Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is brought to you by Papa John's, eHarmony and Cinnabon.

I've never had huge problem with product placement in a film, and I understand the need for it.  In some films it can actually help sell the setting when you see businesses and brands that are common.  "Oh, this is taking place in our world."  Then there are times where it's just so in your face that it becomes distracting or takes you out of the film.  In one particular scene Walter Mitty and eHarmony Customer Service Rep Todd (yes, an actual character in the film played by Patton Oswalt) are scarfing down some Cinnabon while commenting about how great it is and it's sex/drug like qualities or something to that effect.  Earlier on, they make a point to have Walter say his first job at 17 was at a Papa John's.  This is interesting since Papa John's was founded in 1984, which if Walter was the same age as Ben Stiller's actual age, the earliest he could have got a job there was at 19.  However, I'll allow them that Walter Mitty could have been in his early 40's rather than pushing 50.

I'd have an easier time with this kind product placement if the companies featured weren't so awful.  Cinnabon can barely be called food, and Papa John's is one of the worst pizza chains around.  Don't get me started on eHarmony.  When I was on eHarmony there wasn't any wink functionality (it's actually called "Send a Smile" now).  In fact, eHarmony didn't even give you the ability to browse users.  I suppose their customer service policy has changed as well, as eHarmony service reps will call you at any time to help you out.  I'm sure much has changed since I last wasted my time there though.  I'm was just surprised with such an overbearing presence that they got little details like this wrong.  Oh, and if it's not clear, I really dislike online dating.  I did it for a lot longer than I should have and found it to be a giant waste of time, but that's a conversation for another time and place.

Anyway, if you're still reading after another one of my tangential rants, then I thank you for your patience.  Based on what I've written so far, you're probably thinking I really didn't like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I probably liked it more that most considering all of the mixed and negative things I've heard about it.  Then again, you know how it is going in with really lowered expectations.

When Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) zones out, wild fantasies play out in his head.  In the real world, Walter is a pretty shy person that knows how little he's done with his life.  He's not a complete loser, working a good job at Life Magazine for 16 years, but that's in jeopardy now that Life has been bought out by a company that intends on turning it into an online magazine.  They have the privilege or publishing the final issue, and are expecting the cover photo to be provided by ace photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), but this photo seems to have gone missing. Walter needs to find it asap or it's going to cost him his job.  Using clues from other recent photos, Walter sets out to track down Sean and recover the photo.

In essence, we have a story about a guy that daydreams of doing amazing things that finally gets an amazing adventure of his own. While some of Walter daydreams were interesting to watch, they weren't grounded in any kind of reality, and some felt like they were done more for laughs.  Walter's real adventure was much more engaging and inspiring.

It is also a gorgeous looking film, and a lot of it is due to the Earth's natural beauty.  I thought the visual effects were a little rough in a few parts, like a bad looking great white shark (and I'm pretty sure white sharks don't migrate that far north).  However, it's the kind of film where I can forgive some lackluster CG due to the rest of it looking so good.

Unfortunately, as we get towards the end some pretty glaring plot hole and consistency issues arise.  You may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want to avoid anything spoiler-ish.  Throughout the story, I thought the whole missing photo was set up intentionally by Sean to get Walter out of his head and out in the real world, like a final gift to him.  Instead, it turns out to be a misunderstanding that makes you smack your forehead with it's simplicity.  A lot of trouble could have been saved if Walter had just been thorough with a particular item.  Another issue arises when the final image is revealed.  When you see that image, you'll wonder why Sean didn't recognize Walter when they meet.  Was he playing dumb?  Was Sean also not able to piece it together?  Plus there are also some issues with time and distance in respect to Sean and his photos.  Finally, calls are made by people without regards to timezone or location when you'd think they'd likely be asleep.  It all makes the ending feel a little too forced and tidy rather than have the emotional payoff it could have had.

I liked Ben Stiller's performance though, and I tend to forget he's a capable actor when forced to something dramatic.  While I get a little tired of when he plays these meek, ineffectual types, it worked well for the type of person Walter was and to show some growth.  As much as I love Kristen Wiig, she's really underutilized and there's just not that much to her character.  One of the interesting things about Adam Scott, other than sporting one of the oddest looking fake beards I've seen, is that he's pretty convincing being able to play a nice, affable guy on something like Parks and Recreation and then pulling off a character like he does here where you want to him get hit by a bus.  I would have liked seeing a little more of a dynamic between his character and Walter, but he's not much more than a one-dimensional bully.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an ambitious, mixed bag of a film.  There are some great visuals and nice messages about getting out there and living life, but ultimately there's not much to connect to and some plot issues that were a little too messy for my tastes.  It's still a pleasant enough family film that makes for a decent matinee or something to rent.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Fresh faced Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is excited to start his first job on Wall Street.  He quickly learns how devastating the stock market can swing when Black Monday hits and finds himself out of a job.  Struggling to find a new gig, he comes across a small operation where he learns you can make a lot more money selling worthless penny stocks to unsuspecting investors.  He founds his firm, Stratton Oakmont, with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a small group of friends, and quickly grows it into a hugely successful company making millions of dollars.

Stratton Oakmont reminded me of the chop shop firm from Boiler Room, and it turns out both films were inspired by Jordan Belfort, who I didn't realize was a real person until I learned that The Wolf of Wall Street was based off his memoirs.  My only criticism of the story, albeit a small one, is that much of what you see here isn't exactly breaking any new ground.  Besides Boiler Room, plenty of other films have generally portrayed stockbrokers as immoral, prostitute-loving cokeheads, or put their greed on display.  

The difference with The Wolf of Wall Street is all this hedonism is turned up to the max.  These guys spend money and party like nobody you've ever seen.  When Belfort details his drug habits, you wonder how he hasn't dropped dead already.  You know how when you go to a party and ask the host if you need to bring a six pack or bag of chips?  Jordan Belfort would demand you bring a kilo of cocaine, a busload of hookers, or a bowl of Quaaludes.  These are the party favors at a Stratton Oakmont party.  The parties DiCaprio's Gatsby threw don't hold a candle to the excess of a DiCaprio/Belfort party.

These guys were completely out of control, but that was the point Martin Scorsese was trying to make.  It's an unapologetic spotlight on their behavior.  It may shock or disgust you, and none of them appear to any conscience at all.  They don't care that they're ripping people off.  Contrast that with Boiler Room, where Giovanni Ribisi faces a moral dilemma once he realizes what he's doing is wrong, and even tries to make amends.  I'm sorry I keep bringing up Boiler Room, but seriously though, check it out if you haven't yet.

There's no ambiguity here.  It's clear from the opening moments that Belfort and rest of his crew aren't meant to be sympathetic.  They are constantly driven to amass more wealth and upgrade anything they can in their lives, even their wives.  Hell, the early part of this film could have been called "How I Divorced Your Mother", as Belfort's first wife is played by HIMYM's Cristin Milioti.  Although I can't say I blame Belfort when you meet his new wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie).  This is first time I've seen Margot Robbie in anything, but keep an eye out for her in the future.  If anything, she's another name I'm adding to the long list of Australian actresses I want to marry.

There's no redemption for anyone during the film, and I wonder what the real Jordan Belfort has learned from all of this.  The fact that he wrote these stories and didn't paint himself in the best light would make me think he at least feels a little bad about he did.  Despite the deplorable behavior and decadence, The Wolf is still amusing.  Part of you might even wish you could attend one of these parties just for the experience and stories.  It understandable to want a little taste of what they have.  It's also very funny.  There's one Quaalude fueled sequence that's as zany as anything I've seen in a recent comedy.  The dialog in Terence Winter's script is very sharp.  You'll be surprised when you realize that The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours long, as it goes by like a drunken blur.

The performances, of course, are outstanding.  People have wondered for years when Leonardo DiCaprio would get nominated for an Oscar, and I think this is finally his year.  He's had deeper or more dramatic roles, but this is easily his most lively and amusing.  The Wolf is definitely my favorite performance of his.  He'll likely be competing with his co-star, Matthew McConaughey, whose fans may be disappointed to hear he's not in the movie that much.  McConaughey's character establishes the tone for the film though, as well as sets Belfort up with the rules that he eventually adopts as his lifestyle.

I thought Jonah Hill was extremely funny and I would argue this is a better performance than the one he got nominated for in Moneyball.  I wouldn't be surprised to see another supporting nomination for him.  Rob Reiner was a total scene stealer as Belfort's Dad, and he was a welcome sight on the big screen again.  Besides Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, and Jean Dujardin all stand out as part of the supporting cast.  I got a kick out of some of the characters that made up the rest of Belfort's team, and even Jon Favreau has a small role.  There isn't a weak performance in the bunch.

A word of warning, while I've never really taken issue with nudity in a film, The Wolf of Wall Street has more nudity in it than any film I can remember outside of an actual porn.  This also has to be up there with the most amount of f-bombs dropped, as well.  I have to imagine this flirted with an NC-17 rating, and if so, I really want to see the Director's Cut.

The Wolf of Wall Street may not be Martin Scorsese's best film, but it's definitely one of his most humorous and entertaining.  The energy and craziness is intoxicating.  Like many of Scorsese's films, it's one you'll watch and enjoy again and again, but don't expect to ever catch this while channel surfing on some rainy afternoon.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars

American Hustle (2013)

There are times when a movie begins, whether it's from the look, the music, or atmosphere, you know you're in for something that's going to transport you to another time and place.  That's the feeling I got when American Hustle started.

We're told, "Some of this actually happened," which felt like a subtle dig at movies that claim to be based on true events, but you can tell are wildly exaggerated or embellished for dramatic purposes.  That's certainly true here, but that craziness is part of the fun.  American Hustle is a fictionalized account of the FBI's Abscam operation during the late 70's.  I don't want to get into the plot as the trailers do a good job of not revealing much, so I'll just give you the broad strokes. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time con man.  He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), they become lovers and start conning together.  They are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who wants to use them to reel in some bigger fish and make a name for himself at the Bureau.  Richie has Irv over a barrel, so he doesn't have any choice but to go along.  Their primary mark is local mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who's trying to raise money to renovate Atlantic City now that gambling's been made legal.

American Hustle is as much about the characters as it is the story we're being told.  Everyone's looking to improve their station in life, and most are working an angle as well.  It would seem that everyone's motivations are fairly selfish in nature, but as the story unfolds, some start having conflicted or mixed feelings about what they are doing.  Relationships become strained and people lose control.  In particular, Irv struggles internally while he develops a friendship with Carmine, as he's a family man that seems to have honest intentions of improving his community.

I've heard many people refer to American Hustle as a comedy.  I wouldn't call it an outright comedy, but more like a crime drama that just happens to be extremely funny.  I love when something makes me laugh consistently when that didn't appear to be the goal.  Much of the humor is from watching how people react to the situation they're in.  Sometimes it's a simple look, other times it's an awkward comment from someone that doesn't realize the gravity of the situation.  A few times it's due to someone completely losing their shit.

The dialog is great as well, with more than a few quotable lines.  David O. Russell and Eric Singer really outdid themselves on the screenplay.  There's some hilarious stuff here and it felt very natural, like being a fly on the wall

I know I'm not the first to say this, but David O. Russell did his best Scorsese impression making American Hustle.  This would fit right in with a marathon of Goodfellas or Casino.  It's basically the same setting and feel, same type of narration, and even some mob involvement.  Hustle seemed to be full of impressions, many probably unintentional.  If you close your eyes when listening to Alessandro Nivola (who played one of Richie's bosses) speak, you may hear a young Christopher Walken.  At one point, the way Bradley Cooper was looking at someone and reacting to them, it reminded me of Sean Penn.

I enjoyed American Hustle the most for its dynamic performances.  Cooper is great and I think he's really found a home in these more demanding dramatic roles.  Jeremy Renner is also very good and plays one of the more sympathetic characters in the film.  Jennifer Lawrence's gives her funniest performance to date, but I was surprised at her character's vulnerability.  She continues to impress me with her maturity playing characters that seem much older than her actual age.  I wouldn't guess she was only 23.  There's another small role played by a very well known comedian, but I won't say who because you don't see him in the trailer.  All I'll say is that I found him extremely funny, but that might be due simply to me being a fan.  There's also a nice cameo that fits perfectly.  Who?  I'm not telling on that one either.

As good as the cast is, they're overshadowed a bit by the leads as there's more focus on the relationship between Irv and Sydney.  The ageless wonder, Amy Adams, is fantastic as a sexy manipulator.  Always playing both sides, she's someone that can get anything she wants.  It also doesn't hurt that she has probably the best wardrobe I've seen in a film this year.  I don't know too many guys that would be able to say no to her in some of those outfits.  However, if there's anything I would critique about her performance it's that her accent didn't seem to be consistent.  Her character crafts a persona that speaks with an English accent, and it sounded like it would transition in and out of her natural voice during conversation.  I think this was due to it being a lighter English accent, but it could have been the speakers in the theater for all I know.  My hearing has taken a beating over the years.  Lastly, Christian Bale delivers yet another great performance, possibly my favorite since American Psycho.  The sacrifices he makes to his body for these movies make me a little concerned for his long term health, but I admire the dedication.  When you see him work that epic comb-over (move over Donald Trump), I expect to read somewhere that was his real hair.

On a side note, I can't tell you how many times writing this review I had to correct writing American Psycho instead of American Hustle.  If Christian Bale comes out with another film with "American" in the title, I'm gonna be screwed.

Much funnier than I could have imagined and carried by great performances and direction, American Hustle reminds me why I love movies so much.  Stylish, with a great soundtrack and extremely lively, it's a film I enjoyed on multiple levels and have no issue with calling one of the best of 2013.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

Has it really been nine years since Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy?  I have to give them credit for not rushing a cash-grab sequel out immediately after.  Believe it not, I actually didn't like Anchorman all that much the first time I saw it.  I can only remember laughing once or twice in the theater, but a lot of that was due to my mood (and being on a bad date).  It wasn't until I watched it a second time that I really started to love it.  I think that's the case with a lot of comedies though.

With so much time passing between films, can Anchorman 2 live up to the expectations?  Let's see...

Since Anchorman, Ron (Will Ferrell) and Veronica (Christina Applegate) have moved to New York and are anchoring a weekend news show.  Their boss and legendary reporter, Mack Harken (Harrison Ford), offers Veronica a promotion while firing Ron.  As you'd expect, this doesn't have a good outcome for their relationship and Ron dives into another tailspin.  Eventually he's offered a job by Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker), who offers him a job at the Global News Network, which is trying to become the first 24-hour news network.  Ron assembles his old news team, and they head back to New York.  There's not much more to the plot than that, and it can be kind of a mess at times.  In fact, much of the story feels like a remix of the first, hitting many of the same beats.  Let's be honest though, is anyone watching Anchorman 2 for the plot?  We all just want to laugh, right?

Anchorman 2 is a little rough in the opening minutes.  Many of the jokes were landing with a thud, and I was concerned they were trying too hard.  I've said this before, but it's really hard to recapture that same lightning in the bottle, especially where comedy is concerned.  Fortunately after it settles in, there are plenty of good laughs to be had.  Having said that, there are a few gags that go nowhere or outright don't work, and more than a few times, they are basically recycling a joke from the first.  They can't be all gems though, and I was pleased that some of the better laughs weren't spoiled by the trailer, so if you're concerned about that you should rest a little easier going in.  Another thing that you'll notice is that this installment isn't quite as quotable as the first, although subsequent views once this hits blu-ray may prove otherwise.  I still think Anchorman will be the winner in that category though.

It's all the same silly stuff you've come to expect from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.  So, if you're not a fan of the overgrown, man-child act, then this is likely not going to be for you.  Will Ferrell portrays Ron again with the same over-the-top buffoonery, but he might have dialed it up to 11 this time.  If you're a Champ (David Koechner) fan, he seemed to take a back seat, as well as Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), who played more of a voice of reason this time around.  As much as this is Will Ferrell's show though, you'll likely notice there's a lot more of Brick (Steve Carell).  He has an oddly sweet, but funny, courtship with Chani (Kristen Wiig).  I can only describe it as watching monkeys learn how to use tools.

There are lot of new members to the cast, such as Dylan Baker, who's primarily a straight man to all of the antics.  Meagan Good joins the cast as Ron's fiery and sexy boss.  Films need more Meagan Good.  Greg Kinnear also has a few funny moments.  I was very happy to see James Marsden finally getting a chance to show mainstream audiences that he can be a funny guy.  I've long felt he was an underappreciated actor who usually ends up playing the other guy in romantic comedies or even in action films (like his role in Superman Returns or Cyclops in the X-Men series).  Here he has a central role that I hope gets him the recognition he deserves.  Another interesting performance was the kid (Judah Nelson) they had playing Ron and Veronica's son.  At times, he's delivering lines like an inexperienced. overly enthusiastic child actor, but then there's a scene towards the end that made me think this was an intentional direction and make it that much funnier.

I was surprised to see this was two hours, as I often complain that comedies have no business being that long, but I didn't notice the length at all.  Time flies when you're having fun, eh?  I also applaud the movie for getting away with just a PG-13 rating.  Anchorman 2 doesn't get its laughs from being vulgar or gross.  I don't have an issue with that normally, but it's nice to see a comedy not going for shock value.

While not as funny as the first film, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues has enough of the same absurd and silly humor that made the first so enjoyable and fans will have a good time watching.  I can't say it was worth waiting nine years for, but in a weak year for comedy it'll do.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Philomena (2013)

Whenever I heard that Philomena was coming out, I kept wondering if it was another Disney movie.  Doesn't that totally sound like a Disney princess name?

Philomena is one of those 'based on a true story' films where the story seems too strange to be true.  Unless you've already read the book it's based on, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, or are a huge fan of random, human interest stories, I'm guessing that most haven't heard of this.  In summary, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) got pregnant as a teen, and was sent to live in a convent in Ireland.  She was forced to give up her son for adoption, and kept this a secret for 50 years.  Philomena decides to track down her son, mainly with the goal of learning if he at least led a happy life.

Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who recently lost his job, is approached to write her story and help find her son, but initially refuses as he's not a fan of human interest stories.  Obviously he comes around though, otherwise the book he wrote about it wouldn't exist.  Martin and Philomena track down leads, and hit several dead ends, but always manage to find a clue that allows them to continue the search.

The longer they are together, the more Martin becomes invested in her story, and by the end it sometimes feels like it's as much his story as it is hers.  In fact when it comes to the wrongs done to Philomena, Martin is more disgusted and angry about them than she is.  I've always enjoyed characters that have that transformation from casual disinterest interest to very passionate.  Writing this story is just a job for Martin as he begins.  His generally cynical nature was something I identified with, and I really enjoyed Steve Coogan in the role.  On another note, you should hear his Michael Caine impression.  It's really great.

Philomena is an interesting contrast to Martin as she's one of those people that somehow sees the best in everything, and has an overly forgiving nature, even when it would be totally acceptable if she didn't want to forgive.  Many times she appears as someone that's never been more than a few miles from her home, and has an almost childlike fascination with anything new to her.  She's also extremely naive to the point where maybe she was portrayed a little too daft.  Judi Dench is sweet though and it was nice change of pace to see her do something different compared to the more serious performances were used to seeing from her.

It's interesting they didn't change the names, as it makes certain organizations look very bad, if not downright evil.  I have to wonder if the film simplifies the events in the book, as otherwise there would seem to be an amazing string of coincidences throughout.  It comes together a little too tidy at times.  I also found it a little melodramatic in parts (I really hate using that word), as well.  For example, they are able to track down a friend of Philomena's son, who refuses to take their calls and sends them away when they are at his door, but you'll find there didn't seem to be a real reason for him to be that way.  Maybe this makes more sense in the book, but in the movie it felt like they forced some additional conflict for dramatic purposes.

Director Stephen Frears does a good job of balancing the more serious dramatic elements of the story while keeping it grounded and relatable.  The story moves at a good pace while keeping a lot of detail and character moments in there.  I'm betting that much of the dry humor came from Steve Coogan's work on the screenplay, co-written with Jeff Pope.

I'm trying not to give too much away, but it doesn't quite turn out like you think it's going to.  Its bittersweet conclusion manages to be satisfying though.  I also couldn't shake the feeling that I just watched a buddy cop film, considering the odd pairing of Philomena and Martin.

Philomena is a heartfelt, humorous and interesting true life story that's bolstered by the great chemistry between Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.  I think the Oscar talk is a little premature, but it is worth watching for their performances.  I thought it was a nice change of pace from most of the films out in theaters now.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

The Book Thief (2013)

Leave it to classy, English narration (by Roger Allam) to make a film set against Nazi Germany and WWII practically feel like a whimsical fairy tale.  When you finally realize who's narrating the film, it adds another layer of darkness to a film that already had a thread of it throughout.

What I'm trying to get at is after watching The Book Thief, I was a little perplexed by its tone.  There's the cloud of WWII and the threat of being discovered by Nazis throughout the film, but it's always kind of in the background.  In one scene there's a children's choir singing a seeming beautiful song against several Nazi flags, which was an interesting juxtaposition as it is.  Then, you see that the subtitles for the lyrics reveal they are singing Nazi propaganda, and it comes off as funny, rather than being shocked at children being made to sing this so young.  Later, there's a book burning scene that felt more like a fun community event, rather than the repressive thing it should have been.

Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) is on a train with her brother to meet her foster parents.  Sadly, her brother dies en route, further setting the dark tone in the opening minutes.  Her foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) have a good-cop/bad-cop relationship when they first meet.  Hans does his best to make Liesel feel at home, while Rosa is the strict one.  It's discovered that Liesel does not know how to read or write, but Hans teachers her, and Liesel becomes a sponge, reading everything she can get her hands on.  She's also able to make friends with a neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), and the two of them become very close.

Later, Hans and Rosa give shelter to a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), who's avoiding capture by the Nazis.  While hiding in their home, Liesel and Max share stories and Liesel reads to him after he becomes sick.  After the previously mentioned book burning event, the mayor's wife, Ilsa (Barbara Auer), sees Liesel recover a book from the fire.  Rather than punish Liesel, Ilsa invites her into their home and allows her to read from their extensive library.  After their relationship is ended by the mayor, Liesel continues to sneak into their home and borrow their books, hence the title.  That title is a bit of a misnomer, but I suppose The Book Thief grabs your attention more than The Book Borrower.  She only actually steals one book that I can recall, so "Thief" seems like a bit of an exaggeration.  You wouldn't call a guy that's only been to the gym once a bodybuilder or powerlifter, would you?

Where The Book Thief's heart lies are within Liesel's personal relationships.  This is why the film is effective.  Her relationship with Hans is particularly sensitive and touching, and it anchors the film.  Even her relationship with Rosa eventually warms the longer they are together.  Her friendship with Rudy is cute and humorous, and you see their blossoming puppy love.  It's also nice to see how she bonds with Max as they share stories.  There's a light tone to all of these relationships to contrast the real world events happening around them.  The film is also peppered with humor, like the subplot with Rudy idolizing Jesse Owens and his desire to become the fastest man alive.  The issue for me was that all of these lighter moments kind of took away from the seriousness of the time.  It makes some of the later events feel a little too dramatic, but I will say there wasn't a dry eye in the theater by the end.  I can't remember too many films where I actually saw people passing napkins to strangers to wipe their eyes.

At over two hours, the length was a little much.  I also had a little bit of an issue with how they handled the passage of time.  Several years go by over the course of the film, but to the audience it only seems like these events took place over a few months.  It doesn't help that nobody seems to age.  It's a minor complaint though, and there's likely not much that could have been done about aging the kids without casting different actors, which would have been jarring.

There are very strong performances though.  Geoffrey Rush is great and his sweetness toward Liesel makes it extremely easy to connect with their relationship and invest in it.  Emily Watson is dependable as always, and as mentioned before, I always like seeing a relationship defrost over time.  Rosa goes from looking at Liesel as a kind of burden to becoming a loving parent.  A film like this works best when you like and get good performances out of the child actors, and I enjoyed both Nico Liersch as Rudy and and Sophie Nelisse as Liesel.  I can't recall seeing Nelisse in anything else, but she really stands out and it's the kind of performance where you expect to see bigger things from her down the line.

The Book Thief has issues with the length and inconsistent tone, but still works based on the strong performances and character relationships that are the focus.  I'm not sure how people that have read the book will receive this, but it's effective as a more serious, family film.  Definitely worth a rent sometime.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Just remember, if you're not tired of The Hobbit yet, there's still three more hours on the way.

I mentioned in my The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review that I haven't read the book this is all based on (loosely, I suppose).  That hasn't changed in the past year, so once I again I can't comment on the faithfulness to the source material.  I don't necessarily have any issues with some of the newly added characters or plot points that seem to be more of a reference to The Lord of the Rings trilogy than having anything to do with The Hobbit.  In some cases, they were a good thing, like with the addition of Evangeline Lilly's character Tauriel.  She's a total badass and gives the audience a strong female character to identify with.  It doesn't hurt that she's super hot dressed up as an Elf.  I think she might have replaced Antje Traue's Faora from Man of Steel as my current nerd crush.  I liked her character so much that I would totally support and happily watch Tauriel: Badass Elf Chick.  I liked how they brought Legolas (Orlando Bloom) back into the fray, as he got some really cool action scenes that showed more of a ruthless side that wasn't necessarily seen in the original films.

I don't figure there's a lot of need to get into the plot.  The Desolation of Smaug isn't so much a sequel than the continuation (more like extension) of a story that really could have been told in a single film, but whatever.  Smaug and An Unexpected Journey could have easily been edited into a single, three hour film, but for some reason I was never bothered by the length or pacing of either.  If you've followed my blog at all, you know that I tend to pick on a movie's length or pacing a lot.  Simply put, I enjoy this world so much and hanging around in it that I don't want them to end.  Hell, I've already sat through the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey twice already, even though it didn't expand on the story the way the Extended Editions for The Lord of the Rings trilogy did.  You don't even have to twist my arm to say that I've enjoyed the The Hobbit movies far more than the Star Wars prequels.  The Hobbit is how you make a prequel trilogy and throw in references to the originals.

The real question I think most people will be asking is do we finally get to see the dragon in this one.  Well, we do and it's glorious!  Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is easily the best looking dragon ever seen in a movie.  It's not just a quick shot either.  We get an extended look and he plays heavily during the last part of the film.  The wait was worth it.  Although, I will add this, why is it so hard for a giant, fire-breathing dragon to kill a bunch of halflings?  Shouldn't he have been able to kill them like fifteen times each?

Overall, the special effects had more polish to them when compared to the first film.  There were times in Journey where it looked too much like a computer game, but I didn't get as much of that here.  I think a lot of that look was due to the high frame rate used.  I saw Smaug in IMAX 3D with the high frame rate, and there were still times where it still had that artificial, sped-up look.  I thought it was much less noticeable though, but I can see how some viewers may still have an issue with it.  If you're on the fence about what format to see it in, you should probably err on the side of avoiding the HFR screenings.  I liked the 3D though and don't have a problem recommending it.

Another reason I enjoyed Smaug so much is that there's a lot more action.  Journey took close to an hour before anything happened, but there's less setup in Smaug and more getting to the very creative and fun action scenes throughout the film.  The "barrel scene" has a almost Rube Goldberg feel to it, as did another scene later in the film.  Again, there there are many scenes with Tauriel and Legolas where they get to kick ass.  There are arrows to the head and beheadings galore.  Oh, and there's no musical sequences this time around.  It's not that I dislike them, but they're not always my thing or don't necessarily fit well in the story.  I also appreciated that there was less corny humor.  The whole tone of the film is much darker.

It isn't just better effects and action though.  There were many character moments I appreciated.  In particular, I liked how they took time to show how Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is slowly getting corrupted by The Ring.  I enjoyed how Thorin (Richard Armitage) was developed, and I came away liking him bit a more than I did after Journey. Many of the company of dwarves get to show more personality, especially with Kili (Aiden Turner), who is one of the few characters that gets a love interest.  If there was any disappointment I had it's that Gandalf (Ian McKellen) took a bit of a back seat in this chapter.  I'm assuming he'll be back with a vengeance in the final chapter.

I had a lot of fun with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Sure, it's too long, and purists will have issues with the story, but it's still an improvement over An Unexpected Journey.  If anything, it gives fans another opportunity to hang out in Middle-earth while providing more of the action and spectacle that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so entertaining.  Plus, there's a dragon...

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Out of the Furnace (2013)

Out of the Furnace opens and closes with a nondescript Pearl Jam song.  It sounded like a slower version of "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" combined with "Dissident", only with more Vedder mumbling.  The credits listed it as "Release", and twice for some reason.  Were they different versions of the same song?  Is this something that only the most detailed-oriented Pearl Jam fans would notice?  My friends that are fans will probably be mad at me for saying so, but was their music always so generic and depressing?  Am I remembering their early stuff wrong?  I had to do some research to find that "Release" was a hidden track from Ten, an album that I still own, but I guess I don't have a version that has "Release".

Look at that, one paragraph in and I'm already way off topic.  I bring this up because the song really seemed to set the tone for the film, and not in a good way.  Out of the Furnace is a film I've been looking forward to for a while though.  The cast alone intrigued me, but this is also the next film from Scott Cooper, whose directorial debut was Crazy Heart, a film I enjoyed a great deal.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in a factory in a very small town in the Northeast.  When I first heard his name, I heard it as "Blaze", which would have been so much cooler.  He's close with his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who's on active military duty, but also appears to have a gambling problem.  They have a sick father that they both look after as much as they can.

One thing that struck me as a little odd was that based on the town, the cars, and overall look of the film, I thought this took place in the 70's.  Even the very opening scene is set in a drive-in (where I didn't recognize the film playing as The Midnight Meat Train).  You then see a TV broadcast from a Democratic primary referring to electing Obama, so that would mean this is more like 2008.

While driving drunk, Russell hits a car that's backing out of a side road.  Now I'm not condoning drunk driving, but the way the accident was presented, it seemed like the kind of accident that could have happened to anyone, especially late at night when you take your eyes off the road for a second.  Russell is sent to prison, and here's where I started having issues with the film's concept of time and glossing over things.  We see no trial, and I don't think a single mention of the length of his sentence is made.  We jump straight from the scene of the accident to him already being in prison.

Once in prison, he keeps his head down and tries to get back on track.  For some reason, another inmate decides to pick a fight with him, but there didn't seem to be any purpose to this.  It wasn't the start of a string of fights, or something that forces him to join a gang.  There's no consequence to this, so you watch it and think, "Okay, that's something that happened."  In pretty much the very next scene, he's out of prison already.  We still don't know how long he was in.  Many details like this throughout the film are skipped without any explanation or development.  It as if Out of the Furnace was originally intended to be a much longer film, and then had to cut a bunch to get it under two hours.  In fact, this would have been an interesting series on TV, where you could have spent more time developing the characters, time with Russell in prison, Rodney's military service, their relationship with their father, etc.  It felt very underwritten as is.

Anyway, Rodney's military service is done, but is having problems finding work, so he turns to the shady world of underground fighting.  You'd think that this was something that Russell could have gotten involved in, as he also might've had a hard time finding work after prison, and sometimes inmates take up boxing.  Instead, Russell urges Rodney to get a job at the factory and not get mixed up in that world.  Against his friend John Petty's (Willem Dafoe) judgement, they take a fight ran by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a psychopath you don't want to find yourself owing money to.  Rodney goes missing and when it appears there's not much the authorities can, or will, do, Russell goes looking for him.  At this point, you think the film is finally going to pick up and become some kind of revenge thriller, but it builds no tension at all.  That's really the biggest problem with Out of the Furnace; it's slowly paced and doesn't go anywhere satisfying.  The entire tone of the film is very dour.

Out of the Furnace does have a great cast and is well acted though.  Christian Bale is great as he always is, but this is slow pitch softball for someone of his skill.  Casey Affleck as also good, as is Sam Shepard and Willem Dafoe.  Zoe Saldana is in the film briefly, and shares a very emotional scene with Bale after Russell is released from prison.  I heard many people crying around me during the scene, but I had no emotional connection with the characters at this point.  This is mainly because Saldana's character is not developed at all beyond being "the ex-girlfriend."  You see very little of their relationship before Russell goes to prison, and by the time he's out, she's already moved on and now hooking up with the local police chief (Forest Whitaker).  One of the best and bright spots of the film was Woody Harrelson, whose inspired performance make him feel like a rabid animal.  It's a reminder of the rule that it's more fun to play the bad guy.

Out of the Furnace is a gritty looking film and dependably acted, but its plodding pace and lack of tension prevents it from having any real effect or impact.  It simply fizzles out and unfortunately ends up being something very forgettable.  It's not the worst thing in the world, but better saved for rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Oldboy (2013)

I wasn't quite sure what to make of Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy at first.  I've seen the South Korean original by Chan-wook Park many times and it's a favorite of mine.  Was I going to be able to watch this remake objectively?  I'm not the biggest fan of remakes either, but if there's one instance where it's not always a bad thing is when doing an American version of a foreign film.  You can address issues with the story that may be cultural or lost in translation.  Really the biggest problem with a remake of Oldboy is that it features some significant twists and disturbing story elements, so all the shock and surprise is gone for anyone that's seen the original.  I tried looking at the remake from the perspective of someone that's never seen it before, and I think that's where Oldboy does work on some level.

After a night of massive drinking, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) finds himself locked in what appears to be a hotel room.  He's unable to escape and there's no explanation as to why he's there.  After 20 years goes by, he's finally released still not knowing why.  Joe's out for vengeance and discovering why this was done to him.  He's befriended by a nurse, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who agrees to help him after learning his story.  Eventually a mysterious man (Sharlto Copley) reveals himself as his captor and issues Joe a challenge to discover his real identity and why he imprisoned and tortured him.  There's much more to the story than that, but I wanna try and keep this spoiler free for you folks out there that aren't familiar with it.

There are several changes between the two versions.  As you'd might suspect, many of these changes don't add much to the story, and some serve to hand hold the audience through the film a bit more. There's a little more lead up in this version where we see more of Joe's work and personal behavior prior to his imprisonment.  It's absolutely clear what kind of person he was.  I didn't think this change was really necessary (the scene of Joe's bender goes on way too long), but it did allow them to show more growth from Joe while imprisoned.  There's a change to the villain's back story which I felt made his motivation less sympathetic and much creepier.  A minor change that felt like it may have been cultural was that the length of Joe's imprisonment was increased from 15 to 20 years.  Again, without trying to spoil anything, this ages a certain character to make their profession and relationship to Joe a little more believable.  One change I did like was at the end.  The original version has an ambiguous, artsy ending, where this version has more of a full circle feel.  I liked the finality of it.

One of the more obvious differences that was likely done to appeal to US audiences is that it's extremely bloody and violent, even more so than the original.  The violence is even a little Tarantino-esque.  The infamous "hammer scene" was changed up to make it more action oriented.  In the original, it's more about the character becoming a force of nature, where in Spike Lee's version it felt more like an obligatory action scene because nobody had been killed in a while.  It's over-choreographed (in some cases badly) and changed to have multiple floors, making it feel more like a video game.

Overall, it's paced well though, and I never found myself bored with it despite knowing exactly how it was going to turn out.  While it doesn't have the same aesthetic as the original, Spike Lee put his own style on it and I thought there were some creative looking scenes.

Oldboy does feature some strong performances.  Josh Brolin is very good at portraying the mental transformation of Joe, and even goes through a physical transformation as he molded himself into a force of vengeance.  Elizabeth Olsen is also good as Marie and I though her performance and changes to her character was one of the distinct improvements over the original.  Again, some of these changes seemed to be cultural, which is likely why I feel that way.  Unfortunately, one performance that definitely was not an improvement was Sharlto Copley's choices as The Stranger.  He's way over-the-top in that bad, mustache-twirling, Bond villain way.  It seems he may have spent a little too much time at the Evil Villain Academy.  It's almost comical how over-the-top it is, but since this wasn't made to be a campy film, it really undermines the seriousness of it.  You can contrast that with Samuel L. Jackson's small role as Chaney, which was also a little over-the-top (is there a Jackson performance that isn't?), but had an element of fun to it.

If you haven't yet seen the original, or you're someone that doesn't have the patience for subtitles, then I think you'll enjoy Oldboy for the dark, twisted and violent thriller it is.  Fans of the original, however, will likely find that it doesn't add anything new to the story.  Much of the nuance and subtlety is gone, and Spike Lee's version is more of a telegraphed punch.  Even for existing fans, I think it's worth a rent just to compare the two, but it's nothing that anyone needs to rush out and see in the theater.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Frozen (2013)

The cold never bothered me, either.  That line will make more sense after you see Frozen.  Despite being a California native, I've often wondered if I was meant for colder climates.  Then again, spending much of my youth stocking a cooler for hours at a time might have thickened my hide a bit.

Before I get started, allow me to rant for a second.  Dear parents, if your kids cannot get through even a two minute trailer without screaming out loud several times (and not even necessarily at the images on the screen), perhaps you should wait a few more years before bringing them to the movies.  It's not fair or courteous to the people sitting around you.

Before Frozen began, we're treated to a clever, "meta" short film framed around a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon.  It develops slowly, but once its 'twist' is revealed it was a lot of fun to watch.  It's no Paperman, but still a good short.

In just the opening scene of Frozen I realized I was in for a much different movie than I thought.  Based on the trailer, I expected some corny movie about a snowman and a reindeer (it's interesting to note that neither character shows up until around the halfway point).  Instead, Frozen is a classic story about a princess and true love.  It's a familiar and somewhat cliched story.  You could call this a weakness, but the classic versus cliched debate is splitting hairs in this case.  Both written and directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, they've added some twists and updates that worked very well and kept it fresh.  Frozen also has very strong central themes that make this the kind of film that parents will actually encourage their kids to watch.

Frozen is about two sisters, Elsa and Anna, who've grown apart over the years, and have been isolated from the outside world.  There's much more to their relationship, but I don't want to spoil anything since I was so pleasantly surprised by how the story developed.  I want you to be able to enjoy it the way I did.  I'll give you this one little tease to go on though.  If your favorite character from the X-Men is Iceman, with maybe a little bit of Emma Frost thrown in, then you're going to be in for a treat.  During many scenes in Frozen my mind would wander thinking about why they haven't been able to accurately portray Iceman in an X-Men film yet.  Future X-Men films may want to use Frozen as a template, because they really nailed it.

While I'm not exactly the biggest fan of musicals, I really loved the songs in Frozen and it's one of the best aspects of the film  They were cute, clever and funny.  By the second song, I was already in love with Frozen.  Yes, you could say that Frozen managed to thaw my icy heart.  Elsa's (Idina Menzel) defining song "Let it Go" is a highlight of the film, and the animation was perfect for it.  I can still hear the song in my head.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Oscar nominations for Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez for their original songs.  I expect that many copies of the soundtrack will be purchased this holiday season.

The animation is fantastic and some of the designs and scenery will likely evoke thoughts of things like Lord of the Rings or even Game of Thrones.  The character's look was also very appealing.  Despite all the ice and snow, it's still very vivid and colorful.  I actually thought the 3D was very good as well, and it doesn't get in the way.  I still don't think you need to make huge effort to see it in 3D, but it's not a complete waste if that's all that's available to you.

Frozen also features great voice acting.  I couldn't place the voice for Anna for much of the film, and was surprised to see it was Kristen Bell.  I never really noticed her voice before, but was impressed with how warm and effortless it was, and it turns out she's a great singer, too.  The entire cast is excellent and I applaud the filmmakers for not going with a bunch of big name actors, but rather ones whose voices fit the parts better.  I was very impressed with Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana, as Kristoff and Hans respectively.  Josh Gad is perfect as Olaf the snowman.  I was surprised to see Alan Tudyk's name in the credits, and he's proving to be quite the chameleon as a voice actor.  However, the prize goes to Idina Menzel as the hidden gem here.  He voice is absolutely amazing!

Frozen is a classic Disney musical that everyone can enjoy.  It features gorgeous animation, great songs and wonderful voice acting.  It's clever, funny, energetic, and has the kind of heart I normally would expect from a Pixar film.  Disney has really stepped up it's game with their animated films in the past few years.  This is my favorite animated film of 2013 and was an absolute joy to watch.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Delivery Man (2013)

A few years ago I heard about a story where there was some delivery guy or truck driver that actually had like 100+ kids in various cities around the country.  I though that's what Delivery Man was going to be about, which probably would have been a more interesting story. It turns out I can't find any links to that story, so I could have imagined it for all I know.

What I didn't realize was that Delivery Man is an American remake of  the French-Canadian film Starbuck, both directed by Ken Scott, and co-written with Martin Petit.  Why "Starbuck"?  It's the anonymous name used by David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn), when he made a large amount of sperm donations when he was younger.  The choice of name struck me as odd as David didn't appear to be much of a coffee drinker, nor a Battlestar Galactica fan.

Due to some issue at the sperm back, David's sperm was used repeatedly and learns that he is the biological father of 533 kids. A large group of these kids are suing to find out their father's identity, and David is given a file with their profiles.  David now has to decide if he wants to come forward.  Also, his girlfriend (Cobie Smulders) reveals she's pregnant, but isn't sure David would make for a good father.

David is that cliched screw-up that hadn't grown up yet, and always seems to be in some kind of mess.  Looking for some way to prove his value as a father, and an adult, he starts reviewing the profiles of his various biological children to check in on them and help them where he can.

He helps out a few of these kids and starts to feel better about himself.  He even views himself as a bit of a guardian angel.  These were some of the better moments of the film.  Unfortunately, many of these kids are not really well developed, so outside of one or two of them, you don't get invested in them at all.  They aren't much more than a single character trait or profession.  The main kid that they do focus on was a creepy guy that you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time with.  Even David talked about how much he was annoyed by him.

One of the issues I had a hard time wrapping my head around was what the actual conflict was.  The kids were only suing to learn his identity.  They didn't appear to be mad at him, or want anything from him financially.  It's mainly an issue of confidentiality, which David never really expresses that he has much of an issue with.  The only real problem comes from the fact once the story gets in the news, he's vilified as some kind of creep, but again, this isn't something he's at fault for.  It's the sperm bank's fault.  Also, for much of the film it's never a matter of if he's going to come forward, but when.  The way he chooses to do it I thought was pretty terrible considering the relationship he had with many of them by the end.  If I were some of the kids, I probably would have been upset by the way he revealed himself.  Oh, sorry, I guess that's a bit of a spoiler...if you couldn't tell that was going to happen during the opening credits.

Another big issue with the film is that it's really not that funny.  Most of the jokes fall really flat, and there's and overall lack of wit or punch to anything.  There's one particular gag that's repeated to the point where it gets annoying, and it wasn't even funny the first time.  I was disappointed that Bobby Moynihan as David's brother (really, you're trying to sell me on Moynihan being related Vaughn?) didn't get more to do, and it seemed like there was a missed opportunity to have more banter within the the family.

It also suffers from lack of focus and plot threads that don't really go anywhere.  There's a thread that persists throughout regarding David owing a large amount of money to some Russian loan sharks.  When this is finally resolved, it has no bearing on the film's conclusion, and you wonder why it was in the film at all.  It was a pretty pointless inclusion.

Vince Vaughn is his usual charming self, even if is trademarked energy isn't there.  He's much more subdued than what we're used to seeing, and I'm not sure that was the best direction.  The film needed a little more life and energy.  On a side note, in a few early scenes I had to wonder if Vaughn was dealing with some back issues.  As someone that's had his share of back issues over the years, I recognized the labored walk of someone dealing with a sore back or back spasms.  As much as I like Cobie Smulders, she's not given much to do here and felt like a wasted casting.  Chris Pratt had a few funny moments towards the end, but he's better than the material given to work with, too.  I just don't understand why you'd get comedic actors from successful TV shows and then not give them anything funny to say or do.

Delivery Man is a middle-of-the-road, sorta feel good, family film that fans of Vince Vaughn will still likely get some enjoyment out of.  It pretty much gets by on his charm.  I admit that I liked the end, but I'm a sucker for sappy endings.  It's one of those films where I can't say I really liked it, but can't bring myself to hate it either.  It's definitely not something you need to rush out and see in the theater, and is better suited for rental or cable.  In fact, if you were flipping channels and caught this you'd probably sit through it and not feel like you totally wasted your time.  Ultimately, it's pretty forgettable though.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

In the opening scene of Dallas Buyers Club, rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) helps another cowboy as he prepares for a bull ride.  I couldn't help but think how the other cowboy looked like he could be related to Steve Zahn.  Woodroof placed a losing bet on this cowboy, and in an attempt to avoid getting throttled by an angry mob, assaults a cop played by...Steve Zahn!  Is there such a thing as Steve Zahn foresight?  Do I have the gift?

Okay, I'm already getting way off topic here.  Woodroof later has an accident at work, and awakens in a hospital.  He's told by doctors that not only does he have AIDS, they estimate he has just 30 days to live.  Set back in 1985, this was when AIDS was pretty much an automatic death sentence, and many considered it to be a "gay disease".  Hell, I remember back then people were concerned you could get it from kissing or casual contact.  Some of you may even remember Eddie Murphy doing a joke to this effect from Delirious.  I'm not saying it was right, but it's interesting to see much differently AIDS was viewed 30 years ago.

Woodroof is able to score some AZT, which was in its early days of clinical trials, but the drug actually makes him worse and pushes him to the brink.  Desperate for alternative treatments, he heads down to Mexico where he's given a series of non-FDA-approved medications and supplements.  When his health improves and realizes he's been hanging on much longer than the doctor's guess, he sees an opportunity to make a lot of money.  Needing a connection into the community, he partners with Rayon (Jared Leto) to sell memberships to those that want the supplements.  The Dallas Buyers Club is born.

If you're someone that tends to think the FDA's is a good 20-30 years beyond current medical science, or controlled by big Pharma, then you're likely to appreciate what Woodroof did on principal.  Granted, he did this initially to make money, but as time goes on he does it as much to help people and to get them off drugs that were making them sicker.

Based on a true story, one of the things that makes Dallas Buyers Club work so well is that its protagonist is a charming enough guy, but definitely has some severe character flaws (gambling, drugs, homophobia).  Stubbornness can be a strength, and that's another thing I liked about Woodroof.  He doesn't feel sorry for himself, and he never gives up despite many setbacks or the constant harassment from law enforcement.  He's not going down without a fight.

His disease and association with gays isn't something that his friends look kindly on either, and is ostracized from them.  Even Woodroof can't get past his own homophobia at first, but eventually starts to sympathize with the very community he used to demonize.  He also slowly bonds and becomes friends with Rayon.  This aspect is a pretty predictable buddy story where you have two people that don't get along, are forced to work together due to a common goal, and then become friends.  Sure, it's a little cliched, but that doesn't make it any less satisfying to see play out.

While dealing with some dark subjects, another strength of Dallas Buyers Club is that it's peppered with humor and funny dialog.  Much of this is provided through McConaughey's performance, who always has the right, smartass thing to say.  The humorous moments actually make this extremely enjoyable to watch, when compared to some of the heavier films of this Oscar season.  I have to credit screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack for keeping it light, but smart at the same.  Director Jean-Marc Vallee could have tightened the pace a little bit, but was able to avoid having the film fall into melodrama.

Clearly the biggest strength is the out-of-the-park performance from Matthew McConaughey.  The physical transformation of dropping 50 pounds alone is an achievement that can't be ignored.  That's commitment to the role there.  Despite his frail appearance, there's a fierce strength in his performance and he felt like a bull charging with a full head of steam.  While this is definitely McConaughey's film, Jared Leto gives an equally great performance.  He also goes through a physical transformation, and I know many people that didn't even realize it was Leto until afterwards.  He's come a long way from My So-Called Life and Jordan Catalano.  I've never thought about it much until now, but he's in that category of underrated, under appreciated actors that are usually overshadowed by another cast member or two.  That doesn't happen here though, and I anticipate Oscar nominations for both Leto and McConaughey this year.  I wouldn't be surprised to see both win either.  Almost lost in the shuffle is Jennifer Garner who's also very strong as Dr. Eve Saks, but it's kind of hard stand out when you're in the shadow of two fantastic, Oscar-worthy performances.

I think I've mentioned this every time I seen a film with Matthew McConaughey recently, but has there been an actor that's had a more impressive career turnaround than he has in the past few years?  I keep writing this as if it's a surprise he turned in a good performance, but that's the thing, it's not a surprise anymore.  I see McConaughey's name on a film now and expect to be impressed and enjoy the film.

Dallas Buyers Club is a powerful and inspirational story anchored by the best performance of Matthew McConaughey's (and Jared Leto's) career.  It's an example of how a darker tale can still entertain with its surprising humor and lively spirit.  This is one film that's going to be counted among the years best and one you shouldn't miss.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Which came first, Lady Gaga's fashion sense or the styling of Panem's residents in The Hunger Games?

Picking up shortly after their win in the Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to take their victory tour of the districts.  However, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) warns Katniss that her actions have been seen as an act of defiance against the Capitol and have inspired many to rebel.  She better convince everyone that her relationship with Peeta is real, or else.  As the tour continues, civil unrest continues to escalate, and eventually Snow and new Head Gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decide that Katniss needs to go.  They throw a wrinkle in the next Hunger Games that the tributes will be picked from the existing pool of past winners.  None of the past winners are wild about this and don't hide their unhappiness with the situation.  As many of the past winners are older or have been out of the game for a while, alliances form as their best chance to survive in the games.  If you've ever watched a season of Survivor, it's pretty much just like that, except with better hygiene.

When we do eventually get to the action, there's thankfully no shaky cam this time.  One of the things that bugged me, and many of my friends, about the first was that many of the action sequences were ruined by shaky cam to the point where it was a little nauseating.  I watched The Hunger Games again just a few hours before seeing Catching Fire to see if I was remembering it correctly, and it's definitely there.  I have to give credit to director Francis Lawrence for this improvement over the first.  The effects were a definite step up, too.  With almost double the budget, you can tell a lot of it went towards improving the visuals.  One scene that stood out was where the tributes face off against a pack of baboons that looked much more convincing than those rubber dogs from the first.  Those things looked like the bad, mutated dogs from Ang Lee's Hulk.

It's a not a flawless affair though. The first hour's pacing is a little too slow.  I liked the politics and story that was being set up, but more than a few times I felt like they needed to hurry up and get on with it.  Also at 2 hours and 26 minutes, it's still way too long. This could have easily been edited down a good 10-15 minutes and not lost much of anything.  It's not like I was bored, or was desperate for a bathroom break by the end, but these issues are really apparent considering that the structure is pretty much identical to the first film.  In fact, if hadn't enjoyed Catching Fire as much as I did, I would have walked out of the theater saying, "I enjoyed Catching Fire much more the first time I saw it, when it was called The Hunger Games."  It makes me a little nervous when I see that the final book is being split into two films.  I know that's the cash grab these days, but I hope it's being done because there's actually enough material there, rather than stretching out the running time.  Overall, I liked Francis Lawrence's direction and think the series is in good hands for the upcoming films.  Anyone want the over/under at 5 hours for the total runtime?

The performances were a big improvement across the board as well.  Josh Hutcherson seems to have matured a bit since the first film, and Jennifer Lawrence keeps getting better and better.  I'm a little biased though, as Lawrence is one of my favorite female actors, period.  An observation I had after the film is that while Hutcherson appears roughly his age, Lawrence feels much more mature than her age or appearance would indicate.

Woody Harrelson's Haymitch was much funnier and overall Harrelson felt more invested in the role.  I thought that Elizabeth Banks showed a little more range with Effie, as you saw how she'd grown to care for Katniss and Peeta.  I was a little bummed that Lenny Kravitz didn't get more screen time as he was one of the surprises of the first film for me.  The PSH is always great, but we didn't get to see one of his trademarked outbursts.  I also enjoyed Sam Claflin as Finnick, as based on his poster I wasn't sure what to make of his character going in.

Two of the biggest scene stealers were Stanely Tucci with his campy and a little creepy return as Caesar Flickerman, and Jena Malone's sarcastic and sexy turn as Johanna, a former winner who never passes up the opportunity to tell you, or show you, exactly what she's thinking.  Malone and Tucci seemed like the two actors that were enjoying themselves the most.

Poor Liam Hemsworth.  He's still suck in third wheel mode while his brother gets to swing around Mjolnir.
If there's any issue I had with the cast it was that Thad Castle (Alan Ritchson) didn't have more screen time, and at no point did he mention the need to bone some sloots.  Such a waste...

On a side note, I know I complained about this in my Hunger Games review, but I still have a little bit of a hard time taking this seriously as I should with all the goofy, made up names given to these characters. There are guys named Gale and Peeta.  Other characters with names like Haymich, Cinna, Katniss, Beetee, and Mags.  Are these call signs from Top Gun?  Where are all the Johns, Daves or Jennifers?  I guess in the future, the winners were the people that name their kids stuff like Gunnar, Apple and Rumor.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is one of the rare examples of a sequel that's better than its predecessor.  It's an obvious comparison, especially coming from me, but this felt like the Empire Strikes Back of The Hunger Games series. With the exception of its length and some pacing issues, it's a definite improvement over the first.  Fans of the first film should be very pleased with what they see this time around.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Sunshine Award

I was recently nominated for a Sunshine Award by fellow blogger Cristina over at After "Cut" Reviews.  I didn't even know this existed until I was notified of the nomination.  I'm flattered by it and that there are people out there that like or appreciate what I do.  I consider myself a mediocre writer at best, so anything like this is always going to be a surprise to me.

There are a few rules to the nomination, which are as follows:

1. Include the award's logo in a post or on your blog. (above)
2. Link to the person who nominated you. (done, also above)
3. Answer 10 questions or offer random information about yourself. (below)
4. Nominate 10 bloggers. (cheating)
5. Link your nominees to the post and comment on their blogs, letting them know you they have been nominated. (working on it)


1- Why do you blog?

Initially, this actually started as a training blog when I stopped posting on a particular weight lifting forum I used to frequent.  In fact, if you go back far enough on my blog, you'll still see some of those posts.  I slowly started working in reviews, and eventually it took over the blog.  Around that time, I also changed the blog to its current name.

It's not like I don't work out anymore, but it got kind of tedious to post my daily workout, and since I'm not a fitness professional, is it really all that interesting to see that today I did six sets of squats with x amount of weight, followed by x sets of leg press, some leg extensions and curls, a little bit of calf work, and then 30 minutes of cardio?  I didn't think so.  A while back I used to have aspirations of getting into the fitness field, but if that ever becomes a thing again, I'd start a new blog for that.

2- If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?

Well, a full-time film critic would be obvious answer here.  It's one of the reasons why the blog slowly got taken over by movie reviews.  Most of my friends have always known about my love of movies and have encouraged me to write or blog about them.  Even on the old weight lifting forum I was known as a movie guy and used to post there frequently in the "Off Topic" forums about them.

I think most of my friends would tell you that I'm more passionate and articulate as a speaker, so I'd like to get involved with a video blog or podcast eventually.

Intergalactic smuggler/scoundrel would be my second choice.  I even have the vest.

3- Favorite Movie?

As you'd probably guess by the blog name, I'm a big Star Wars fan.  I saw A New Hope back in 1977 when I was four (and back when it wasn't yet called A New Hope) and was irrevocably warped.  I usually struggle between Empire Strikes Back versus A New Hope when deciding what's my favorite.  Do I go with the better of the two films: Empire, or do I go with the one that arguably had the bigger influence: A New Hope.  I'm sticking with Empire for now.

4- Favorite TV Show (Current and of all time)?

My current favorite show is actually How I Met Your Mother.  I didn't start watching it until recently, but I gave it a shot based on the cast.  I was close to giving up after the first few episodes, but it won me over.  I absolutely love Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson.  I love the character so much that I've vowed to name my next dog...wait for it..."Barney!"  What did you think I'd name it "Legendary!?"

Of all time, my first choice is Cheers, with Seinfeld as a close second.

While I try to stay current with shows like The League, It's Always Sunny..., Modern Family, Parks & Rec, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, I have a tough time staying on top of most new shows, and usually have to binge watch them once they hit DVD or Netflix.  I often joke that I'm not taking any new applications for TV shows at this time, but I recently started watching Trophy Wife which I really like so far.  I'm also pretty encouraged by what I've seen from the first two episodes of Almost Human.

I love the model Netflix has taken with shows like House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black, and power through those once they get released.  I don't subscribe to any pay channels, but usually buy the current seasons of stuff like True Blood, Game of Thrones and Dexter once they become available.

5- Biggest guilty pleasure of 2013 (so far)?

If we're going by the criteria of a film that wasn't universally loved by both critics and fans, then my answer is Man of Steel.  I understand its flaws and the issues many have with it, but it just worked for me.  I've probably watched it more than any other film in the past year now that it's on Blu-Ray.  Don't get me wrong, by no means do I think it's the best movie of the year, it's just the one of the ones I've enjoyed watching the most.

6- What are some of this year's films you were not expecting to like and then enjoyed?

The Heat, Now You See Me, You're Next, We're the Millers, V/H/S/2, Pain & Gain, Olympus Has Fallen, Beautiful Creatures...

7- What films have disappointed you the most this year?

Star Trek Into Darkness (No colon? Really?), Insidious 2, Closed Circuit, Kick-Ass 2, Hell Baby, The To Do List, The Bling Ring, Trance...

I could probably come up with more on both of these lists, but I think you get the idea.

8- Recent film that not enough people have seen?

Robot & Frank.  Such a sweet, funny and surprisingly touching movie.  It's streaming on Netflix currently and is epic!  The end credits song by Francis and the Lights is fantastic, too.

9- Favorite Actors/Actresses working today?
Actors: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel-Day Lewis, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Michael Fassbender and Paul Giamatti are pretty much there, too.  I'll see pretty much anything with them in it.
Actresses: Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa Leo, and Jessica Chastain.

10- Any Final Thoughts or random musings?
- I'm actually a huge dork, which I feel like doesn't always come across in my writing or in my day to day walking around.
- When it comes to beer I prefer Ales and IPAs.
- Whenever I worry I drink too much, I look in my liquor cabinet and see several unopened bottles of vodka, white wine, gin and rum and feel a little better about that. ;)
- I don't like veggies on pizza.  All meat for me!  Maybe olive or mushroom, but the pepperoni has to be there!
- I hate onions, but love onion rings.
- I've been driving the same car for nearly 12 years and have barely put over 100k miles on it.
- I think courtesy is a two-way street, and believe in the golden rule.  I also believe in random acts of kindness and small gestures, like holding the door open for people, and thanking them when it's done for me.
- I'm generally a very good tipper.
- I played drums pretty seriously for about 10 years, but currently don't even own a drum set.  I still screw around with the guitar a bit, and plan on buying a bass very soon.
- I'm can do several (bad) impressions of people like The Emperor, Tracy Morgan, Optimus Prime, Christopher Walken, but I'm kind of known for my Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- I don't consider myself an introvert, but I usually keep to myself, and many people think I'm very shy when they first meet me.  Along those lines, I've never been one to fish for invites when I don't have plans.  I'm pretty good at entertaining myself.
- I'm not a particularly religious or political person and I tend to keep those thoughts private.  On the same lines, I try not to let the same in actors or entertainers affect my judgement.  If I let the fact that I didn't like a certain actor's views or beliefs affect my viewing, I'd probably see a lot less films.
- In general, I'm trying to be less angry.  I try to avoid this in my writing as well, but sometimes it can't be helped.  I'm not talking about critique necessarily, but more about it being mean spirited (like Rex Reed's remarks about Melissa McCarthy earlier this year).  Having said that, I do love reading or writing a good rant.  I'm just trying to mellow out a bit as I get older.

Nominate 10 others.  This is the part that's going to be a little tough for me.  I'm not as active in the community as I probably should be.  With work and other commitments I find there are weeks I barely have time to get out my own reviews out, let alone have time to read other blogs.  It's something I'm trying to make a bigger effort towards, as I like being part of the movie blogger community and there are many people whose reviews and perspective I enjoy reading.  Having said that, here are the blogs that I most consistently read and nominate.

On the Screen Reviews
Dan the Man's Movie Reviews
This is Madness!
After "Cut" Reviews
3 Guys 1 Movie
Movies Hate You Too
Lights Camera Reaction

I guess 7 out of 10 isn't bad.