Tuesday, December 31, 2013

American Hustle

Tonight I saw American Hustle, starring Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams.

The Abscam scandal of the 1970s was the inspiration for this David O. Russell film about the FBI's use of a real con man to take down members of the U.S. government. In this dramatized version, we see two clever con artists: Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Adams). They have a passionate personal relationship in addition to their professional collaboration, though Irving is overweight and married.

Enter Riche DiMaso (Cooper), an FBI agent hungry for a big sting, who after catching them in the act, recruits the pair for a bigger operation. They don't have much choice to accept the challenge and do their best to make the most of it. And the audience are the lucky recipients of their sparks.

Sydney flirts with Richie, Richie abuses his boss (played by the always-hilarious Louis C.K.), Irving fights with his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and the mayor (Jeremy Renner) acts like... well... a politician.

All of this is wildly entertaining, but nothing is as perfect as every scene-stealing moment that Jennifer Lawrence takes the screen. The whole cast is terrific, but Lawrence lights up the room with her impeccable comedic timing and charisma. Let's just say I wouldn't be too surprised (or disappointed) if she took home another Oscar this year.

Also of note is the director's brilliant use of music. Taking cues from Tarantino and Scorsese, the music is of-the-era (the deliciously gritty '70s) and just as much a part of the script as the dialogue.

The twists and turns, though not complex, are clever and the ending is undeniably satisfying.

Believe the hype about this one—it's all true.

~~~


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Today I saw Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris.

The life of South African leader Nelson Mandela is inspiring under any lens, but actor Idris Elba brings a special spirit in his portrayal of the peacemaker in this film.

From the early scenes of him as a womanizer during his first marriage, to the angry scenes as his activism took flight in his 30s and on to the duration of his imprisonment, Elba nails it. His passion, his patience, his love, his grace.

Alongside him throughout the film was Naomie Harris, playing his second wife Winnie. Harris shows the fire within Winnie that fuels her ability to change the world. She did too, after all, though her tactics weren't always as kind.

The details we see here show more of the personal side of Madibe (as he is more often called); the father who didn't know his kids as they grew; the husband who never stopped loving his wife, though he couldn't physically touch her for 21 of his 27 years in prison. The time he lost will always be heartbreaking, no matter how many times we remind ourselves he had a happy ending (and speaking of happy endings: don't miss the end credits featuring a U2 song over real photos of his life).

In our modern, selfish world it's difficult to contemplate the integrity of someone so morally focused. Inconceivable to imagine the sacrifice of one's prime years in life, though it's painfully refreshing to watch.

As some of the scenes during his imprisonment lingered on quietly, I began fidgeting in my seat, mentally preparing to make a note of the slow pace for this review. And then it dawned on me: the filmmakers are trying to convey a 27-year imprisonment of an innocent man in less than three hours.

Shame on me for even considering a criticism of wasted time.

~~~

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Her

Today I saw Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams.

If you've ever panicked, thinking you've lost all the data on your smartphone, remember how fast your heart beat in those moments, and then think how much faster your heart would beat if you thought you were losing a relationship in there too. That's what's at stake for the virtual lovers in Her.

Theodore (Phoenix) writes letters for a living. Heartfelt, beautiful letters that get sent the old-fashioned way since our society has given up doing so. He is sadly separating from his wife (Rooney Mara), who we at first only see in brief flashbacks that make us wonder why their love died.

Though his profession clings to the nostalgia of the past, his life revolves around the technology of the future. Though he's barely social with humans anymore, he does sign up for an Operating System (OS) personal assistant and soon develops feelings for Her (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). She goes by the name Samantha. Amy (Amy Adams) is Theodore's closest human friend and she is just glad he's got a thirst for life again.

Soon the feelings between Theodore and Samantha are "mutual" and they become a fashionable couple. They have steamy phone sex, go on double dates with fully human couples—hell, she even shops for him. Though as I write this, it sounds absurd, the dynamic is not so unbelievable when presented on screen.

Aside from Joaquin's overacting (which happens throughout in his exaggerated facial expressions), the story borders on sweet. Theodore is a nice enough guy, and what harm is it doing for him to keep company with his computer, right?

Well, the Big Looming Lesson here is that our world is becoming too disconnected as we try to perpetually stay connected. Nothing can replace human love or interaction; not even an entity programmed to our specifications.

Director Spike Jonze also makes a point of showing countless wide open spaces (both in nature and indoors), which illustrate how hollow our landscape is; certainly meant to be a metaphor for our hearts in this modern world.

Johansson did a fine job with the voice of Samantha, but I have to wonder if the effect might have been greater if an unknown actress (who we couldn't picture so easily) had played the part.

It's an interesting (and timely) concept to explore the obsession we have with technology; I only wish this had been more multidimensional and less preachy.

~~~

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

Yesterday I saw The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.

Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) wasn't born rich, but he was obsessed with becoming rich. He used his smarts to get an entry level position on Wall Street and a few years later started his own brokerage firm, where he sold penny stocks and performed countless acts of fraud against his investors.

In this lively retelling of his life (so far), Martin Scorsese returns to his Goodfellas pacing and explodes the story across the screen. For three hours. No joke.

It's alternately exhilarating and nauseating, and the DiCaprio really couldn't be better, but I wonder: does it glamorize the excess too much?

Belfort was (maybe is?) not a nice guy. He swindled money out of people who were of the same class or lower than the honest parents who raised him in the Bronx. The only "victim" of his nonsense we see in the film is his first wife, who catches him cheating. But we do believe he loved his mistress (he did marry her, after all) so even that doesn't sting as much as it should.

The drug scenes happen almost constantly (as does the sex) and I can't help but think if I was young and impressionable, some of this stuff would be undeniably enticing.

Donnie Azoff a.k.a. the real Daniel Porush (Hill) was Belfort's right hand man, and committed as many sins as his boss. His character is hilarious and there are moments where Hill clearly steals the show. Also fantastic are cameos by Matthew McConaughey and Jon Favreau.

I can't imagine what Thelma "cut" to get this from an NC-17 to an R; it's plenty filthy, but oddly not gratuitous because it's necessary to convey how insanely out of control Belfort's world became.

There isn't anything wrong with this film, save for the common consequence of Scorsese's hallmark: he makes people who commit reprehensible acts appear invincible and heroic.

If only he also gave us a glimpse of those on the other side of the fence.

~~~

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

Tonight I saw Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner.

Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) was a cowboy in the 80s in denial about his HIV diagnosis. After doing independent research, and realizing straight men could indeed contract the virus through unprotected sex, he came to terms with his situation and decided to take action.

Since the experimental AZT treatments were causing more harm than cure in their first stages, Woodroof sought alternative solutions, traveling abroad to obtain drugs that hadn't yet been approved by the FDA in the U.S.

When he returns, drugs in hand, he starts a "buyers' club" and sells memberships to fellow HIV patients. With their membership, they get a supply of the drugs.

Soon the authorities are on his tail and his operation is in danger of folding.

A painfully thin McConaughey is the perfect fit for this role—he plays an asshole really well and nails the transformative nature of the character. Jennifer Garner is also strong as a doctor wrestling with the hospital treatments she's supposed to administer and the scientific evidence Woodroof provides that proves his club is helping people.

Jared Leto stands out, even above these two, for his turn as Rayon, a transgender woman who helps Woodroof manage the club.

Overall, the film was effective if not blatantly shaking its fist at bureaucracy and the evils that accompany it.

~~~


Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Golden Globe Picks

Though the Golden Globes aren't as prestigious as the Oscars, and they don't really serve as a great predictor for those award wins, I do stand by my statement that they're Hollywood's best party, and most often the most entertaining of all the award shows to watch.

I'm thrilled that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are returning to host again this January (and next). I'm elated that Netflix shows and stars are getting some love in the television categories. I still think it's ridiculous they split the comedies and dramas.

But enough of that.

Here is who I would vote for if I had an official ballot:

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television

JOSH CHARLES
THE GOOD WIFE


Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television

SOFIA VERGARA
MODERN FAMILY


Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television 
 
MICHAEL DOUGLAS    
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA


Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television

ELISABETH MOSS             
TOP OF THE LAKE 

 
Best Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Comedy or Musical 


ZOOEY DESCHANEL    
NEW GIRL

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Comedy or Musical 


JASON BATEMAN  
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

Best Television Series - Comedy or Musical

GIRLS

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama

BRYAN CRANSTON
BREAKING BAD

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama

 
ROBIN WRIGHT
HOUSE OF CARDS

Best Television Series - Drama

BREAKING BAD

Best Original Song - Motion Picture

“ORDINARY LOVE” — MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
Music by: Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr., Brian Burton
Lyrics by: Bono

Best Original Score - Motion Picture

HANS ZIMMER
12 YEARS A SLAVE

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

BARKHAD ABDI
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

LUPITA NYONG'O       
12 YEARS A SLAVE

Best Foreign Language Film

THE HUNT (DENMARK)

Best Animated Feature Film

DESPICABLE ME 2

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical

LEONARDO DICAPRIO
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical

JULIE DELPY
BEFORE MIDNIGHT

Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture

JEFF POPE
PHILOMENA

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama

TOM HANKS
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama

CATE BLANCHETT
BLUE JASMINE

Best Motion Picture - Drama
PHILOMENA

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Tonight I screened The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig.

As a child, I read the James Thurber short story of the same name and remember being captivated by its ability to transport me to wherever Walter's brain was going. In this film adaptation? Not so much.

Stiller plays Mitty in an almost stoic way, making him into a character who is not only sad, but perhaps mentally ill. He's bullied by colleagues, financially responsible for his mother and sister, and hopelessly trying to navigate eHarmony.com, which along with Papa John's and Cinnabon, enjoys some fantastic product placement here.

This version of Mitty is a negative assets specialist for the soon-to-fold Life magazine. He is responsible for the final issue's cover image, which he has misplaced. Sheryl (Wiig) works in a related department, but is new to the magazine. Walter has a crush on her. Soon he's off to Greenland to track down Sean (Sean Penn), the photographer of the final image.

It goes from being sort of sad to wild-and-crazy fantasy-like to a soul-searching mission with a love story sprinkled in for good measure. There's some comedy too.

But mostly it's a Forrest Gump-ish jumble of unbelievable events (without the endearing nature of a character like Gump) peppered with fantastic cameos from stars like Shirley MacLaine and Patton Oswalt.

I wish I could have enjoyed it more. All of these actors are likeable.

~~~

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Philomena

This morning I saw Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

In the 1950s, it was shameful to be a pregnant teenager in Ireland. For a girl who was brought up by Catholic nuns, it was unspeakable.

When it happened to Philomena Lee (Dench) in 1952, the nuns punished her by working seven days a week, allowing only one-hour visitations with her son Anthony (Tadhg Bowen). She loved him dearly and lived for the special—if not limited—moments she had with him.

At age 3, Anthony was adopted by an American couple from St. Louis, Mo. Philomena was never given the chance to say goodbye. She kept his existence a secret for over 40 years, though she kept in regular touch with the convent in case Anthony ever came looking for her.

Once her daughter found out about her missing brother, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), an out-of-work journalist with the investigative skills to track him down.

The film covers this true journey from start to finish, adding in unnecessary Hollywood embellishments, but thankfully that doesn't hurt its effectiveness. As depressing as the subject matter may be, it's a pleasure to watch.

Dench is simultaneously tragic and charming as Lee, showing the the pain of what she had lost with every glance. Coogan is also perfectly cast as the journalist who is at first in it for himself, but soon develops a genuine compassion for the mother.

As with all true stories, this one is being told too late, but there is hope that the conversations it will spark my soon make a difference in the practices of the church and the perception of sin in Ireland.

~~~



Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

Tonight I screened Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.

PL Travers (Thompson) was an Australian author who had suffered a difficult childhood at the hands of her drunken father and depressed mother. It was her imagination that got her through it and led her to eventually write Mary Poppins, which achieved great success.

Walt Disney (Hanks), a legendary Missouri-born entrepreneur, of course created the Happiest Place on Earth™. After his daughter, Diane, fell in love with the book Mary Poppins, he promised her someday he would turn it into a movie. It took him 20 years, but he kept that promise.

This film tells that story in flashbacks to Travers' childhood (which can be quite disturbing) and throughout the process of convincing her to sell the rights to Disney. The two leads couldn't be better in their roles, Hanks capturing every mannerism Disney was known for; Thompson a hard shell of a woman with a heartbreaking past bubbling underneath. Sweet moments of humor, like a spoonful of sugar, help this "medicine" go down.

Travers really defined the Hollywood term "development hell" and took issue with just about every song, design and element proposed to her by the "Americans." It can't have been easy for the writer and songwriters to navigate, but obviously, in the end everyone got a classic.

The film is much more dark than I expected it to be, and I found myself crying at least four times.

That said, the writing is not emotionally manipulative or too far from the truth at any time. In fact, reading through this article, it comes pretty close. The real footage of the film and also the final credits (which hold real surprises) were a nice touch.

I enjoyed the story, and would recommend it for adults, but not for children due to the disturbing flashback sequences.

~~~