American Hustle

December 30, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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“Some of this actually happened.”  Thus states the disclaimer at the beginning of “American Hustle,” David O. Russell’s new film about the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. That statement not only gives fair warning for any artistic license taken but also sets the tone for the film; for all the seriousness of the subject matter, it is also wryly funny. I knew little about Abscam prior to this film but it was, apparently, even wackier and further reaching than the movie portrays, ultimately bringing down a US senator, 6 representatives, a mayor and couple of other smaller elected officials.  Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Fighter,” “Three Kings”) brings together several of his previous partners-in-crime to fill out an all star cast including Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner. Russell captures the mood of the 70s with lavish costumes (especially on Amy Adams), outrageous hair and a score filled with the likes of Elton John, ELO, & Donna Summer. Russell also manages to get top notch performances from his actors, particularly from Cooper, whose coked-out maniac FBI agent steals most of the scenes he is in. All of the characters in this film are wacky enough and complex enough to be interesting and there are a couple of fun cameos to boot. The story mostly moves along at an entertaining pace, though it drags a bit in the middle and felt a tad over long. Those small quibbles aside, this is a clever movie about a story that could have only happened in the 70s with it’s strange mix of excess and naiveté.  This was a moment in history that would have otherwise been completely forgotten.

Pacific Rim

December 26, 2013 at 8:51 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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DVD.  All I can really say about this film is that I enjoyed the hell out of watching it, which isn’t quite the same it’s a great film. I never bothered to see it in the theater because it looked like another dumb action film in the “The Transformers” vein. However, unlike that insufferable series, this film does not take itself seriously. Gone is the heavy handed moral dialogue and deeper message. Instead, we have simple, over-the-top fun. Director Guillermo del Torro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) knows how to play up the absurdity so that the audience is laughing with the movie and not at it.  Likewise, the actors don’t take themselves too seriously here (fortunately, we have no Shia LaBeouf or Megan Fox in the cast). Don’t expect great acting range, even from solid performers like Idris Elba (star of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) and Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”). These guys are not being paid to show complex emotions; they’re being paid to show us a good time and, for the most part, they do. The action scenes are ridiculously fun and the dialogue is laugh-out-loud heavy handed. The same line that made me groan in the previews (“We are cancelling the Apocalypse!”) became hysterical within the context of the rest of the film’s silliness. I’m glad I didn’t see it in the theater; I don’t think it’s worth $12 and I don’t know that I would have had the same experience in a theater full of strangers.  But, sitting on the coach, surrounded by friends or family, with a few drinks in you… how could you not have a good time?

Frozen

December 26, 2013 at 8:22 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

I may not be the best person to review this movie.  It isn’t the type of film I typically see but I’m staying with family, it’s the holidays, kids… you get the picture.  I knew nothing about the film and was a bit dismayed to discover, 5 minutes in, that it was a musical.  I have a particular intolerance for singing in films because the songs are almost always sappy, the movies are typically one-dimensional & feel-goody goody, and it destroys the fourth wall as people don’t generally break into song in their day to day lives (there are, of course, exceptions to these rules, like “Moulin Rouge,” or “Once” and I do like those films).  However, I found that none of that mattered here because I had no expectations for anything other than sappy, feel good and formulaic.  And, I certainly got plenty of that.  Nothing stood out here: the animation, songs and story line were all absolutely run-of-the-mill.  The only thing that rose above the mediocre was the snowman character that showed up about 20 minutes in.  Played by comedian Josh Gad (best known for the dreadful and short-lived TV show “1600 Penn”), the snowman is the only character with any character at all; every laugh line was his.  While he was on the screen, I was generally enjoying the film; while he wasn’t, I was generally bored.  But, like I said, I may not be the best person to review this film.  The kids I was with loved it and there seemed to be plenty of enjoyment in the theater. And, as my sister pointed out, this is another in a line of Disney films with strong heroines who don’t need men to save the day. That’s something.  I just don’t know if it’s enough for me to really recommend it.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

December 15, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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It’s funny. I actually liked this film more than it’s predecessor (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”) but have rated it quite a bit lower. I’m not sure what that means other than that I am random and capricious in my ratings. In both films, I was very aware of the new 48 frames-per-second filming technology.  It definitely makes images crisper on screen but it also highlights the limits of our special effects: the CGI creatures look more noticeably animated and plastic-like and, this time, I was very struck by how fake the elfin ears looked (primarily because you can see the pores on people’s faces that then aren’t present on their ears).  I think I actually prefer a grainier film until special effects can catch up.  As for the plot, this one is a bit darker than the last and draws much more heavily from outside sources (meaning sources outside of “The Hobbit;” be they other Tolkien works or from Peter Jackson, I cannot tell).  It does work as a coherent story, particularly in light of the LOTR films that this series prequels; just don’t hold it accountable to the mood and pacing of the book.  This film does have it’s fun moments and, in fact, the best part comes during a scene involving barrels rushing through white waters; that whole scene is beautifully choreographed and full of laugh-out-loud fun.  In fact, this film seemed to do best when it was having fun.  During it’s sentimental scenes, it more often fell completely flat.  We do get the Stephen Colbert cameo I had been pining for the last time (see if you can catch it) and we do get Orlando Bloom and Benedict Cumberbatch.  In fact, we may get just a bit too much of everyone and everything.  At almost 3 hours, the film wore me out.  I don’t know if my audience agreed but, then, perhaps I am just getting old.  I could have done with 45 minutes less of the danger-laughter-danger barrage.  And we still have one more film to go…

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

December 8, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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Early in this film, the central character, Jep (Italian star, Toni Servillo) states that Faulkner had always wanted to write a novel about nothing. He references this again near the end. One is tempted to imagine that this is director Paolo Sorrentino’s sly commentary about his own film. Yet, there is something more going on here. Much of the first part of the movie is a flashy explosion of excess: visually, musically, morally. The film appears to be a commentary on superficiality and style over substance in modern Rome. However, in the last hour of this 142 minute journey, the tone begins shifting dramatically. By the end, the mood is nostalgic, melancholic, elegiac and almost spiritual. The shift is all encompassing; the look of the film, the sounds, scenes, dialogue, lighting and message are all different and the effect was provocative. I loved Sorrentino’s “Il Divo,” which also starred Servillo; his imagery is always colorful, creative and evocative. Every scene in this movie was a visual feast, even if the meaning of the scene itself was not clear and, unfortunately, that happened too often.  I wonder if the meaning of the film is clearer to native Italian speakers because I definitely have a sense that Sorrentino is trying to say something, even if I am not always clear what it is. As a result, I was taken on a beautiful, emotional and confusing ride.  I did not understand it but I like how it left me feeling.

Nebraska

December 2, 2013 at 9:27 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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Rarely do I see a film that I think is perfect from start to finish; this was almost that film. “Nebraska” unfurls at a slow but steady pace as we follow Woody’s (Bruce Dern) attempts to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the million dollars he thinks he has won. His wife (June Squibb) and sons, played by Will Forte (“Saturday Night Live”) and Bob Odenkirk (“Breaking Bad”), alternately try to talk sense into him or indulge him along his journey. The story is a minor one with no real twists or surprises but it is an honest one and I have great respect for that. Every moment along this journey seems real to me.  Everything the characters do and say seem equally as real. Director, Alexander Payne (“The Decedents,” “Sideways,” “Election”) makes a more modest film here than his previous works. The moments are quieter (the laughter less raucous, the pathos less dramatic) but feel more deeply earned. Payne get’s fantastic performances out of his cast of mostly TV actors. In particular, Dern given the performance of his life as the befuddled, stubborn and deeply scarred Woody. If Dern is the heart of the film, Squibb is its joy; bringing laughter to every scene she is in, even if at times it’s at the expense of a more fully developed character; we see the briefest of glimpses into her pain but it is never explored. But, then, this is Woody’s film and every character revolves around him; fortunately, Dern is up to the task. While lacking the lush beauty of some black and white films (“Blancanieves” from earlier this year, for example), Payne’s use of black and white here lends this film a stark simplicity that matches its plot and mood. Which is not to say that strong emotions aren’t present; they are just more subtly shown. This is a film rich in humor, nostalgia and melancholy. Where it trips up a bit is in the minor dose of sentimentality that Payne sprinkles at the end.  He is wise enough to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek in that final scene but, still, the film would have been just that much better had it ended without it.

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