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