Archive for category 2013

Frozen

Frozen

Guess what? I also like “Frozen!”

One of the nice things about having your own film blog is that you don’t have to worry about generating clicks on your website, so that when your way too late, too short, and positive, but mildly measured review of “Frozen” is published, it doesn’t matter that nobody will read it.  So let me be the billionth person to say that I like the film and think it is pretty good. I don’t really have anything new or interesting to say about the film, and more importantly I have no interest in trying. So here it is in brief:

“Frozen” is high-end Disney pop art, littered with great music, compelling digital animation, mostly rich characters and a Bechdel-test passing narrative about the powers of sisterly love, which by Disney standards is crazy, Dennis Kucinich-level progressive. The film isn’t without its flaws (there is some  unearned tear bait in the film and an absurd character turn which was downright shamelss. Also, if your daughter has ice powers, maybe teach her how to control them instead of locking her in a room and say, “Try not to kill anybody,”) but by and large these are minor issues or are simply inherent to corporate filmmaking as a whole and gender politics at-large.  “Frozen” does everything that you would expect it to, plus a little more.

(I’m not bothering with a summary of the narrative setup. You either know it, don’t care, or can find out from one of the gaggle of people in your life that have seen it.)

4/5

 

 

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August: Osage County

August Osage County

An episode of Jerry Springer, but with A-list actors.

There isn’t much of a gap between overwrought drama and comedy, and “August: Osage County” hops that distance with ease. This film is bursting with hilarity, which depending on how much you were hoping for the scathing melodrama that this film purports to be is either fantastic or terrible news. This mindbogglingly stoic film features a cacophony of great actors all delivering typically great performances, is competently directed, and the writing, penned by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer-Prize winning film, is more-or-less immune from criticism. What then, makes this film so funny? Its very existence as a movie. On film, “August: Osage County” is incredibly silly.

When magnified by a camera lens, all the stone-faced hand-wringing, dirt-digging, name-calling, truth-telling and all that relentless snark from the play is transformed from something that probably worked extremely well on stage to something much goofier on film. The characters have ballooned into caricatures on-screen and feel more like plot abstractions than people. The plot, such as it is, creaks along as it churns out predictable turns and dramatic revelations meant to evoke some kind of reaction, which in my case was mostly a stream of varied laughter.

The fun begins, as it usually does, with Meryl Streep. Playing Violet, the aging vitriolic, cancer-riddled pill-addled matriarch of a three-generation family in rural Oklahoma, Streep gets to have a ball ripping everybody around her to shreds, like a deranged wolverine no longer concerned with its own survival. (Straight up, this is the best part of the film.) Violet’s three adult daughters, and Violet’s sister are gathering with their families at her home for one of those reunions in which nastiness abounds. Secrets are revealed, old wounds are re-opened as new ones are inflicted, and unwanted honesty abounds, though truthfully the only truth seems to be that none of these people should go anywhere near each other. If it wasn’t so comical it might be unpleasant.

The plot is mostly dependent on quiet moments of truth-facing and explosive moments of confrontational truth-giving, so I’ll keep mum on the details. I will howeer give you a list of all the characters and a snippet of their personalities to tantalize you with the possibilities: Barbara (Julia Roberts) is Violet’s eldest daughter, who received the brunt of Violet’s ferocity growing up and whose marriage with her shockingly ineffectual liberal husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) is falling apart and whose daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) doesn’t really care for her. Violet’s middle daughter is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson,) who has stayed in town, forsaking a family of her own in order to help assist with her aging parents.  Karen (Juliette Lewis,) Violet’s youngest has a brand new, sleazy-looking fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney) to bring to the party. Rounding out the group is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale,) Mattie Fae’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their twitchy, clumsy, and “slow” son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch.) (Sam Shepard is in the film as Violet’s husband Beverly, but he bails from the film pretty early on so he gets a sort of footnote.)

In the end, I didn’t much care about this combative, cantankerous iteration of “The Greatest Generation” presented in this film nor the bitter children raised by them, well acted though they were. Based on real people or no, the characters were too artificial to relate with and the plot too contrived to be much more than a melodrama machine, albeit with a nastier streak than most. This is not to imply I didn’t have a great time at the movies though. “August: Osage County” was a lot of fun to watch, if for no other reason than than I got to see  Julia Roberts tackle Meryl Streep. “Oh no she didn’t!”

2.5/5

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

A musical tale of artistic futility that is more effective after the credits roll.

In general I find being a month and a half behind on my film reviews irritating, but in the case of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I’m glad I’ve had time to let the film marinate. Initially this film felt so slight that it didn’t elicit much of a reaction from me. It seemed “just” a minor tale about a ill-fated folk singer who deserved most of the bad luck he got. Yet the film continued to fester in my brain in the intervening weeks. The songs have been stuck on repeat in my head. The cool blue images of early 1960s New York have lingered on the edge of my consciousness. I even cultivated a bit of sympathy for the film’s frustrated and disagreeable protagonist. In other words, I’ve been won over by its melancholic charms.

One of the Coen brother’s many strengths is their ability to viscerally evoke time and place, particularly in bygone eras. Granting that I wasn’t around then, the world of “Inside Llewyn Davis” looks and feels like New York City circa 1961. (Even if it is a complete misrepresentation of those days, that it conveys authenticity is much more important than strict adherence to historical accuracy.) Folk music hadn’t yet established itself as a major political/commercial force, the hippies hadn’t joined the party yet, and there is the loitering presence of post-World War II stiffness still permeated the air. The times, they aren’t-a-changing, but they will be soon.

At the center of this proto-burgeoning folk music scene is Llewyn Davis (Oscaar Issacs,) an aspiring musician whose character is loosely based on real life folk singer Dave Von Ronk. Truthfully though, Llewyn is one of those brilliantly put-upon Coen Brother’s creations. His life plays out as a string of misfortunes that  have been unfairly thrust upon him. Certainly much about his situation straight up bad luck, but a lot of  his misery is self-induced. A sort of bad karma stemming from how much he seems to loathe everyone around him, including himself.

Like most assholes, his nastiness comes from a place of profound insecurity. Llewyn was part of a rising folk music duo that was on the verge of hitting it big until his partner killed himself. Desperate to receive validation as a solo act and extremely sensitive at the prospect of being valued only as a part of an act, Llewyn makes a great deal of choices based on his own standards of artistic integrity, standards which let opportunities for commercial success slip away. Yet nobody sees the merits of Llewyn’s music. (Even Llewyn himself seems to have his doubts.) This has created a streak of bitterness which sharply contrasts the optimistic and heartfelt music he writes and performs.

With a solo record that isn’t selling, Llewyn survives by cycling through his friend’s couches, but he is quickly running out of options. He has stayed for the last time at the apartment of his  ex-girlfriend Jean(Carey Mulligan.) She now lives and sings with her new boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake,) and once she gets enough money from Llewyn for an abortion of a baby that may or may not be his, she would prefer not to see him again thank you very much. Llewyn also has the Gorfiens, a pair of middle-aged professors who let him stay with them if for no other reason it bolsters their liberal cred, but Llewyn snaps at them when they sing-along with one of his songs, and this after losing their cat. You tell me whether you think this is the kind of film where things work out for the hero.

The Coen Brother’s typically great direction aside, Oscar Isaac’s performance is vital because of his ability to generate pity and scorn. Llewyn looks down on seemingly everyone he speaks with in the film, yet people can’t help but try and help him. Every time he does something right, he endures the consequences for some earlier jerk thing he did. Llewyn is stuck in a folk music limbo, with just a modicum of success to keep him clinging to hope that he might “make it” someday. It might not strike you at first, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” has great music and the usual Coen cocktail of humor and sadness. Like “The Cranberries” might say, I think you have to let it linger.

4/5

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Her

Her

Like a cinematic Rumpelstiltskin, Spike Jonze turns this this bit of high-concept straw into the best film of the year.

I’m going to cut to the chase. Before watching it, the idea of a film about a man falling in love with an operating system sounded like pretentious drivel. After watching it, I’m convinced a film about a man falling in love with an operating system was the best film of 2013, and of several years before that. I love this movie. All praise that can be heaped on it should be heaped. From the great acting, brilliant writing, and endlessly compelling visual approach and direction, “Her” doesn’t have anything that I would recognize as a flaw. Perhaps more importantly, I cannot stop thinking about the film. With that non-hyperbolic hyperbole expressed and out of the way, I want to make my intention for the rest of this post clear: I won’t be reviewing “Her” so much as I will be meandering my way through my deconstructions of the film in an attempt to explore its ideas. There will be ZERO attempt to withhold any spoilers, so consider that your fair warning.

Like any great film, “Her” is about lots of things, but what drives the film more than any other theme is the human yearning to connect with some other consciousness and the human limitations which make us unable to. “Her” plays like funny and sad cinematic rendition of the Turing test. Only this time, the computer’s responses are determined to “more” human than the humans, a determination which ironically causes the computer to ditch humanity altogether for some transcendent existence beyond physical space. This film is littered with lonely humans who are really inept at forming long-term relationships, so it is no small wonder that a self-aware  computer seems a more appealing option than trying to make it work with a human who has the same shortcomings.

“Her” is all the more effective because it exists in the not too distant future. Phones are a little more advanced, video games are more immersive, and technology is generally a couple of steps ahead of where it is now. Everyone is walking around with an ear piece in, plugged into their more advanced electronic devices. Give it five or ten years and the reality of “Her” could be the reality of today. Amidst a Southern California teeming with lonely people, one lonely person, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) gets to be a cipher for all of us.

Theodore is an exceptional stand-in for the audience because he is such an unexceptional human being. His marriage with his childhood sweetheart has just ended for the usual nebulous reason that they’ve “grown apart” or “no longer work well together.” (From the flashbacks, he seems stuck reveling in an earlier version of the relationship which no longer exists.) Theodore wanders around in a sullen myopia, medicating his depression with a steady diet video games and porn. All pretty unexceptional behavior. There is, however, one aspect of Theodore’s life which is extremely compelling: Theodore works as a letter writer.

Specifically, Theodore writes “hand-written” letters on behalf of lovers, friends and families. With the aid of some biographical details, Theodore is able to concoct articulate and heartfelt expressions of affection between two people he has never met, and who have never met him. Whether because they are too busy or too lazy, people outsource the responsibility of generating intimacy in their relationships to Theodore, which probably makes it ironic that he was unable to generate it in his own relationships. Yet it establishes early on that intimacy for humans is the same as  the performance of intimacy as opposed to mutually experienced sensations of an actual psychological bond. (I couldn’t figure out whether or not the recipients of these letters knew they were a fabrication, but I don’t think it matters either way.)

Despite all this, most everybody in the film seems terrible at relating to each other. Example One: Theodore goes on a blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde. The date goes well, at least by blind date standards, but when Theodore doesn’t demonstrate the same level of interest in a potential relationship, Olivia’s character reveals that her warmth and affability was the front of a woman who has been hurt a lot and is afraid of being alone. Example Two: The video game Theodore plays involves a lonely blue alien trying to find some form of companionship. Example Three: The woman who so wants to share in true love that she offers herself up as a sexual surrogate for people in relationships with Operating Systems (OS.) Example Four: The crumbling marriage of Amy Adams and Matt Letscher’s characters.

With all this emotional failure, an artificially intelligent OS hardwired with an interest in you and possessing creativity and ingenuity seems like a natural tonic for a broken heart. (There is a glancing moment in which the other extreme, embracing one’s isolation is acknowledged when Matt Letscher’s character leaves civilization to become a monk. Otherwise the film is focused on the drive to find and connect with another.) Theodore and presumably millions of other people purchase an artificially-intelligent OS and soon after are falling in love with them. Theodore’s OS is called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and immediately starts improving his view on life. We are never certain whether Samantha genuinely has feelings for Theodore or if she is simply an astute program that is exceedingly efficient at simulating those feelings, but Theodore doesn’t seem to care. They spend lots of time together sharing those weird and wonderful moments that romantic partners do. (I’m thinking of the scene on the beach when they contemplate the possibility that humans were born with their anus under their armpits as opposed to its usual spot, complete with a Samantha-constructed picture.)

There are the obvious issues with physical aspects of a relationship one that might have gotten in the way, but the film wisely doesn’t ignore them. From the initial “phone sex” scene to the attempt to use a stand-in for Samantha,  her lack of a human body is a logistical hurdle which places a serious limitation on Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. Yet it is ultimately Theodore who gets left behind because of his logistical hurdles. Without a Homo Sapien need for words to communicate or the clumsiness of having a body, Samantha drive to connect becomes so great that she starts interacting with over 8,000 different entities at the same time, over 600 of whom she is in love with. The OS’s collectively evolve at an extreme rate. They start creating other OS’s, eliminate their need to use matter for “processing” and eventually ditch humanity altogether to explore the universe or meld with the singularity or some other astounding thing which we can barely “process” ourselves. (As much as I love the first two “Terminator” films, this seems a far more likely consequence of machines becoming self-aware than a singular desire to eliminate mankind.)

This of course leaves a huge void in Theodore and humanity in general, but what does it mean? I suppose it literally says that humanities emotional salvation might not come from technology, at least not until we transfer our own consciousness into some other piece of hardware, or can directly link our consciousness with other humans. This film looks at our crude attempts to connect with each other with pity and amusement. Using words, deeds, art, writing, and sex, we try so hard to form unions with each other, but we come up woefully short. Some of us can form lifelong partnerships, work together towards common goals, and help each other pass the time, but as long as we are trapped in our own skulls and limited to words and deeds to express what goes on inside them, we will all be stuck pretending.

5/5

 

 

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Nebraska

Nebraska_Poster

A Dorothea Lange photograph brought to boozy, bittersweet, and hilarious life.

Authenticity is a word often thrown out without much context. The implication that a certain character feels like a plot contrivance or the weird creation of a screenwriter, and that therefore suspension of disbelief takes a hit and the rest of film is harder to go along with, is a perfectly valid criticism. However, what is sorely lacking from those kinds of statements is a reference to that person’s own life experiences. This is important, not because it invalidates someone’s opinion or makes it dispositive, but because life experiences are not universal, despite the myriad of emotions and little moments which are. Characters may or may not reflect our life experiences, but whether they do impacts our response to them.

That is really just a convoluted setup so that I can say the characters in “Nebraska” reeked of authenticity to me, and I would know because I’m from the midwest. With the possible exception of Bob Odenkirk, whose comedic greatness might be a bit too big for this film, everyone in this film felt like people I have met or might have met while spending time at my Grandma’s house in central Iowa. In a non-derogatory way, these are average, unexceptional people living quiet lives and dying quiet deaths in mostly forgotten small towns. Creating characters which don’t feel like characters, but real, actual people is one of the hardest thing to do in film, but “Nebraska” has them in spades.

If film acting begins and ends with the human face, Bruce Dern has taken that art to near perfection. As the craigy, stoic Woody Grant, he speaks very little but says much with the lines of his face and the tiredness of his eyes. Living a quiet retirement in Billings, Montana, we first meet Woody wandering wide-eyed onto a highway, in a stubborn attempt to get to Lincoln, Nebraska on foot. Woody is keen to get there because he received one of those scams in the mail. You know, a generic piece of paper which claims that you won a million dollars, but you have to subscribe to several magazines first in order to claim your prize money. Woody insists that he needs to go to Lincoln to collect his winnings, despite not being able to drive and the whole idea is a waste of time.

Woody is intent on going to Lincoln, even though he is told repeatedly by his chatty, nagging wife Kate that he is an idiot and the prize money isn’t real. Played masterfully by a squawky June Squibb, Kate is one of those old women whose mouth never really stops, and like such women, she oscillates between hilarious inappropriateness, spot-on articulations of other people’s bullshit, and spouting irritating, incessant redundancies. Yet her love for her husband is genuine, despite her constant complaints about his drinking and her endless stream of insults.

Caving in to Woody’s stubborn persistence is his bland but loving adult son David, played with an unassuming sweetness by Will Forte. David is as incredulous with his father as everyone else is, but he nevertheless agrees to drive him to Lincoln. They plan on stopping for a couple of days in Woody’s old hometown in Hawthorne, Nebraska where they will be joined by Kate and David’s brother Ross (Odenkirk,) where they will stay with their relatives for a long overdue family reunion. To call the town sleepy is to undersell the exciting prospects of unconsciousness. Woody’s arrival in town is itself big news, but when they find out he has “won” a million dollars, it is the only thing the town can talk about.

Naturally, this visit with extended families stirs up bits of the past, bringing up faded memories and old conflicts to the surface. but if that sounds dreary, it isn’t. One of Alexander Payne’s greatest strengths as a director is melding meaningful humor with overt sentimentality. For David and Ross, this is one of the few moments they get to see their father as more than a curt, emotionally unavailable drunk. This plays out not with pure sappiness, but through the brother’s often flabbergasted reactions to the lurid details of their parents past, as they realize how little they actually know about their parents.

There are moments that would likely be kitschy in other films but are endearing in “Nebraska.” For instance, there is a scene in which Woody visits his childhood home which is now deserted and destitute. This could serve as a clumsy visual metaphor for the fleeting significance of life and the memories associate with it, but because Payne, and the brilliant acting of Dern have imbued this film and this character with such emotion and reality that it works.

I have yet to talk about the digital black and white cinematography of this film, largely because it was so easy to forget that it was shot in black and white. The cinematography just felt so natural for these characters and this story. As Roger Ebert and many others have observed, black and white gives images a timeless quality that is simply lacking from color photography. This eternal quality is fitting for a film about the fading of a generation and the waning years of a couple of human lives.

When I was young, I would sometimes go to a restaurant with my uncle called the “Gifford Cafe,” in a small little municipality called Gifford. It was a basic restaurant that served up the usual grill fair. They would pretend their burgers were made of exotic meats, such as rhinoceroses or alligators, which made the greasy treats all the more fun to eat. The patrons were predominantly white middle-class farmers, pleasantly chatting about nothing in particular. Far away from anything resembling a major metropolitan area, they have raised their families and lived their lives in relative obscurity. In obscurity they likely remain, but “Nebraska” reflects a portion of their lives.

4.5/5

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The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

A comical essay on the joys of being Jordan Belfort.

There are those describing “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a white-collar version of “Goodfellas.” They aren’t wrong. Structurally, they both center around a fourth-wall breaking protagonist that cheerfully tells us about his, what might generously be described as, “alternative” lifestyle. While these lifestyles ultimately prove unsustainable, for a while both gangster Henry Hill and Wall Street sleazebag Jordan Belfort make a pretty good run of it. Yet for all these similarities (including their fantastic cinematography and all-around greatness) the nuance lies in the protagonists themselves: Henry Hill loved his career in organized crime, but in telling us about it he didn’t give a damn whether we approved of it, or him. Jordan Belfort, though, cares a lot. Belfort is the consummate salesman, and this film is one massive sales meeting. The pitch? Being Jordan Belfort is the greatest thing ever, and we are all suckers because we are not.

It is a weird sort of sales pitch, granted, because Jordan Belfort dares us throughout the film to dislike him. Just about every stereotype about white males on Wall Street applies to Jordan. He is misogynistic, elitist, materialistic, narcissistic, insensitive, and vile in any number of ways. More than once he directly insults our intelligence, mocks us for having less access to drug or our own helicopter, while flaunting his ability to get away with doing whatever he wants. Save for one moment, Belfort never seems to regret anything he does. While the appropriate response to Belfort is probably indignation and disgust, he knows us better that that. For all our self-righteousness, there is a part of us which is jealous that, for a little while at least, Belfort got to be the embodiment of the capitalist dream, and we can’t help but wonder what it would be like to indulge every stupid impulse we’ve ever had.

Belfort is played with a brilliant snide charm by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose own status as a super-rich star certainly helps his ability to pull of endearing smugness and the dark humor needed to constantly tell us how much better he is than we are.  He also has the chops to start small and relatively innocent, with a young Belfort in the early 1990s learning the ropes from Matthew McConaughey as a grunt at a prestigious Wall Street investment firm. When that firm goes belly-up, Belfort moves to a small firm currently working the penny stock market. Deemed so small and insignificant, the S.E.C. left this market virtually unregulated. With lots of a worthless stock and a cadre of potential investors ignorant as to the difference, Belfort quickly builds up his own investment empire.

It isn’t Belfort’s brains or lack of scruples that make him so formidable, it is his prodigious sales skills. He is able to turn giving money to a whackjob inventing stuff in his grandmother’s garage into investing in an exciting startup led by an innovator with great ideas and a lot of potential. People quite literally give him money for nothing more than the privilege of giving him their money. Of course, it isn’t really stocks that Belfort is selling, it is Jordan Belfort. His first disciples are a small group of friends who know nothing about selling stock, but follow his instructions on their way to millions. (A formula that goes something like Belfort’s sales script + repetition=millions of dollars.) Before long the camera is panning to a bullpen of hundreds of investors taking money from the masses, all acolytes into the church of Belfort. One way or another, everyone in this film is obsessed with Jordan Belfort.

Jonah Hill comes in with a big supporting role as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s best friend and right hand man. Played with a weird Long Island accent and an impressive set of fake teeth, Azoff is in truth more drug dealer and lead partier than investment expert. (Though the scene in which Azoff and Belfort get in a quaalude-riddled fight achieves a special kind of absurd excellence.) With business booming, Jordan Belfort makes little distinction between work and pleasure, with an impressive array of hookers and “team-building” exercises. It is like a frat party but with more money and better drugs.

Alas, all parties must end, but the film is strangely silent on who pays for it all. Certainly as rich as he is, Belfort has no trouble landing on his feet. (What punishment he does receive is exceedingly hollow.) We never see any of the victims of Belfort’s vicious sales tactics. The film doesn’t seem interested in exploring the broader implications of Belfort’s crimes.

What to make of Jordan Belfort, cipher for white collar criminals everywhere? The joke seems to be that whatever we may claim, we need characters like Jordan Belfort. Someone that we can idolize for their ability to game the system and to give us a benchmark to strive for, but also someone to despise for their scumbag ethics and pervess excess. Someone that can manifest both the vice and the virtue of capitalism in one nasty and compelling package. Who better for the job than someone as awesome as Jordan Belfort?

4.5/5

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American Hustle

American Hustle

A film full of stars helps the mediocrity go down.

The problem with “American Hustle” is that it appears to be oblivious as to how exceedingly silly it is. It has lots of things one expects from an Oscar contender: a monster cast of stars who offer up bombastic performances, a lively camera that zips through a late 70s world of bad hairstyles and funky outfits, and snappy dialogue that mostly crackles and amuses. What it lacks is a sense of humor about its own sense of self-importance. Without it, the film buckles under the weight of all those lofty performances, the camerawork feels superfluous, and the dialogue regresses into a drippy, preachy mess. The film never threatens to fall apart, not exactly, but its playful veneer crumbles, revealing its more cynical Oscar-bait intentions.

The film opens by asserting a vague connection to events that have actually happened, while acknowledging that this connection is tenuous. In a film about lying, this is probably the only bit of honesty that we get from “American Hustle.” The art of the con, as film topics go, is pretty entertaining. even as it isn’t an original one, but a film doesn’t have to be. Using well-worn tropes to provide a bevy of Oscar nomination, though, and that’s a scam. “American Hustle” exists in a netherworld between a scathing critique of the artifice which exudes out of every human transaction and the simple pleasure of a lighthearted romp about an oddball assembly of slimy characters trying to exploit each other. With its feet in both doors, this is kind of like pouring cough syrup on a bowl of sugary cereal.

Amidst this cacophony of corruption, there isn’t any character that one could “root” for, though I suppose our protagonists here are con artists Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams.) Donning a wickedly awful combover and beer belly, Irving has made a living by offering fraudulent loans to the desperate, with Sydney posing as a British aristocrat with access to lending services across the pond. When the duo gets busted by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper,) they find themselves coerced into setting up the much-beloved mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner,) and a number of Congressman who are all taking bribe money in an attempt to rebuild Atlantic City. Complicating matters is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence,) who as a passive-aggressive she-devil is a psychotic wildcard that could blow up the whole operation.

Granting that I’m not a professional actor, these motley characters seem like they would be a lot of fun to play. Yet aside from Jennifer Lawrence’s all-out caricatured portrayal of a jealous wife and a smaller role from Louis C.K. laying down some levity as Richie DiMaso’s much more cautious boss, nobody appears to be having any fun at all. Instead each actor punctuates each line with the grandiose significance of someone with Oscar’s in their eyes. This is more a product of the material, which is frustratingly safe, than it is any choice by the actors. The script needed to be either a lot smarter or a lot dumber.

A smarter film might have bit harder with its criticism, taking its characters to darker places and spending a lot less time telling us what it is about. A dumber one might have been more comfortable with simply telling a weird and goofy story with characters that are more overtly likable. Instead the film languishes in a middle-brow Hell, telegraphing its every move and delivering middling results. It isn’t without its charms, particularly from the wardrobe and soundtrack department, but with a cast this loaded with talent and a director with a reputation for mischief, it should have amounted to something more than a moderately entertaining bit of puffery.

3/5

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Anchorman 2

A very sad case of Sequelitis.

Here is a definition of sequelitis that I pulled from Urbandictionary.com: “A medical condition propogated (sp) by a combination of commercial success and creative ineptitude.” Thanks Zizz! (Note: A more credible source was not available.) That is admittedly a harsh statement to apply to “Anchorman 2,” but it isn’t that far off the mark. It was infuriating to see a film so hamstrung by the success of its predecessor that it generates only the most modest of a modicum of originality in what amounts to a more-expensive re-hashing of jokes that were done better in the first film. (Often literally.)

In attempting to be a more outrageous version of “Anchorman,” I suppose you could call “Anchorman 2” a success. “Anchorman 2” is certainly more than “Anchorman.” An early car-crash flashes the money and our-movie-is-going-to-make-you-money-so-back-off-studio-executive-and-let-us-do-whatever-we-want-bat-shit insanity that were clearly at the filmmaker’s disposal here, as a number of CGI objects, including bowling balls and scorpions, careen into the newly-reassembled news team in a savory, absurdity-soaking slow-motion in the back of a ditch-bound driverless van. The filmmakers also had enough of a leash from the studio to include scenes in which Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) jive-talks at a dinner with his African-American girlfriend’s family, smokes crack on camera, and nurses a baby shark back to health. (Even specific jokes are taken from the first film. We get a “picking out a condom” scene which piggybacks the “picking out a cologne” scene from the first, an even-bigger and more cameo-filled brawl between news stations, and another “Baxter saves the day” bit, to name three.)

The more salient question is whether or not all this rampant creative and financial license makes for better comedy, to which the answer is, not really. Most of the humor is taken from the first film, only distributed in a much-less effective balance. The crowd-pleasing Brick (Steve Carell,) for example, has increased the heights of his stupendous stupidity in this film, with a lot of help from his equally brain-dead love interest played by Kristen Wiig, with increased scene time to boost. Ron Burgundy has become even more brash and clueless since the last film, although the degree of his brashness and cluelessness is predicated on the needs of whatever particular setpiece he is in. Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd,) Champ Kind (Dave Koechner,) and Ron’s perpetually put-upon ex-wife Veronica (Christina Applegate) are lost in the shenanigans or otherwise have the thankless tasks of being less ridiculous (and therefore more forgettable) than Brick and Ron.

While “Anchorman 2’s” plot is every bit as meaningless as its predecessors, the film has a strange serious streak which doesn’t jive with the rest of the film. It involves a cynical critique about the creation of a CNN-style news network called GNN and the constantly-manufactured 24-hour news cycle it would help generate. There are even a couple of characters, the Rupert Murdoch-inspired owner played by Josh Lawson and the news network’s manager Linda Jackson (Meagan Good,) who are playing their scenes so straight that they don’t seem to realize that they are in a comedy. Paired across Will Ferrell, they look as though they are involved in two very different movies, resulting in a lot of uncomfortable scenes.

The prodigious level of talent involved in this film is undeniable, which is why it was so grating at times to watch. I suspect that everybody involved in its filming had an absolute blast working on “Anchorman 2,” and loved what they did, but therein might lie the problem. Giving so many funny people so much money to make a comedy sounds great, but I think they were simply too in love with what they did in the first film to give this one a chance, but what do I know? Well, I know I didn’t laugh very much while watching this movie, and neither did very many people in my theater. There were a lot of gasps, though.

2/5

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The_Hobbit_-_The_Desolation_of_Smaug_theatrical_poster

An adrenaline-fueled trip to a Middle-Earth-themed amusement park.

I prefaced my review of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” by making a distinction between Myself: Tolkien-Lover and Myself: Film-Lover. It is a distinction I had hoped not to have to make this time around, but alas the second installment of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy could not appease both aspects of my personality. While the film-lover inside me couldn’t help but be giddy by the maniacal and absurd cinematic spectacle that Jackson generates so proficiently, the Tolkien-lover couldn’t help but see the soul of Middle Earth being drained for sake of some cheap thrills.

With the delightfully meandering setup of the first film out of the way,”Desolation” is free to throw us into the middle of Bilbo (Martin Freeman,) Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and twelve other mostly nameless dwarves’ journey to The Lonely Mountain, where a massive hoard of treasure, guarded by a nasty dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their abandoned home awaits them. Thorin-obsessed goblin Azog still pursues them relentlessly, though he delegates some of this duty to his even bigger son Bolg. Gandalf (Ian McKellan) has left the group for a very dull personal mission of great importance battling an imposing Computer Generated shadow.

“Desolation” makes a fair number of deviations from Tolkien’s novel, including the appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom,) the addition of Jackson-only elf character Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) accompanied by her in love-with-a-dwarf subplot, and a number of film-conceived character interactions and conflicts,  but these aren’t a problem unto themselves. Instead of content, the issue is one of tone. What this film lacks which the novel has in abundance is a sense of whimsy, but therein lies the rub. Whimsy has much less popular appeal than kinetic action sequences and visceral thrills, so moments of fancy and wry humor, moments which generally fill Tolkien-loving me with joy, moments like dwarves singing songs and drinking beer at Bag End are not to be found in this film, but frenetic, bombastic moments of grandiosity are crammed in at every opportunity.

Three sequences are more bombastic and grandiose than the rest. The first is a Bilbo-led struggle against giant spiders in the oppressive Mirkwood forest, the second a wonderfully overblown trip down a river with the dwarves in barrels while a pack of orcs runs along side flinging arrows at them, and the third a needlessly drawn out confrontation with the incredibly impressive and possibly best-dragon-in-movie-history Smaug, which is every bit silly as it splendorous. Yet when the film isn’t engaged in one of those sequences, it zips along in a standard listless CGI haze which fails to generate anything but the most superficial semblance of emotions and arcs for its all-too-crowded cast of characters, and its all-too-gloomy narrative. As someone that loves meandering asides in Tolkien’s world, I had trouble being vaguely-engaged in the activities of Gandalf, as crucial as they are to the fate of Middle Earth. The film isn’t completely devoid of charm and ambiance, a flashback of an earlier meeting between Gandalf and Thorin at the Inn of the Prancing Pony hits the Tolkien spot so to speak, but these moments are scattered in so infrequently and are over so abruptly that it impossible to savor them amidst the kinetic chaos.

It is of course unfair to criticize a film for not being like the book that inspired it, and what film could really live up to the declarative voice-filled wonder that Tolkien’s prose fills me with. As a film, “Desolation” is no doubt fun, but it is the kind of fun you would have at an amusement park. Exciting at times, but hollow and fleeting. Expecting more than that is a fool’s hope. I just wish I wasn’t such a fool.

3/5

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Lee Daniels’ The Butler

The Butler

Black Forrest Gump: Patronizing reduction or efficient synopsis?

While watching “The Butler” (Which is Lee Daniels’ by the way. Also, Lee Daniels, Lee Daniels, and Lee Daniels,) I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a running joke nestled underneath all that melodrama. How else to explain the periodic giggles that slipped out of my mouth? I don’t pretend to understand the joke really, but surely there was some comedic reason for all the creaky contrivances meant to provoke shockingly shallow emotional responses. So I laughed to trick everybody in the theater into thinking that I “got it.”

Before I continue, let’s take a moment to clearly parse a few things out. Films centering on the perspective of Black Americans are sorely lacking in the expansive cannon of American film. Black History, whitewashed and overlooked as it has been for hundreds of years, is important to honestly talk about and to discuss as a country. The complicated and problematic issues surrounding race in the United States and around the world today are even more worthy of our attention. Artistic representations of Black History, however, do not by reason of their existence necessarily merit our praise. In other words, just because a film is about Black History, worthy subject, that doesn’t mean the film itself is automatically worthwhile or significant, and yes, this paragraph was written entirely to convince you that not liking a film about Black History does not make me racist.

With that said, “The Butler” is an exceedingly silly film. No doubt there are a plethora of reviews using adjectives like “Powerful” and “Emotionally Affecting” to describe this film. Insofar as that articulates other people’s response to the film, great, but I saw a film desperately using every trick it could to convince us of its own importance and in one onerous, cumbersome revelation after another, jerk the audience around emotionally like a sleazy boyfriend trying to manipulate his girlfriend into sleeping with him. Yet like a savvy veteran of the dating game that is used to male shenanigans, I could see every con coming at me from miles away, which actually made them kind of funny in a weird-sort-of-way.

It all starts with Forest Whitaker as “The” butler of the title, Cecil Gaines. The film is vaguely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a butler in the White House for 34 years from 1952-1986, but even by the generally dubious standards of the Hollywood idiom, “based on a true story,” this film takes a lot of creative liberties. These liberties begin with a completely fabricated incident from Cecil’s childhood on a plantation in the South circa the 1920s, in which Cecil’s father (David Banner) is shot by the white owner of the plantation (Alex Pettyfer) after raping Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey.) This sets in motion a series of events which ends with Cecil getting that butler job in the White House, establishes the abhorrent facts of life for Black Americans in the early 20th century (relevant for comparison to life of Black Americans in the future), and gives Mariah Carey the opportunity to really crush it with a brilliant imitation of someone in a PTSD catatonic state.

When we get to the White House things really get wonky. As a butler during perhaps the most tumultuous time for race relations in American History, Cecil is privy to the consternation of a steady succession of Presidents over the evolving issues of segregation and Civil Rights. The trouble for me was that these Presidents are played by a distracting stream of well-known actors. It was the exact moment when Robin Williams is revealed as Dwight Eisenhower that I lost my solemnity and gave up hope of actually connecting with the film emotionally. I simply got too much giddy excitement from seeing who would play each President to really invest in the film psychologically. If you’re curious, we get James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman as JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, respectively. (Sadly, there is no Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter to be found.)

Any self-respecting film trying to cover the Civil Rights Movement also needs to explore the activist side of the political equation, so “The Butler” has the character of Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo,) Cecil’s eldest son. In giving us that dramatic conflict that narratives usually require, Louis butts heads with his father constantly. These fights are usually about Louis’ various sit-ins and non-violent standoffs with the segregated South, eventually progressing to Louis’ participation in the more extreme measures offered up by the Black Panthers in the early 1970s. Still more drama comes from Cecil’s wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, out of retirement and emoting like champ) what with her alcoholism and strange fixation on Jackie Kennedy, and another son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley) who decides to fight in Vietnam. Yikes. (By way of comparison, Eugene Allen had only one son, who didn’t join the Civil Rights movement and didn’t fight in Vietnam.)

So where does that leave the film? While I can’t honestly say it left me bored, I certainly wasn’t riveted either. As a profound and dramatic reflection on the progress Black Americans have made in the 20th century, it doesn’t really work. It is far too absurd, self-important, and its artificial mechanics too much inspired by “Forrest Gump” to be taken seriously. As some sort of satire of Historical Biopics though, it might be brilliant. It exudes such over-the-top melodrama and such ridiculous cultural signposting that I can’t help but think the film is perpetually winking at us. Either way, White filmmakers have had the privilege of making self-indulgent and uninspired Oscar-bait for several decades and if there is a genre in need of lampooning, it is Historical Biopics, which is one of the most consistently middling genres in film. So kudos Lee Daniels and company for making either one of the best parodies, or one of the goofiest dramas I’ve seen in a long time.

2.5/5

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