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.
In September, Chris Rock's all-star, R-rated comedy "Top Five" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Following the screening, an all-out bidding war began. Nearly every major studio (except, very likely, Disney) wanted distribution rights. Paramount emerged victorious, buying "Top Five" for $12.5 million and adding another $20 million for marketing.
Rock's been everywhere recently promoting "Top Five", from his semi-controversial hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live", to writing an Op-Ed piece for The Hollywood Reporter. Many are calling this Rock's comeback movie. Clearly he really wanted to re-charge his career, and this film (he's writer, director and star) was his only real option, since he didn't have any projects waiting for him after last year's "Grown Ups 2".
A lot of Rock's real-life is poured-into "Top Five". He plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up comedian turned actor, best known for his role as Hammy the Bear in three blockbuster action comedies (the third grossed $600 million worldwide!) But Allen is at the point where he's looking to reinvent himself by becoming a serious actor. It's opening day of his new historical drama about the Haitian Revolution, which, as he will find-out, is going-up against the premiere of Tyler Perry's newest "Madea" movie. Someone did some bad scheduling.
Throughout the day, Andre does a lot of interviews, starting with Charlie Rose, who focuses on Andre's wedding with Bravo Reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), which is two days away. Serious XM Satellite Radio hosts can't believe Allen's doing a drama and not another "Hammy" movie (a scene where Andre snaps while voicing a promo is one of the film's funniest). And New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (played by Rosario Dawson) is doing a feature story on Allen, traveling with him throughout NYC, looking to get some honest answers from the wildly popular celebrity. But will he allow her - and himself - to discover the real Andre Allen?
Let's get the lows of "Top Five" out of the way first: There's a hefty amount of vulgar humor, and several lengthy and raunchy "flashback" scenes involving both Andre and Chelsea, as they each share times in their lives they would like to forget. These are, thankfully, the only sequences when Rock tries to force us to laugh, and it shows because these scenes just don't work and hurt the flow of the story.
And the premise, for the most part, is very predictable. We know where things are going and how this day will end about 10 minutes in. However, this fact doesn't prevent us from enjoying ourselves while we're getting there. Rock is able to infuse a well thought-out, full-hearted and impressive script with sharp comments on several topics, including comedians wanting to be seen as serious actors, the shenanigans of Reality TV, promotional media campaigns, the film industry in general, and the idea of what being a celebrity really means. Could Rock have gone even further with the entertainment world jabs? Absolutely. But this element is what makes "Top Five" excel.
Rock definitely got out his Christmas card list when casting "Top Five", as the film is packed with celebrity co-stars and cameos, from JB Smoove as Andre's personal assistant, to family members and friends played by Tracy Morgan and Sherri Shepherd, who all debate about who their "Top Five" all-time favorite rappers are - lists that fluctuate daily. There are also brief appearances by Kevin Hart (only one scene), Whoopi Goldberg, Taraji P. Henson, and even Adam Sandler. Jerry Seinfeld receives the Cameo Runner-Up Award for playing a slightly crazier version of himself. But the honor goes to rapper DMX for an unforgettable jail scene that's one of the funniest of the year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Top Five" gets a B-. I didn't laugh as long or as often as I had hoped, but, overall, this is still one of the "Top Five" comedies of 2014.
"Unbroken" tells the true story of Olympian and WWII veteran Louis Zamperini, who survived a plane crash that put him and two fellow soldiers adrift at sea for 47 days, and then two years in the brutal conditions of Japanese prison camps. All of this was chronicled in author Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 best-selling book of the same name. Zamperini's story may also be familiar to people because of his death this past July as "Unbroken" was beginning to generate some buzz. A photo of director Angelina Jolie leaning on Zamperini's shoulder was widely circulated during that time.
So, much the same as with other recent films depicting well known historical figures/events, such as "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Captain Phillips", Jolie's challenge with "Unbroken" was to keep the suspense level high, allowing the audience to believe that Zamperini may not make it out of the life raft or the detention camps alive, even though we all know that he did. Or, at the very least, develop a sense of intrigue and wonder as to how and why Zamperini was able to persevere. Unfortunately, Jolie doesn't succeed at either task.
"Unbroken" begins with the best scene in the entire movie. Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell, who gives a solid performance) is part of a US bomber crew, fighting enemy planes as it attempts to make a drop on the Japanese mainland. The sequence is intense and exciting - an aerial marvel. The film then shifts back to Zamperini's childhood and we see how he became a high school track star and an Olympian, competiting in the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany.
A short time later, we're back in the air and this time the plane crashes. Only Zamperini and two others live. They manage to get into two small liferafts and have limited supplies. It seems like every year Hollywood makes at least one movie about someone lost at sea. I was not a huge fan of "Life of Pi" or "All Is Lost", both of which dragged on, with disappointing payoffs. And while Jolie only spends half an hour of the two hours and 20 minutes with Zamperini adrift in the ocean, it's still way too long considering not much happens and we all know he's going to survive. And this first act sets the tone for the rest of the film.
After a remarkable 47 days, Zamperini and another surviving soldier are "rescued" by the Japanese. The two are eventually taken to a detention camp where the leader, Watanabe (played by Miyavi) immediately makes his presence and authority known to everyone, especially Zamperini, who he singles-out and beats often and viciously.
"Unbroken" had two original screenplay writers, and then Joel and Ethan Coen were brought-in to likely try and save a leaky script. There are a few interesting swerves, including an opportunity Zamperini is given to live a better life in Japan but at a cost. And the Miyavi character does go in some surprising directions. But the film, as a whole, has no dramatic arc. It's flat-lined, and therefore lacks any compelling features.
I found myself sitting and staring at the screen, watching the situations play-out (which mostly consist of Zamperini getting beaten, punched and threatened over and over and over again), but completely unengaged. And yet, with only one-note to play, the movie is drawn-out, with every scene longer than it should be. The inspiration meter remains stuck on low due to an overall lack of excitement. And when Jolie attempts to pull-off a triumphant climactic finale, the result is, instead, kinda cheesy and confusing.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Unbroken" gets a C. Zamperini's life story is nothing short of incredible. This movie doesn't do it justice.
"Unbroken" opens December 25th.
Tim Burton's movies are typically set in fantastical worlds, with wacky characters (usually at least one is played by Johnny Depp), a unique story, and tons of makeup, costumes, and bold colors. Many are calling "Big Eyes", Burton's latest, the most "normal" movie he's ever made. And after seeing this dramedy biopic, based on a "hard-to-believe but it actually happened" true story, I'd have to agree.
In 1958, Margaret (played by Amy Adams) leaves her husband, and she and her young daughter Jane move to San Francisco to start a new life. At the time, this isn't something women, especially housewives, normally did. Margaret is a talented painter and hopes to become a big success someday, though she cares more about her customers enjoying her work than making a lot of money. But she soon meets fellow painter and salesman extraordinaire Walter Keane (played by Christoph Waltz). Margaret's paintings of children with unusually large eyes immediately catch his eyes, and they immediately become romantically involved.
In order for Margaret to avoid losing custody of Jane, she and Walter decide to get married. Walter is struggling to sell his paintings of Paris street scenes, but he thinks Margaret's paintings could be a hit. However, since no one during this time is interested in purchasing "lady art", he begins to sell Margaret's "Big Eyes" paintings under his name, telling everyone that he paints them. Margaret initially disagrees with the strategy (since she has to keep this secret hidden from everyone, including Jane). But when the money starts pouring-in, there's no way she can stop Walter and the exploding "Big Eyes" phenomenon.
Amy Adams has been nominated for five Academy Awards. She's bound to win one someday, but it's not going to be for playing Margaret Keane. And it's not because she gives a bad performance - in fact she's very good here. But this role simply isn't "showy" enough to warrant Best Actress consideration, and Adams is able to take this character only so far. Margaret is a quiet, passive woman, who keeps most of her painful emotions inside. Adams often conveys them through her own, glistening eyes. These include most of the scenes with her daughter, and a key confrontation with Walter which provides the sole twist in the movie.
Like he did in 2012's "Django Unchained", Waltz dominates the screen time even though this is a supporting performance. Walter becomes more obsessed and unhinged as "Big Eyes" progresses (the Burton influence), and handles the tricky job of being an actor who's essentially playing an actor. By the third act (which, unfortunately, isn't as strong as the first two), you really grow to hate this guy. There's a climactic trial showdown between husband and wife that takes way too long and takes this story to a ridiculous level. Maybe Burton wanted to add "courtroom drama" in his career resume.
Burton's trademark directing style is largely missing from "Big Eyes". Outside of a short sequence with Margaret in a supermarket and a few other scattered moments, it's hard to believe that Tim Burton is the man behind this film. It's as if, parallel to the plot line, he had someone else direct "Big Eyes" for him and he's getting the credit. However, even without the unique visual look we've come to expect from Burton, he's still able to deliver a compelling story that keeps us interested as it unfolds. And he provides a look into the art world at the time, and the concept of financial success vs. critical success vs. personal success. Ultimately, like in the lyrics of the title song by singer Lana Del Rey, "Big Eyes" shows how two people's big lies can turn their lives upside down.
The supporting cast is led by Krysten Ritter as Margaret's closest friend, Danny Huston as a newspaper gossip columnist, Terrence Stamp as an art critic, and Jason Schwartzman in a small role as the owner of a rival art gallery. He adds the film's few laughs, but his character also exposes a major flaw in the script which clouds an otherwise wacky but believable story.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Big Eyes" gets a B-.
"Big Eyes" opens in Limited Release on December 25th.
The film that defined Clint Eastwood/Director in the 1990s was "Unforgiven". In the 2000s, "Million Dollar Baby", his excellent boxing drama co-starring Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, likewise earned Eastwood Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. Now, for this current decade, "American Sniper" could very well be the film that takes Eastwood to the pinnacle of his profession once again. This powerhouse drama is not only one of the best movies of 2014, but may be the quintessential contemporary war film.
Bradley Cooper, who's given recent standout performances in "Silver Linings Playbook", "The Place Beyond the Pines", and "American Hustle", raises the bar even higher in this true story about the life of Navy SEAL. Chris Kyle. Kyle is enjoying life as a Texas cowboy, riding bulls and hanging with his younger brother when, in August 1998, he sees TV accounts of the U.S. Embassy attacks in East Africa. He immediately decides to join the military, and signs-on for the tough SEAL program. During his training he meets and falls in love with the woman he would soon marry, Taya (played by Sienna Miller).
There have been plenty of great films depicting the nightmares of war, and a handful of films that deal with the effects of war on soldiers once they return home. What sets "American Sniper" apart (and above) is that it does both. Eastwood provides remarkable insight into the two sides of Kyle's life, working from a script based on Kyle's best-selling memoir. The majority of the action takes place in The Middle East, where Kyle served four tours, compiling so many kills as a sniper (more than 150 in all) that he becomes known as "The Legend". But it's a title he doesn't embrace, believing he's simply doing his job: protecting his fellow soldiers, his family, and his country.
But it's Kyle's interactions with Taya on the phone from Iraq and Afghanistan (as she's raising their family alone), and his time at home in between tours, which provide some of "American Sniper"'s most powerful moments. We see the challenges, the stress and the suffering that both of these people are going through. Taya struggles with the idea that Chris wants to return fighting, even though he has a loving wife and children that need a father. But Chris struggles with life when he's away from the action, and doesn't have a weapon in his hands. He's unable to focus on his family without hearing suspicious noises or looking for trouble. And in one tragically sad scene in an auto repair shop, we witness him incapable of accepting the thanks from a vet whose life he saved in battle. This is one of Cooper's shining moments.
The violence in "American Sniper" is brutal, bloody, and tragically real. It's even more authentic in look and feel than 2012's "Zero Dark Thirty" and last year's "Lone Survivor". Eastwood's first-rate directing of the action sequences is fearless, highlighted by a masterful, climactic dust storm battle. This scene is topped only by the stunning impact of the final 10 minutes, which provide the ultimate tribute to this imperfect, but honorable American hero.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "American Sniper" gets an A. It is a Modern Classic.
"American Sniper" opens in Limited Release on December 25th.
"Inherent Vice" is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to 2012's overrated "The Master". The only appreciation I had for that film were the performances of stars Joaquin Phoenix and particularly the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The rest was an unfocussed and overly complicated mess. That same description can be used to describe "Inherent Vice", which is a long and flat-out ridiculous crime dramedy.
"Inherent Vice", the first big screen adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, is set in 1970 Los Angeles. Phoenix re-teams with Anderson to play Doc Sportello. He's a hippie Private Eye who is juggling several cases at once, but they all revolve around missing real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann.
However, Anderson's screenplay is so over-stuffed with goofy characters and showy dialogue that "Inherent Vice" is not only hard to follow along with the plot, after awhile you just don't care. A lot of Anderson's "style" is for effect. The atmosphere of the story is designed to reflect the atmosphere of the times in early 70s L.A.: Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll - and "Inherent Vice" is filled with all three. But none of it ever seems natural. Scenes are included, lines are delivered, characters are introduced simply to shock. The narrative is so all over the place that I suspect the female narrator used throughout was a late addition, an attempt to explain Doc's motives at least a little bit. However, her lines are so poorly written, this device just makes things worse.
Phoenix is on screen in practically every scene, and I do give him credit for staying with this role for the entire time. I realize "Inherent Vice" is set in the 70s, but constant drug use by his character goes way beyond believable. And don't expect Phoenix to get any awards attention. Josh Brolin leads the all-star supporting cast as an LAPD cop named "Bigfoot", who has a love/hate relationship with Doc. Other oddball characters are played by Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, and Martin Short, as a drugged-out/sex friend and dentist who provides the only laugh-out-loud moment in the entire film when he explodes with a series of F-bombs.
The main problem with "Inherent Vice" is that it tries way too hard to be quirky and funny. This is the latest attempt, by yet another director, to make the next "Pulp Fiction", which set the standard for it's combing elements of a crime drama with comedy, shocking violence, wacky characters, drugs, sex, over-the-top atmosphere and pop culture. Anderson proves he's no Quentin Tarantino when it comes to this unique genre. Even his signature, bold camera shots are few and far between, relying, instead, on way too many close-ups.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Inherent Vice" gets a D+. Pointless and, at 2 1/2 hours, way too long. A better title for this movie would be "Incoherent Vice".
Last year, director Jean-Marc Vallee earned "Dallas Buyers Club" stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto Lead and Supporting Actor honors from nearly every major awards organization. Now, Vallee's follow-up, "Wild", has placed Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern as Lead and Supporting Actress frontrunners for their raw and brave performances in one of 2014's most engrossing dramas.
Based on a true story, Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who in 1995, hiked all 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, and chronicled the grueling and life-changing journey in her 2012 memoir. Strayed both wanted and needed to do this solo hike in order to deal, emotionally, with some difficult events from her past. And throughout "Wild", these do haunt Strayed, forcing her to deal with her mistakes and push herself to continue.
Cinematically, the wildest element of "Wild" is the editing because of the numerous flashback scenes. Some last for several minutes, showing a much younger Strayed (Witherspoon looks quite convincing nonetheless) with her mother, Bobbi (Dern). Other times we get brief snippets of events that have brought Strayed to this point in her life. Eventually everything is fully revealed as the pieces come together in this complex and fascinating story of survival.
The physical and emotional demands of this role are many, and Witherspoon is up to the challenge for all of it. In a year when the Best Actress contenders list lacks the usual star power and punch, Witherspoon is clearly the frontrunner. She embodies Strayed as flawed, sympathetic, strong, weak and hopeful. We can't help but root for her (though she is not a hero by any means) as she fights through some of the worst situations of her life, leading up to and including the hike. The complicated relationships Strayed has with her mother and husband (Thomas Sadoski) are nicely portrayed.
Vallee's use of "day markers" on the screen from time to time throughout the film doesn't quite work, and the ending is a little underwhelming considering how powerful the narrative is up until that point. But overall, "Wild" triumphs because it is daring, with no limitations. At no point, even when you think it might, does it get preachy or forceful. And it very well could win Witherspoon her second Oscar.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Wild" gets a B+.
"The Imitation Game" is one of those Awards Season films every studio dreams of having on their "For Your Consideration" list. The true-life drama captured the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and it's destined to be a favorite among voters over the next few months, as is star Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays British mathematician and WWII code-breaking genius Alan Turing.
Adapted from the book, "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges, screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum present us with multi-layered, enriching, moving and high-stakes love stories through three different periods of Turing's life. It's a lot to handle early-on, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear why all these elements are necessary.
As a teenager at an all boys' boarding school, Turing is bullied for being smarter than everyone else and a little different. It's during this period when he develops a fascination with and a talent for solving puzzles and breaking codes. At the same time, he's trying to develop his own identity. In addition we see Turing dealing with life after the war (1951 - which serves as present time). The British police are investigating Turing, believing he may be keeping more secrets than those he held while working during the war.
However, the majority of the film is set during wartime. Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) and the other top code breakers in the UK are recruited by the military and brought to Britain's Bletchley Park, in hopes they can solve Germany's Enigma Code machine, which everyday sends out orders to the Nazi troops where and when the next attacks will take place. Turing sets-out to create a machine of his own. It's essentially the first computer: a giant device that he (and only he) believes will allow him to intercept the Nazi messages and break their complicated, unsolvable codes. Turing calls it 'Christopher'.
You may already know some of Turing's life story before seeing "The Imitation Game", but in no way will that detract from your appreciation of this film. Tyldum masterfully weaves together these three phases of one life, resulting in a narrative that is easy to follow yet complex enough to genuinely surprise at just the right moments. In an early voiceover we are told to "pay attention", and that turns out to be the right advice, because you can rarely predict what's coming next.
I didn't expect Cumberbatch to be this impressive. It's a heavily emotional role, with dynamics of love, hate, true love and true hate. Through Cumberbatch's bold and brave performance, we are able to understand the turmoil Turing is going through 24/7, and why breaking the Enigma Code, the most important thing in his life, can't solve all of his problems. Knightley, who plays the lone female on the code-breaking team, is also excellent. She and Cumberbatch have pitch-perfect exchanges, including one heartbreaking scene at the end of the film, which showcases both actors and the authenticity they bring to these roles. Knightley will be in the mix for Best Supporting Actress consideration.
"The Imitation Game" presents a lot of serious ethical issues, which you'll think about long after the credits end. Tyldum has crafted a film about a group of people we truly care about, looking to do the impossible, and dealing with the harsh realities of what that may bring. It's suspenseful and surprising, heroic and heartbreaking...and one of the best films of the year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Imitation Game" gets an A-.
Not long after DreamWorks Animation released its over-the-top, all-star comedy "Madagascar" in 2005, the studio was already thinking about having the film's breakout characters, the slick and suave Penguins, headline their own movie. Now, nearly 10 years later (and following two more "Madagascar" films and a "Penguins" TV series on Nickelodeon), the Penguins are finally starring in their first big screen adventure.
"Penguins of Madagascar", the final animated film of 2014, doesn't disappoint. It's entertaining throughout, with loads of laughs. The opening 10 minutes, which includes both origin and backstories, features some of the best jokes in the entire movie. Years before they meet Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria at New York City's Central Park Zoo, the Penguins lived in the cold, Antarctica tundra. The much younger and smaller versions of fast-talking Skipper, his right-hand man Kowalski, and maniac eater Rico go on their first mission, saving a stray penguin egg. All of this is captured by a documentary film crew, of course. The egg soon hatches and Private is born. The trio take Private under their flippers and head-off into the future.
The rest of "Penguins of Madagascar" takes place following the events of 2012's "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted". Skipper and the others decide to leave the circus because they're getting sick of listening to the song "Afro Circus" over and over again. They quickly go head-to-head with a nemesis (who actually has some history with the Penguins): Dr. Octavius Brine (aka Dave, voiced by John Malkovich), an evil scientist/octopus who's out for revenge.
This cat-and-mouse (or octopus-and-penguin) chase leads the Penguins to Venice, where they meet-up with with an elite, high-tech group of secret agent animals called The North Wind. These guys are also trying to take down Dave, who's kidnapping all the penguins in the world. Their leader, Agent Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who in real-life and in the film, can't say the word 'penguin' correctly) is a hungry wolf who doesn't want or need the Penguins' help. The clash of rival spy groups is a fresh and interesting storyline that works quite well, though some of the conversation scenes between the two teams slow the pacing down and create some brief lulls.
While it is a spy/action adventure, "Penguins of Madagascar" works best as a comedy. The writers, directors, and talented voice cast know how to make the well-established Penguins characters both smart and funny. There are several running jokes, including the different names Skipper calls Dave that also start with a D, and Dave's celebrity-filled commands to his octopi assistants. At times the writers do get a little carried away with the puns. The script is filled with sharp one-liners ranging from goofy to downright brilliant. And the well thought-out plot is allowed to come full circle, with an emotionally satisfying final act.
There are more blockbuster action scenes in "Penguins" than in all three "Madagascar" films combined, meaning it will appeal to a younger audience (kids 7-12), as well as those who appreciate the gags and clever dialogue. And visually, the vibrant and electric animation style will be a hit with everyone.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Penguins of Madagascar" gets a B+. "Well done, Kowalski!"
"The Homesman" is easily the most bizarre movie of 2014. Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones, one of the most respected actors of the past three decades, co-writes, directs, and stars in this adaptation of a 1988 novel. It's a western, set in the mid-1800s. There are no trains in the film, so to be historically accurate, I have to call this a 'stagecoach-wreck'.
What intrigued me most about "The Homesman" was the Best Actress buzz two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank is receiving for her performance as the plain and bossy Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman living alone on a ranch in the western territory. She's as rough and tough, and as good a shot, as any man. So she volunteers to take three women who have gone insane hundreds of miles, by horse and wagon, to Iowa so they can be treated. She's joined on this perilous journey by outlaw George Briggs (Jones), a wisecracking, no-nonsense tough guy (basically the same character Jones plays in every movie).
And for the next two hours we watch these two getting to know each and battling the elements, while dealing with the three women tied-up inside their wagon - Cuddy in a thoughtful, caring way, Briggs - a bit rougher. There are a series of flashbacks, in which we are shown, quite graphically, just how sick the patients are. They're very tough to watch.
Unfortunately, watching the rest of the "The Homesman" isn't a picnic, either. The tone of this film is scattered like leaves in an old west dust storm. It's part western road movie, part horror movie, with elements of comedy, music, action and melodrama tossed in. And hardly any of it works. None of the characters and situations are believeable, so at no point did I invest any emotion into them. My favorite line in the film comes when one of the crazy women is repeatedly kicking one of the other crazy women in the face. Seeing this Jones says "What the Hell?!" - the same question that was going through my mind as I was watching this pure madness unfold. At times it felt like I was trapped inside the loony wagon with no way of escaping.
Swank does have a few interesting scenes, but she mostly gives a sappy, one-note performance that's far from award worthy. And Jones' Briggs seems like he wandered in from a different movie - a slapstick, saloon comedy. Together, these two display zero chemistry.
One of the few things that kept my interest was waiting for Meryl Streep and James Spader to make their appearances, which come late in the film. And it's impossible not to think - "Hey, it's James Spader" (as a goofy hotel owner) and "Hey, it's Meryl Streep" (as a pastor's wife). In fact everyone in "The Homesman" comes across as an actor playing a role, never as a believable character.
It all wraps-up with a completely ridiculous final scene, which will leave you not only shaking your head, but wondering what the heck Jones was trying to say - about these characters, their situation, and life at this time in our nation's history.
"The Homesman" is rated R for violence, language, adult content, nudity and numerous disturbing images. Having absolutely no point, other than to completely stun people with just how messy and meaningless it all is, "The Homesman" is clearly one of the worst movies of the year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Homesman" gets a D.
British actor Eddie Redmayne's breakout performance was opposite Michelle Williams in 2011's underappreciated biopic "My Week with Marilyn". One year later, he joined the stellar ensemble of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried for the big screen adaptation of the Broadway musical sensation "Les Miserables". Now, Redmayne finally takes center stage, giving a demanding and defiant performance as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything".
Felicity Jones ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2", "Like Crazy") is also quite good as Hawking's eventual wife, Jane. The film begins with the two meeting at a party in the early 1960s, while Hawking is studying physics at Cambridge. They quickly develop a fascination for each other. At the same time Hawking is beginning to experience problems with his motor skills. Following a fall, he learns that he has Motor Neuron disease, a form of ALS. He's told that nearly all of his voluntary body functions (including walking and talking) will stop, and that he only has two years to live. Hawking tries to end his relationship with Jane, but instead, she decides to stay with him so they can fight the disease together. They soon get married and begin a family. And while his physical condition continues to worsen, Hawking begins demonstrating his intellectual brilliance, coming-up with new, revolutionary theories on time, space, black holes and the history of the universe.
Director James Marsh ("Man on Wire") crafts many memorable scenes in "The Theory of Everything", some of them challenging and heartbreaking. Watching Hawking, who just earned his PhD, trying to pull himself up a flight of stairs in his house, only to see his young son looking down at him, is extremely powerful. And Marsh does a nice job in keeping the narrative balanced evenly between both Stephen and Jane. This is an intimate look at both members of this relationship, not "The Stephen Hawking Story". As Stephen's personal caretaker for most of their marriage, we see Jane helping him eat, use his wheelchair, and supporting and encouraging him to continue to work. There are similar moments seen in this year's outstanding documentary, "Life Itself", involving late film critic Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz.
And we see the Hawkings' relationship go through highs and lows and take some unexpected turns. Their daily battle to try to be a "normal family", as Stephen describes them at one point, lasts far longer than the expected two years (which is never explained). Unfortunately, in the second half of the film, supporting characters are introduced who take-up too much screen time, interrupting what, up until then, is a fascinating look at two incredible people. The screenplay is based on Jane's own memoir, and all these events apparently did take place in real life. But following the first hour filled with wonder and hope, I couldn't help but grow a little angry watching the film turn into a romantic soap opera. And the ending leaves you with a brutal dose of reality, which thematically, may have been the point, but Marsh is way too heavy-handed with the symbolism here and throughout.
"The Theory of Everything" features nomination-worthy lead performances, a beautiful score, and a vivid, almost whimsical, visual look. I guess my problem is that I wanted 'everything' to work, and it just doesn't.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Theory of Everything" gets a B.
"The Hunger Games" movie franchise, based on Suzanne Collins' wildly successful book series, reached greater heights with last year's second installment, "Catching Fire". The sequel proved to be stronger, both in quality and at the box office, than the original film. Unfortunately, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1", the first half of the epic finale, is a major letdown.
As with other recent Part 1s, such as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn", you realize, going in, that most of the action, suspense and emotion is likely being saved for "THG: Mockingjay - Part 2" (which will be released next November). Still, this movie is shockingly dull, with no spark and (other than a nice late surprise), very little excitement. In fact, J-Law's recent appearance on Letterman promoting the film was much more entertaining.
From the first minute it's clear that "Mockingjay Pt. 1" is completely different from the two previous installments. The plots of those two films revolved around the "Games", and a very mature subject: kids murdering other kids for the entertainment of society. In "Mockingjay" there are no games, but it has the most serious and darkest tone of the series. Returning director Francis Lawrence casts a gray overtone of gloom and desperation on Panem, whose citizens have been beaten down, physically and mentally.
At two hours and three minutes, "Mockingjay" is the shortest "Hunger Games" by about 20 minutes. And even though there is no competition, there are still psychological and relationship games being played: Katniss vs. the Capitol and the love triangle between Katniss, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Following the Quarter Quell, Katniss is stunned to learn that Peeta has been found alive, and is living inside the Capitol. However, Hutcherson's role is much smaller than in the other films (but he still gets second billing - good agent!) Most of his scenes are interviews with talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). On the other hand, Hemsworth's screen time is double, maybe even triple, and his performance is actually one of the most pleasant surprises.
The established roles of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and even President Snow (Donald Sutherland) have also been reduced for "Mockingjay Pt. 1", in favor of new cast members and other supporting players. Julianne Moore joins the ensemble and gives the standout performance as District 13 President Alma Coin, who works with Katniss as she becomes 13's Mockingjay symbol for the Capitol Rebellion. And the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who the film is dedicated to, once again has a few shining moments as Plutarch Heavensbee.
Much of the "Mockingjay" story, and at least half of the dialogue scenes, come as direct explanations to TV cameras, live crowds, and essentially us, the audience in the theater. You spend a lot of the film watching people talk and watching people who are watching people talk. Katniss' new, spokesperson-type training quickly gets repetitive. And when the most suspenseful sequence of the entire movie involves Katniss, her sister and her cat racing to get through an automatic door before it closes, you know there's a problem. Lawrence sings the "The Hanging Tree" at one point. The lyric "strange things did happen here" rang true as the scene dragged on, because it felt so out-of-place.
"Mockingjay - Part 1" is rated PG-13 for a few scenes of action/violence and mild disturbing images. Unlike the previous two, even diehards have no need to see this more than once, and many will undoubtedly walk out feeling genuinely disappointed.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" gets a C. It's doesn't lay an egg, but just never has the chance to soar. "Part 2" opens on November 20, 2015. For fans of this franchise, that date can't come soon enough.
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