These are the 10 strongest performances by actors and actresses in 2014 that could have been deserving of Best Supporting Actor/Actress consideration if only their roles had been a little bit bigger:
Carrie Coon is excellent as the emotional and honest Margo Dunne, sister to Nick Dunne (played by Ben Affleck) in "Gone Girl".
Viola Davis is prominent at the beginning of "Get On Up", as James Brown's mother, Susie. She doesn't reappear until the third act, in a scene in which she reunites with, her now famous son (played by Chadwick Boseman). Davis is at the top of her game whenever she's on screen.
Blink and you'll miss him, Johnny Depp only appears for five minutes as The Wolf in "Into the Woods". As you watch Depp sing "Hello, Little Girl" and interact with Red Riding Hood, you think that he'll be sticking around for awhile (maybe end-up as the main villain). But then he's gone, and his unique and sly take on the character is immediately missed.
In "Birdman", Zach Galifianakis plays the manager and best friend of actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Galifianakis has some bold one-liners and electric exchanges with Keaton, but is practically out of the picture entirely by the halfway point of the film.
He's really in only two scenes, but Stacy Keach is incredibly effective as the grandfather of Chloe Grace Moretz's Mia in the romantic drama "If I Stay". Keach is marvelous both, in a flashback, telling Mia how proud he is of her, and at the bedside of his dying granddaughter, delivering a heart-tugging speech.
You may think she was in enough of "X-Men: Days of Future Past", but I thought Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique deserved much more of the spotlight in the complex time-travel story. A confrontation between her and Michael Fassbender's Magneto is one of the film's best scenes.
Chloe Grace Moretz gives a standout performance in "The Equalizer". Her conversations with Denzel Washington's character in the diner are first-rate. But then Washington moves-on, and Moretz is gone for nearly most of the rest of the film.
Chris O'Dowd is terrific in his first, quite funny scene in the Bill Murray/Melissa McCarthy comedy "St. Vincent". Should he have been highlighted in several more? Absolutely.
Not playing Madea for a change, Tyler Perry does a nice job as defense lawyer Tanner Bolt (great name) in "Gone Girl". And he delivers the film's best line about representing "messed-up" people.
Finally, as the mother of millionaire wrestling coach John du Pont (Steve Carell) in "Foxcatcher", Vanessa Redgrave was part of Carell's two best scenes. One - a conversation between the two in which Mrs. du Pont re-iterates her disapproval of the sport to her son. The other - John attempting to prove to his mother (watching from her wheelchair) that he's a real coach and the team members respect him. Both scenes are riveting.
If you dare go "Into the Woods'', there's a lot you will find: A star-studded ensemble cast as fairy tale characters who have been raised to rhyme. A story entangled in intrigue, hope, joy and sadness. And more than 20 high-powered, often in-your-face, full throttle, Steven Sondheim musical productions. Unfortunately, only a handful truly work. The rest are either sing-songy conversations or dragged-out, bland soliloquies.
Many of the problems with "Into the Woods" cannot be blamed on the film, but rather the Broadway musical it's based on. However, director Rob Marshall ("Chicago"), writer James Lapine and composer Sondheim should have realized that what worked on the stage wasn't an exact fit for the big screen. The elimination of a half dozen or so tunes would have given this film version (and the audience) a chance to breathe - and the members of the all-star cast a chance to act.
Meryl Streep receives top billing as The Witch. She is the story's pivotal character, and Streep is able to belt-out a trio of show-stopping songs, plus deliver several acting scenes from a multi-layered character. She gives the strongest performance in the film and is deserving of awards consideration (she's being put up for Best Supporting Actress). The Witch wasn't always mean and ugly - a spell cast upon her once upon a time turned her that way. Now she wants to "reverse the curse", and the one she placed on The Baker ("Begin Again"'s James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), which is preventing them from having a child.
The Baker and his wife must go "into the woods" and collect four items: a red cape (Little Red Riding must give up the Hood), a golden slipper (Cinderella must slip it off), a white horse (young Jack must trade it for some magic beans), and golden hair (Rapunzel must do more than just let it down), and bring them to The Witch. All of this has to happen in three days time, before the appearance of the rare Blue Moon.
And this is only half of it. Once the tasks have been completed, and you're thinking, like Taylor Swift, that we're finally "Out of the Woods", the relationship subplots take over and the fairy tales get even more fractured. Cinderella (played by an underused Anna Kendrick) isn't sure whether being a Prince's Bride is what she's always wanted (ever) after all.
The Prince (Chris Pine) makes some bold decisions of his own. He is by far the wackiest character in the cast. Pine plays everything for laughs, mocking the story with his over-the-top, goofy performance. His musical number "Agony", a duet with "The Other Prince" who's in love with Rapunzel, is the most entertaining song in "Into the Woods", though it doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the film. And that tone is pretty dark. There's suffering and death throughout "Into the Woods", much of it involving the children.
And then...there's Johnny Depp. Once again, with the help of hair, makeup and special effects, Depp transforms himself into a quirky character - putting his unique spin on The Big, Bad Wolf. Too bad it's a brief appearance: Depp only gets one song and is on screen for less than five minutes. I wish Marshall would have expanded Depp's part. He would've made a great villain - and given the script some much needed bite.
Yes, we can tell that all of the actors are talented singers. Kendrick, a theater lover her entire life, has an impressive, Broadway-calibre voice. And Streep's "Stay with Me" and "The Last Midnight" prove she's come a long way, vocally, since her "Winner Takes It All" in 2008's "Mamma Mia!". But after listening to Blunt, Corden, Tracey Ullman and the rest of the company sing about what they've already done or are about to do for nearly two hours (accompanied by a trumpet-blaring score) I'd had enough.
The strength of "Into the Woods" is its look, highlighted by the costume design of veteran Colleen Atwood, who's likely to snag plenty of honors for her work. Maybe, with some trimming of it's branches - fewer songs and relationship complications - this could have been deserving of a Best Picture Oscar nomination, something a live-action film from Disney hasn't received since "Mary Poppins" 50 years ago. Instead, Marshall tries far too hard to make us fall in love with everyone and everything. The broad appeal of this Broadway hit just doesn't cut it on screen.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Into the Woods" gets a C+.
"Night at the Museum" was released during the crowded holiday season of 2006. I avoided seeing it right away because I just wasn't excited about the premise from the trailers and commercials. But once I did check it out, about halfway through I realized I was watching something special.
2009's copycat sequel, "Battle of the Smithsonian", which took NYC Museum of Natural History Security Guard Larry Daley (played by Ben Stiller) to Washington D.C., was a major disappointment. The originality and elements of wonder of the first film were nowhere to be seen.
And, unfortunately, they don't return in this threequel, either - released a whopping five and a half years after "Smithsonian".
The plot of "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" is so paper thin it's surprising that returning director Shawn Levy was able to stretch its runtime to an hour and a half. The opening scenes are straight-out of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Mummy", as an archaeologist and his son, in 1938 Egypt, discover an ancient tomb and very special tablet. The son, as we soon learn, is Cecil, former museum security guard and nemesis of Larry in the original "Night at the Museum".
On to present day and the critical problem that propels the story: The tablet, which is what brings the museum pieces to life every night, is losing its power. Dick Van Dyke returns as Cecil, as do his partners, played once again by Bill Cobbs and the late Mickey Rooney. Cecil tells Larry that he should go to the Egyptian exhibit at the British Museum in London to get the real truth about the tablet and try to save his friends.
"Tomb" also includes a side storyline involving Larry and teenage son Nick, who wants to put-off going to college and become a DJ, a plan Larry isn't happy with. This material isn't nearly compelling enough for the amount of time it gets, especially in what's supposed to be a high-energy, family action/adventure. Stiller often looks like he's more than ready to put this franchise to bed, and the always reliable (with the right material) Ricky Gervais, who was great in the first film and barely in the second, is wasted here again.
Several new characters are introduced and all have their problems. A caveman/Larry look-alike named Laaa (also played by Stiller) doesn't provide any laughs. Sir Ben Kingsley, as an Egyptian ruler, only gets a few minutes of screen time. Rebel Wilson, as the British Museum Security Guard, does her "Rebel Wilson" thing, but it seems awkwardly out of place here. And the schtick of noble knight Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens), gets old rather quickly. However, he is part of the film's most entertaining scene, which involves a surprise cameo by a well-known actor, hilariously playing himself. It's one of two fond memories I'll have of this movie.
The other is watching the late Robin Williams one last time, in his final live-action and notable role, once again playing 26th President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. There is a sentimental and touching scene near the end of the film with Williams and Stiller saying goodbye which, obviously, carries much more meaning that it did when it was filmed. In the closing credits, a line under Williams' name reads - "Magic Never Ends".
However, it is time for the "Night at the Museum" franchise to end, and you can tell while watching it that Levy and all the regulars knew it, too. "Secret of the Tomb" is only slightly better than "Smithsonian", as it tries way too hard to be cute and clever, and rarely succeeds. The theme of this story, which we hear over and over, is the importance of letting go. Let's hope everyone involved with this series practices what they preach.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" gets a C-.
In the opening scene of this modern update of the "Annie" story, a brainiac girl is doing a class presentation. She's white, with red hair, and her name is Annie. When she finishes, the teacher asks the other Annie in the class (our young heroine, played by "Beasts of the Southern Wild" Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis) to come to the front of the room for her presentation. This not only catches the audience by surprise (and generates a few laughs), but it perfectly sums-up this 2014 version of the all-time favorite: it's out with the old and in with the new.
Just as she did in "Beasts", Wallis is delightfully charming, with an irresistible on-screen presence, as Annie, who makes it very clear that she's not a Little Orphan, but a foster kid. As the film begins she's living with four other girls in the Harlem apartment of demanding and frustrated caretaker Ms. Hannigan (played by Cameron Diaz). Annie hopes that one day her parents will come back for her, since they wrote this on the back of a restaurant receipt that she's kept, along with half of a locket. Every Friday night she waits outside that nearby restaurant in case they return.
Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is a cell phone company mogul and germaphobe who's running for Mayor of New York City. Walking down the street one day, he sees Annie fall and picks-her-up just before a van runs her over. Captured on video, and immediately posted online, the rescue goes viral, instantly helping Stacks in the polls. For the good of the campaign, he invites Annie to lunch, and during a brief conversation, the idea of Annie coming to stay with Will for awhile is brought-up. "You want me to play Daddy?" (as in Warbucks), Will asks his campaign manager (played by Bobby Cannavale). This is exactly what happens. It's going to take a lot for Will to change his negative attitude toward taking care of Annie, and she hopes that he will turn every "No" he has about life, change, and new experiences into a "Yes".
"Annie" is a fresh makeover of a story we know all too well. Director Will Gluck ("Easy A", "Friends with Benefits"), who also co-wrote the script with Aline Brosh McKenna ("Morning Glory"), nicely balances funny situations and clever dialogue (mostly remarks from Foxx) with a sweet and emotionally effective relationship between young Annie and Stacks. Wallis (who's received a Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical Golden Globe nomination for her performance) and Foxx have genuine chemistry together, even in the early scenes when they haven't yet developed their friendship on screen. And there's a well executed twist in the final half hour, which drastically changes the direction of the movie, that is both unexpected and welcome.
Joining Wallis and Foxx is Rose Byrne, perfectly cast as Will's assistant, Grace. Like Will as a father-figure, Grace is a much needed and supportive mother-figure for Annie. Cannavale is solid as the obsessed campaign manager. And Diaz delivers a Hannigan who's not nearly as wacky and over-the-top, or as prevalent in the story, as the trailers lead you to believe.
All the classic "Annie" songs are included, with modern tweaks, and most work. Gluck presents some unique takes, including with "Tomorrow", which features Wallis walking through NYC, picturing happy families all around her. And when Diaz performs "Little Girls", all five of the kids she takes care of pop-up throughout in the apartment. One of my biggest problems with "Annie" is how often the lips and the audio of the songs being performed do not match, particularly in the first half. It's unfortunate, because it's distracting.
There is an original song in "Annie", "Opportunity", that's performed by Wallis (it's also nominated for a Globe) and it's great! Several music and Hollywood heavyweights are behind the film, including singer Sia, who wrote "Opportunity". Jay-Z is a producer, as are Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. And some major entertainment stars make cameo appearances, including three during a very funny scene at a movie theater premiere.
"Annie" is rated PG for some language, several scenes of peril, a few adult references and moments where Diaz is holding a liquor bottle. This is a great choice for the entire family this holiday season. Contrary to initial speculation, this is not a warmed-over, money-grab remake, but a wholesome, good-hearted and very entertaining modern musical.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Annie" gets a B.
"A Most Violent Year" is Oscar-nominated writer/director J.C. Chandor's follow-up to last year's Robert Redford "I'm alone in the middle of the ocean and I'm barely going to talk" drama "All Is Lost". With "A Most Violent Year", Chandor has paired-up Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") and Jessica Chastain for an intriguing crime drama.
The setting is 1981 New York City. Isaac plays Abel Morales, the successful owner of the Standard Oil Heating, which services the five boroughs of NY. The company is being target by hijackers, who are beating-up drivers and stealing trucks so they can take the valuable oil and sell it. Morales is frustrated by the crimes, and is getting no help from the city. In fact, the District Attorney's office has been investigating Morales and Standard for some time, and may soon to filing charges. Morales, his wife Anna (Chastain) and their two daughters have just moved into a very new home, but they don't even feel safe there. He believes the other oil companies in the area trying to drive him out.
At the same time, Morales has a business deal in the works and 30 days to get the money he needs to close it, and not take a huge financial loss. But in order for this to happen and 1981 to not become what he calls "a bad year", he needs to smooth-out his situation with his enemies, including the D.A., so that the bank will approve his loan. But that's easier said than done, and as this narrative continues and the plot expands, the number of obstacles in Abel's way increases, and we learn more things about Morales that make us wonder if he's actually the man we think he is.
The pacing of "A Most Violent Year" starts out slow, but builds nicely, and by the second half (amidst perfect tone and atmosphere) you have been drawn into an old-fashioned thriller that, if made using current Hollywood standards, would feature shootouts, loads of blood and graphic killings. With what may one of the year's most contradictory titles, "A Most Violent Year" doesn't rely on violence to tell this tale and generate suspense. Instead, we are carried along by well written characters and situations, led by a protagonist couple trying to keep it together while under a remarkable amount of pressure during this unique place and time.
Isaac is quite believable as a minority businessman who's fought hard for his piece of the American Dream, which may soon become a nightmare. He does a nice job portraying Morales as a guy trying to stay calm, but who could explode at any minute. Chastain, though she doesn't have as much screen time, is even more of a commanding presence. In one tension-packed scene, it's Anna who takes control when the couple hits a deer with their car on the way home from a restaurant. Chastain display a silent, scary stare at one point that immediately got me thinking that she could make a great on-screen villain. And this scene comes just moments after she displays true outrage upon discovering their youngest daughter playing with a loaded gun she found on their front yard. At times her emotions are a bit over-exaggerate, but overall it's standout work.
Albert Brooks is underused but nicely cast as Abel's attorney, while David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma") gives a no-nonsense performance as the District Attorney.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "A Most Violent Year" gets a B. It falls short for consideration as one of the best films of the year, but since this is 2014's final major release, it's provides a worthy conclusion to "A Most Excellent Year" at the movies.
"A Most Violent Year" opens in Limited Release on December 31st.