Monday, December 30, 2013

The Lists: Must See Movies

Blue Velvet. Image courtesy of MGM.
The last - and easily, longest - of my all-time roundups is my Must See Movies list. This is not a typical movie list in that it's not ranked, but rather presented alphabetically by decade.

This is not necessarily a list of my favorite movies, although my personal choices are all in there. Rather, I used the 1,000 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as an inspiration, in that I list not only my favorites, but also movies that I believe should be on any essential viewing list. If someone asked me for an extensive list that would cover all bases for a well-rounded film education, this is what I'd give them.

However, at one point while making this list, I realized I was cutting off too many titles that I believed should be included. So, quite frankly, I have no idea how many movies are on this list. I'd be willing to bet it's over 1,000, but I haven't counted. And yet, I still had to cut numerous movies of which I'm very fond. But I felt that I had to be at least somewhat selective.

There are a number of titles missing that might cause some to scratch their heads. For example, you won't find "The Sixth Sense," "Avatar," "The Avengers," "Caddyshack," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Grease," "Shaun of the Dead," "Gummo," "In the Realm of the Senses," "The Hills Have Eyes," "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "Top Gun," "Fatal Attraction," "Akira," "Man Bites Dog," "Funny Games," "Oldboy" "The Tenant," "Napoleon Dynamite" or "Little Miss Sunshine." It's not that I didn't like these films - well, I can't say I much liked "Napoleon Dynamite" - but I just didn't believe they should make the cut. In some cases, I substituted obscure titles for better known examples of a specific genre.

Without further ado, here are the lists by decade. As always, I'd love to hear your comments in the section provided. Tell me which movies you believe should have made the list, but did not.

1903-1929
1930-1939
1940-1949
1950-1959
1960-1969
1970-1979
1980-1989
1990-1999
2000-2009
2010-2013

The Lists: Must See Movies, 2010-2014

The Tree of Life. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Lists: Must See Movies, 2000-2009

Mulholland Drive. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The Lists, Must See Movies, 1990-1999

Pulp Fiction. Image courtesy of Miramax.

The Lists: Must See Movies, 1980-1989

Once Upon a Time in America. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The Lists: Must See Movies, 1970-1979

Taxi Driver. Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Lists: Must See Movies, 1960-1969

2001: A Space Odyssey. Image courtesy of MGM.

The Lists: Must See Movies, 1950-1959

Vertigo. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The Lists: Must See Movies, 1940-1949

Citizen Kane. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Video

The Lists: Must See Movies, 1930-1939

Bringing Up Baby. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Video.

The Lists: Must See Movies, 1902-1929

Battleship Potempkin. Image courtesy of Reel Media International.

Review: August: Osage County

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Director John Wells does a pretty decent job of adapting Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize- winning play "August: Osage County" for the big screen. And yet, both the film - and play - mostly just provide the opportunity for a showcase of solid acting, rather than getting to the bottom of anything.

In other words, the movie is a pretty intense look at a royally dysfunctional Oklahoma family, but their story doesn't necessarily unveil any deeper truths, other than that most families have their share of dark secrets - just, hopefully, not as dark as the ones on display here.

The film is a Who's Who of Oscar winners and character actors, including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin and Margo Martindale.

You won't be surprised to hear that Streep is pretty terrific as always. She portrays Violet Weston as a cunning manipulator who knows all the dirt on her various family members and is not afraid to air it. Streep's work here makes her character in "The Devil Wears Prada" seem downright lovable by comparison.

But it's Roberts who gives her finest performance in some time as Violet's oldest daughter, Barbara, who is in the midst of a separation from her philandering husband (McGregor) and has a precocious daughter (Breslin), who appears to respect neither of her parents.

And Nicholson is pretty solid as well as Ivy, the most emotionally frail of the three sisters - Lewis plays the third, Karen, a Floridian who is attempting to hold onto her youth by dating a showboat (Mulroney) who drives a sports car. Ivy is having a secret love affair with her cousin (Cumberbatch), but a secret involving their relationship threatens to cause further tension among the clan, who has gathered in the film to honor the family's late patriarch (Shepard).

So, "August" is a good film, if not a great one. Much of the film involves the various psychological, verbal and - on one occasion - physical sparring between the family members. It's entertaining to watch if not exactly illuminating. As a character drama, the film mostly delivers. And it provides one of the more memorable acting ensembles of recent memory.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Best Films of 2013

12 Years a Slave. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
It was a good, if not great, year for movies. That's not to say there were not a handful of films about which I was very enthusiastic. I never have difficulty putting together a list of 10 films that I love every year and 2013 was no exception.

In fact, a number of films in my top 10 were groundbreaking, whether due to their controversial content, visual style or taboo shattering stories. At least several of the films among my 10 favorites could adequately be described as "fearless."

On the other hand, it was yet another blah year for Hollywood mainstream filmmaking and there were a fair amount of disappointments this year.

So, I've not only compiled my top 10 films here, but also my 10 runners up (11-20), my worst movies of the year and several other items (biggest disappointments, most overrated, etc.) below.

The year's worst films included: "Maniac," "Movie 43," "The Canyons," "Grown Ups 2," "Evil Dead," "Texas Chainsaw 3D," "Clip," "Getaway," "Riddick" and "21 and Over."

Biggest Disappointments: Only God Forgives, Post Tenebras Lux, Bastards, Trance

Most Overrated: Upstream Color, Computer Chess, Leviathan, This Is the End

Best Performances: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o in "12 Years a Slave," Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," Leonard DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street," Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips," Adele Exarchopoulos in "Blue is the Warmest Color," Oscar Isaac in "Inside Llewyn Davis" and Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence in "American Hustle"

Best Performance in a Mediocre Movie: James Franco in "Spring Breakers"

Best Sex Scene Involving a Human Being and a Windshield: Cameron Diaz with car in "The Counselor."

Best Films of the Year:
20. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
19. Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee)
18. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
17. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
16. No (Pablo Larrain)
15. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
14. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
13. Mud (Jeff Nichols)
12. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
11. 56 Up (Michael Apted)
10. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)
  9. The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)
  8. Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)
  7. Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve)
  6. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
  5. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
  4. Her (Spike Jonze)
  3. American Hustle (David O. Russell)
  2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)
  1. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
There are two point of view shots toward the end of Martin Scorsese's three-hour opus "The Wolf of Wall Street" that nicely drive home the central points of the film and establish just exactly what Jordan Belfort, the film's protagonist who is played with devilish glee by Leonard DiCaprio, thinks about you and me and the hoi polloi.

The first POV shot is from the perspective of an FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler as he rides the subway home. There's a previous conversation in the film that sets up this shot. And then there's the film's final - and very likely to be debated - final shot from Belfort's perspective. These shots establish the us vs. them tone of the entire picture and that final scene, which references a moment earlier in the movie, is one of the most politically astute sequences of Scorsese's career.

But - in the style of a Scorsese film such as this one, let me backtrack. The film, which is based on Belfort's own exploits and book, follows the Wall Street hot shot's rise and fall from his early days as a wannabe stock broker to his titanic presence at the helm of Stratton Oakmont, a firm he established with a name promising to attract WASP-y clients.

"Wolf" can be coupled with Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece "Goodfellas," but not just in terms of visual style, soundtrack selections and scenes during which characters break the fourth wall - Belfort often stops in the middle of a scene to explain what is going on to the audience and weighs in with his own opinions.

The film also bears resemblance to that previous film in that it follows - in great detail - the story of a criminal - white collar rather than mafioso - whose addictions - drugs, money and sex as opposed to violence, power and, eventually, drugs - eventually cause him to spin out of control, leading him to become a rat against his own people. And, in some ways, the mobsters of "Goodfellas" were even more sympathetic than Belfort, - if you can imagine that, whose character becomes increasingly despicable but, like a train wreck, always fascinating.

At three hours, the film is both harrowing and, admittedly, exhausting. There are scenes that may seem as if they could have been cut out - for instance, Belfort and company talking about how to set up a midget-tossing competition at the office - and yet there is not a sequence in the film that does not feed into the overall theme of what Scorsese is going for here.

The cast is impeccable. It was once written that Scorsese and Robert De Niro objected to someone's referring to Jake LaMotta as a "cockroach" while pitching "Raging Bull." Belfort is, without a doubt, a cockroach. But while the character is easy to dislike, it's difficult to take your eyes off him. And I've never seen DiCaprio so funny as in this picture. The scene in which he and Jonah Hill (also excellent as Belfort's cohort Donnie Azoff) have a particularly bad quaalude trip is one for the time capsule. Matthew McConaughey shines in a brief role as Belfort's mentor during several early scenes in the movie. And the first scene with Max Belfort (Rob Reiner), Belfort's father and Stratton Oakmont's enforcer, is one of the flat-out funniest introductions to any character in recent memory.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is an ambitious, equally funny and horrifying, frenzied and fast paced, brilliantly performed and nearly off-the-rails crime saga. It's proof that, at 71, Scorsese is not slowing down and can still direct the hell out of a movie.

Some misguided souls have expressed displeasure with Scorsese and DiCaprio, arguing that "Wolf" is a celebration of truly heinous individuals. This makes me wonder if they were watching the same film that I saw. There's no question where the director's sympathies lie for those who have actually seen "Wolf." Just check out those aforementioned POV shots and think about the film's ending for a minute. Then get back to me.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
I should probably mention right off the bat that I enjoyed "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," so that you won't think I walked into this sequel with any sort of bias. Alas, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" is not just a missed opportunity, it's a near disaster.

The film runs nearly two hours, both of which are mostly laugh-less. And while I've certainly found Will Ferrell to be a pretty funny guy on Saturday Night Live and in a handful of movies - "Anchorman" being one of them, he engages in that time-honored SNL trait: If a joke doesn't appear to be working, just say it progressively louder and louder until you scream your audience into submission.

Most of the dialogue in the film is spoken in high-pitched yells and shrieks between the cast members. And most of the jokes are just not funny - including, but not limited to, the misbegotten attempt at poking fun at the racism of 1970s America during a particularly uncomfortable dinner sequence and another scene during which Ron meets his attractive new boss (Meagan Good) and all he can repeatedly say to her is "black, black, black."

You've heard the expression about throwing in the kitchen sink. Hell, "Anchorman 2" throws in the whole kitchen - you've got a training sequence in which Ron Burgundy attempts to cope with being blind, there's a pet shark he adopts that pops back up for a final cameo and, as in the first film, there's a showdown between several news anchor teams that has more cameos than "Movie 43" and, sadly, the scene here is only slightly funnier than that catastrophe.

There's a witty movie hidden within all the melee here. The plot of "Anchorman 2," which is set in 1980, follows Ron and his crew as they get in on the ground floor of a station modeled after CNN that plans to provide 24-hour news coverage. And the film often pokes fun at how the news has gone from being informative to entertainment and all the damage that has caused.

However, director Adam McKay and company are clearly more interested in the characters' irreverent behavior, bawdy humor shouted at maximum decibels and jokes at the expense of 1970s attire. There is a relatively funny sequence during which we find out Brian Fantana's (Paul Rudd) current line of work. But on the whole, the film's biggest sin is that it's just not funny. It's taken nine years to produce a sequel to "Anchorman," which became a cult hit on DVD due to its quotable - and funny, mind you - dialogue ("stay classy" and "I love lamp"), and this is the best with which they could come up?

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
It's taken several decades to bring James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" to the big screen. For a film about a character who spends much of his time concocting elaborate fantasies, Ben Stiller's film is a somewhat muted affair.

That's not to say that it's bad - it's a little overly whimsical and some of the fantasy sequences, especially the one with the not-so-great CGI where he jumps through a window to save a cat, could have been little better thought out. Regardless, it's not a film without its charms.

For those who haven't read the short story - and, for those, I ask: what the hell were you doing in middle school? - Mitty is a schlub who spends most of his waking hours daydreaming his days away, coming up with fantasies far more preferable than his average life.

The story of "Mitty" has been completely revamped. In this film, Walter works in the photo department of Life Magazine, which is in the midst of publishing one last print edition before going exclusively online. He is harassed by his new jerk of a boss (Adam Scott), who has been brought on board for the transition team. Walter pines for newly hired Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who has a young son. And he has a doting mother (Shirley MacLaine), to whom he should listen more closely.

Upon discovering that the cover shot for the print edition has gone missing, Walter attempts to throw caution to the wind and try to track down the elusive photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn in an amusing cameo), who is in Iceland one moment and Afghanistan the next. You may not be surprised to hear that Walter learns to give precedence to life's actual adventures during his journey, rather than those in his head.

Stiller is an able director - "The Cable Guy" is much better than you might remember, "Reality Bites" was a decent Gen X dramedy and "Tropic Thunder," while a bit overdone, had more than a few truly funny moments. But the problem with "Walter Mitty" is in the way it attempts to tow the line of comedy and drama, resulting in a movie that only produces laughs or resonates intermittently. As I said before, it's not a bad picture, but not exactly what you'd expect from a film that has taken so many years to bring to fruition.

Review: The Past

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Asghar Farhadi's latest, "The Past," is similar to the director's terrific 2011 Oscar winner "A Separation" in that it also includes a storyline about a couple going through a divorce as well as explores the idea that it's often difficult to find the truth in any situation the further we probe into the matter.

And while this new film, which is set in France rather than the director's homeland of Iran, does not reach the heights of Farhadi's previous film, it is still a very well-acted and well-scripted movie.

At the film's beginning, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has flown to Paris from Iran to meet up with his estranged wife to grant her a divorce, so that she can remarry Samir (Tahar Rahim). But Ahmad finds a wealth of problems upon his arrival: Samir is not divorced from wife, whom we are told is in a coma after she attempted to commit suicide, his soon to be ex-wife Marie's (Berenice Bejo, of "The Artist") older daughter will not set foot in the home and Samir's son is acting unruly. Ahmad soon finds himself acting as peacekeeper as tensions escalate between the family members.

As was the case in "A Separation," not everything is exactly as it seems and, through several reveals during the course of the film, we find out exactly why Samir's wife is in a coma and why the daughter won't live in the house with her mother and Samir.

I tend not to complain of running times and can vouch that a number of my favorite pictures are long and slow moving. "The Past" has the feel of a well-paced drama and almost plays as a thriller - as did "A Separation" - but it's also, perhaps, a little too long for the story involved.

Bejo is pretty terrific as Marie, who is pregnant, smoking nonstop and, often, in a state of rage or anguish at the film's other characters. And Mosaffa brings a complexity to Ahmad, a character that is not as up-front with his emotions as Marie.

Despite that it's more of a minor work compared to his previous film, "The Past" is still quite good. And it's further proof that Farhadi is a filmmaker who is not just interested in story or character, but rather ideas, and he puts his plot lines and characters to great use to further these ideas.

The Lists: Best Albums (100-1)

Image courtesy of The Beatles Facebook page.
Last and - obviously - not least are numbers 100-1 on my all-time favorite albums list.

The Lists: Best Albums (200-101)

Image courtesy of The Pixies.
Here are numbers 200-101 in my all-time albums list.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Lists: Best Albums (300-201)

Image courtesy of Eric B. and Rakim
Here are numbers 300-201 in my all-time albums list.

The Lists: Best Albums (400-301)

Image courtesy of The Pogues.
Here are numbers 400-301 in my all-time albums list:

The Lists: Best Albums (500-401)

Image courtesy of Black Sabbath.
The third - previously, favorite books and TV shows - of my four all-time lists is the Top 500 Best Albums. I've broken the list down into five parts (500-401, 400-301, etc.) to make it a little easier to scroll through.

The albums on the list are primarily from the rock 'n' roll era - or, the 1950s through the present, although there are some jazz albums on here as well. With this list, I tried to both represent my own personal favorite albums as well as include records that I believe deserve to be on such a list.

Also, I've tried to represent as many eras and genres as possible, though I'll admit you won't find much country here, unless you include Johnny Cash. And there's not a whole lot of albums from the past five years or so and only a handful since the beginning of this century. Here are numbers 500-401:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: Her

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Spike Jonze's funny, strange and melancholy "Her" is the perfect iRomance for our gadget-obsessed age. But not only is the director's latest an hilarious - and slightly disturbing, considering the implications - view of a world in which everything, including love, for some at least, involves a computer, it's also a forlornly rendered - and often lovely - take on the loss of love and loneliness.

We first meet Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix in, perhaps, his most sympathetic role to date) as he composes a romantic love letter to a person unknown. We soon find out that Theo, who lives in a not-so-distant future Los Angeles where high-waist paints are all the rage, works for a company that writes authentic-seeming letters for people and, as the picture opens, our guy is merely doing his job.

Theo is not so lucky in love. It is revealed through fragmented flashback images that he is in the midst of a divorce with his wife (Rooney Mara), who was his childhood sweetheart, and that he is living a mostly isolated and lonely existence. His only true friend is Amy (Amy Adams, terrific as ever), who is also married but has some problems of her own.

Our guy has few opportunities to connect, with the exception of a phone sex date that goes hilariously awry and an actual date with a friend of a friend that hardly goes better. Theo is confined to playing a virtual video game in his apartment that includes a foul-mouthed little alien who berates him. No, seriously, you have to see it to believe it.

One day while walking, Theo sees an advertisement for OS 1, a new operating system that can be tailor-made to its owner. He purchases one and is a bit disarmed at how quickly his system, which is named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), not only learns to communicate with him based on his needs and personality, but also can read a book in less than a second and gradually develops personality traits and feelings.

Theo strikes up a friendship with Samantha that becomes something much deeper, preferring her company to that of actual human companionship, which his soon-to-be-ex-wife is quick to point out. The story of "Her" may sound preposterous but, then again, so did "Being John Malkovich." Jonze is a filmmaker that takes outrageously wacky stories and gives them heart, soul and purpose.

Despite that the film is a love story between a human being and a gadget, I can't think of any other movie about love or relationships this year as profoundly thoughtful on those subjects. Theo will eventually face a harsh truth - and not an obvious one where you think the film may be leading you - and his discovery is handled poignantly and in a manner that feels true.

"Her" is one of the year's most unique films. It's one that captures the essence and difficulties of loneliness better than any other of recent memory - and yet, it's not a picture without hope. The movie has that off-the-wall sense of humor we've come to expect from Jonze as well as the bizarre plot, but the filmmaker tackles the subject in all seriousness.

And the film is even a bit unsettling in a recognizable way. During one particular sequence, Theo is sitting on the stairs leading down to a subway and in the middle of getting a piece of bad news. As he looks up, every single person exiting the subway is engaged with a piece of gadgetry, ignoring the rest of the world around them. It's no wonder poor Theo feels so gloomy - everybody is plugged in, but nobody is connecting.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Lists: My Favorite Written Works


The second of my lists - last week, the best TV shows - is titled My Favorite Written Works because it includes novels, plays, poems and at least one piece of nonfiction.

The list is by no means my list of what I consider to be the greatest works ever written, although many of the titles are most certainly among them. Instead, this list represents the top 100 (plus 50 runners-up) works that have most inspired, influenced or helped to develop my love of reading.

That being said, this list will be the most incomplete of the lists (next week, best albums and, the following week, the great movies by decade as well as my favorite films of 2013). Obviously, it takes a lot longer to read a book than it does to watch a movie or listen to an album.

As is the case with all four lists I'm posting on this blog, this one is subject to updates. So, below I've listed a number of books considered to be great that I have on my list to read. As I make my way through them, they may or may not be added to the list.


Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is by no means a bad film, but this is a franchise that is gradually running lower on steam. I was impressed by the director's original "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but thought that last year's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was good enough, while also being a little overlong and a bit more minor thematically.

This second entry into the LOTR prequel series is a little less inspired than its predecessor and appears to act mostly as a bridge between the first film and the finale, "There and Back Again," which is due one year from now.

For the sake of contrast, watch "Catching Fire," the second "Hunger Games" film, and, one the one hand, see how that film continues the story from the first film in its franchise and then sets the scene for the finale, but - on the other hand - actually further develops its characters, reinforces its themes while adding new ones and gives a fresh spin to the material, whereas "The Desolation of Smaug" comes off as just more of the same.

And by more of the same, I mean more epic, drawn-out battles, more creepy villains (although those spiders in the trees were kind of impressive), more dramatic line readings in fictional tongues, repeated references to places that mean something to the story's characters but not so much to anyone else and loads of expository dialogue.

That being said, "Smaug" is a better example of the big budget style of storytelling we've come to expect from our blockbusters and Jackson does it better than most. The film is littered with CGI effects and they are mostly impressive.

But what's missing in these "Hobbit" films, especially this second entry, is the heart and soul as well as the character development from the original trilogy. "Smaug" is, essentially, one narrow escape or battle after the next, but without a sense of purpose.

Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Image courtesy of  Walt Disney Pictures.
So, here's a genuine surprise: John Lee Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks" is not exactly the feel-good making-of-a-movie film that you'd might expect. Yes, it has its heart-warming moments, yet the picture is not sentimental, but rather genuinely affecting. And, surprisingly, it's a bit more downbeat than I could have ever expected.

The film follows the turbulent process of bringing P.L. Travers' "Mary Poppins" to the big screen in the early 1960s. Emma Thompson plays Travers as a bit of a pill, a snooty English woman whose career has faded after her royalties have run out and dreads the idea of relying on an American film studio to restore her financially.

Tom Hanks is Walt Disney and, at first, he plays the iconic animator, director and studio head in the aw-shucks manner you might be expecting. That is, until he lays some heavy baggage on Travers late in the film. Between his terrific performance in "Captain Phillips" and some strong supporting work here as Disney, Hanks has, thankfully, reentered the realm of great acting after having kept a mostly low-key role as a producer, director and occasional performer during the past few years.

The struggle between Disney and Travers, who does not want the film of her novels to include cartoon figures and cheerful ditties, is coupled with a series of flashbacks as Travers grows up poor with her well-meaning, but alcoholic failure of a father (Colin Farrell), in early 20th century Australia. This story sheds some light on why Travers is so difficult in matters of handing off her beloved Mary to Disney and his team of writers, which includes Jason Schwartzman and Bradley Whitford.

As I've said, for a movie that aims to be an Oscar crowd pleaser - you know, the type of film about moviemaking that has scored the top prize during the past two Academy Awards ceremonies, "Saving Mr. Banks" goes to some dark places. This is yet another movie about an artist - or, in this case, two artists - at work, but also an exploration of how their histories have shaped and inspired their art. At one point in the film, Travers insists that Disney appropriate the gravitas of her novels into the movie version. It's nice to see that Hancock has respected that wish in his own film about the making of that movie.

Review: American Hustle

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Some will argue that David O. Russell's "American Hustle" is, at best, a sleekly-shot and terrifically performed 1970s-set caper and nothing more. And while it's true that the film looks great and the cast is solid right down to the minor roles, I believe that Russell's latest, which is his best in 14 years, is also a wickedly clever take on the idea of American reinvention and the lengths to which people will go to survive, no matter how much conning - of themselves and others - is involved.

The film, set in 1978, is a fictional tale tangled up in the Abscam corruption investigation that netted a handful of U.S. Congress members, a senator, Philadelphia City Council members and a member of the New Jersey state Senate.

Christian Bale, donning a terrible combover, a pot belly and some unforgettably tacky '70s threads, plays Irving Rosenfeld, a brilliant con man who falls in love at first sight with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a young woman with a past she wants to erase who becomes a willing pupil to Irving's schemes and scams. They first meet at a pool party where they bond over a love for Duke Ellington's "Jeep's Blues."

Irving and Sydney, who goes by the alter ego Lady Edith Greensly when she's on the take, mostly steal from desperate people unable to obtain legitimate bank loans. Unfortunately for them, one of their marks is an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who then forces them to set up larger scams in an attempt to catch bigger fish - in this case, several politicians, some mobsters and fellow grifters.

Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the well-liked mayor of Camden (based on Angelo Errichetti, who was arrested in the Abscam busts), finds himself ensnared in the trap set by Irving, DiMaso and Sydney. One of the film's most fascinating relationships is that between Irving and Carmine. Irving recognizes Carmine as a kindred spirit, of sorts, with good intentions whose back-door dealings are done not for personal gain, but rather to help the people he represents. He's a good guy who is, unfortunately, caught up in a crooked system and you can see Irving's pain in knowing that his new pal will take a fall.

The wild card in the mix is Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving's dumb-as-a-fox wife who, in many ways, is a better con artist than her husband. Their marriage may be loveless, but Irving refuses to flee with Sydney because Rosalyn's son, whom Irving has adopted, is close to his heart.

On the one hand, "American Hustle" is a crime drama and a '70s period piece that has taken some inspiration from Martin Scorsese, from the fast-talking characters to the shots that swoop in on the characters to make dramatic gestures, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," from its comedic-before-the-storm style of storytelling to its soundtrack, which includes everything from Steely Dan and Todd Rundgren to Donna Summer and the Bee Gees.

On the other, "Hustle" fits in perfectly with Russell's other films - "Three Kings," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter" - about characters who dream big - but occasionally against the voice of reason - and attempt to make their goals a reality, despite often ridiculously overwhelming odds.

The director is one of the best at working with actors and his ensemble here, which is comprised of a handful of thespians with whom he worked on his previous two films, is spectacular. Bale always brings the goods, but he is especially impressive here, displaying a level of humanism and humor rarely seen in his characters. Cooper brings an often hilarious mania to his obsessive FBI agent and Lawrence is a scene stealer as the conniving and not quite as dumb as she seems Rosalyn. And for a guy caught up in a corruption investigation, Renner is particularly sympathetic as Polito. Adams, perhaps, has the trickiest role of all as a woman pretending to be a whole other person and then moving back and forth between these two characters, depending on with whom she is dealing.

As Irving tells us late in the film, the story of survival is an ongoing one. "American Hustle" slyly observes how we all fool ourselves and others to make a road toward a better life, disguise our true selves to protect our vulnerability or reinvent ourselves many times over. On top of that, it's a showcase of great performances and writing, a whole lot of fun and one of the year's best.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review: Out of the Furnace

Image courtesy of Relativity Media.
Scott Cooper's "Out of the Furnace" is a gritty crime drama that seemingly draws inspiration from the working class setting of a film like "The Deer Hunter" and the violence and drug addiction amid midwestern economic despair of "Winter's Bone." But while the film may not be as strong as either of those aforementioned movies and is unable to bring to fruition its ultimate ambitions, the picture at least provides some significant dramatic tension and is carried by the performances of its cast.

In the film, an excellent Christian Bale, tattooed and haggard, plays Russell Baze, a good-hearted mill worker in Pennsylvania who aims to keep an eye on his wayward brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who has returned from Iraq deeply scarred and gets involved in a brutal fight club led by a particularly reprehensible man named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson at his creepiest), whom we first meet as he attacks a woman in his car, forcing a hot dog down her throat.

But a terrible twist of fate results in Russell landing several years in prison and then returning home to find that his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has taken up with a local cop (Forest Whitaker), while Rodney has gotten deeper into debt and mixed up with DeGroat's gang.

In terms of story, "Out of the Furnace" pretty much goes where you'd expect, although the fate of one character just over halfway through the film genuinely shocked me. And the film's ambitions, which attempt to connect the dots between Affleck's psychologically stunted war veteran, the economic plight of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey communities depicted in the movie and the eventual turning to criminal behavior for the Baze brothers, don't quite pay off.

That being said, Cooper - who directed 2009's solid "Crazy Heart" - delivers the goods otherwise. As a crime drama, the picture remains riveting throughout, creating a sense of tension that rarely lets up. And the cast, which also includes Sam Shepard and Willem Dafoe, is all-around solid. "Out of the Furnace" may not quite live up to Cooper's debut, but it's certainly worth a look.

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Image courtesy of CBS Films.
If the title "Almost Famous" hadn't already been taken, Joel and Ethan Coen could have surely used it for "Inside Llewyn Davis," their haunting, hilarious and melancholic new film.

While the titular fictional troubadour, who is played by Oscar Isaac and based somewhat on pre-Dylan era singer Dave Van Ronk, may not exactly be scrounging for his next meal, he's frequently in need of a couch while navigating the scene of 1960s folk music in the Village. Davis is sort of a lovable lout, a guy who's more talented than this peers, many of whom use gimmicks to sell their acts, but he's unable to catch a break.

The Coens' film follows a week in the life of Davis as he surfs from apartment to apartment and then off to Chicago, where he attempts to land a gig or contract with The Gate of Horn's Bud Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham and based on Albert Grossman, who put together Peter, Paul and Mary) and back again. Similar to the much-beleaguered Larry Gopnik, of the Coens' brilliant 2009 film "A Serious Man," Davis faces trial after trial of Job-like proportions before settling into his fate. The film also bears thematic resemblance to the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" in its Homeric references.

Much like many of the Coens' other films, "Inside Llewyn Davis" tells the tale of a man bound for failure, not because he is untalented, but because the cosmos has seemingly conspired against him or, hell, because life's just unfair like that.

As I've mentioned, Davis is no angel. He shows up unexpected at the homes of his Village - and, in one case, Upper East Side - pals with the intention of crashing at their homes, but eventually ends up insulting them. He has impregnated one friend, Jean (an acerbically funny Carey Mulligan, who is part of a duo/couple with a surprisingly straight-laced Justin Timberlake) and it's mentioned that he previously knocked up another young woman. He even has a go-to doctor for abortions. Davis is also not particularly polite when commenting on other performers, which likely stems from the fact that he's a greater talent, but has less commercial appeal than his fellow folk singers.

In one of the film's best plot threads, Davis accidentally allows the cat one of his friends escape. The fate of this animal, who is appropriately named Ulysses, and Davis's are intertwined during their odyssey through the streets of New York and Chicago. It's particularly heartbreaking when Davis betrays his feline friend during a later sequence.

As always, the Coens have a terrific line-up of character actors in relatively minor roles, including Sylvia Kauders as a batty secretary, John Goodman as a heroine-addicted jazz musician who accompanies Llewyn on his voyage to Chicago, Garrett Hedlund poking fun at his role as Neal Cassady in last year's "On the Road" as Goodman's valet, Johnny Five, Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as Davis' Upper East Side friends, the Gorfeins, Adam Driver as a wanna-be cowboy-styled singer named Al Cody, Stark Sands as an overly sincere soldier-turned-folk singer and Abraham as Grossman.

And while the film is certainly downbeat and a bit of a heartbreaker, it features some of the funniest sequences in the Coens' canon, including an early visit by Llewyn to his manager and the recording of a novelty hit known as "Please Mr. Kennedy."

One of the more fascinating elements of the directors' period pieces is that they capture the look and mood of an era without overindulging in the reference of landmark incidents, although one particular person of interest pops up during the film's final scenes. Their latest picture, which is set in 1961, is lovely to look at - thanks to some great work by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel - despite that rain or snow continuously batter our hero and, overall, the film has a visually gloomy style.

Some might argue that "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a smaller film for the Coens and does not go for the grandeur of a "No Country for Old Men," but I'd say that it thematically fits in with their overall body of work and is just as much of a major work as "A Serious Man" or "Barton Fink." It's a film that is often lovely, funny, sad, brooding and, on occasion, flat-out bizarre.

Davis may continue to gig at The Gaslight, singing his sad interpretations of "Hang Me (Oh Hang Me)" and "The Death of Queen Jane" or he may just throw in the towel and return to the Merchant Marines, where we are told he first drifted. Toward the finale when Llewyn literally receives the final blow of his particularly grueling week, it is hinted that he may have been at the right place at the wrong time, burning out before folk music had its grand revival thanks to Dylan, Joan Baez and several others. Davis, similar to the Coens, believes in art for art's sake, regardless of whether it's financially viable or connects with a wide audience. Lord knows, he's paid his dues, tangled up in blue.

The Lists: Best TV Shows

The Wire. Image courtesy of HBO.
The first of my all-time lists is my favorite television shows. Unlike the medium of film, which has been producing great works of art for nearly a century, TV has come into its own as a great art form in recent years. The past decade has been referred to by many as the "golden age of TV."

So, it should come as no surprise that many of my favorite TV shows were on the air during the 21st century. Below, I have listed my top 25 television shows as well as five great made-for-TV films or miniseries.

However, it should be noted that there are a number of shows considered great that I have not yet seen. Those include: "Homeland," "The Good Wife," "Six Feet Under," "Deadwood," "Boardwalk Empire," "The Walking Dead," "The Killing," "Game of Thrones" and "Justified." I'll eventually get around to these shows and, once I do, I'll add them to the list if I believe they deserve a spot.

In the meantime, my favorite miniseries or TV movies include:
5. I, Claudius (1976, Herbert Wise)
4. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005, Martin Scorsese)
3. Mildred Pierce (2011, Todd Haynes)
2. Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg)
1. Angels in America (2003, Mike Nichols)

And my top 25 TV shows are:
25. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2011, Larry David)
24. Sex and the City (1998-2004, Darren Star)
23. Masterpiece Theater (1971-present, Frank Gillard and Christopher Sarson)
22. M.A.S.H. (1972-1983, Larry Gelbart)
21. The Jeffersons (1975-1985, Don Nicholl, Michael Ross and Bernie West)
20. Sanford and Son (1972-1977, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin)
19. Angel (1999-2004, Joss Whedon)
18. Once and Again (1999-2002, Marshall Hershkovitz and Edward Zwick)
17. The X Files (1993-2002, Chris Carter)
16. The Simpsons ((1989-present, Matt Groening)
15. Saturday Night Live (1975-present, Lorne Michaels)
14. The Cosby Show (1984-1992, Bill Cosby, Ed Weinberger and Michael Leeson)
13. South Park (1997-present, Trey Parker and Matt Stone)
12. Seinfeld (1989-1998, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David)
11. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964, Rod Serling)
10. The Wonder Years (1988-1993, Carol Black and Neal Marlens)
  9. House of Cards (U.S. version) (2013-present, Beau Willimon)
  8. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003, Joss Whedon)
  7. The Americans (2013-present, Joe Weisberg)
  6. True Detective (2014-present, Nic Pizzolatto)
  5. Twin Peaks (1990-1991, David Lynch and Mark Frost)
  4. Breaking Bad (2008-2013, Vince Gilligan)
  3. Mad Men (2007-2015, Matthew Weiner)
  2. The Sopranos (1999-2007, David Chase)
  1. The Wire (2002-2008, David Simon)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Coming Soon: The Lists

Image courtesy of indiemusicfilter.com.
More than a few people in the various critical spheres doth protest too much when it comes to lists, notifying you that they hate them or that they are a necessary evil, but seemingly have no problem offering up their own when pressed.

In the past, I've included my best of the year lists on this site, but never any all-encompassing ones. So, this month I'm going all out. Why not, right? During the next four weeks, I'm going to post four lists - two massive, one medium sized and another relatively short. My hope is that they will provoke some discussion or that I'll get an email or two lambasting me for my negligibility for excluding a particular work. I'm hoping that my readers - or, perhaps just, reader (thanks, Mom) - will have something to say.

First will be my list of the 20 greatest TV shows, which will be followed by the top 500 albums (primarily confined from the 1950s to the present and listed in order) and, then, a non-numbered list of some of my favorite pieces of writing (that is, novels, plays, poems and maybe a nonfiction title or two). That last list will be lacking some major titles, so I'll make mention of any considered great works that I have yet to read.

Last will be my movie list, which will be a little different from the others. For one, it'll probably include more than 1,000 titles. Secondly, it's not numbered and will not be a "favorites" list in the usual sense. Rather, it's a list I'd provide someone if they asked me to give them the names of all the titles I thought they should see to have a well-rounded film education. It'll include some obvious choices, many personal favorites, a number of films that I might not necessarily love but are significant and some obscure titles. This list will be broken down by decade.

And, of course, around the last weekend of the year, I'll get to my best of 2013 list, which comes a bit later this year as a number of extremely well-regarded - and potentially promising - films are getting released at the last minute. If you'd like to send your own list (of any sort), you can post them in the comment section on this site or email them to nathanduke2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: Oldboy

Image courtesy of FilmDistrict.
Spike Lee's remake of Chan-wook Park's "Oldboy," which is itself an adaptation of Nobuaki Minegeshi's manga, is far from being a bad film, but it has little reason to exist.

I'm generally wary of remakes. But while I liked Park's gruesome 2003 film, I'm not as beholden to it as some. So, while I can't say that the film necessarily needed to be remade, I was curious to see what Lee would do with the material.

Strangely, the director has pretty much made a scene-for-scene remake with the exception of a lack of live squid eating and a slightly different ending.

But this is not to say that this new version is without its pleasures, if that's the right word. Lee manages to nearly up the ante during the insane hammer attack sequence that was so memorable from Park's original. And another scene during which Josh Brolin's Joe Doucett fends off a couple of football players is shocking and out of the blue.

Then, on the other hand, there are some drawbacks. For starters, the opening scenes establish Doucett as a douchebag to an over-the-top extent. And the portrayals of film's villains, especially the mysterious figure at its center played by Sharlto Copley, verge on the ludicrous.

For those unaware of the story, "Oldboy" follows the tale of a lout who is imprisoned in a hotel room for two decades by an unknown figure whom he slighted years before. Upon release, he aims to track down his kidnapper and enact revenge. Of course, there are plot twists galore, one of which is rather grim.

Similar to Park's original, I was a bit let down by the eventual explanation of why Doucett has been imprisoned. I preferred both films as Kafka-esque exercises, rather than bloody revenge fantasies.

Lee's "Oldboy" impresses visually and the cast does its best with the material, but it is ultimately an average remake of a good - but, perhaps, not great - cult film.

Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Justin Chadwick's "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" fits into the genre that could be called the Respectful, Reverent Biopic, but it's a solid example of such a film.

While this film, which chronicles the South African leader's early days as an attorney to his election as the president of his nation following 27 years of imprisonment, does not exactly break ground for its genre, it is wonderfully acted, often beautiful to look at and well-scripted.

Idris Elba ("The Wire") bares little resemblance to Nelson Mandela, but he disappears into the role all the same, painting a portrait of a complex man. And - similar to the biopic of Ray Charles - the movie takes a warts-and-all approach, showing not just Mandela's suffering at the hands of his oppressors and valiant work on behalf of his people, but also extramarital activities and political compromises.

Equally good is Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela, who eventually turns to guerilla tactics as her husband gradually begins the process of trying to unite South Africa by forgiving the oppressive government that imprisoned him.

In terms of a biopic, "Mandela" follows the standard route that we might expect of such a film, from the titular figure's early days as a lawyer to his involvement with the African National Congress, his arrest and trial, the decades spent in a tiny jail cell and, eventually, his release and rise to power. In other words, there are not too many surprises here.

On the other hand, the material is handled well and the film deftly injects documentary footage into its narrative. Also, the characters have a sense of depth due to the solid work by the cast and the picture manages to stir emotions and righteous anger without beating the audience over the head. "Mandela" may not be on the level of a towering achievement such as Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," but it's certainly worth seeing.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Philomena

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Stephen Frears' "Philomena" is the type of film that many would likely believe, upon learning of its true story and seeing its cast and distributor, is an attempt at Oscar bait. And I'd certainly not be shocked if Judi Dench nabs her umpteenth nomination for her role as the film's titular character.

However, the film is much more subtle than you'd might expect. Frears is a director that has a unique talent at subverting expectations when handling specific subject matter. His 2006 Oscar favorite "The Queen" may have appeared to have been one of those annual cinematic odes to aristocracy of which - at least, some - audiences never seem to tire. But rather than being stuffy, that film was a surprisingly moving film about a leader forced to change with the times.

"Philomena" is no different. Yes, it's the story of a cynical down-on-his-luck journalist (Steve Coogan, droll as ever) who, in an attempt to revive his career, finds himself writing a human interest story on a sweet old Irish lass (Dench, pretty terrific here) whose child was torn away from her in her youth by a group of sadistic nuns and for whom she has been searching her entire life.

And, yes, the film tugs at the heart strings, but it earns its emotions. For starters, Dench plays her character as the sort of saintly figure you might expect from this type of story. Despite her mistreatment by the sisters at the convent where she lived as a young woman, she does not bear any grudges and she looks upon everyone she experiences during her travels with a naively sweet manner. At the same time, she's no fool and there is a truly funny scene during which Philomena describes a sexual liaison to a shocked Coogan and, much later, another in which she seems nonplussed about some discoveries she makes about her son during the pair's journey to find him.

So, on the one hand, "Philomena" treads the ground you'd expect it to but, at the same time, Frears and company deftly handle the material in ways that might surprise you. As I've said time and time again, what a movie is about is typically less significant than how the filmmakers go about telling the story. I was impressed both by the film's sly sense of humor about its subject matter as well as its moving - but not sentimental - treatment of Philomena's often tragic story. This is a very enjoyable, well made and thoughtful character study.

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
"The Hunger Games" series are blockbusters for the types of people who do not tend to typically turn out for tent-pole films or movies based on young adult novels. I'd prefer the two pictures in this franchise over most any other big studio action film, comic book movie or YA series from the past few years.

And what makes the "Hunger Games" movies superior is attention to story, strong characters, better acting and some genuinely intriguing concepts. That's not to say that they are completely divorced from the genre in which they are placed. There is, after all, a sequence in "Catching Fire," the second of the series, during which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and several supporting characters must first flee poison gas and, then, a pack of angry baboons.

But despite a few CGI-heavy sequences such as that, the movie is more grounded in its story and its high concepts. For those who do not know the drill, the films are set in a dystopian future during which a male and female youth from each district of an unnamed nation must compete in a fight-to-the-death game as a punishment for a rebellion that took place against the Capital many years before.

Everdeen and her friend, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), were the sole survivors of the most recent set of games and, now, they are on a tour during which they must pretend to be in love and act enthused by the Big Brother government led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

But Snow is afraid that Everdeen has become a folk hero, of sorts, for the people and fears a rebellion. He entrusts the brains behind the Hunger Games - the somewhat absurdly named Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) - to put together a competition during which the winners of past Hunger Games must face off against one another. That way, he figures, these heroes of the people past and present will bump each other off and, perhaps, quell the rebellion.

Needless to say, Katniss and Peeta must once again defend themselves but, this time, attempt to forge alliances with a new group of competitors, including a brainy scientist (Jeffrey Wright), his partner (Amanda Plummer) and an angry young woman whose family was murdered by the Capital (Jena Malone).

For a blockbuster film of this type, "Catching Fire" begins on a restrained note and most of the action sequences do not come along until later in the film once the games begin. And while Lawrence is solid once again as the heroine, the supporting cast also brings the goods, including Lenny Kravitz as Katniss' fashion designer, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci as a late night talk show host and Woody Harrelson as Katniss' and Peeta's mentor.

Of course, this second film mostly paves the way for the third, and final, installment of the series. But as a midpoint film, it still manages to work both dramatically and thematically. It's a fun movie, certainly better than the drippy "Twilight" films and more involving than most of the major comic book franchise films that have been released in bulk during recent years.

Quite often, attempting to come up with something to write about a blockbuster series that relies heavily on formula and visual effects can become a chore. At this point, I don't know what else I can say about the "Transformers" films, for example, or many of the parts two, three or four of the summer movies we get every year. But "The Hunger Games" is a series that I'm looking forward to revisiting. It's a bit smarter and more engaging than most of its peers.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Review: The Best Man Holiday

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Despite the semi-bland title and director Malcolm D. Lee's insistence on throwing in more plot devices than you could count, "The Best Man Holiday" has its share of charms.

The film is a sequel to the director's surprise 1999 hit and the entire cast is back for this reunion. It helps more than a bit that the likability factor is pretty high for the entire cast and the characters feel like well-thought-out people.

For those unfamiliar with the original, Taye Diggs plays Harper Stewart, whose bestselling debut, "Unfinished Business," aired the dirty laundry of all his pals and former flings.

It's now 14 years later and Harper's relationship with former best pal Lance (Morris Chestnut), a pro football star for whom he was the best man in the original film, is strained following a revelation from Harper's book. Also, he's wrestling with a bad case of writer's block.

But Lance's sweet natured wife, Mia (Monica Calhoun), believes that Lance should celebrate the holidays with his former friends - and their romantic interests - since he will be playing a game on Christmas Day during which he is expected to break an all-time rushing record.

So, once again we get to catch up with Lance, Mia and Harper as well as Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), Harper's pregnant wife, lothario Quentin (a scene stealing Terrence Howard), vixen Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), teacher Julian (Harrold Perrineau), Candace (Regina Hall), a former stripper who is now Julian's wife, and Jordan (Nia Long), who was Harper's girl-that-got-away.

There's another real reason why the gang all reunites - and although I won't give it away here, it's one of the film's many plot devices, but also the one that has the most emotional impact. Stevie Wonder's "As," which was used during a romantic moment between Harper and Jordan during the first film is used again here, but for a much more tragic scenario.

The other plot devices on-hand come in abundance - a catfight between two women, one of whom - I kid you not - is supposed to be a Real Housewife of Westchester, as well as a rushed trip to the emergency room, mistaken infidelity, you name it.

But "The Best Man Holiday," despite being a bit overstuffed, is a pretty enjoyable experience nonetheless. The cast manages to rekindle that vibe that you're actually hanging out with an old group of friends, rather than a bunch of actors pretending to do so.

The film is often funny, moving when it needs to be and earnest in a good way. I could have probably done without all the schmaltzy Christmas tunes, but hey, there's some Ol' Dirty Bastard, Stevie Wonder and New Edition in there too.

Most cast reunion movies feel like an attempt to cash in - "American Reunion," anyone? - but "The Best Man Holiday" actually justifies its existence. I wouldn't mind spending more time with these characters, but let's hope Lee - should he choose to make another "Best Man" film - doesn't wait another 14 years.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: Nebraska

Image courtesy of Paramount Vantage.
Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" delivers all the typical acerbic banter, deadpan delivery and poignancy that you might expect upon approaching one of the filmmaker's works, even if it doesn't quite rank with his finest movies - "Sideways" and "About Schmidt."

In the film, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a somewhat out of sorts midwesterner who drinks hard - and pretends not to - and seemingly wants little out of life. One day, he receives in the mail one of those type of sweepstakes scams telling him he has won a million dollars that most of us would throw away.

But, no, Woody is determined to collect his prize, which means he'll have to travel two states over to Lincoln, Nebraska because he doesn't trust having that much money shipped through the postal service. His wife, Kate ( a terrifically potty-mouthed June Squibb), is exasperated with him, but his younger son, David (Will Forte, playing wonderfully against type), decides there's no harm in letting his old man, who appears beaten down by life, have a little fun. The two men take a road trip - a staple of Payne's movies - to collect the nonexistent prize.

But the two are waylaid due to circumstances, resulting in their making a trip back to the town where Woody grew up. They are joined there by Kate and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), Woody's older son who is an aspiring news anchorman.

Hollywood films have - for the most part - long presented a view of midwesterners as good-hearted, noble and hardworking folks, but Payne - who hails from Nebraska - appears to poke fun at that notion in his latest film. Woody's scheming relatives, who all know of his supposed fortune, all line to remind him of the good deeds they once did for him in order to nab a bit of his winnings. Some (Stacy Keach, playing an old business partner) present veiled threats, while others resort to violence. In one of the film's best - and funniest - sequences, Kate lays in to them during a family reunion, of sorts.

While "Nebraska" is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and often deeply felt picture, it is more of a minor work in Payne's oeuvre. But I believe the filmmaker was aiming for a more simplistic narrative here and it works. And, "12 Years a Slave" aside, I doubt you'll find a more poignant moment in any picture this year than Woody and David's final ride through town, of which I won't give any details.

An often cited cliche is the one on how life isn't about the destination, but rather the journey. In the case of "Nebraska," the destination is an obvious letdown - though you'll likely get a laugh out of the consolation prize Woody collects - but the journey in this case is the joie de vivre for Payne's eccentric, but soulfully recognizable, characters.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review: Thor: The Dark World

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
I gotta be honest here. I'm pretty tired of men in tight-fitting uniforms saving the world. And I'm a little sick of movies in which a portal in the sky threatens to open and swallow up all humanity. And a little tired of origin stories. And elves. And opening prologues in voice-over during which the Very Serious nature of the proceedings to come are explained. And movies referencing other movies in which the same characters appear for the sake of brand identity.

"Thor: The Dark World," you may not be surprised to find out, includes all of the above, with the exception that the film's elves are, in fact, referred to as "dark elves." So, at least, there's that.

The film, which is directed by "Game of Thrones" regular Alan Taylor, is probably the umpteenth comic book movie I've seen this year and, most likely at this time next year, I'll be able to refer to it as "10 comic book movies ago," based on the rate at which the studios are releasing them.

In the vast empire of superhero movies, "The Dark World" falls somewhere in the middle. It's not as awful as some ("Catwoman" anyone?) or an example of jaw dropping bad taste ("Kick Ass") or even an ambitious failure ("Watchmen"). And it's certainly not a success, such as the first two of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" franchise.

No, "Thor: The Dark World" is satisfied with doing exactly what you'd expect it to do and nothing more. The film introduces a new villain (Christopher Eccleston), whose name (Malekith) and subtitled language (Dark Elvian, perhaps) seem better suited to a "Lord of the Rings" sequel. And the explanation of why he and his band of sinister marauders are threatening not just one planet, but two, is about as well-thought-out as a subplot from one of Michael Bay's "Transformer" movies.

Suffice it to say: Thor to the rescue! Chris Hemsworth is amiable enough as the lead and he appears to bring a certain sense of irony to the self-seriousness of the whole endeavor. Natalie Portman, on the other hand, is given the thankless task of playing the damsel - and scientist - in distress. Tom Hiddleston reprises his role as Loki and Anthony Hopkins is back as Odin, father to Thor and king of Asgard.

But let's be honest: At this point, all of the "Thor," "Iron Man," "Captain America" and "Hulk" movies past, present and - most likely - future serve to act as reminders that, hey kids!, another "Avengers" movie is on the way.

"Thor: The Dark World" isn't so much bad as it is unnecessary and formulaic.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Review: Last Vegas

Image courtesy of CBS Films.
Let's get this out of the way first: Yes, "Last Vegas" is a complete money-grab, a version of "The Hangover" for the 60-plus set that asks four Academy-Award winners to engage in Viagra jokes and act drunk and disorderly before the schmaltz finally settles in.

That being said, you could certainly find a worse time at the movies because, let's face it, it's always a pleasure to watch Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline - even when they're slumming it a bit.

And the film is often funny enough, with Kline getting most of the best - but typically, age-oriented - one liners. Case in point: Kline is asked how he is handling his retirement in Florida with his wife: "I'm at a dinner party at 4 in the afternoon," he quips.

There are very few surprises here. The four characters were part of a group known as the Flatbush Four, which prompts the semi-awkward scenes set in Brooklyn in the late 1950s.

Years later, Paddy (De Niro) and Billy (Douglas) are barely speaking, while Archie (Freeman) is dealing with some health troubles and an overly worrisome son and Sam is suffering through the aforementioned retirement in Florida.

As the title ensures you, the four men will travel to Las Vegas to celebrate long-time bachelor Billy's upcoming wedding to a woman who is 30 years younger. And just wouldn't ya know that a woman (Mary Steenburgen) who is, perhaps, more age appropriate comes into the picture.

"Last Vegas" doesn't have much of a reason to exist and it's fairly formulaic. But it's not without its moments and the cast does its best with the material. The film may merely be an excuse for these great actors to work together or, worse and more likely, just a paycheck. But let's put it this way, in terms of actors of a certain age trying their hands at broad comedy, "Vegas" is much more tolerable than, say, "Wild Hogs" or "The Bucket List."

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Jean-Marc Vallee's "Dallas Buyers Club" is a pretty gripping portrayal of unlikely AIDS activist Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a hard drinking, drug taking, sexually promiscuous and homophobic rodeo cowboy who finds out circa 1985 that he is HIV positive.

The film provides just the sort of material that would typically scream Oscar bait - and while I'm pretty sure the film will garner its share of awards nominations, Vallee and his terrific cast, which includes some great work from Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner, handle it all tastefully.

In fact, it's pretty difficult to like Woodroof for much of the film until he makes the required transformation later in the film. When we first meet him, he doesn't shy away from throwing out offensive comments about gays and Arabs and acts just about how you'd expect someone who drinks as hard and snorts as much cocaine as he does.

But Woodroof eventually becomes the hero of the story, along with his business partner Rayon (Leto), a sensitive and HIV positive drag queen and Garner's sympathetic doctor. The villain of the story is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which attempts to halt Woodroof's enterprise that involves smuggling AIDS treatments into the country from Mexico, Japan, China and the Netherlands that he then sells to the membership of his Dallas Buyers Club.

The thing is, all of the items Woodroof smuggles in are basically vitamins, which prove to be more effective in his case and those of many others than the FDA-approved AZT. "Dallas Buyers Club" ends up juggling two familiar story lines - that of a flawed individual becoming a better person and the little man against big industry - in this case, the FDA and Big Pharma.

McConaughey is in the middle of a career makeover, from his work last year in "Bernie," "Magic Mike" and "Killer Joe" and, in 2013, his great performances in "Mud" and "Dallas Buyers Club." Later this year, he is appearing in Martin Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street." But "Dallas" could be his finest work to date, not just because of the obvious physical demands of the role, but the way that the actor gets into Woodroof's trouble psyche. Leto, who has been missing from screens for a while, is similarly terrific in a role that could have a caricature, but ends up being rather poignant.

"Dallas Buyers Club" tells a pretty remarkable story and does it well. The film's visual style and the script are both solid, but this is a picture that is first and foremost an actors' showcase. Here is an example of a cast truly bringing to life its characters.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Best Movies for Halloween

The Shining. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Today, I posted my list of the 50 or so best horror movies to watch this Halloween or, if you will, what I believe to be the Horror Movie Canon.

I'm sure I missed some titles, but I think the piece does a decent enough job of putting together a list of some of the best and most underrated horror movies.

Anyway, here's the story. Please share your thoughts on the comment section below.

Update, Oct. 28, 2014: Yes, I did miss some great titles. Also, add these to your list: Wes Craven's 1977 original version of "The Hills Have Eyes," Don Coscarelli's eerie "Phantasm" and Bob Clark's "Black Christmas" (the 1974 original) and topical "Deathdream."

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: All Is Lost

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost" is, perhaps, a movie that I admire more than I love, but admire it I do. The picture is a one-man show with Robert Redford at the helm or, arguably, a three-man show if you want to include the pretty incredible cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini.

All you need to know about the film is that it follows a nameless man (Redford) who is alone at sea on his boat and must deal with an increasingly dire situation after his ship is struck by a floating piece of freight, forcing him to first attempt to keep from sinking and, when that fails, try to survive on a life raft.

However, you'd be wrong to think that "All Is Lost" is another of those tales of survival that celebrate the triumph of human resilience. In fact, the picture shares more in common with Michael Haneke's recent "Amour," which also chronicled a person of a certain age's coming to face with their own mortality.

And Redford pretty much pulls it off, carrying the film with a mostly wordless performance, allowing his emotions and sense of, at first, dread - and then - acceptance of his situation play out on his face.

The film also looks pretty terrific and there are more than a few scenes that I wondered how the filmmakers pulled off, including one in which Redford's boat flips upside down in the water and another involving a rather lengthy storm.

All this being said, I think Chandor's film is a good - but, perhaps, not great - one. I prefer his debut, the critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated financial crisis drama "Margin Call." But I was pretty awed by Redford's performance here, which is one of his best in some time, and the camera work involved. And I like that the filmmakers took a scenario that has been a little played out - the survival against the odds tale - and made it into something you might not expect.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: Bastards

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
Claire Denis is one of the world's great filmmakers, but she seems to have fallen into a pattern of delivering a great movie or two and then following them with a frustratingly opaque and fragmented one.

For example, she followed the marvelous "Beau Travail" and underrated "Trouble Every Day" with the murky "L'Intrus," which many loved but is among my least favorite of her works. And now, she gives us "Bastards," which follows the elegiac "35 Shots of Rum" and the starkly haunting "White Material."

Those familiar with my taste should know I certainly do not object to the peculiar, the experimental, the occasionally outright nonsensical or what some might refer to as challenging cinema. But Denis' latest is so vague that it's hard to even collect my thoughts on it.

The picture has something to do with a tanker captain named Marco (Vincent London, who might have played a great 1960s Jean Pierre Melville anti-hero) returning home to visit his sister (Julie Bataille), whose husband has died and teenage daughter (Lola Creton) has attempted suicide due to what a doctor describes as severe sexual abuse. When we first meet the young woman, she is walking nude along a deserted Paris street with blood dripping down her leg.

Marco's sister blames her husband's death on a business partner (Michael Subor). Before long, our hero gets entangled with the business partner's wife (Chiara Mastroianni), who has a young boy.

The film looks great, but - as the saying goes - has less filling. Marco goes further and further down a rabbit hole, but it's unclear what he's searching for and even what he finds.

"Bastards" has a throbbing electronica score and some moody sequences that feel as if they were pulled straight out of David Lynch's "Lost Highway" or Olivier Assayas's "Demonlover." But it's a case of - to borrow another cliche - being all dolled up with nowhere to go.

Denis is a wonderful filmmaker with a style and mood all her own. But "Bastards" is a bit too spare to leave much of an impression. Here's to hoping that, in typical fashion, her next few works are great.