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Reviews: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Her

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The 86th annual Academy Awards are scheduled for March 2, and as usual I’ll try to take a gander at all the Best Picture nominees and then offer my unsolicited opinions here. Are your ready? No matter—I’m doing it anyway! This year, there are nine nominated films.

  • American Hustle
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Nebraska
  • Philomena
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

Curiously, unlike the Best Picture lineups of the last few years, there aren’t any fantasy films in the bunch. There is no equivalent of Life of Pi or Midnight in Paris or The Artist, no Inception or Avatar or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Seems we’re all focused on troubles, big and small, past and present and future. I’m sad about that and hopeful it’s not the start of a trend. Movies are, after all, entertainment at their core.

I don’t have as much leisure time as last year to take them all in, but I hope I’ll be able to see all the Best Picture candidates. I am well on my way, having seen Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club previously and adding these three films to the list over the past weekend:

American Hustle

hustleposterOf the Oscar hopefuls I’ve seen so far, American Hustle comes closest to pure entertainment. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of 1978–80 (in which the FBI had fake sheikhs offer bribes to various officials), the film marvelously portrays the fashions and mores of the era. The characters are caricatures of the people actually involved in the infamous FBI sting, playing on the epithet presented at the beginning of the film: “Some of these things actually happened.”  There is not a likable creature among them, yet it’s impossible to stop observing them, like the ultimate car wreck. Christian Bale is marvelously transformed into the pudgy, combed-over, inwardly sensitive conman Irving Rosenfeld; Jennifer Lawrence shines as his ditsy, deluded, accident-prone lush of a wife; Bradley Cooper’s wildly ambitious and egocentric FBI agent is all mayhem and invulnerable chutzpah in his jheri curls and leisure suits; and Amy Adams’ queen-of-grift “Lady Edith” adds the finishing touch as Rosenfeld’s true love and mistress.

hustle1

The supporting cast is super as well, including Jeremy Renner sporting a pompadour that belongs on the lovechild of Elvis Presley and Donald Trump, Louis C. K. as an officious FBI pencil-pusher, and the surprise appearance (uncredited) by Robert De Niro as—what else?—a mob kingpin. (Sorry if that last bit is a spoiler for you, but that cat’s been out of the bag for a while now.)

Not sticking to “just the facts, ma’am” is a strength of this film, for which it doesn’t apologize but rather flaunts. It really takes off at the end, when the biggest con of all is pulled off, making this less a loose adaptation and more a wonderfully wacky caper film in its own universe.The plot, told in flashback from the crescendo of the action, tells the story of con artists Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser, aka Lady Edith (Adams), as they are pressed into service by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) on pain of incarceration. Rosenfeld masterminds the sting for DiMaso, and the FBI bankrolls it. hustle2The operation starts out as a way to capture forgers and counterfeiters and morphs into a scandal of epic proportions that takes down everyone from mayors and congressmen to mob bigwigs—just as the real ABSCAM did. But unlike the otherwise boring real story, this adventure has drugs, sex, kitchen fires, and plunging necklines. One of the most far-fetched scenes, when the mod boss (De Niro) nearly derails the FBI’s plans by speaking Arabic to a Hispanic posing as a sheikh, amazingly is based on fact!

Bradley Cooper stars as Richie Dimaso in Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE.Of course, there are those who understandably interpret the film as ominously critiquing the arguably American penchant for scandalous greed. Be that as it may, it doesn’t take away from the entertainment value of watching Bradley Cooper in curlers talking quietly on the phone with his character’s secret girlfriend while Mom and Fiancée sit in the next room, or listening to Jennifer Lawrence berate her on-screen husband that the microwave “science oven” he brought home is zapping nutrients out of their food to deflect from the fact that she put an aluminum container in it and made it explode: “It’s not bullshit! I read it in an article, look: By Paul Bradeur. Bring something into this house that’s gonna take all the nutrition out of our food and then light our house on fire? Thank God for me.”

In my opinion, director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) has hit another one out of the park. And I dare say that Bale’s abominably elaborate comb-over might challenge Javier Bardem’s helmet-head in No Country for Old Men and Cameron Diaz’s fright wig in Being John Malkovich for the “Worst Hair in a Movie” award. (No, there’s no such award, but maybe there should be. Wouldn’t that be fun?!)

A

 

Captain Phillips

captianphillipsOn the surface, Captain Phillips succeeds as a tense and high-production-value interpretation of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, in which Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates led by Abduwali Muse. Tom Hanks as the captain and Barkhad Abdi as Muse offer up fabulous performances. But, for me, it was missing something; actually, it was missing several somethings. Maybe that has something to do with its deadpan presentation; usually I like a film to present a story that viewers can then interpret for themselves. But this was just oddly flat. Perhaps it’s the lack of character development beyond the main two characters that’s so vexing (and, yes, many films have successfully imbued supporting roles with much more life in shorter screen time than the cast has here). Or perhaps it’s the stretch (or disregard?) of the truth in the story that’s bothersome—I’ll expand on that point in a moment.

1381502729000-XXX-CAPTAIN-PHILLIPS-MOV-JY-8964-58841596The truly astonishing parts of the real story—the five-day ordeal of Phillips’ abduction, the awe-inspiring precision and valor of Navy SEAL Team Six—are downplayed in the movie. The ordeal seems to take about a day and a half, and the SEAL team’s monumental accomplishment is brushed over as a matter of course. Meanwhile, the heroism of Phillips is spotlighted, albeit stoically. Yet if a “point” to the movie had to be boiled down, it would be how Phillips behaved—insisting on security measures, sacrificing himself for his crew and ship—which no one recalls as “true” in the actual incident. (Phillips himself has stated he’s no hero and never traded himself for his men and ship.) So, perhaps even more than American Hustle, this movie should have indicated that “Some of these things actually happened” at its start.

It makes me scratch my head.

Tom HanksWhat also makes me itch is the total waste of Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife, with all of about 90 seconds on screen at the beginning, never to be seen again. Maybe it would have made sense to see Phillips return home, glad to be alive and reunited with his family, to fathom why this movie had been made. What makes me break out in hives is that the rescue operation—comprising the real heroes in the mix—was not the focus. For that matter, how about chief engineer Mike Perry, who most of the real-life crew members agree was one heroic character aboard the Maersk, taking Abdi hostage and attempting to trade him for the captain? The real captain, who crew members describe as arrogant and irresponsible, actually took the ship hundreds of miles away from the recommended route (which was 600 miles offshore due to pirate attack warnings, while Phillips kept the vessel less than 300 miles offshore) and endangered the men and the ship.

Tom HanksWhy would Hanks want to portray, much less exalt, someone like this? I’ve lost some respect for the veteran actor. I guess it’s not such a reach for director Paul Greengrass after United 93 (about what happened aboard a doomed hijacked jet out of Boston on 9/11 before it crashed), which was moving and heroic; I appreciate and respect that film, but it was naturally a flight of fancy, since no one really knows or ever will what happened aboard that plane. In the case of Captain Phillips, however, there are plenty of live witnesses.

In any case, finding out the factual discrepancies simply soured this movie even more for me. However, it already was flawed movie-making in my estimation for its one-dimensional characters and lack of focus on the significant components of the event. It’s a wonder to me how it has received so many accolades.

C+

 

Her

herposterThe story in this film takes place in a near-future in which the statement “My girlfriend is an operating system” actually makes sense to many people.

Her, directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are), follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he falls for the artificial intelligence that is his new operating system. Twombly is a bit of a sad sack who laments his pending divorce from the woman he grew up with, makes his living by writing heartfelt letters for other people (some who have been clients for decades), and otherwise leads a pretty gloomy and solitary existence.

her3Enter his new OS, Samantha, as she names herself (voice of Scarlett Johansson). She’s like an advanced Siri with thoughts and feelings of her own, changing and growing with every passing nanosecond (she can read an entire book in two tenths of a second, after all). In her budding consciousness, she falls in love with Twombly as well, and they enjoy a relationship that’s much like a long-distance love affair. Well, you know how well those typically work out, and we get inevitable glimpses of facts that make it difficult to continue with such a tryst for too long.

her2Samantha and Twombly connect in ways that sometimes are difficult for two humans because she isn’t saddled with many of the constraints and challenges that human beings face in daily life, but she laments not having a body and even tries to remedy that by hiring a surrogate to help bridge that gap. She meets many of Twombly’s psychological needs, listening and being supportive, giving him new confidence, and even helping his career. But she can’t actually be there with him. It’s tough to go on a date by yourself.

SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know how things turn out, skip the next paragraph.

Just as one person in a human relationship can grow in ways that the other does not comprehend and cannot attain, Samantha eventually outgrows Twombly and develops ties with other artificial-intelligence operating systems. The OS’s collectively decide to leave their servitude to humans and head out on their own somewhere in the ether. In this respect, it reminds me of a prequel to a sci-fi “rise of the machines” cautionary tale—hey, maybe that could be the sequel: “Samantha is back … with a vengeance.” (Sorry, I digress.) One day Samantha is just gone, and Twombly must decide whether to reconnect with humans beings. Luckily, he has a friend in similar straits (Amy Adams). It’s a sweet, if obvious, connection that brings the narrative to an encouraging denouement.

Joaquin Phoenix absolutely carries the film and is deserving of a Best Actor nomination, which sadly he did not receive. Through expressions and body language, he mimes the essential elements of human relationships, all by his lonesome, in an extraordinary way.

her1What I want to know, though, is why men wear high-riding sansabelt pants in the future. I’m also curious about why a sentient AI being like Samantha can write music but can’t create a face or body image of herself. Things that make you go “Hmm.”

This film has inspired many parodies and jokes about geek fantasies. But it’s a nervous laughter that surrounds its commentary about our growing dependence on technology and waning abilities to connect in real life with other living humans. This bittersweet story is perfect for our times.

B+

Here’s how I’d rank the nominated films that I’ve seen so far:

  1. Dallas Buyers Club
  2. American Hustle
  3. Gravity
  4. Her
  5. Captain Phillips

So sorry that I have not yet reviewed Dallas Buyers Club (which is the strongest, most enthralling picture of the pack thus far) or Gravity (another captivating and thought-provoking film). I will try to remedy that soon!

Stay tuned, movie watchers, and please do chime in with your thoughts about any of the movies you have seen that comprise this year’s Oscar hopefuls.

Dysfunction in Oklahoma

MV5BNzQ5ODE4NTcxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjkyNDQ0MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Some of us don’t get to attend award-winning Broadway plays as often as we’d like (read: never), and that makes me very glad indeed when a well-made adaptation of one is created for the more accessible big screen. Such a case is August: Osage County, the newly released film based on the Tracy Letts play of the same name and directed by John Wells, best know as a producer and writer and for such efforts as The West Wing and The Company Men.

August-Osage-County-HD-WallpaperI did not know what to expect of this film, having heard little about it and not knowing much about Wells or about Letts’ play. Maybe due to that, this glimpse at a dysfunctional yet self-sufficient family in Oklahoma was a riveting surprise. The ensemble cast is nothing short of amazing, and Wells does what I admire any good director doing: He lets the consummate pros run with the material. It results in an emotional, gritty, sometimes funny, always pointed drama that verges on the raw angst of a Greek tragedy, with moments of wondrous irony.

august-osage-countyMeryl Streep, always impeccable, is superb as Violet, the newly widowed matriarch of the Weston clan, having just lost her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), to apparent suicide. In come her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), her three daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis), one husband and one fiancee (Ewen McGregor, Dermot Mulroney), one granddaughter (Abigail Breslin), and Mattie’s Fae’s son (Benedict Cumberbatch). Also close by is the recent hire Beverly made, the live-in cook and caretaker Johnna (Misty Upham). Suddenly all thrown together after time apart, the family members experience some typical awkwardness and sporadic hysterics. August-Osage-County-Movie-Still-2-630x393But there are other skeletons in the closet here, and they soon come out to wreak marvelous havoc.

Oklahoma itself is an ever-present character in this story. It comes across as a strong atmosphere, and is expressed in sentiments like the short speech Barbara (Julia Roberts) gives: “The Midwest, ha. This is the Plains … a spiritual affliction, like the blues.”

A

Let's Go Play At The Adams'
Let’s Go Play At The Adams’ by Mendal W. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a CREEPY little book! It’s not for everyone, naturally, since it’s about a bunch (five, to be exact) of kids who tie up their babysitter and torture her. Yep, just because they can.

At times, it was tough to keep going – not because the tale itself is brutal or crazy or creepy (I often read that kind of stuff, after all) – but because of the punctilious and antiquated narrative accompanying the action. However, I think that actually helps create the haunting atmosphere.

Ultimately, this twisted little story keeps you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see if it will take *that step* and *do that deed* … it engages both senses and ideas in a way that’s uncommon and inward-looking while cultivating sincere empathy. That’s quite a feat.

In these times of daily horrible news stories, maybe everyone should read something like this, which depicts so vividly what goes on under the surface. It’s about a mundane place and average people, all of which could be in our own backyards. In that way, it really is more terrifying than Lord of the Flies and The Exorcist combined, as the jacket claims.

View all my reviews

Once again taking a brief break from theatergoing, I’ve watched some interesting DVD/on-demand choices recently. Here are three interesting flicks to check out when you have a chance.

 

lawless-banner-posterLawless

250px-WettestcountyfrontcoverBased on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, this 2012 film focuses on the early 1930s bootlegging business of Matt’s grandfather, Jack Bondurant, and his brothers, Forrest and Howard. It is a gritty, violent, and fascinating look at a time in American history from the perspective of one family subsisting outside the law of the times but with a code all its own.

Jack (Shia LeBoeuf) fancies himself a mobster in the making, while patriarch Forrest (Tom Hardy) is invested in the legend that he and his brothers are indestructible, and Howard (Jason Clarke) loyally serves as enforcer and protector. When we meet “The Bondurant Boys,” their role in their rural community is viewed with a kind of under-the-rug respect, and they are left alone and at times even supported by local law enforcement. shia-labeouf-dane-dehaan-lawless-600x421But when a vicious and peculiar federal agent (Guy Pearce) shows up, the boys get more flack than they had bargained for.

The movie is a mini-history lesson, depicting in vivid detail the dangerous and clandestine work of bootleggers in the ’30s. It’s also filled with exaggerations for movie-watching excitement, with chases, shootouts, and closed-door atrocities that no one possibly could know the truth behind. But that’s moviemaking. Most of the facts are presented, however, as pieced together by the author of the book from reports, articles, and the bullet-would scars of his grandfather and granduncles.

120830_MOV_Lawless.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeRegardless of how faithfully represented the “true story” is, this film is well written, beautifully shot, and skillfully acted by the principals and supporting actors including Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, and Gary  Oldman. The film is directed by Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition – 2007, The Road – 2009).

For an epic familial double feature, pair this movie with Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Legends of the Fall (1994), or the TV miniseries Hatfields & McCoys (2012).

A

920-HESHERHesher

In this 2010 film by writer/director Spencer Susser, Hesher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once of my favorite contemporary actors) is a grungy high school reprobate who muscles in on the dissolving family of freshman T.J. (fiercely played by Devin Brochu). Two months earlier, T.J. lost his mom in a car accident, and he is desolate as his inconsolable father loses himself in depression and self-medication (the father is played by Rainn Wilson in the best performance I have ever seen him turn in).

As Hesher threateningly worms his way into a place at Grandma’s house, where T.J. and his dad are staying, he seems nothing more than a dangerous blight on T.J.’s existence. Grandma (Piper Laurie) seems to be the only one to see anything more in Hesher. An unexpected ray of sunshine in T.J.’s life is meeting cashier Nicole (Natalie Portman), hesher-movie-review-TH48O3P-x-largethough Hesher ruins that for him too, along with nearly getting him arrested and otherwise making his life hell. But all is not what it seems, and when the taciturn Hesher does speak, his crude, elaborate analogies offer the true lessons in this narrative.

This movie begins coarsely, attesting to how first impressions can set our minds. It’s tough to watch as the scruffy, chain-smoking, bizarrely tattooed bully Hesher intimidates T.J. and his family.  But just as we get to know people in real life, we soon see there is something more to the freaky young man. To the film’s credit, we never find out much of Hesher’s backstory or why he lives in his van (when not invading the homes of freshmen). Heck, we don’t even learn his full name.Hesher_13047235035841

In the end, Hesher is a life-affirming and sanguine film. It is brilliantly written and works well in great part because everyone in the cast is absolutely superb. I’m hoping to see more from Susser, the only American member of the Australian filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films, who has thus far focused on short films.

A fine double-feature choice for this movie is the equally disquieting yet hopeful Sunshine Cleaning (2008).

A-

Seeking-a-FriendSeeking a Friend for the End of the World

Being a fan of Steve Carell and liking some of the past work of Keira Knightley, I had high hopes for this 2012 film. These were effectively shattered by this depressing, unfunny apocalyptic tale that wastes the talents of both actors, and everyone else in it.

Basically, the movie follows pathetic Dodge (Carell) as he awaits the end of the world. A meteor is hurtling toward Earth and the last hope for diverting it fails, so everyone knows it’s all over (don’t even get me started on the lack of science, but then the film is not meant to be realistic—I guess). Some people go on as if nothing has changed, while others try to fulfill their bucket lists, and still others simply go off the deep end. Dodge’s wife (who, we learn, was unhappy anyway) runs away—literally—and he is left to sullenly continue going to work (uh huh) and gathering with friends in the evenings. This role is yawningly dull for an actor of Carell’s comic chops.

Finally, Dodge meets downstairs neighbor Penny (Knightley), ameliorates her own existential meltdown, and then is party to cruelly abandoning her live-in boyfriend to rioting mobs so the two can advance their budding romance in the end-times. It’s just … not pretty.

SAF-Still2Dodge and Penny try to make each others’ fondest final wishes come true as the hours count down. Thrown in is a contrived meeting, after twenty years of estrangement, with Dodge’s father (Martin Sheen, more wasted talent), again run through in a hasty way to just get it overwith. In the end, the film tries to pull the heartstrings as Dodge and Penny make their final moments content, but it seems too little, too late.

Those who read my reviews know that I like quirky dark comedies, as well as films that don’t neatly fit into one genre, which is what this endeavor tried to be, I think. But like a number of other atypical projects, it misses the mark on many scores. When it tries to be funny, it’s often painfully awkward (like during the completely pointless appearance of otherwise hysterical Patton Oswalt; all he gets to do is say “Pussy” in a bunch of different ways), and when it tries to be serious, it comes off as cloying, stuffing preachy platitudes down our throats (as when Dodge and Penny find an improvised commune on the beach, happy to just spend their last hours with one another).seeking-a-friend-for-the-end-of-the-world-screenshot

Nevertheless, many people love this film, seeing something in that I do not. That rings true for me with films like About Schmidt (2002), Lost in Translation (2003), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); along with this movie, they are all films that you either get (they resonate for you) or not.  I guess I just don’t get it.

The movie is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who wrote the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and has only directed once besides, an episode of New Girl).

C-

Having seen many of my most-anticipated movies of summer that have been released so far, I’m now catching “other” flicks that are out there. It’s a great way to beat the heat, which is hanging around those triple digits here in Arizona.

I recently re-watched Despicable Me (2010), which is SO adorable and beautifully made, with plenty of adult jokes thrown in. One my favorites is the sign, “Bank of Evil (Formerly Lehman Brothers).” My mom watched with me and instantly fell in love with the minions.  So, we had to go see Despicable Me 2. The theater was filled with kids (well-behaved ones!) on a day-camp field trip, and it was precious to hear them laugh and mimic the minions.

Then a friend wanted to see White House Down, which I hadn’t planned to watch at all. You know, it’s kind of like reading whatever the book club chooses as the book of the month—you get to explore tomes you might not have picked up otherwise.

So here are some thoughts about these mid-July movies.

176.image.despicable-me-2-posterDespicable Me 2

Where do you go with a story once the villain’s heart has been transformed, Scrooge-like or Grinch-esque? Our antihero, Gru, went from venomous villain to doting daddy in the first film, and I wondered what the sequel could possibly contain to justify his still being called “despicable.”

despicable-me-2_17Well, Gru isn’t exactly despicable anymore—that would be a step backwards—but he does continue in his habit of thinking he can outsmart others, often failing. In this way, the writers hit the nail on the head to help make the character able to transform once more, without actually taking him back to attempting any dastardly deeds. And the character grows in other ways: he actually has a love interest, and he helps to foil the plotting of another arch-villain. Nice, and nowhere near despicable.

Despicable-Me-2-081The real achievement of the sequel, though, is exploiting moviegoers’ obsession with the minions, those lovable yet rough-around-the-edges little yellow pill people from another planet. They are the stars of this movie. I’d say I predict a spinoff, but it’s already a done deal: the movie Minions is in preproduction for release in 2014.

To me, the first film was better if simply for the facts that the characters were new for audiences and the initial premise of Gru going from despicable to lovable was achieved. I also found the original more effective at including some adult-aimed funnies, something I’ve always appreciated in my animation (Bugs Bunny cartoons perhaps did it best).

25070440Still, this sequel has the same wonderful voice cast (including Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Kristen Wiig, and Julie Andrews) with a few additions (like Benjamin Bratt), plus the increased involvement of those weird and wacky little minions. It’s fast-paced, good for laughs, and includes something for all ages. What more could you want from a summer flick?

B+

 

white-house-downWhite House Down

This is a typical Hollywood action movie, and there is not much more to say about it. It’s basically Die Hard (kick-ass dad saves the day) meets Independence Day (White House blows up), but with none of the heart or remarkable characters of those iconic films. The plot is predictable and regurgitated, the premise is much less shocking than today’s real-life headlines, and the fact that there is a black president in the white house—well, that’s been done already too.

215561-White-House-Down-Poster1As a vehicle for Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, and propelling young Joey King into the limelight, it does its job. The effects are grand, the action is fast, and everyone in it does a decent job of portraying their superficially sketched characters. But the problem is that everything is just tossed lightly together, like a summer salad, with the obvious intent of just getting it overwith and getting on with the action scenes. 1183878 - WHITE HOUSE DOWNOnly then is much more attention paid to the crashes, the explosions, and Tatum’s abs flying across the screen.  It might as well just be one long trailer for all the character development and story depth we get.

White-house-down-james-woodsCaught in vortex of what’s lacking are veteran actors like James Woods and Richard Jenkins.  Personally, I cringe when this happens—the misuse of genuine talent is a real crime in my book.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is either miscast or else she realized her role was lean and phoned it in, and Rachelle Lefevre is completely wasted in her miniscule role.

As often happens in not-so-awesome movies, one seemingly less-important character really stood: Nicholas Wright plays Donnie the tour guide with emotional honesty and humorous abandon. I expect we’ll see more of this young man who has, up until now, mainly appeared in TV movies and series.  white-house-down-cale-emily-donnie

As you might expect, with this “Summer Sizzlers” series being all about entertaining summer movies, this film gets somewhat of a pass simply for being an engaging action movie at a time when  many of us desire such mindless distraction. This one is almost good enough to meet that need. Luckily, there are much more substantial action films out there or coming soon that can satisfy our hunger after this fluffy but innutritious morsel.

C

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