceedings. Josh Hutcherson still felt a little like a stick in the mud, a little wooden, but I enjoyed the way the movie explored the relationship dynamics between Peeta and Katniss. This is a couple that has to continue to put their "love" on display for all the districts and the capital and they struggle to make it look believable.

The events of the first film had consequences that I enjoyed watching unfold. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is now watching Katniss's every movie after she more-or-less defied the Hunger Games by forcing them to pick two winners. He knows the truth behind Katniss and Peeta, that they aren't really in love, and he threatens to expose Katniss for who she really is. He also threatens to kill her family. Overall, Snow seems rather unamused as to what had happened in the 74th Hunger Games and has decided to bring in someone new to run the 75th games: Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Together, they will run the Hunger Games' Quarter Quell. Every 25 years, a special version of the Hunger Games takes place. This time, all tributes are selected from the existing pool of victors from each district. Naturally, this means Katniss and Peeta will once again be fighting for their lives, but this version has them pitted against the best of the best.

It's a great way to up the ante, as it really puts Katniss's survival skills to the test. More than that, the film does a great job of making the Hunger Games look interesting, which was one of the problems I had with the last movie. Not only that, but we actually get legitimate surprises in these games. We don't find out why angry monkeys, tidal waves, and lightning is striking the games until the contestants figure it out themselves. There's real suspense here, and Katniss really seems to be outmatched and outwitted at times.

What also helps is how much we get to know of the other contestants. Aside from Katniss and Peeta, there's Beetee and Wiress, Mags and Finnick, and there's Johanna played by the aforementioned Jena Malone. Malone has a couple of scene-stealing moments in the film and is a welcome personality contrast to the often dour and grim Katniss. Katniss and Peeta form an alliance with these tributes, but Katniss begins to grow suspicious when everyone within the group is unusually helpful and kind to her.

The film does a great job of setting up the surprise that abruptly ends the film. I won't give away all the surprises, but suffice it to say, things take quite the left turn at the end when we realize that there's a lot more going on here than just the games taking place. Unfortunately, just when the film gets to its highest point dramatically, it ends. It just ends. From what I understand, the book pretty much ends on the same note, but the film takes so much time setting up the 75th Hunger Games that it's hard not to feel that the ending was rushed. It's such a halt in the action that it feels like merely one half of a whole story, and given that, it makes "Catching Fire" feel like half of an installment. The movie is 146 minutes long, and I guess the editing needs to be praised because it moves at a brisk pace. However, because the movie ends so abruptly, the ultimate experience felt a little underwhelming for me.

"Catching Fire," though, is such a marked improvement from the first film that I will eagerly await "Mockingjay Part 1" even though we all know the movie will end the same way. We also know that splitting up the final book is such a bullshit move and is a practice that needs to stop. When you split up a book, you're basically just making half of a movie. A movie needs some sense of emotional closure and "Catching Fire" does not offer that. "Catching Fire" is a series of great moments that does not add up to a complete whole. If this was a mini-series, it would be a great episode. But this is a movie, and every movie needs an ending of some sort. What we get in "Catching Fire" is not an ending, but merely a pause in the action.

Plus, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland felt very underused in the film. Sutherland doesn't get to do much other than offer some very ominous dialogue, as with PSH. These are two masterclass actors and if they're going to be the primary "villains" in the film, then we need more from them than what we get here. I also don't buy Sutherland's character, Snow, being so easily fooled the way he is here. For a threatening, potentially violent President, you would think he'd be a little smarter as well and know when someone's pulling a fast one over him.

One thing that really eats at me with this entire series is just the logic that is presented in regards to the districts vs. the oppressive government. Holding a hunger games every year to suppress the districts' citizens is a bit of a stretch in itself, you would think pitting the districts' heroes against each other would cause some serious ruckus. And guess what? It does. But what's the point of that then? Does the government want these districts to stay alive? Do they want them alive, but weak? What exactly do they want with them in the first place? If you want to keep them from uprising, it seems unlikely that you would be able to hold a hunger games every year in order to make an example out of them. What, they're going to destroy each district that rises against them? Ok, so why have them around in the first place if you're going to continually provoke them? Perhaps the book explains it better, but again, this is an aspect of the movies that isn't covered well enough. Too much of this world is "assumed." Despite the film successfully upping the ante, it became harder and harder to buy this world with each plot development that occurs.

It's a testament to the filmmakers and the excellent cast, which also includes Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, and Liam Hemsworth who each have returned from the first film, that the film is still very entertaining in spite of its many shortcomings. I'm willing to cut "Catching Fire" some slack with its ending, after giving it some thought, but only if the subsequent films in the series can successfully carry over the stakes that were raised here. I'm giving this film a positive grade because it is a major improvement and is one of the better blockbusters to have come out this year. But, if the next two films falter, "Catching Fire" would no longer be worth watching. It's a good film, but needless to say, this series is on thin ice.

Grade: B

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Films of Alexander Payne, a film-by-film analysis



With "Nebraska" just having a limited theatrical release in America, I thought it'd be nice to look deeper into the filmography of Alexander Payne's. His first film was released over seventeen years ago and he's only made five films since, but he's still managed to really evolve and grow as a filmmaker through all those years. He's made films that will make you laugh out loud, and some that will make you tear up with a smile on your face. He's created some truly wonderful moments as well as some hilarious and unforgettable moments. Needless to say, I'm a fan. I don't flat out love all of his films, but I do admire them and I admire his approach.

So, without further ado...



Citizen Ruth (1996)



In many ways, "Citizen Ruth" is a strong debut from Alexander Payne. It lays down the groundwork for the much more successful satire that is "Election," while still being a good film in its own right. The film stars Laura Dern as a rather dimwitted, drug-addicted Midwestern woman who winds up getting pregnant. She's had four kids previously, all of them taken away from her custody by the state. When she gets in trouble with the law yet again, a judge rules that he'll be much less harsh on her if she decides to get an abortion. This decision is soon met with media uproar.

What the film gets at best is the satirical elements, and there are a lot of very funny scenes here. However, one thing that Payne would later improve at, the characters are a little too one-dimensional. While it's fun to see Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor poke fun at both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion people, the writers make them a bit too one-note, disallowing the movie to go beyond good satire. It's a solid film, and definitely worth the watch, but easily Payne's weakest effort to date.

Grade: B-


Election (1999)



Amazingly, Payne takes a giant leap with "Election" in every term. The characters (lead by Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon) are fuller and more relatable and the satire is razorblade sharp, making "Election" one of the funniest movies of the '90s. Set in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, Broderick plays Jim, a high school teacher who's in charge of making sure the class presidential election runs smoothly. Unfortunately, this year, he's come across Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), an energetic overachiever who will stop at nothing in order to become president. Jim convinces a na├»ve school jock (played by Chris Klein) to run against Tracy Flick, believing Flick has had it way too easy in life. This winds up causing all kinds of problems on its own, especially when Jim's personal life starts to fall apart.

I have probably watched "Election" over ten times and the movie simply never gets old. What is underrated about Alexander Payne is his stylistic tendencies. Here, "Election" bares a lot of stylistic similarities to Scorsese's "Goodfellas": the freeze frames, the multiple voice overs, the frenetic pacing, the editing. This is perhaps Payne at his funniest. Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick both turn in their finest performances, with Broderick's character being especially fun considering Broderick played Ferris Bueller thirteen years earlier. If you're a newcomer to Payne's films, this is the film to start with.

Grade: A


About Schmidt (2002)



I attempted to do my mini-analysis of this film the other day, having not seen the film for over five years. Maybe longer. Watching it again very recently, I was struck by how closely this film matches "Election," style-wise. I initially thought of "About Schmidt" as being a bit more laid back and droll than Payne's previous work, but now watching it again, I don't see that at all. This is a great, well-paced, often funny film and features one of Jack Nicholson's finest performances. Payne was really able to get something special out of Jack, a more vulnerable side that we've never really seen before. That, alone, deserves huge praise.

Jack plays Warren Schmidt. When the film opens, we see him counting the seconds until his retirement starts. He's worked at an insurance company for 34 years and now that he's retiring, he finds himself having absolutely nothing on the horizon. But when his wife dies suddenly, and with the date of his daughter's wedding coming up, Warren finds himself with real purpose: stop his daughter from marrying a loser. But it's not about his daughter marrying a loser, it's about Warren's desire to hold onto the only person he has left in his life. Payne and Jim Taylor add a touch of subtlety in their approach to the screenplay that makes "Schmidt" a little less immediate than "Election," but also gives it a stronger emotional resonance. This is the first time we see Alexander Payne unveiling his sentimental side, and it totally works.

Grade: A-


Sideways (2004)



"Sideways" is an absolute gem of a film and finds Payne at the absolute apex of his filmmaking career thus far. Judging it now, with Payne's earlier films much fresher in mind, "Sideways" really seems like the ultimate culmination of what Payne had been driving towards since his first film. Not so heavy on the satire, but definitely not short on laughs, what makes the film stand out is the perfect tonal pitch that Payne achieves here. The 'dramedy' is not exactly an easy genre to pull off, it takes real skill to find the right balance between comedy and drama. There are many other dramedies that pull too much in one direction and the film winds up becoming a little too uneven. One example? Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, both of whom co-wrote "The Descendants" with Payne, wrote and directed this year's "The Way, Way Back" and it's the perfect example of what I'm talking about here. That's a film that is really at its peak when Sam Rockwell is on screen cracking jokes, but the protagonist's family life is just a little too worn out and predictable for the film to really resonate on both ends.

Payne's film "Sideways" does not have that problem. It's up there with Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," Hal Ashby's "Harold & Maude," Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters", and James L. Brooks's "Broadcast News" as great films that manage to achieve that perfect balance. "Sideways" also happens to be beautifully shot, capturing California's wine country with great warmth. We also get career-best performances from Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, and Virginia Madsen. And overall, it's just a funny, poignant film about two buddies who decide to head up to wine country before one of them gets married. It's a film that, like "About Schmidt" and "Nebraska" questions our place in this world, only this time it's from the perspective of middle age. These characters not only love wine because they're, most likely, alcoholics, but it's also intimidating to think of how wine gets better with age and has the ability to outlast all of us and without ever growing stale.

When "Sideways" was released in the fall of 2004, it wound up getting a lot of attention during the awards season which immediately lent itself to some unfair backlash by people who were, perhaps, expecting more than what they got. But it should be no surprise that Sideways has turned out to have a much longer shelf life than the other films that were nominated for best picture that year. It's a beautifully observed film with hardly a sour note.

Grade: A


The Descendants (2011)



Funny enough, people who were high on Payne's previous film wound up feeling a bit underwhelmed by his follow-up, "The Descendants." What made matters worse is that Payne hadn't made a film for seven years up to this point. He was stuck in pre-production on a very ambitious sci-fi comedy called "Downsizing" and could never get the funding he needed to really make that film work, so he decided to go ahead with "The Descendants."

And after that seven-year-long wait, what we wound up getting from "The Descendants" is a film that is much gentler and more laid back than what we're used to from Payne. He had shown his sentimental side before with his previous two films, but never was it more at the forefront as it is here. Starring George Clooney, and set in Hawaii, the film centers on the life of Matt King, an attorney whose wife winds up in a coma after a horrific boating accident. That event is sad enough in itself, but when King finds out that his wife was having an affair before the accident, it makes him seriously re-evaluate his marriage and it leaves him wanting answers. Answers he'll never get from his wife.

What I noted in my original review of the film, "The Descendants" does a great job of matching the naturally laid back lifestyle that is Hawaii, but I also noted that the film's more dramatic elements begin to suffer because of that pacing. The film's emotional heaviness just doesn't mesh well with its comedic components. This film feels like Payne brushing off the rust that began to form after being away from filming for so long (think about it, he must've shot Sideways all the way back in 2003 and this film came out in 2011). It's either that or the material (that is, the novel that this was adapted from) just doesn't lend itself well to the tone that Payne's going for. My praise for the film when I first reviewed it was rather muted and, looking back, it definitely feels like the least memorable out of Payne's films. But the craft is still there, the performances are very solid, and the film still does a lot of things right. It's easy to like "The Descendants," but I don't love it.

Grade: B


Nebraska (2013)



You can find my full review for "Nebraska" here but I did want to note a few more things about this film, especially when we're comparing it to the rest of Payne's filmography.

First of all, "Nebraska" and "About Schmidt" are remarkably similar films, both heavily examine the existential plight of old age, but the films have vastly different approaches. While "About Schmidt" has a heavily satirical slant, "Nebraska" is much more straight-forward and direct. This is helped by the black-and-white cinematography, which gives everything a very immediate, "what you see is what you get" type feel. And while "Nebraska" is not without its satirical observations, its strength is the one common thread in all of Payne's films, excluding "Citizen Ruth." That strength would be well-developed characters. "Nebraska" is the only film of Payne's of which he didn't co-write, but his voice is definitely there. Nobody captures Midwestern America better than Payne (except for the Coen Brothers, maybe) and that's proven once again with this film.

I definitely liked "Nebraska" more than "The Descendants," but I wouldn't really call it a return to form from the director. These two films still showcase a gentler, more direct side of Alexander Payne and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. I don't think he's ever really lost his form, I just wonder if he'll ever move onto new territory. And while I already mentioned the similarities between "About Schmidt" and "Nebraska," I was surprised to see how similar "Schmidt" was to "The Descendants" as well. In both films, the main character doesn't find out about his wife's affair until it's too late to confront her about it and this knowledge heavily drives both plots. Payne recently signed on to write and direct a film called "The Judge's Will" which is a story about a judge whose will happens to include his mistress, and it goes into the wife's feelings upon learning this. It's weird how Payne seems to be hung up on infidelity as it's also very present in "Election" and "Sideways."

Grade: B+


Regardless of whether or not his most recent films don't quite match up with his earlier work, one thing that's undeniable is that there's really no American filmmaker like Alexander Payne. The closest comparison would be Jason Reitman, and that dude is Canadian. Plus, Reitman does not have the small town sensibility that Payne has, and it's that one aspect of Payne that really resonates with me the most. I love how he delves into these types of stories that rely so heavily on their location. Whereas every other American filmmaker continues making films either in California, New York, or abroad, I appreciate that Payne is insistent in staying in the Midwestern time zone (barring "The Descendants" and "Sideways"). It's that sensibility that makes his films so likable and down-to-earth. And he's shown that when he gets the elements just right, he can be truly great. He's in a class all of his own, and I can't wait to see what the future holds for him.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Nebraska" review

 
 
 
It takes a little while to warm up to "Nebraska," only because the film wastes zero time getting right into the heart of its story. In the opening shot, we are introduced to the film's protagonist, Woody (Bruce Dern) who's attempting to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to retrieve his $1 million. He believes he's won a million dollars, but it's really just one of those sweepstakes things people occasionally get in the mail. Whereas other people would simply throw it away, Woody takes it to heart. He truly believes he's won despite his wife's protests. It's not enough to merely call Woody a simple man. It's that he's become lost in his old age. Confused, sometimes he's not all there in the head. But what remains throughout the film's running time is this man's insistence that he go to Lincoln to retrieve this money. Perhaps, after years of living the good ol' simple life, Woody finally finds the need to do something. Or, better yet, after coming to the end of a lifetime, perhaps he feels that he's earned this million dollars. Perhaps Woody feels as if he's owed something.
 
Kate, Woody's wife, doesn't buy it though. She's tired of having to deal with her husband. Flat out exhausted. The two of them have spent forty plus years together and she's as worn out as Woody, but a lot more coherent. This seems to be a common thread among characters in the film: simply being worn out, hung out to dry, they all feel that after all they've been through that they've earned something. They deserve something for their hard work in life, they deserve something after feeling this exhausted.
 
That's why it's not all that surprising when David (Will Forte), Woody's son, does not hesitate much at the thought of driving his dad to Lincoln. David, obviously, knows the million dollar thing is a scam, but at least he gets to get away from Montana. I really started to warm up to the film through David as I feel he's a useful, sensible guide through the various different characters and personalities that permeate the film. David's plight is very understandable. After spending an entire childhood of being ignored by his drunken father, David's not mad at his dad. He just wants to understand him, spend time with him. This trip to Lincoln may be his last chance to really get to know his dad and he's jumped at the chance.
 
Their trip leads them to some motels and bars in the middle of nowhere, it leads them to Mt. Rushmore which Woody feels is "unfinished," and then make an elongated pit stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and met his wife. Hawthorne is a town of just over 1,000 people so naturally, when one person catches wind that Woody has won a million dollars, the whole town knows about it. Woody is instantly a celebrity and people he used to know are now suddenly coming back into his life in a big way.
 
He visits his brother and sister-in-law in Hawthorne, where David meets his rather dim-witted, overweight cousins, probably the first time he's seen them in years. Here, we get a pretty good taste of what it's like in Hawthorne: pretty drab. Woody's brother just sits there and stares at the TV while his wife makes sandwiches. And the twin sons... also sit there, occasionally bragging about their ability to drive long distances in short periods of time.
 
Woody and David go to a bar in the town where they encounter Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach), who's an old friend of Woody's. Ed is delighted to see Woody, but when he hears of Woody's million dollars, things take an uneven turn. Ed wants some of that dough. When David tries explaining to Ed that the whole thing is a misunderstanding, Ed doesn't buy it. A lot of people in town don't buy it, including David's cousins. They figure Woody's trying to downplay the entire thing.
 
But Woody likes talking about his supposed winnings, even when his wife constantly shoots him down and chastises him for it. Bruce Dern has been getting a lot of praise for his quiet, understated performance as Woody, but June Squibb, who plays Woody's wife, was the real star for me. She's much more chatty and a real livewire at her age. I really enjoyed watching her character, even moreso than with David. I know people like her. Old in age, but young in spirit, and often quite defiant. She enjoys visiting gravesites so she can criticize the dead (specifically, deceased family members and old flames). She's unfiltered and can be vulgar, but there's also a sweetness to her. I don't think she acts the way she does because she's a mean, rude woman. I think the movie does a great job of making her multi-faceted and inherently interesting. Again, this is a woman who's constantly had to put up with a man like Woody all her life. She's worked hard all her life trying to raise two children and keep that house together while Woody's wasted himself way via alcohol. I love her and my favorite scene in the film is when she tells off a few family members who're trying to mooch off Woody and his millions.
 
Of course, Woody doesn't win any money at the end, he never was going to. He does manage to bond with his son over the course of the trip and does get to have his own version of a "comeuppance" against his old friends and family. And his son David is right there to help his father win some form of redemption and while Woody's rewards are rather small and simple, it at least somewhat justifies the need for this entire 800-mile trip.
 
Some have taken director Alexander Payne to task on what they felt was him ridiculing these people, but I very much disagree with that assessment. I don't think Payne is being mean to anyone here, I think he's simply being honest. I think he looks at his home state with a great deal of affection. There's a wide variety of characters here and I never felt myself laughing at anyone, except maybe those overweight twins. It would be dishonest to simply portray all the townspeople as nice and kind-hearted. Most people aren't, but some definitely are. I think "Nebraska" does a great job of covering that mix. Not every character here is given multiple dimensions, I'll admit that, but most of them are. Considering Payne is from Nebraska, I'm willing to give him a pass at anything that could be perceived as ridicule. Look back at your hometown. How do you view most of the people from there? Naturally, there's types of people we liked and other people, not so much. So, yeah, I simply feel Payne's just being honest with himself and with us in his portrayal of these characters.
 
While the film was wonderfully shot, I did have a little bit of an issue with the look of the black-and-white cinematography. Now, I support Payne's decision to use black-and-white because it does serve the low-key-ness of the story very well. Payne's movie is completely de-romanticized and the performances are put front and center. This gives off a raw energy, but the movie looked a little too flat unfortunately. It looks like they shot the film in digital and it shows. Black-and-white digital cinematography just doesn't have the same look and feel as shooting on black-and-white film stock. So while I appreciate what Payne was going for, things did look a little too muted.
 
Still, like I said, it was well-shot. Lots of subtle camerawork with well-placed pans. It reminded me of Peter Bogdanovich's "Last Picture Show," which is one of my favorite black-and-white films of all-time (in that it chooses to shoot in black-and-white for artistic reasons). There is a similar sort of bleakness to this film which really contributes to the film's themes of exhaustion, death, and small-town complacency.
 
Performance-wise, everyone here is pitch perfect. I mentioned Bruce Dern and June Squibb, but Will Forte also gives his character just the right inflection that really makes him seem down-to-earth and relatable. His character, David, really cares about his father even if he doesn't particularly understand him. The end of the film is much sweeter thanks to Forte's good-natured performance.
 
Bob Odenkirk, who plays David's brother in the film, also does a solid job here and his character says one of my favorite lines in the film. It didn't even really click with me until after I saw it, but there's a moment in the film where Odenkirk's character, Ross, visits Hawthorne to see his family. David asks Ross where the wife and kids are and Ross responds, simply, with "Recital." The moment is so well underplayed that it didn't even occur to me how funny the line is until afterwards. Not much is known about Ross's character, but the fact that he'd rather visit his boring family in Hawthorne, Nebraska than see his daughter's recital says plenty.
 
Bob Nelson wrote the screenplay so a lot of credit has to go to him as well. Nelson's writing, alongside these performances, lends to so many great little lines. Lines of dialogue that would seem rather innocuous on the page really come alive here. I was surprised with how often I found myself laughing. The film does such a great job of letting the plain-spoken dialogue speak for itself about what these people are like. They're as amusing and funny as they are human. And though I wasn't too keen on the overweight twins (who were funny, but were the only characters that I felt were played strictly for laughs), this is one of those rare movies where I couldn't help but admire nearly each and everyone of these characters. I have a feeling the more I watch this film, the more at-home I will feel with this world that Payne and Bob Nelson crafted.
 
And that's the main thing. It may take awhile to warm up to "Nebraska," but this film can be a very rewarding experience if you're willing to embrace it. It's an interesting change of pace for director Alexander Payne as it combines the laid back nature of "The Descendants" with the biting (albeit, subtle) satire that can be found in his earlier work. In the middle of a movie season where some pretty emotionally heavy films have been coming out one after the other, it's nice to have a film like this. A film that may be a little slight, but it's still a very nice, calm, and enjoyable ride. Even if the ride's just leading us to Lincoln, Nerbraska.
 
Grade: B+