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.