Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 2013 Wrap Up

It's the last day of the year. And once again I will be running down the list of films that I have seen throughout. There are of course some obvious omissions here. I still haven't managed to catch Fruitvale Station, Mandela, and August: Osage County... just to name a few. But I did get around to seeing 96 films this year (not an easy task). And beyond that, I found the ratio between movies I loved and movies I hated was a little bit heavier toward the loved side this year. Perhaps that's a sign of better movies getting released... or more likely I just managed to dodge the worst of the movies that came out. That being said, let's get to it:

My Bottom 10 Of 2013:
The Book Thief
The Counselor
The Great Gatsby
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Kick-Ass 2
Olympus Has Fallen
Only God Forgives
Pain & Gain
Spring Breakers

Movies I Hated:
August: Osage County
Ender's Game
Grudge Match
The Hangover Part III
The Heat
The Internship
The Lone Ranger

Movies I Thought Could Have Been Better:
20 Feet from Stardom
All Is Lost
The Best Man Holiday
Captain Phillips
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
Delivery Man
Despicable Me 2
Dirty Wars
The Grandmaster
The Great Beauty
I'm So Excited
The Invisible Woman
John Dies at the End
Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom
Monsters University
Much Ado About Nothing
Pacific Rim
Saving Mr. Banks
Side Effects
Star Trek Into Darkness
The Way Way Back
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolverine

Movies I Liked:
About Time
The Act of Killing
American Hustle
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
The Bling Ring
The Butler
Cutie and The Boxer
Dallas Buyers Club
Don Jon
Evil Dead
The Fifth Estate
Free Birds
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Last Vegas
Lone Survivor
The Place Beyond the Pines
The Square
This is the End
Thor: The Dark World
The Wind Rises
World War Z

Movies I Loved:
Before Midnight
The Croods
The Hunt
Iron Man 3
The Kings of Summer
Man Of Steel
The World's End
The Spectacular Now
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

My Top 10 Of 2013:
12 Years a Slave
Blue is the Warmest Colour
Blue Jasmine
Frances Ha
Inside Llewyn Davis
Short Term 12

So Happy New Year everyone! I hope you got a chance to see a few movies this year. And here's to hoping 2014 has an even better list.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty Is Exactly What It Wants To Be

I really did enjoy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
This is a film about learning how to live life. And it executes its purpose with crisp, well polished resolve. Certainly the majority of characters only served as necessary plot keys, but as I've said before I don't consider that a problem. Some concepts call for single-note characters. These people help to explain what Walter's world is like. If he has an overactive imagination and sees everyone else as one thing... well we see the world as he sees it. That's the movie. To me all of that works.
Ben Stiller, in my mind, has made some impeccable decisions as director. It feels clear from the outset that he knew exactly what he wanted. The dream sequences are quite enjoyable, but really work best in tandem with the real world that Walter is forced to discover... and the more he discovers, the less he has to dream. A pretty fitting build for a film about reaffirming existence.
Sure, Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott felt a little underutilized... and perhaps flat. But pretty much everybody else really seemed to get it. Patton Oswalt is nothing but fun in a practically voice-exclusive role. Shirley MacLaine was so warm and believable as Walter's mother. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson got my attention with very limited screen time... somehow he managed to color his character so perfectly. And Sean Penn just thrives in this kind of role. I think I like him better in these smaller parts.
Perhaps it was only made for a specific kind of person... but to me, Walter Mitty was a pleasure to watch. It set out to give one simple message. And in the end, it delivered.

The Overindulgent Wolf Of Wall Street

At some point during the three hour run-time of The Wolf of Wall Street I started feeling sick.
Not physically. I didn't want to vomit or anything. But mentally, I began tearing down this movie and I just couldn't stop questioning every little thing it did. Actually let me rephrase that... I couldn't stop questioning every BIG thing it did. Indeed nothing about this movie was little. At every corner, the overindulgent nature of its concept took hold and strangled this movie to death.
It's almost as if Scorsese decided that he had to play every trick in the book just to call it a comedy... it's not a comedy. But for some reason we still get nailed over the head with these ridiculous moments that are intended to make us laugh. Character telepathy, awkward narrations, and extensive music video-esque party sequences. Only then we reach the end and it's as if the story missed a step or not even that, simply didn't tell us what we needed to know. I mean, how many three hour comedies have you seen in your life?
Pretty sure the answer to that is zero.
To be fair, I actually didn't hate The Wolf of Wall Street. I just didn't get any real sense of enjoyment out of it. In fact, I think Scorsese frequently made the correct decisions given the nature of the piece. Yes, it's about a cheating stockbroker on Wall Street. Yes, he is an addict who can't stop the party machine that has become his life. Actually overindulgent sounds just about right for this thing. So, I guess what I'm really saying is, The Wolf of Wall Street does exactly what it wants to do and says exactly what it wants to say. But that message is mostly lost on me. I don't know... perhaps that's a good thing.

Friday, December 20, 2013

I Already Couldn't Wait To See Walter Mitty...

And they go and do this??

Her Is The Best Film Of 2013

As I walked out of that theater I knew it without a doubt.
In 2013, nothing else compared. No other motion picture was more timely, impressive in scope, or well fleshed out than Spike Jonze's Her. Honestly, when I first caught the trailer, I knew I was gonna like this movie. But I had no idea I was going to LOVE it.
The most impressive element... the thing that took me most by surprise... was Spike's ability not to fall into the obvious writing traps this concept could have afforded. Scarlett Johansson's Samantha is just so utterly believable and intriguing to the point that I believe everyone in that screening wished they had her as their own OS.
It never ceases to amaze me how, with every passing year, a new element of sci-fi becomes almost happenstance. This time it was utterly believable that our Operating Systems could one day be given sentience. And therefor become much more effective in helping us maneuver through our everyday lives. When Samantha first appears, she immediately cleans up Theodore's (Joaquin Phoenix) mess. In a matter of seconds, his life becomes infinitely easier. I don't think this idea is very far off. And Spike Jonze goes out of his way (without taking any extra steps mind you) to show us how society has already evolved to allow for this technology. Theodore's job is a very simple and effective means to explaining where humanity is at this time. He writes "beautiful" heartfelt letters for people... so that they don't have to themselves. The evolution of society was already leaning in Samantha's favor. So getting to that point feels pretty much effortless.

This is just one simple detail that I am pulling to try and explain how perfect this film actually is. Wait until you meet the alien (you'll know what I'm talking about).
I didn't believe it before, but now I do... Joaquin Phoenix is back. He gave an exceptional performance. I felt for him the whole movie and felt almost disgusted with myself for how onboard I was in his choice to be with Samantha. Scarlett Johansson deserves an Oscar. I know there's no voice category, but she lived that part and as an audience we somehow understood her... not an easy task when you're trying to convey a sentience that can communicate with pretty much the entire world all at once. Amy Adams was great. Chris Pratt was great. Rooney Mara was great. Olivia Wilde too. Man! What an awesome group of people. And just look at who plays the voices on the other ends of phone calls in this thing. Just All Star all the way.

Spike Jonze has been leading toward this for quite some time now. And I'm very pleased to be recommending this new film of his so ardently. It left me utterly exhausted emotionally. I love the concept, I love the colors, I love the music. Don't ask any questions. Just see Her.

David O. Russell Makes A Better Movie Than I Expected In American Hustle

It's true.
Unlike most people, I did not enjoy his previous film, Silver Linings Playbook.
It simply fell flat for me. And at no point did I find the concept worthy of a full-length feature. So when the trailers came out for American Hustle I was seriously nervous. Mostly I found myself mourning his earlier works, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter. But then I saw the movie.
American Hustle is gripping. It does just enough at every turn to keep you paying attention. And it is very very well cast.
Christian Bale does an excellent job. He seems to work well with everybody. Amy Adams is a treat. It nice to see her getting an opportunity to show a few sides of herself she really doesn't get to express that often. Bradley Cooper is very serviceable and has some hilarious sequences with Louis C. K. (so glad he's in this one by the way). And Jennifer Lawrence, in tandem with Christian Bale, has legitimately the best scene in the entire film. That really only leaves Jeremy Renner. If I were to rate his performance scene by scene he would get an A for Acting nine times out of ten. But that final scene was so completely discombobulated that it leaves a bad mark on the rest of his work. It's really too bad too. I don't even think it was his fault to be honest. It feels as though in post, the scene got torn up and left in pieces on the cutting room floor. Perhaps those additional pieces just didn't fit the rest of the film. Oh well. Too bad so sad.
David O. Russell doesn't really strike me as a sentimentalist anyway.

But American Hustle as a whole is a very solid movie. The twists are actually twists and the concept is fun and always interesting. After a massive success with what I see as a completely overrated film, David O. Russell came back and made a movie actually worth watching. Kudos to that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

How Does A Sequel To Anchorman Work?

Pretty well apparently.
The ingredients are all still there. Will Farrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner. Get these guys in a room and who knows what'll happen. No script? No problem. Sprinkle in a few heavy hitters and you've somehow got a full length feature. How does it happen? I don't even think they know.
...Well clearly they know. I mean, it did slow down in the middle to try and make way for plot, but these films are one of the very rare exceptions to the plot rule. Essentially, I'm saying, I don't think the plot was completely necessary and as silly as the blindness sequence was, it felt like it lived outside of the movie in many ways.
But the honest to goodness truth is, this one had to be so much bigger than the original to really make the fans happy. And in one pivotal scene it did.
It was fun to watch them take that rumble sequence so much farther than the original ever could have. And by the time the movie ended I knew it was at the very least a worthy successor. After all, the first Anchorman had its awkward slow moments. So the same rules applied.

On Saving Mr. Banks And The Disney Machine

Saving Mr. Banks was an interesting idea for a movie.
Disney is at a juncture now wherein the company has a vast history to draw from... and has aligned itself to actually make some very quality movies about its past. I rather like this idea and find myself wishing that the other major studios would consider a few of these stories as well. And I tend to think this idea of historical studio self exploration would indeed take off... if only Saving Mr. Banks had more to offer.
Honestly I did walk away liking this movie. But it felt both inconsistent and incomplete at the same time for me. We never really get a chance to watch P.L. Travers' (Emma Thompson) emotional journey. In fact her past is so completely drawn out that we never get a chance to see her manage the world without it. Sure the purpose of her back story led down some interesting avenues, but none of them were particularly enlightening in the main story. Mostly because Travers doesn't seem to learn anything. The inclusion of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) was a fun idea, but it never really got going enough due to all of those damned flashbacks.
Essentially, Saving Mr. Banks is a flawed but still sometimes entertaining piece of Disney propaganda that could have taken more risks and could have felt like more than just an extra feature on a Mary Poppins DVD... but ultimately failed to become something more substantial. It's too bad because it had some wonderful performances (Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman... heck I even liked Collin Farrell in it) and the idea just felt so enticing.
Oh well. Nice try Disney. I do applaud the attempt.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Yes, I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
I actually saw it twice. Once in H(igh)F(rame)R(ate) 3D and once in standard. So what's to be gained from the double viewing? You mean aside from totally awesome reemersion into the world of Middle Earth? Well I recognize now that HFR is an interesting experiment that other techniques and technologies are not quite ready for. The CG looks good for the most part, but falls apart when a real person is set in closeup on a backdrop of digital fiction. The CG characters look great in real situations... but that river of gold looked awful in both formats. It surprised me actually, how many times I noticed the CG this time around. How rushed some of it felt. Because the first Hobbit film looked great from start to finish.

Which leads me to my next statement... and it may not be shared by many... I liked An Unexpected Journey more than The Desolation of Smaug. When they decided to break this one up into another two films I think the pacing went to shit. That's not to say it wasn't incredibly entertaining and nearly everything I hoped to see from this part of the story... but Beorn felt rushed, the elves of Mirkwood felt drawn out and overanalyzed, and the orcs seemed utterly useless throughout. Yet, once we reach Laketown and from there discover Smaug, things really pick up (with the exception of that river of gold).
So let's talk about the dialogue. This script and its predecessor have both been littered with sloppy dialogue issues. They even repeated my least favorite line from the first one... but it seems they realized how awkward and repetitive it already was so they cut out a small piece of it. I'm talking about that Galadriel line... you know the one "Something lingers in the shadows, hidden from sight, it will not show itself." or something like that. It's just an example of how over-the-top some of their writing goes.

But then, I'm being nitpicky about... well... the greatest fantasy film series of all time. So take all of this with a grain of salt.
Essentially, Peter Jackson is a genius just to have managed to bring life to Middle Earth on film in the first place. But beyond that, he continues to create works of quality. The casting is almost always superb and the effects are almost always on the money. Though I do wish they would have kept a few more of the practical images they eventually CGed over in these most recent films.
Martin Freeman is impeccably well cast as Bilbo. He brings such life to the character and fills his performance with an excellent variation of nuance and emotion. One only wishes, as the lead of these films, that he would get more screen time.
Richard Armitage, on the other hand, tends to miss the mark for me. And he does this mostly by trying too hard to hit his marks on set. By this I mean, I can see him trying to act in every other scene... it particularly stands out in the opening sequence. Ian McKellen gives his strangest Gandalf performance to date in this one, but I find myself still getting behind all of his choices here. This is a different side of Gandalf... a Gandalf that is less certain of the fate of the world and in many ways a less serious Gandalf. Something I appreciate seeing in practice. Beyond that, I love that James Nesbitt is in these films. If you ever got a chance to see Jekyll, you'd recognize how much fun he has performing and he never seems to hold anything back. The addition of Orlando Bloom was awkward to me. Sure it makes sense that he would be there. After all it is his home and given the life cycle of elves he would most definitely be alive and well at this point in the timeline. But it's Orlando Bloom... and he may be the worst actor in the franchise. That being said, his existence opened the doors for Evangeline Lilly to make a very interesting appearance with a new character. Tolkien didn't write too many females into his stories, so it is welcome in my mind to see Evangeline step in and add an extra element to the film. Her subplot is actually pretty interesting. Benedict Cumberbatch was a great choice for Smaug and the dragon honestly looked great all across the board.

Anyway, like the length of these films, I've probably gone on long enough. I love these movies, warts and all. And I can't wait until next year to finally see the battle of the five armies. Damn that'll be cool.

Getting Into Inside Llewyn Davis

Man did I love this movie.
Inside Llewyn Davis is as close as the Coen's have come to reconnecting with that amazing energy of Barton Fink (1991 Palm d'Or winner). But comparatively they couldn't be more different films at heart.
Where Barton is a total dumbass recycling one concept over and over and never really taking his work seriously, Llewyn is a mashup of the opposite... with surprisingly similar results. That's a big piece of what makes this film kind of heartbreaking. The struggle of being an artist with integrity can so easily be strained by the nature of business. Llewyn seeks to be understood but faces a sea of careerists, businessmen, and half-empty have-nots... never really finding a way out of the perpetual cycle that has become his existence.

Effectively, the Coen brothers have put together one of their finest films of the last ten years.
They had the presence of mind to bring back John Goodman in a bizarre but crucial role. And of course he delivered. John Goodman is one of those actors who just never seems to get enough credit... no matter how much praise he does get. I mean, how does this guy not have an Oscar??
Oscar Isaac was brilliantly cast as the titular character. He drives this one home and sticks the landing bring with him a truth and emotional depth that couldn't have existed had he not already been so musically talented in his own right.
I love Carey Mulligan, and while we didn't get a lot of her here, I think we got enough. Her part was interesting in that dynamic that perhaps she is existing as something she is not. It layers the character with a dimension of inconsistency... though she is frequently attempting to stay on that one plain of constant annoyance. When she eventually stops yelling she really shines through. And I appreciated the casting of Justin Timberlake in a very meta role. I do wonder if he understands the movie's message, but the fact is he really doesn't need to. In many ways, it's probably better that he doesn't.
I could talk giddy about the Coen brothers for hours, possibly days, based on their body of work up to this point. So it only pleases me more to be able to say "they've done it again." Keep doing what you do guys.

NYC Winterbang

Here's a great video I had the pleasure of being a part of recently. Courtesy of my friends, LondenFLESH:

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Incredible Failure Of Oldboy

Oldboy came out just in time for Thanksgiving. About two weeks later, it's already gone from most theaters. It was a relatively high profile picture with a famous director and big time cast... based on a much beloved foreign film. So what happened?
In a previous post I rallied for Spike Lee's Oldboy, and I stand by everything I said. The film had excellent acting performances. The editing was off. But as a whole, Spike Lee genuinely captured the essence of the original. It leads me to wonder if we psychologically view foreign language films in a different light. Perhaps a concept as bizarre as Oldboy's makes sense to us coming from a completely outside perspective (in this case Korea).
But once it is translated into an American existence we just separate too completely from the material. Perhaps that mentality comes into play of, "That could never happen in my back yard."
This is of course a broad assumption, but I can't really put my finger on what went wrong with this one. I suppose there's always a chance the target audience (ie. people who loved the original) was not interested in a remake at all. Then again, I don't recall pulling any emotional bravado from this remake... I suppose I assumed it had more to do with my foreknowledge of the content of the original, but perhaps Spike Lee's Oldboy just doesn't connect with any audience... even someone experiencing the material for the first time.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Philomena Makes Me Happy For Steve Coogan's Career

In a word, Philomena was... Great!
At heart, this story really gets to me. A young pregnant girl, taken in by a convent, is forced to give her child away and serve the nuns for four years. Fifty years later, she's still searching for her child. But the sisters at the convent continuously block her efforts.

It's a maddening true story, but as the events unfold I feel it carries a weight with it... the idea that we should love our neighbors and not live from a place of anger.
Philomena (Dench) sees the truth in the nuns even if she doesn't know it and in some magnificent way shows Sixsmith (Coogan) that he doesn't have to be like them.
End Spoilers

As the end credits rolled, I got a chance to see just how involved Steve Coogan was in the creation of this interesting, emotional, and awkwardly funny film. He was Producer, Actor, and Writer. It's clear the guy really cares about this story. What impressed me more, he wrote himself a part that legitimately played to his strengths. So often, over the last ten years, I've found myself wondering why Mr. Coogan's roles were so minimized. The guy's got talent, so cast him where his talent lies. He's proven he can carry a film, as he did with Tristram Shandy, The Trip, and this one: Philomena. So let's let him.

Of course, BBC seems more prone than other studios to allow artists to take charge of their art and really make the content they want to make. And I can't compliment them enough for that. If only more studios would follow their model. But sadly that tends to seem a lost cause.

The Best Man Holiday Is A Sequel??

I didn't have many expectations when I went to see The Best Man Holiday.
The last thing I would have guessed is that it was a sequel. The original The Best Man came out in 1999. I kinda wish I knew that before watching this one. However, it really didn't affect my experience. I think Malcolm D. Lee realized he'd have to give us all of the important information again anyway... both a strength and a weakness of this film. At points it feels as though these relationships really do make sense and are very well founded. But then there is the over explanation and repetition of the same plot point. It happens multiple times throughout.

I actually had an alright time watching this movie. I think the cast was very good. They all knew who they were and what they represented.
Taye Diggs is just a damn good actor. Terrence Howard managed not to piss me off for the first time in a while.
Nia Long was always cool. And I enjoyed the light freckles of complexity she allowed into her character. And Sanaa Lathan was such a pleasant surprise from start to finish.
What was odd to me, Harold Perrineau felt underutilized. In the past I've found him to show the widest range of everyone in this cast. But his entire storyline felt reserved... like they needed to hold him back. In that sense I felt his performance became a casualty to Malcolm D. Lee's vision. But then as a whole I suppose I wish, for all the talent involved, that the final product felt a little less cheeky... melodramatic... and cliche.

But how did this happen?
How did a melodramedy from 1999 with so-so reviews manage to garner a sequel fourteen years later? Not only that, how is it that there's going to be a third one? There may be something interesting to this question... Looking at the cast, almost all of them have done enough to become recognizable at this point. Perhaps the time felt right to revisit old friends (much like the plot of the movie) and see how far everyone had come. And I've gotta say, I do appreciate that.

Why Make The Book Thief?

I was hearing many positive things about The Book Thief before I finally got around to seeing it.
When all was said and done, I guess I just didn't understand. There have been so many Holocaust films... many of them of high high quality. The most recent one to my memory was Sarah's Key. Now it's been three years since that title, so I thought someone else would come out and brush off the history of it all and find some other interesting angle to tackle it from. Well, that's not exactly what happened here...

There is something to be said for the limited idea of watching this small town get sucked into a war they had no part in.
But by the time we reach the town in the first fifteen minutes, they're already clearly on that course. So the majority of the transformation has already occurred. It is interesting to see characters we may assume to be bad people properly humanized, and many of the characters here get a chance to be understood, but in the end the film felt unsure of itself and incomplete. Perhaps inconsistent is a better word.
Now I haven't read this book. The narrative format of death telling what it is he saw during this time could be interesting in prose, though a little contrived from the outset.  But in a film, I simply could not justify the decision to stick with it. Honestly those narrations brought back obnoxious memories of Perfume: The Story of A Murderer (one of the worst movies I've EVER seen).

Apologies. There were many positives.
Sophie Nélisse, the film's star, did a fantastic job. I was consistently compelled by her performance and can honestly say I want to see more from her.
Geoffrey Rush was, of course, quite good. And the majority of the supporting cast filled their roles with a consistent level of awe. I knew every individual because there was a level of true emotion and sympathy sheening from each of their distinctive eyes.
Honestly, I can see The Book Thief being up for many awards next year in Acting, Art Direction, Costume Design, Cinematography... practically any part of the film that doesn't have to do with Screenwriting. Sorry, Markus Zusak and Michael Petroni, but a great many elements fell flat with this one.