Friday, December 27, 2013

The 10 Best & Worst Films of 2013

It's that time of year again, and I present for you my 10 Best & Worst films of 2013, along with Honorable Mentions for films that just missed the cut on my best list. I've linked to my original review on all of these, so click on the title to read the full review, but I've also written a new paragraph on each film. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in the comments section below…

Best Films of 2013

Honorable Mention
(in alphabetical order):

About Time
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Lords of Salem
The World's End

10. Philomena

The heartbreaking true story of a woman (Judi Dench) who had her child taken away from her at a young age and the journalist (Steve Coogan) who attempts to reunite them in the interest of writing a book is given a tremendous amount of levity thanks to a witty script by Coogan and Jeff Pope and the workmanlike direction of Stephen Frears. What could have been a maudlin trek across the UK & US is instead a delightful little ditty about faith, love and the power of humanity over institutions. Dench gives a career best performance, ably supported by a fantastic Coogan, and this odd couple proves to be one of the most genuinely satisfying pairings of the year.

9. American Hustle

While it would be easy to dismiss David O. Russell's latest film as Scorsese-lite, in a year that saw the master himself fall victim to his own visual excess, American Hustle comes out on the other side of things a much more wholly satisfying film. Anchored by a trio of phenomenal performances from Christian Bale, Amy Adams & Bradley Cooper, this film plays as fast and loose with storytelling conventions as it does with the facts it's based on. The film's tagline read: "Everyone Hustles To Survive" and that sums up everything you need to know about this film, and the true magic of it lies in watching every character trying to get one over on every other character until you don't know whom to believe. It may not be as thoroughly satisfying as last year's Silver Linings Playbook, but it proves that Russell can effortlessly mold his style to fit any story.

8. Pacific Rim

The most satisfying genre experiment since last year's The Cabin in the Woods, Pacific Rim succeeds on so many levels because it knows exactly what kind of movie it is. Yes, it's the "giant robot versus giant monster" movie that the trailers promised, but the way it gleefully borrows from other high profile genre flicks ensures that it never falters into the realm of parody and keeps things firmly focused on being a loving homage to the films that inspired it. Of all the big budget spectacles released this year, this was the most fun because it delivered on exactly what it set out to do in every way possible. Guillermo DelToro's decision to abandon The Hobbit may have doomed those films to the disappointments they've turned out to be, but thank goodness he did because it gave us Pacific Rim.

7. Fruitvale Station

The final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) make for one of the most touching and unnerving films of the year with Ryan Coogler's Sundance sensation Fruitvale Station. The film never succumbs to the temptation to portray Grant as anything other than what he was, a flawed individual trying the best he could to stay on the right side of life. The more heavy-handed moments of the film such as Grant attempting to rescue a dying dog become an afterthought when held up to the genuinely moving scenes where he attempts to connect with his mother, his girlfriend, and particularly his daughter, and it makes his fate all the more tragic as a result. As controlled and assured a debut film as I've seen in a long time, Fruitvale Station demands your attention and earns your respect.

6. The Way, Way Back

Any criticisms that are leveled against Nat Faxon & Jim Rash's directorial debut The Way, Way Back are at least mildy warranted as the film breaks no new ground and paints almost all of its characters as either mostly good or mostly terrible. However, the honesty with which is portrays these situations is perfectly tuned to the mind of a fifteen year-old boy who likely sees the world in such absolutes. It's an endlessly charming film that features the always delightful Sam Rockwell doing some of the best work of his career as a suspended adolescent, and also manages to wring a thoroughly and wonderfully dickish performance from eminently likable Steve Carrel. The losers and outcasts of the world have a film that will speak volumes to them, and it features what is easily my favorite final shot of 2013.

5. Gravity

Without a doubt the most thrilling ninety minutes I spent in a movie theater all year (or 270 considering I saw it three times), Gravity is the kind of film that Hollywood constantly tries to make, yet almost always fails. A big budget thrill ride that grabs hold of you and doesn't let go, the film makes incredible use of technology to aid in the storytelling, and shows what visual effects are truly meant to do: bolster a great story and not detract from it. While I have a hard time defending the script's flaws, it serves its purpose admirably and keeps things constantly moving forward. Sandra Bullock's lead performance might be the best of her career, and the film's true message about overcoming tragedy and finding the will to live shines through the imperfect dialogue. A spectacle best experienced on the largest screen with the best sound possible.

4. Frozen

Easily the best Disney film not made by Pixar since 1991's Beauty and the Beast, Frozen is a gorgeously rendered tale of sisterly love that subverts the Disney formula as much as it embraces it. While it does have some fantastic set pieces and wonderful songs that bear the Disney hallmark, it's the emotional core of sisters Anna & Elsa that grounds the film and gives it an immediacy that is conspicuously absent from the rest of the Disney canon, particularly of late. When older sister Elsa finally comes to terms with who she is and what she can do with this knowledge in her show stopping number "Let it Go," the film goes from another cute Disney film to an amazingly bold and brash statement about being yourself in spite of what anyone else thinks. The film speaks deeply to those who are listening, and it succeeds beyond your wildest imagination.

3.  Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers have never concerned themselves with commercially viable properties or leading characters, and they strike gold with their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. This story of an early 60s folk singer struggling to survive after a series of personal and professional tragedies might sound like one of the hardest films to connect with of all time, but Oscar Isaac's phenomenal lead performance coupled with some of the best shot compositions of the Coens' career makes this film instantly unforgettable. There's no uplift to be found here, but much like its main character, it refuses to sell out or take the easy road to success. It's a film that sings for the idealistic artist within all of us.

2. Nebraska

Having spent his last two films outside his home state, Alexander Payne returns home for his sixth, and probably best feature film Nebraska. The story of an adult man (Will Forte) trying to connect with his senile father (Bruce Dern) by driving him to Nebraska to claim a million dollar prize the son knows to be a hoax is a beautifully rendered character study of places and people that never change. It's broadly drawn at times, but never short on honesty in any of its comedic set pieces. The bickering family members and feuds that never die ground the film in such a way as to make it palpable to anyone who's lived through small town life, and the film's remarkably simple score by Mark Orton is one of the year's best. A true gem of a film that pulls no punches.

1. Her

Honesty is a rare commodity in life, and it's even rarer on film. Therefore, when a film comes along that portrays love and all the myriad messy emotions that come along with it, it's cause for celebration. No film in this year, or honestly any year since 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has dealt with love in a more open, raw and realistic way than Spike Jonze's latest film Her. It's surprising to find such honesty in two "high concept" films, but I find the conceit in both films to be used as a gateway to talk about such difficult subject matter in such plain terms. While you could easily dismiss this as the film where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson, to do so would be folly. Phoenix's Theodore Twombley is a man opening himself up in a way he was never able to with another human, and Johansson's Samantha views the world in such a simple and beautiful way that it renews all the hope and wonder that has gone long dormant in a soul as damaged as Twombley's is. Love is complicated and messy and can lead to heartbreak, but it's never looked more wondrous than it does in Her, easily the best film of 2013.

The Worst Films of 2013

10. Star Trek: Into Darkness

The desire to appease fans has never backfired more spectacularly than it did in JJ Abrams' second attempt to update Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek for the ADD generation. Filled with more misfires, miscalculations and misunderstandings about what made Star Trek so great in the first place, Into Darkness brings the rebooted crew into contact with a rebooted version of their most famous solo nemesis Khan, played ably enough by Benedict Cumberbatch. The film's third act is its worst, but the first two are no picnic either, as they fundamentally betray almost everything that made these characters work so well in the first place. Abrams is off to put his stamp on George Lucas' most famous creation next, and I can only hope that in his absence, this series can right the ship and get things back on course, and maybe, I don't know, trek the stars this time. 

9. Carrie (2013)

One of the most laughably awful films of the year, Carrie was a misfire from the word go, and saved only by a batshit crazy performance from Julianne Moore. Updating one of Stephen King's most famous works for a new generation turned out to be a terrible miscalculation as no one showed up to see this thing. Sometimes it's best to just leave well enough alone, and considering Brian DePalma's original is far better than just "well enough," sometimes it's best to just stay home and hope they stop making films like this. 

8. Planes

Spun off from Cars, arguably the weakest franchise under the Pixar umbrella, Planes was a shamelessly manipulative Disney product that had no reason to exist and failed to even deliver on the severely lowered expectations that greeted it. When a film devotes an entire subplot to a character capitalizing on their friend's success by merchandising their likeness to the high heavens, you know you're in for a bad time. Planes would best be confined to afterthought status, but its surprise success has already spawned a hastily thrown together sequel for next summer. 

7. Movie 43

There is no more basic requirement for a comedy than to deliver a punchline and Movie 43, a pathetic attempt to gather together megastars into a sketch comedy film, fails to do this at every turn. In a film with a dozen odd sketches, only two feature actual punchlines, and the rest just hope that the shock of seeing stars like Hugh Jackman with a pair of testicles grafted to his throat will be enough to carry these limp premises for more than thirty seconds. I would legitimately love the sketch comedy film to become a viable entertainment source once more, but if this is the best we can hope for, I'd rather just watch Kentucky Fried Movie over and over until it's not funny anymore. 

6. Only God Forgives

Riding high on the success of 2011's Drive, Only God Forgives was one of the most highly anticipated films of 2013, but instead we received a glimpse inside the mind of psychopathic director Nicolas Winding Refn. While the film looks gorgeous and its commitment to its awful characters is admirable, it's a dirty, disgusting film that expects us to bask in its filthy glow for ninety-odd interminable minutes. Ryan Gosling's stoic schtick has worn completely thin, and this year marked a low point for his career (see my number four coming up in a minute). This might be the most gorgeously awful film ever made.

5. Man of Steel

A film that I was almost indifferent towards when I initially saw it, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel grew on me over time in all the wrong ways. The more time I spent away from the film, the more I began to hate it. It's another case of a writer and director not understanding their character, and hoping that the guise of "he hasn't become the Superman we all know and love" is enough to carry them through their colossal misunderstanding of who this character has been for close to eighty years. It's as pessimistic a blockbuster as I've ever seen, and it's reliance on destruction and 9/11 related imagery is shameful.

4. Gangster Squad

What could have been a "so bad it's good" genre picture turned into a pandering and shameless attempt to try and pull a fast one on its audience. Loading up the cast with respectable actors was a step in the right direction, but director Ruben Fleischer and writer Will Beall's film isn't smart enough to honor genre conventions and settles instead on ripping them off wholesale in hopes that no one will notice. It's a ridiculously terrible film that deserved to be ignored, and thankfully was.

3. Evil Dead (2013)

It's perfectly fine to make a humorless remake of a film that had a sense of humor, but don't insist on paying homage to the original every chance you get. 2013's Evil Dead is a dour film with no sense of irony, fun or originality. If the people who made it had their wits about them, they might have tried to lighten the mood a bit, and I would have loved this film if it had a sense of humor about what it was. However, the film is just a violent mish-mash of nonsensical premises presented in the most serious manner imaginable, and if that concept frightens you, you're already more scared that this dreck is going to make you in its entire ninety minute running time.

2. Jobs

Jobs is world class dross; the kind of film that one might joke about making if they wanted to make a film so obvious and over-sentimental it wouldn't even be shown as a movie of the week on network television in the late 70s or early 80s. The film just doesn't pass muster. For a film that's about one of the true pioneers of the twentieth century, it plays out as a paint-by-numbers film so childish in its obviousness that it can't even be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure. Director Joshua Michael Stern is a filmmaker better suited to working in parody because he knows exactly what all the tropes of the genre are, he just can't help falling into them and drowning.

1. Spring Breakers

There is no film that I hated more in 2013 than Spring Breakers, and it might be one of my most hated movies of all time. I wish that I could tell you that it's really clever and subversive and thinks that it has a lot more going on under the surface than it actually does, but in actuality, it's one of the most vile and disgusting films ever made. It's the kind of film that likes to think that it's smart in the way that it plays on youth culture and hip hop videos and the notion of innocent girls trying to escape their normative upbringings, but it's an empty-headed, vapid, shallow film that takes no small pleasure in reveling in the very things it thinks that it's commenting on. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, "it's such a fine line between clever and uh… stupid" and this film has no idea where that line is.

[All Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Day 268: Inside Llewyn Davis

"I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul."
Throughout their career, The Coen Brothers have proven themselves to be masters of whatever genre they choose to work in from murder mysteries (Blood Simple, Fargo) to broad comedies (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) and serious drama (No Country For Old Men, Miller's Crossing). Their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, tackles the folk music scene of the early 1960s, and looked to be another film in the vein of their musically influenced and infused O Brother, Where Art Thou? Could they prove to once again strike gold, or would this be a major misstep in an otherwise illustrious career? Read on to find out... 
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer when the story opens in 1961 New York City. He has recently embarked on a solo career after previously playing as part of a duo, and finds himself struggling to make ends meet by playing dive bars and couch surfing, relying on the kindness of anyone he hasn't alienated to keep himself afloat. A pair of folk singers on whom he heavily relies for support are Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), but a dalliance with Jean has left them at odds with one another, and he exploits Jim's kindness to borrow money or sit in on recording sessions to make some quick cash.
When he gets wind that his manager may not have sent his first solo album to a club owner and record producer (F. Murray Abraham) in Chicago, Llewyn decides to travel to Chicago and try to have his music heard by this influential man in the folk scene. Llewyn hitches a ride with a strange pair of men (John Goodman & Garrett Hedlund) to afford the trip west, and hopes to land a gig in Chicago, but his own ego and stubbornness may be too big of a roadblock to even get him there, let alone land him a contract.
As they do virtually every time they make a film, The Coen Brothers prove to be such effortlessly amazing filmmakers that they ease the audience right into Llewyn's story with almost no exposition or wasteful set-up. The way they craft the story is impeccable, always driving the story forward and allowing the characters room to breathe and in turn allowing the audience time to discover the story for themselves. It is a gorgeously rendered film, particularly considering it's the first time they've worked with French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, but it bears all the hallmarks of a Coen Brothers production from the intense focus on character to the colorful supporting players that flesh out the world to the almost "Homeric" nature of the story.
The character of Llewyn himself presents the film with a protagonist that is difficult to love, particularly because he seems like the sort of guy who has the drive of an artist unwilling to sell-out or compromise in any way, yet pessimistic enough to feel as though he could just chuck his entire career out the window and return to his former life as a merchant marine. His only happiness in life seems to come from the moments when he gets to perform his music, and the character comes to life in such a way that one can understand how much life and vibrancy he's capable of, but has been buried under a life filled with crushing disappointments. That he still clings to his artistic moral compass is what makes the dichotomy of his character all the more interesting, and while he's far from endearing, the heart that beats within him is enough to propel you forward on this journey with him.
Oscar Isaac has similarly scraped out a living as an underused and under appreciated character actor, and when given his moment in the spotlight, he doesn't squander it. His performance is revelatory, made all the more impressive by the fact that he does all his own singing and playing. He is phenomenally good, and doesn't succumb to the temptation to make the character lovable, which makes his performance that much better as a result. The rest of the supporting cast is fantastic as well, from bit players such as Stark Sands as a military man trying to break into the music business, to all of the aforementioned actors that populate this film. Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett also stand out as a wealthy intellectual couple that offer up their couch to the struggling artist whenever he needs it, and they capture the sort of character that they're playing incredibly well.
As for the music, it is equally amazing. Much like O Brother, Where Art Thou? you will find yourself wanting to own the soundtrack album by about halfway through the second song. Some of the songs are original compositions, and some are new arrangements of more traditional songs by music supervisor T-Bone Burnett, but they act as their own character in the film, filling the world out and making it feel as real and alive and vibrant as New York City must have felt at that very brief period in time between Elvis' domination of the charts and the upcoming explosion of the British Invasion. This film captures that time and place so incredibly well, it feels as if The Coen Brothers utilized a time machine to create this film.  
Inside Llewyn Davis is a pure Coen creation that radiates with life and captures a time to which we can never return. While many will find themselves at odds with the film's title character, those willing to understand his struggles and see past his frustrating exterior will discover a film and a character worth journeying alongside. At a time in their career when most filmmakers would play things safe and just begin churning out satisfying yarns, The Coens continue to surprise with every film they make, and their refusal to compromise is our reward. There are no easy answers in Inside Llewyn Davis, and frankly, you shouldn't want it any other way. 
GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Day 267: Walking with Dinosaurs

"It's time to talk about the future…"
"You mean the Cenozoic Era?"
Dinosaur films have a long, strange history and none of them have ever really captured what it was like to be alive as recently as 60 million years ago. Films like The Land Before Time and Disney's Dinosaur have attempted such a feat, but the anthropomorphizing of the creatures only crushes any hope of truthfulness. The creators of the tremendously successful BBC documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs had already turned their endeavor into a touring arena spectacle, so a feature film seemed like an easy leap for them to make. So could they distill the essence of what made those so lucrative into a ninety minute film aimed at children? Read on to find out… 

Walking with Dinosaurs utilizes a framing device involving Karl Urban as a paleontologist working in Alaska on a fossil dig. His apathetic teenage nephew Ricky (Charlie Rowe) has tagged along but doesn't want to be involved, until a raven captures his attention, morphing into a prehistoric bird, voiced by John Leguizamo, that promises to make dinosaurs cool to a kid so consumed with technology. The bird tells of his adventures alongside a herd of Pachyrhinosauruses, namely the runt of a newborn litter named Patchi, voiced by Justin Long. 
The dinosaurs migrate south, live for several months and then migrate back north. This cycle goes on, and as Patchi grows, so too does his rivalry with his brother Scowler, voiced by Skyler Stone. When their father is killed by a fearsome Gorgosaurus, the brothers begin to look at the world in a different way, and also look towards a future when they will one day compete to be the new herd leader. There's also a love story between Patchi and a female from another herd named Juniper, voiced by Tiya Sircar. 
Walking with Dinosaurs is a downright baffling film. It looks as though it was made with a very serious mind towards telling a historically accurate dinosaur tale, as all of the dialogue is done through voiceover. The characters' mouths don't move, so I can only assume that the studio got wind of this borderline avant-garde silent film was going to be horrendously unmarketable, so they added voices for some characters, including Leguizamo's comedic narration, and then added in a bizarre grab bag of popular music ranging from Fleetwood Mac and Barry White to Matisyahu. It's a truly odd mix, and worked well enough for my seven and four year old daughters, but I was a tad bewildered by the film. I probably ended up enjoying it vicariously through my daughters, but could easily see anyone whose children find the film to be insufferable feeling the exact same way about the film.
I admire a lot of the things that the film does, like stopping the action anytime a new dinosaur is introduced to give its scientific name, the meaning of that name, and whether it's a herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore, but it also feels like a remnant of an earlier version of the film that didn't have the voiceover attached. I'm trying very hard to be polite about this all, but it truly feels like two different films for much of its running time. It's not a total failure, but it's not a complete success either, and just sort of bounces back and forth for ninety minutes. It's entirely reminiscent of the famous Simpsons episode where they add Poochie to The Itchy & Scratchy Show, and your children will either be decrying it as the worst episode ever or left wondering when they're going to get to the fireworks factory. 
In spite of all this, a smattering of set pieces worked incredibly well. A march of a herd of Edmontousauruses along a beach set to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" was incongruous, but oddly entertaining. Similarly a sequence late in the film where Patchi attempts to lead the herd off thin ice retained much of the charm that I think the filmmakers were intending to capture before the voices were put in, and the sequence worked incredibly well. I can't help but give the filmmakers credit for at least trying to elevate the form, but it feels as though some marketing visionary like Kenn Viselman (the man behind the dreaded Oogieloves experiment) got his grimy paws all over this thing.
The voice actors were all fine, though their dialogue was horribly tin-eared. Some of Leguizamo's antics played like gangbusters to the kids in the audience, like his extended riffing on the Gorgosaur's tiny arms, but most of it was jarringly incongruous in context. The animation was fantastic and blended seamlessly with what I believe to be actual landscape footage, but every film made almost exclusively in a computer in this day and age looks great. Ultimately I'm just left wondering at whose feet the blame will land for this film that is most assuredly a tug of war between a filmmaker's willingness to compromise and a studio's insistence that the film be more marketable to kids.
Walking with Dinosaurs is not a fiasco, but it comes awfully close on many occasions. Young kids under the age of ten will likely find a lot to enjoy, particularly dinosaur lovers, and who isn't at that age? Any older than that, and they'll just find the film to be insufferable, and adults without children in that same age range will feel likewise. I probably enjoyed the film more than I would have were my kids not with me, and while that's not enough for me to give the film a blanket recommendation, I also can't dismiss the fact that I did enjoy the film more than I thought I would. Anyone that does not fit into that very specific demographic, however, should steer clear and stick with the BBC documentary instead. 
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Day 266: American Hustle

"That's the art of becoming somebody who people can pin their beliefs and dreams on." 
After his last two films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook took the Academy Awards by storm winning three awards out of fifteen nominations, director David O. Russell became a major contender again after a number of years of false starts and a terrible reputation nearly sank him. With the fastest turnaround of his career, his latest film American Hustle comes just a year after his previous film, and has positioned itself to be another major awards contender. So could it possibly live up to the instant hype that surrounded its release, or is it a misfire from a director at the height of his creative power? Read on to find out...
Opening with a title card that reads "Some of this actually happened," American Hustle jumps out of the gate on fire, letting you know that while it's based on the true story of the Abscam stings that took down several corrupt politicians in the late 1970s, it's also going to be playing fast and loose with the facts. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist dabbling in a scam that bilks high risk investors out of thousands of dollars. His path crosses with that of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) a woman who is drawn to his ability to smooth talk anyone, and it isn't long before she becomes his partner in crime. The two become lovers as well, despite the fact that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and remains devoted to raising her son as his own.
When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts Sydney in one of their loan scams, he uses that leverage to enlist Irving's services to try and bust Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) the corrupt mayor of Camden, NJ. They devise a scheme using a fake Middle Eastern sheik whose money Carmine says he will use to rebuild the now fading gambling town of Atlantic City. DiMaso's brazen tactics put him at constant odds with Irving's more subtle grifting style, and the two are butting heads over more than just the con, as Richie seems to be growing closer to Sydney, and Irving finds himself forming a true bond of friendship with Carmine. It's a game of who's conning whom and everyone trying to get over on everyone else. 
The most immediate thing that stands out about American Hustle is how stylistically similar it is to much of Martin Scorsese's work, particularly once the mafia becomes involved in the story, but it hedges much closer to homage than outright mimicry. While it feels completely in step with Scorsese's Goodfellas, with its use of whip pans, multiple voiceovers, and frenetic editing, it also has an energy all its own, and marches to the beat of its own drum. The film initially took life as a screenplay by Eric Warren Singer titled American Bullshit, and while that feels like a much closer title to what the finished film is, it does bear a lot of the hallmarks of Russell's best work, particularly his use of handheld camerawork. It captures time and place so incredibly well, and you truly feel as if this could have been made in the late 70s, as the time period is as much of a character as the actors themselves are. 
The film settles into a steady rhythm almost immediately, and after the opening sequence, tells the story in a completely linear fashion which aids in its ability to keep you forever in the dark about who has the upper hand. It's 138 minute running time allows the narrative room to breathe, and gives the characters time to develop, which is a welcome change from the typical way that films continue to put character on the back burner to cram as much story as possible into their film. Viewers going into this film expecting a whiz-bang narrative that moves at a clip will be disappointed by the number of scenes that are devoted to sheer character development, but those willing to hang with it will find the way that the characters grow and change to be the most fulfilling thing about the story. Russell is one of the few directors in Hollywood that actors continue to line up to work with mainly for this reason. He gives them room to grow. 
Christian Bale continues to prove that he is one of the most versatile actors working today, and those willing to follow him down the dark roads he likes to take will be rewarded with one of his best performances. Very few actors working today could pull off a role like this, and Bale does so with aplomb. Amy Adams is his equal in every sense of the word, staying lockstep with Bale throughout the film, and never letting her incredibly expressive face give away her character's motives. They make for a hell of a one-two punch, and their characters are fantastically and fully realized. Bradley Cooper continues to surprise me every time out of the gate lately, and he continues his growth into an interesting character actor yet again. He would be wise to follow the lead of his co-star Bale and take more risky roles like this one to create a hell of a well-rounded career. He most certainly has the chops for it, and his scenes with Louis CK, who plays his weary supervisor, are among his best.
Jennifer Lawrence is a fantastic actress, and she does an admirable job in this film and inhabits the role well, but she feels about ten years too young to be playing this role. I don't mean this as a slight as I was very impressed by her performance, as I am with virtually everything that she does, but she just doesn't have the city miles on her that this character needed to have. She just looks out of her element, despite her best efforts to play this character to the best of her ability. It's more a fault of casting than anything she did or any choices she made. The film's soundtrack also makes a few too many on-the-nose choices that are likely to take the audience out of the film's flow. It's not as egregious as last year's Flight, but the use of songs like Steely Dan's "Dirty Work," The Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" and Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" are too clever for their own good.
Make no mistake about it, American Hustle delivers, and is a fantastically made film that is sure to satisfy an adult audience looking for an adult film. I say that not as a slight against any other films, but in a society where adults are often pandered to with ham-fisted dialogue and broadly drawn characters, this is the kind of film that shirks all of those conventions and delivers a satisfyingly grown up film. Time will be kind to this film as it has a timelessness to it that has helped other films of its ilk, like Boogie Nights and the aforementioned Goodfellas, stand the test of time, and much like those films, it's also damn entertaining. American Hustle is one damn satisfying film. 
GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, December 20, 2013

Day 265: Saving Mr. Banks

"Get on the horse, Pamela!"
With the fiftieth anniversary of Disney's Mary Poppins right around the corner, the time seemed right for a film about its creation and the notorious clash between the book's author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and the king of twentieth century children's entertainment Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Saving Mr. Banks is a Walt Disney Studios production (I doubt any other studio would allow a film to be made about their founder), so that raised a few eyebrows as to whether or not this would be a slanted look at the film's creation. Could the film stand on its own two feet, independent of any studio bias, or would it present the stranger than fiction tale without any predisposition? Read on to find out...
The year 1961 finds author Pamela Travers at the end of her rope following twenty years of hounding from Walt Disney to sign over the rights to her most cherished creation, Mary Poppins, for him to turn into a feature film. Mrs. Travers, facing dire straits financially, relents and agrees to fly to Hollywood and meet with Mr. Disney and his creative team, as he has granted her the unprecedented courtesy of script approval. Upon arriving in California, Mrs. Travers finds herself bombarded with the typical Disney warmheartedness and familiarity that she resents, coming from such a formal British society.
She begins to clash immediately with Disney and his team on virtually every detail of the film, wanting there to be no musical numbers, no animation, and even vetoing the use of the color red anywhere in the film. As Disney tries to crack the mystery surrounding Travers' over protection of her creation, the audience is treated to a parallel linear narrative that details her upbringing as a child in Australia with a father (Colin Farrell) who was given to equal parts whimsy and alcohol.
Since the audience knows that the film eventually got made, there's no suspense in whether or not she'll sign the rights over to Disney to make his film, so the only ace the film has up its sleeve is the how of it all, which proves to be the film's biggest liability. Telling the flashbacks to Travers' childhood in a straight linear fashion actually makes the film something of a bore as it guards its secrets as if it were protecting the formula to Coca-Cola. The hints that are dropped throughout the film's first ninety minutes turn things into something of a dull pastiche as there's no real cat to let out of the bag. It all just sort of boils down to a handful of emotional connections that the author has to her childhood rather than a series of incidents that lit her creative fuse. It's something of a bait and switch that really doesn't work the way they must have intended.
And the way they portray Travers is an absolute hatchet job. She is shown as a humorless old biddy that lives to shit all over everyone's ideas and is given next to no motivation for her prickly behavior. She was protective of her creation for a reason and the film's attempt to parallel her attachment to Poppins with Disney's similar attachment to Mickey Mouse rings a bit false. It's a case of history being written by the winners, and although the dialogue is quite snappy and incredibly well observed at times, the overall story that it's in service of is a letdown because it shows a woman being press-ganged by a bunch of well-intentioned, good natured folks who just want to make sure that everyone has a good time. It's pure Disney propaganda.
Thank goodness for Emma Thompson, though, as her characterization of this woman is an absolute marvel. She manages to be a delight in spite of the script's best efforts to ensure she comes off as the de facto villain. She shines through the material and proves that she can always make the absolute best out of anything she's given. Hanks is great as well, as you would expect from Tom Hanks, giving the perfect characterization for this film which is to make sure he seems jovial and empathetic without ever coming across as pushy. The rest of the supporting cast does solid work as well, with Paul Giamatti doing stand-out work once again as Travers' driver, and Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman & BJ Novak also doing good work as the film's music and writing team.
Director John Lee Hancock's last film was the maudlin and absurdly overrated The Blind Side, which makes him the perfect choice for a script like this. He's basically never met a cliche he couldn't use and beat into the ground until it becomes utterly meaningless. It's one of the most overwrought directing jobs you're likely to see, and coupled with the film's score by the usually reliable Thomas Newman, it does everything in its power to ensure that you experience the exact emotions they want you to experience at the exact moment they want you to experience them. I truly, truly hate to do this, but they force everything down with several dozen spoonfuls of sugar.
Saving Mr. Banks isn't a total wash. It's anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Thompson who is ably aided by a stellar supporting cast, but it's almost all for naught as the film itself wants to be a homogenized, easily digestible sap-fest that is calculated to toy with your emotions. It's hard to dismiss it outright since it is lovingly made and does all that it can to please its audience, so it's a bit like kicking a puppy dog, but it feels more like a puppy dog bred in a laboratory to meet your every need. It's cute and distracting, but it's most assuredly the work of craftsman who want to ensure that it serves a very definite function. It's the very definition of hollow.
GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Day 264: The Wolf of Wall Street

"Sell me this pen."
Martin Scorsese has taken a lot of detours in his career since winning his first Academy Award for directing 2006's The Departed. He's dabbled in horror (Shutter Island), television (Boardwalk Empire), fantasy (Hugo), and returned to documentaries as well (George Harrison: Living in the Material World), but all indications from the subject matter and trailers of his latest film The Wolf of Wall Street indicated that he was returning to the crime sagas that had made him famous in the first place. So was this a "return to form" so to speak, or would he struggle to recapture the magic that made films like Goodfellas, Raging Bull & Taxi Driver famous? Read on to find out...
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) enters the world of stock trading as a wide-eyed optimistic young man in the early 1980s, and is given a crash course in how to survive the industry by his first boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). After acquiring his license to trade, his first day at his new job is October 19, 1987, otherwise known as Black Monday. With the industry in turmoil, and the agency he worked for shuttered, he struggles to find a new avenue to go down. He answers an ad in the paper looking for stockbrokers to sell penny stocks to poor saps dumb enough to buy them, but with a 50% commission as opposed to the 1% commission he was making for blue chip stocks, Jordan sees a while new world open up for him.
He begins to acquire a faithful following as his talents as a broker begin to make him lots of money, and he takes as his partner a young furniture salesman named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Together they expand their business model and begin making money hand over fist off of lower and middle class people. When they combine their tactics for selling these junk stocks with the higher end blue chip stocks, they hit on a way to start selling to the top 1% of money makers in the country. They become overnight sensations, but not without attracting the attention of the SEC and the FBI. 
The electric first hour of this film pulsates with the energy and vitality that Scorsese has brought to all of his best films, and it seems as if he has slipped right back into this world without missing a step. However, the film grinds to a halt a little past the one hour mark, and never recovers. Scenes begin to drag on for an eternity, and while there are some inspired set pieces such as an hysterically funny scene where DiCaprio & Hill overdose on quaaludes, the film becomes an interminable slog towards an inevitable conclusion. Scorsese's gift for keeping things tight and focused is noticeably absent from the latter two-thirds of this three hour saga, and it truly hurts the overall film as you begin to wonder when, and before long if, it will ever recover.
Unfortunately it doesn't, and what began as a riveting and zippy tale of excess and greed turns into a never-ending saga of a man who simply doesn't know when to say when. The major problem with the film is that Belfort is such a despicable human being that it becomes hard to care about what happens to him, and any foreknowledge of his fate only makes the film's conclusion that much less edifying. Scorsese has made a career out of turning despicable people into anti-heroes from Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta to Henry Hill, but there's something especially sleazy about Belfort that makes spending this much time in his company all the more unpleasant. 
Rumors circulated that Scorsese was having trouble editing the film down to a consumptive level, and it truly shows as the film plods along with no sense of momentum. The film is full of colorful supporting characters but none of them help to redeem this journey through a period of enormous irresponsibility and excess. There's ultimately a lesson here in the rich never really getting their comeuppance no matter what just because of their status in American society, but that message is buried beneath layers of awful people behaving terribly towards one another which only aids in diminishing that point. I'm not saying that Scorsese is celebrating this behavior, and he doesn't take strides towards making Belfort a likable or relatable character (one scene that attempts to do so is laughably ridiculous, but very much on purpose), but he does seem to linger too long on the merriment of it all. 
DiCaprio turns in an admirably powerful performance in the film, giving the film a strong core from which to build around, but he seems to be trying a little too hard at points. His early scenes and his later scenes are the strongest, but he falters the most in the bloated middle portion of the film (save one fantastically funny sequence that I've already mentioned). McConaughey steals the whole film with his character who disappears completely after two memorable scenes, and his might be the best one man show since Alec Baldwin taught the salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross to always be closing. Margot Robbie is also a bright spot in the cast as Jordan's second wife Naomi, and her character really comes to life in her final two scenes after early bits of the same "trying too hard" syndrome that plagues some of DiCaprio's performance. 
Jonah Hill is firmly out of his element in this film, and while he has stood his ground well in dramatic roles in films like Moneyball, he overcompensates for his lack of dramatic training by either doing too much or not enough, and always at the wrong times. His goofy fake teeth don't help things much, but the moments when he tried to fall back on his Apatovian improv riffing were cringe inducing. The rest of the supporting cast does admirable work, and fleshes out the world well, they're just all pretty awful people and it's hard to cling to any of them. 
The script by Terence Winter, based on Belfort's book, is a mixed bag of strongly written scenes, and ones that go on for the length of a bible. It's somewhat unfair to compare his work to the work of Scorsese's past collaborators like Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas), William Monahan (The Departed) and John Logan (Hugo), but this film lacks the drive and brevity that those scripts had in spades. Scorsese's work here produces similarly mixed results, balancing masterfully done sequences with ones that seem to have absolutely no one at the helm. You could show someone any of a handful of scenes from the film's second or third hour and easily convince them that they're the work of a Scorsese imitator.   
After an amazingly strong and often hilariously funny first hour, The Wolf of Wall Street turns into a film about excess that falls victim to the very thing it sets out to caution against. A handful of very good to great performances aren't enough to redeem the overall film, and I'm sorry to say that this is Scorsese's least satisfying film in a long time. While it will likely grow on me with successive viewings as so many of his films have, there's nothing here that's instantly memorable or iconic in the way that his best films are, and I'm left feeling terribly hollow after this first viewing. At best, it's his next Casino or Gangs of New York, and honestly, that's really not saying very much. 
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via ComingSoon]