Joel & Ethan Coen are known for their off-beat and ambitious films which often mix comedy and crime, and feature colorful characters. "Raising Arizona", "Fargo", and "The Big Lebowski" certainly fall into that category. The Coens have also gotten gritty, beginning with 1984's "Blood Simple" and highlighted by 2007's Oscar-winning "No Country For Old Men" (and I called it, friendo). Their latest film doesn't fit into either of those categories or really follows anything the brothers have done in the past, which clearly, is exactly what they we going for.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is a quiet, sincere look at a musician struggling to find purpose in his life in the midst of the 60s music scene in Greenwich Village, NY.
Oscar Isaac ("Drive") hits all the right notes as the title character. It's 1961. Llewyn, a folk singer, is still mourning the loss of his partner, who committed suicide. So now he's attempting to make it as a solo artist, but is getting no help from his crabby manager and is left to perform at the same club night after night.
His former girlfriend, Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant, and she doesn't know if Llewyn or new boyfriend Jim (played by real-life music superstar Justin Timberlake) is the father. They are also a folk singing duo. Nonetheless, Jean wants an abortion.
Llewyn has no home and hardly any money. We follow him (and a cat or two) over the course of a week, as he wanders through the city and then goes on a road trip with businessman Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his driver ("TRON: Legacy"'s Garrett Hedlund) to Chicago, where he hopes to finally get his big break.
But the struggling singer can't escape his problems. He believes he's doing the right thing with the decisions he makes, but instead, often fails to think things through, which only gets him in deeper. Llewyn is not the hero of this story by any means. He is a lost soul, troubled by his past, and incapable of planning a future.
With "Inside Llewyn Davis" the Coens have created a character and a film that audiences should be able to relate to. His struggles are our struggles. Life continues to throw Llewyn curveballs, which he has difficulty handling. And still we see glimmers of hope for him as he pushes on.
Unlike the Coen Brothers' previous film, the 2010 remake "True Grit", "Inside Llewyn Davis" relies on an unconventional storyline to the finish. Llewyn is a victim of the poor decisions he's made and continues to make. And his pride often prevents him from getting the help he needs. There are life lessons here for everyone.
At times this is a moving film with a standout performance, great music and some smart dialogue, which also has important things to say. It will be very interesting to see if it inspires Awards Season voters. There are several strong scenes, but the movie is emotionally inconsistent. The quirky supporting characters are a bit flimsy, forcing Isaac to carry the film on his back. And the device of the cat doesn't work at all, resulting in more of a mainstream feel than, I'm sure, the Coens intended.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is rated R for language, adult references, and smoking. It's appropriate for teens and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Inside Llewyn Davis" gets a B.
"Out of the Furnace" is an unconventional, gritty drama from director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart"). Christian Bale is very good as Russell, a steel mill worker in rural Braddock, Pennsylvania whose brother Rodney (played by Casey Affleck) is about to serve his fourth tour of duty in Iraq. A fatal DWI accident sends Russell to prison for several months, and during this time his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) leaves him and his ailing father passes away.
And Rodney returns, scarred from war, both physically and mentally. With no money, no job and debts to pay Rodney gets involved in bare-knuckle fighting. He is lured to New Jersey for "one final fight", organized by evil hillbilly crime boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). When Rodney doesn't return home and is feared dead, Russell, with nothing to lose, heads out to find him.
"Out of the Furnace" is nearly two hours, but Cooper makes sure it never drags. He does a nice job early on establishing the bond between these two brothers, allowing the audience to become emotionally invested in them and their situations. This is only Cooper's second film, but as with "Crazy Heart", he takes an anti-Hollywood approach with the story and character development, and he shows a great eye for capturing these Rust Belt towns and their residents.
However, "Out of the Furnace" lacks the suspense and energy it deserves. This isn't the action film that the trailers and previews are advertising it as, but more of a family crime drama. And it's the human element that elevates the film, thanks to the tremendous supporting cast, led by Saldana, who shines in all her scenes. In a year of showcase roles, Forest Whitaker delivers a subdued performance as the Braddock police chief and the new boyfriend. Willem Defoe and Sam Shepard are also outstanding. And Harrelson is simply mesmerizing. You hold your breathe every second he's on screen not knowing if or when he's going to explode in another violent rage.
"Out of the Furnace" is rated R for language, strong violence, and drug use, and is appropriate for mid-teens and up. This is another off-beat and compelling effort from Cooper, who is clearly a director to watch.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Out of the Furnace" gets a B-.
Four years ago Morgan Freeman received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing legendary South African activist Nelson Mandela in the rugby-based film, "Invictus". Now, Idris Elba takes-on the task of playing the iconic figure in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom", which is based on Mandela's autobiography.
This is a full-on life story. The movie begins with Mandela as a child in Africa, going through the ritual of becoming 'a man'. Then it jumps to his life as a ruthless attorney, working in white-dominated South Africa. It was then, in his early twenties, that Mandela was inspired to take a stand for the oppressed blacks in the country. He joined a small group and started the African National Congress, making speeches and organizing boycotts. The government responded with violence, and hundreds of residents were killed for protesting. Mandela and his crew responded with violent attacks of their own. They would eventually be captured and sentenced to life in prison, with Mandela leaving his wife Winnie (played by "Skyfall"'s Naomie Harris) and children to continue the fight without him. And the film takes us through his long prison stay, the efforts to free Mandela, and Winnie's role as a leader in his absence.
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" lives-up to it's title: it's long - as in 2 hours and 20 minutes long. The recent trend in film biographies has been to focus on one, specific time period or event in the life of a historical figure ("Invictus", for example). But because director Justin Chadwick has taken-on so much material with "Mandela", he's unable to provide much depth or insight into the man.
The middle section of "Mandela" is the strongest, when he's suffering in prison, waiting for the day he can touch his wife, see his children, and attempt to make things right. The film is gripping at times, but doesn't stay consistent throughout. Chadwick does take some chances that pay-off, but there are chunks of this film that needed some inspirational moments - or simply could have been edited-out altogether.
Elba's performance as Nelson Mandela is solid (complete with accent and some nice makeup as he progresses in age), but is noticeably restrained. However, Harris is almost too over-the-top as Winnie, who consulted on the screenplay, along with the couple's two daughters.
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" is quite violent for its PG-13 rating. There are beatings, shootings, killings, and lots of blood, often involving young children. It's appropriate for older teens and up. This is a solid, certainly tolerable, but superficial and far from extraordinary biopic that could've been much more.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" gets a C+.
When I was younger, I used to go through my grandmother's mail with her. Every once in a while we would come across one of those contest entries claiming that she could win a large cash prize, when all they really wanted was to sell magazines or get her personal, private information. Sometimes we'd play along and scratch off the number combinations to see what her prize would be if she went along with the scam. But most of the time we treated these offers as junk mail and tossed them away.
In "Nebraska", Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) has a different philosophy. He's received a letter in the mail stating that he's the winner of $1 million. And he believes it to be true. His son David ("Saturday Night Live" alum Will Forte) and frustrated wife realize that it's completely false. But that doesn't stop Woody. He's determined to travel from his home Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize, even though he's in poor health and can no longer drive. So David, against the wishes of the rest of the family, decides to take his dad on this road trip. Along the way they reunite with old family members and friends, learn a lot about them and a lot about each other.
"Nebraska" is beautifully directed by Alexander Payne, who shoots the film in black and white, which highlights not only the vast geography and settings but the true colors of the characters. This is one of the most intricate and engaging narratives of the year. Payne lays-out what is, on the surface, a very simply story, yet you have no idea where it's going next. The director, who dealt with similar issues of family, loyalty and greed in 2011's powerful, "The Descendents", makes fantastic decisions right to the end, with a perfect score supporting each memorable scene. In a tight Best Director Oscar race this year, expect Payne to be one of the frontrunners.
Dern gives a rich, nomination-worthy performance as a man of few words, but unforgettable emotional control. "Nebraska" occasionally strays away from Woody when the rich group of supporting characters get involved. But when Dern is on screen you're watching a master-class actor in top form. Forte is also excellent in a star-making dramatic role as a son trying to do what's right, even though he knows it may be wrong. June Squibb provides some of the quirky, off-beat humor as Woody's endlessly nagging, sarcastic wife. She could earn some awards attention as well. There are plenty of lighter moments in this serious family drama.
Stacy Keach as Woody's old business partner and Bob Odenkirk as Woody's other son, Ross lead a solid supporting cast. Unlike most movies about siblings and elderly parents, David and Ross actually get along. And the black and white footage makes all the actors and extras look like authentic residents of America's Heartland.
"Nebraska" is many things: a 'father-son' story, a comment about life, dreams and missed opportunities. And it's one of the best films to come along in some time. Dern and Forte provide some of the most heartfelt on-screen moments of the year. It's rated R for some language and adult references and is appropriate for teens and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Nebraska" gets an A-.
"Philomena" is based on the true story of one woman's quest to find the son who was taken from her when she was a young, unwed mother. Dame Judi Dench, best known for her Oscar winning eight minutes in "Shakespeare in Love" and as 007's assistant, M, in the last seven Bond movies, shines in a nomination-worthy performance as Philomena Lee.
"Philomena" is adapted from the book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by British journalist Martin Sixsmith. In the film, Martin is played by British comedic actor Steve Coogan ("Tropic Thunder"), who also co-wrote the script and produced the film. Martin has hit a bit of a brick wall in his career and decides he's going to write a "human interest" story, which he normally dislikes. But the untold story of the gaping hole in Philomena's life perks his interest.
50 years ago, as a naive teenager living with her family in Ireland, Philomena became pregnant. She was sent by her embarrassed Catholic family to live in a convent with other pregnant girls, where she gave birth to a boy she named Anthony. Philomena was forced to work for the nuns for several years, and like the other young mothers, was only able to see her boy for an hour a day. And one day her greatest fears were realized, as Anthony was sold by the nuns to a couple for adoption. So, for the last half-century, Philomena has been keeping this secret and wondering where her son is and if he remembers her.
In their mission to locate Anthony, Martin takes Philomena to Washington, DC. There they will not only find out the truth about Anthony but discover much more about themselves and each other.
"Philomena" is believable from start to finish. It's one of those hidden gems that you want to hold onto and not let go of for as long as you can. Director Stephen Frears ("The Queen") goes in all the right directions with the top-notch script by Coogan and Jeff Pope that includes a balance of sharp, funny dialogue and touching, emotional moments.
Dench and Coogan complement each other perfectly and may be the best on-screen "couple" of the movie year. They have incredible chemistry together, equally impressive in both the light and dramatic scenes. Philomena is a classic Dench role: forceful yet reserved. A woman in tremendous emotional pain, yet kind and patient with everyone. But she's also determined to get answers. And that's what Martin does for a living. What he doesn't realize is that deep down, he's also yearning to find someone to truly care about and connect with. The journey these two take together is not just about looking for someone from the past, but discovering a new purpose in their present lives.
"Philomena" is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; depressing yet uplifting. Credit Frears for not pulling any punches. No gimmicks, no twists. The pace is intentionally slow at times and some of the situations can be anticipated in advance. But when you've got two great performances leading the way on such a memorable journey you can overlook a few missteps.
As they've done in the past, the Weinstein Company challenged "Philomena"'s original MPAA R-rating (for a couple of F-bombs) and won. It's rated PG-13 for the brief strong language, some mature subject matter and adult references and is appropriate for teens and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Philomena" gets a B+.
"Black Nativity" is based on the popular, 50-year-old off-Broadway play written by Langston Hughes. The screen version has been modernized and energized with the help of spiritual songs by some of the music world's brightest stars.
Troubled teenager Langston (played by Jacob Latimore) lives with his mother Naima (Grammy and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson) in Baltimore. However, because of financial problems, they are about to get evicted from their home. Naima decides to send Langston to spend the holidays with his grandparents in NYC while she tries to sort everything out.
The Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett) run a Baptist Church in Harlem. They've never met their grandson and haven't seen Naima since she became pregnant with him as a 15-year-old. The family has some deep secrets that are keeping them apart, and Langston wants answers - including who his real father is and why he abandoned him and his mother. And it's Christmastime, with everyone celebrating of the birth of a very special baby, and when something magical is always possible.
It was much easier to get away with "Black Nativity"'s skimpy story on stage. This is a well-intentioned film but it just doesn't amount to much. There's very little drama, too many coincidences and you don't have to be a Wise Man to predict the ending. And after "Les Miserables" last year, I don't think I'll be able to enjoy another movie musical that relies on dubbing instead of live-singing. The execution, particularly with Hudson, is very poor. But you can understand why director Kasi Lemmons ("Talk to Me") decided not to have Hudson sing live to film: her screaming style would have broken much of the equipment.
As for the acting, the performances are pretty solid, though Whitaker's noticeably high-pitched accent is bothersome. Tyrese Gibson has a few good scenes as a pawn shop worker, and I was expecting Mary J. Blige to have a much bigger role. She and the rest of the cast do collaborate on several holiday gospel tunes, some more effective than others.
Much like many Broadway shows, the second half of "Black Nativity" is stronger than the first. Lemmons is able to dig deeper into the crux of the story and get more creative with the storytelling and symbolism during a Christmas Eve "Black Nativity" pageant the Reverend holds in his church.
"Black Nativity" is rated PG for some language, thematic material, and a scene of peril. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. While it does modernize the original nativity story someone needed to modernize this 50-year old script. Instead, we're left with a film that lacks any true spirit of the season and that probably would have fared better as a made-for-TV movie.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Black Nativity" gets a C.
I can sum-up "Frozen" in just one word: Spectacular! This is Disney's best animated musical since 1991's "Beauty and the Beast", which just happens to be my all-time favorite film. Less than a minute into "Frozen" it becomes clear that we're about to experience something special, and that this production is destined for the stage. All the musical numbers are catchy and quite powerful. A few, literally, gave me chills. Mark my words - in a couple of years, there will be a live-action version of "Frozen" on Broadway. Fortunately, we don't have to wait that long to experience what is the movie event of the holiday season.
The Mouse House goes back to its roots with "Frozen", which is inspired by the fairy tale, The Snow Queen. However, the creative team behind "Frozen" spices-up this classic story, which may bother traditionalists, but will delight everyone else. What writers/directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have created is not a standard princess movie, such as "Cinderella" or "The Little Mermaid". "Frozen" is at another level.
The film begins with a brief backstory in which we are introduced to sisters Anna and Elsa, the two princesses of Arendelle. When they were young they were very close. Elsa, who's next in line to be Queen, has magical powers that allow her to create snow and ice. While playing one day an accident takes place and Anna is nearly killed. Their parents, the King and Queen, take Anna to a group of trolls who save her life and erase her memories of Elsa's special powers. But the girls grow apart, as Elsa shuts-out Anna out in order to protect her, and she can't understand why.
Years later, in true Disney tradition, the King and Queen die at sea, so Elsa (voiced by "Wicked"'s Idina Menzel) is to be sworn-in as the new Queen. This will be the first time the sisters see each other since they were kids. On the day of the ceremony, Anna (Kristen Bell) meets a dashing prince named Hans. The two immediately fall in love and want to get engaged - that day. Elsa doesn't approve, and an argument leads to her unwittingly unleashing an icy rage, freezing the entire town. She flees to the top of the highest mountain, where she builds an ice castle for her new home. So it's up to Anna to try to get to her sister and make things right. But she can't do it alone. Along the way she'll encounter an ice salesman named Kristoff, his helpful reindeer and a talking, singing snowman named Olaf (the hilarious Josh Gad).
"Frozen" is a powerhouse. Not only are the musical numbers fantastic, but the animation is phenomenal. And the script isn't as simple as you might think. There are intense action scenes which are very well staged and executed. And two twists make for some of the better surprises of the cinematic year - one that turns the tables on everyone, the other that is part of the electrifying climatic scene.
The voice cast is excellent, with all the main actors excelling in both their dialogue and their singing. Each of the characters has an emotional depth that you don't get in most contemporary animated films - even the very good ones. Gad stands-out as the eternally optimistic snowman, providing a perfect balance of humor and heart. Olaf isn't simply tossed in for comic relief, as is common in most films of the genre. Yes, he's funny, but with a much more subtle tone (except for his hysterical production number) and the character actually has a pivotal role in how the tale plays out. And, as you'd expect, the look of "Frozen" is tremendous. You may want to bring a sweater to the theater because, even if the heat is turned-up, it will be impossible not to get swept-away to this world of ice and snow.
"Frozen" is rated PG for some mild peril and language. It's appropriate for kids of all ages. Even the little ones, who won't understand the storylines, will enjoy the songs, the action scenes, and the endearing characters. It isn't consistently laugh-out-loud funny, which is fine, because it's not designed to be. "Frozen" is a sweeping epic adventure, packed with romance, suspense, comedy and drama. In short: A crowning achievement.
Shown prior to "Frozen" is Disney's marvelous, new animated short, "Get a Horse", which combines both hand-drawn and CGI animation in a movie theater setting. And it stars Mickey Mouse, whose voice track was pieced together from old recordings done by Walt Disney himself. The short alone is worth the price of admission, and I can't wait to see it again. "Get a Horse" is a lock for a Best Animated Short Film nomination, while "Frozen" is now the clear favorite in every Best Animated Feature competition this Awards Season.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Frozen" gets an A. It's an instant Disney classic.
Last year's blockbuster film, adapted from the blockbuster book, "The Hunger Games", grossed over $400 million and ignited the career of star Jennifer Lawrence. Now an Oscar winner (and a potential nominee again this year for her performance in David O. Russell's period crime drama "American Hustle"), Lawrence is "on fire" in Hollywood right now. And she's back as Katniss Everdeen in the eagerly-awaited second installment of the "THG" series - "Catching Fire", which is a marked improvement from the original.
The film picks-up right where the first one left off: After winning the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss thought she and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) were done fighting for their lives in the arena, a victory that cost gamemaker Seneca Crane his life. But after a doom-and-gloom "Victory Tour" around the Districts in celebration of their win, evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) announces that the 75th Games (a.k.a. the Third "Quarter Quell" - held every 25 years) will be comprised of past winners battling to the death. Basically, what we have is an edition of "Survivor: All-Stars". So Katniss leaves boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and joins Peeta once again to battle 22 other competitors in a different type of games, one that's much more physically demanding, with a series of challenges created by new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
However, unlike with the first film, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" isn't really about the Games themselves. This is more of a character-driven story which focuses on relationships, not killing and gore. The commoners, who are barely existing in their poor conditions, are fed-up with the Hunger Games, and President Snow's administration, and there are rumblings of a revolution. But they're still powerless, and standing-up for themselves will only get them beaten - or worse. Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta's mentor (again played by Woody Harrelson) encourages the pair to be symbols of hope for the people both in and out of the arena, but this is easier said than done, especially since only one of them will be alive at the end of the competition.
The entire cast, most notably Elizabeth Banks' style guru Effie, brings more emotion to their roles this time thanks to a much stronger script. New director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer, and best known for Will Smith's "I Am Legend") makes some smart decisions, including keeping coverage of the Games to a minimum, amping-up the visuals, and adding some nice touches that can only be experienced on screen.
I read Catching Fire about a year ago, but forgot some of the details and a few of the twists, so I was surprised at times. The role of Heavensbee is expanded in this screen version, and thankfully, Stanley Tucci's great over-the-top talk-show host parody Ceasar Flickerman is back. All of the performances are strong, highlighted by Lawrence, who shines in several scenes, and Jeffrey Wright ("Boardwalk Empire"), new to the cast as one of the tributes.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" does get overly dramatic and forceful at times with the symbolism and foreshadowing, which is common with these book series adaptations. And, like its predecessor, it takes a little while for things to get going. The script does stick very closely to the book, which helped prove something that I already knew: that reading a book before seeing the film version spoils much of the excitement and suspense and hurts the overall viewing experience (at least for me).
"Catching Fire" is rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, language, disturbing images and a brief suggestive scene. Fans of the series, and even those who just want to experience what all the hype is about this time around, shouldn't be disappointed. Obviously, seeing "The Hunger Games" first will help newcomers, but this movie can stand on its own as a solid sci-fi/political/adventure film and not simply an action movie.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" gets a B.
Director Hayao Miyazaki's latest addition to his wonderful resume of animated films, which he claims are for children but are loved by fans of all ages, deserves to be remembered for a lot of reasons. But, sadly, "The Wind Rises", will likely best be remembered as Miyazaki's 11th and final film. At 72, he says the writing, storyboarding, drawing and editing has simply become too much for him. Well, if that is truly the case, Miyazaki is going out on a high note.
"The Wind Rises" is based on the life of Japanese aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who was the designer of the fighter planes that Japan used in World War II. We first meet Jiro has a young boy with big dreams - in fact dreams play a major role in "The Wind Rises", as they do in many of Miyazaki's works.
This sweeping narrative follows Horikoshi to university, then to life as a young, professional engineer and finally to his days as a major success. Along the way Miyazaki provides a tremendous history lesson on Japanese aviation and its effect on the country and the war. But "The Wind Rises" is also a personal story about this man, whose ambition to be great kept him from having time for a personal life with family and friends when he was young - and who finds love later in life, but, tragically, too late. This portion of the story is fictionalized, but weaves in nicely with the real life depiction of Horikoshi's career.
This is the most personal of all of Miyazaki's films, which is likely why he saved it for his grand finale. His father worked in the aviation field and his mother suffered the same fate as the key female character in the movie. However, many see "The Wind Rises" as a comment by the great director on his own life - his ambition to become a successful and world famous filmmaker, and the price he paid for the decisions he made along the way.
"The Wind Rises" is serious in tone and subject matter. It's rated PG-13 and, unlike many of Miyazaki's films, including his most recent - "Ponyo" (2008; US English release in 2009), is clearly not for young children. There are no amazing fantasy creatures or talking animals. In fact, there are very few scenes involving young characters, another departure for the famed director.
What isn't different here from his other works is the gorgeous animation. Miyazaki's unique visual style will never be duplicated. There are sequences in "The Wind Rises" - large (bomber attacks, an earthquake) and small (the flight of a paper airplane) that are breathtaking. And the score is poignant, including a memorable song during the final credits.
At 2+ hours "The Wind Rises" is a bit drawn-out, as if Miyazaki simply didn't want to say goodbye. But the length allows him to explore many themes and situations as they pertain to Horikoshi's life, his own life, and our own lives. It is a sweet, sad, serious and sophisticated film that will undoubtably earn Miyazaki his third Oscar nomination and possibly his second win (he took top honors in 2003 with "Spirited Away").
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Wind Rises" gets a B+.
I did not expect, in the first minute of "The Book Thief", that I would be reminded, rather heavy-handedly, of the fact that we all are going to die. This cheerful beginning is just the first of a series of drops from the voiceover narrator, aka: "Death" throughout the film. And all of them are both distracting and unnecessary. For, even though this story is set in Nazi Germany prior to and during WWII, "The Book Thief", at its core, is about love, family, and how relationships can survive even through difficult times.
Based on the beloved international bestseller, which is also narrated by Death, "The Book Thief" stars Sophie Nelisse as young Liesel Meminger. As the film begins Liesel's mother is taking her and her younger brother by train to live with foster parents in Germany. Death makes an early appearance, taking the young boy. At the conclusion of the burial service in a field near the train tracks, Liesel picks-up a book that was dropped by one of the gravediggers. This begins her fascinating with books, even though she cannot yet read. Her foster parents, who are "adopting" her simply for the money they're being paid, are tough-as-nails Rosa (played by Emily Watson) and light-hearted and caring Hans (the great Geoffrey Rush). He and Liesel bond quickly and he makes it his goal to teach her how to read.
All this time war (and Death) is looming over their small town. Liesel becomes best friends with neighbor and classmate Rudy and a few years later a fourth member joins their family. The appearance of Max, a Jew desperately hiding from the Nazi's, will change the lives of Liesel and her Mama and Papa dramatically. The situation also inspires Liesel to become the title character. Now a good reader, she begins to borrow books from the home of a German military official so she can share them with Max while he's hiding in their basement. Yet, hovering over every event in her life, large and small, is Death, waiting to make another appearance.
"The Book Thief" is a sweeping historic drama with mixed results. At times the story wanders and director Brian Percival tries too hard to squeeze an emotional reaction from the audience with every scene. However, the entire ensemble cast is first-rate, led by Nelisse, who holds her own with veterans Rush and Watson. This could be a star-making performance for Nelisse, who has far too many crying scenes, but that's not her fault. Percival tries to balance the somber tone of the film with some humor, mostly coming from Rush's Papa. Many of his scenes with Liesel are tender and quite moving.
If you loved the book, then maybe the structure of the film - with Death reappearing every so often, gleefully describing his latest achievement - may not bother you. Since I hadn't read the book, this became an issue for me. The biggest problem is that the narration is so infrequent. I wish Percival had either decided to go with full narration throughout the film, or none at all. And the melodramatic final 10-minutes do not work at all.
"The Book Thief" is rated PG-13 for mild war violence and language. It's appropriate for teens and up. There are parts of this film that will stay with me, but, unfortunately, as a whole, the film falls short in its effort to become a classic.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Book Thief" gets a solid B.
The pitch meeting for "All Is Lost" must've gone something like this: "Robert Redford...in a boat for 90 minutes...lost at sea...and he'll have a chance to win his first acting Oscar." And obviously it worked.
This film is a floating one-man show. Redford is the only performer seen on screen for the entire movie, playing the only character, called (in the credits) "Our Man". "All is Lost" begins with a brief narration: the 'at the end of his rope' amateur sailor reading aloud a letter he's written to his family, apologizing for dying at sea, and other things. We then flashback eight days to when his troubles began. This decision by Oscar nominated writer/director JC Chandor ("Margin Call") was a huge mistake, because it lets us know that Redford's character is going to survive all of the problems he encounters in the first half of the film, eliminating much of the suspense and tension.
"Our Man" wakes up one morning to find that his small boat, the Virginia Jean, has struck a large cargo container floating in the Indian Ocean, causing a rather large hole in her side. And the sailboat is quickly filling-up with water. This is just the first of several issues which keep "Our Man" busy, and soon, desperately struggling to stay alive. There's hardly any dialogue - just a few profanities and some mumbling and grumbling here and there, which just didn't seem realistic. All alone on the ocean in a 'life or death' situation, wouldn't someone talk to themselves? Or the boat? Or the fish? Or the stars? Or to God? At least a little bit?
The strength of "All Is Lost" is Redford's physically demanding and effective performance that's already generating Best Actor Oscar buzz. The film itself is solid but far from extraordinary. I was expecting at least one major twist or surprise, but this narrative is as straight as a sailboat's mast. I kept hoping for a Bengal tiger or some Somali Pirates to show up. And I wasn't that far off. At one point I had a "Captain Phillips" flashback when a Maersk cargo ship makes a cameo appearance.
Chandor does get creative with his limited camera angles. And the sound mixing/editing is impressive. The actual editing is a bit choppy, at times mid-scene. Only the final moments of "All Is Lost" truly rise to a level worthy of Redford's efforts. And there is a element of mystery as you're left to wonder what really happened (it is NOT based on a true story). If the entire film was as strong as the last 5-minutes it could have been a Best Picture contender.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "All Is Lost" gets a C+.
"Thor: The Dark World" is the latest Marvel superhero blockbuster. However, while our main character wears a cape and fights evil-doers, and the word 'Dark' is in the title, this is essentially a romantic comedy. Let me re-phrase that: a BAD romantic comedy.
After Anthony Hopkins' long, unnecessary intro about the evil Dark Elves, his Odin sends son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to solitary confinement, punishment for all the destruction he caused to NYC in "The Avengers". Then Chris Hemsworth's mighty Thor (finally) appears. It's been two years (the end of the original film) since Thor and Natalie Portman's Jane have been together. She's currently in London (I guess the film should've been called "The Foggy World"), waiting patiently for her #1 god to return, and doing her scientific experiments to see if she can figure-out where Thor is. Through a series of events, Jane becomes possessed by the Dark Elves, and Thor and Loki now have to team-up to stop these weird creatures with a wacky language from sending all nine worlds, including Earth, into permanent darkness. The plot is as basic as it gets.
"Thor: The Dark World" is quite talky, especially in the first half. No wonder Kenneth Branagh, who helmed the 2011 original, wanted nothing to do with this mess of a sequel. New director Alan Taylor (HBO's "Game of Thrones") packs "Thor: The Dark World" with unsuccessful attempts at humor, both corny one-liners and silly slapstick scenes. In the "Iron Man" movies and "The Avengers", Robert Downey, Jr.'s funny lines and situations come naturally from his character. Here, we're treated to Stellan Skarsgaard running around Stonehenge naked. That scene is shown not once, but twice. No times would've been plenty. And for some reason Jane's intern Darcy (Kat Dennings), who's simply in the series to make wisecracks, gets an intern of her own, simply to provide more "hilarity". Some of the scenes play like bad "SNL" sketches.
The action scenes aren't nearly as impressive as in previous Marvel films. And some of the special effects are flat-out awful. I like to judge the look of these big-budget superhero movies on the "I've never seen that before" meter - and this movie gets a zero. And with the credits timed at over 10 minutes because of two Easter Eggs (both of which are kind of dull), "Thor: The Dark World" is a relatively short film. When the end comes it's impossible not to think: "That's it?"
The character of Thor is still very one-dimensional, though none of the blame goes to Hemsworth, who does his best with this least charismatic of all the Marvel marvels. Portman has only a few showcase scenes, spending the rest of the time standing in the shadows. Rene Russo also returns as Thor and Loki's mother. Clearly, she's picking and choosing her projects lately, since her last film was "Thor", and the one before that was 2005's "Yours, Mine, and Ours". She's just not picking the right ones. Idris Elba and Chris O'Dowd make brief appearances, which help.
Also on the plus side, there are a few minor plot twists, a well-choreographed sequence midway through and three surprise cameos that will surely fulfill the requirements of the diehards. And Hiddleston's Loki gets better and better in every film. He remains the best character in this series by far. But even with these positives "Thor: The Dark World" is the weakest chapter of the Marvel Studios saga. It's rated PG-13 for the fantasy action/violence and some language, and is appropriate for kids 11 and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Thor: The Dark World" gets a C.
Thankfully, the underrated 'Star Spangled Man with a Plan' will be back soon in, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", due out in April (apparently it's going to be a long winter). This already looks like it could be one of the best action films of 2014.
"Monsters University" is Pixar's 14th animated feature. It's also their first prequel, to a film that many have near the bottom of their list of all-time favorite Pixar films. 2001's "Monsters, Inc." grossed $255 million but lost the first-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature to DreamWorks' "Shrek".
Recently I watched "Monsters Inc." again, and enjoyed it a lot more than the first time I'd seen it. The small, green, one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and the large, blue and pink-dotted James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) are a great comedy team, and the film's emotional core, revolving around little Boo, works quite well. That same humor and emotion is present in "Monsters University".
This story begins with elementary school Mike on a field trip with his class to Monsters Inc., the factory where the magic doors are built and the screams are collected from little human boys and girls. It's here where Mike gets the inspiration to someday become a scarer. However, no one else believes that he's scary enough. This doesn't lower Mike's confidence one bit. He works very hard in school over the next several years and gets accepted into the scaring program at Monsters University.
Randy "Randall" Boggs (arch-enemy in the first film and once again voiced by Steve Buscemi) is Mike's roommate at the start of college. It's during their first class together that Mike and Sulley first meet. Mike is the brainiac while Sulley is the slacker jock, who comes from a family of successful scarers. Initially, they don't like each other. But soon Mike and Sulley come to need each other in order to stay in the scaring program. The pair join the "Oozma Kappa" fraternity so they can take part in the school's annual Scare Games, headed by Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren). Team "OK" team needs to win the Games, but the problem is the rest of the fraternity members are oddball monsters who aren't very scary either.
"Monsters University" is consistently enjoyable. The script features some clever dialogue, especially between and among all the students. It also suffers from the same problem as another recent film - "The Internship": Once the competition element begins the movie starts to drag a bit. Fortunately, the writing here is much better and the characters are so much more likeable that the predictability of this storyline doesn't ruin the movie. After all, this is a relationship film. It's when the focus moves to Mike and Sulley, and the two being to work together, that "Monsters University" truly shines.
Pixar, once again, delivers a story with surprises and memorable moments. And, unlike other prequels that often try to make you forget about the future (and the previous film), "Monsters University" uses "Monsters, Inc." as a goal - something to look forward to. There are plenty of references to the earlier movie that fans will appreciate. And the final 10-15 minutes are Pixar at its finest, drawing emotion from these animated characters as, frankly, they continue to do better than any other studio.
The very talented supporting voice cast includes Alfred Molina, John Krasinski, and Bonnie Hunt (in her sixth Pixar film). And the animation itself (as always) is superb. What's equally as impressive here is the attention to detail, particularly in scenes around the campus and in Mike's dorm room. The filmmakers went all out to capture the authenticity of college life, with comic touches everywhere.
I won't be surprised if some Pixar fans aren't thrilled with "Monsters University". It doesn't have the impact of "Toy Story 3" or "Up". Outside of being the studio's first prequel there isn't anything groundbreaking or unique about it. But that's the problem when it comes to comparing Pixar films - you're always comparing with the best. Not all Pixar films can be a masterpiece or Best Picture contender. On its own, "MU" is a success because of a smart script, simple, but relatable humor, and its honesty - all qualities missing from most other recent animated films.
"Monsters University" is rated G. It's appropriate for kids 8 and up. The preceding short shown before the film in theaters over the summer, "The Blue Umbrella", continues Pixar's current string of disappointing original animated shorts. The look is interesting, but the story is lifeless. However, "The Blue Umbrella" will likely be a contender for an Oscar nomination, as will "MU".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Monsters University" gets a B+.
After seeing the trailer for "R.I.P.D." the very first time I predicted it was going to be a disaster. And it turns out I was right. Combine a lame story, embarrassing performances and production problems (the film wrapped in Jan. 2012 and it wasn't released until this July) and you end-up with a film that's a lock for most Worst of the Year lists (including mine). No surprise that Universal didn't pre-screen it for critics or the public.
Ryan Reynolds stars in and is also an executive producer on "R.I.P.D." He hasn't exactly been churning out the hits lately - "Green Lantern" and "The Change-Up" were two recent bombs. Reynonds has faired much better doing animated voices, including the title role in "Turbo", also out this summer. In "R.I.P.D." Reynolds plays Nick, a Boston Police officer. He and his partner (Kevin Bacon) stole some gold during a drug raid and Nick buries his share in his backyard. But we're supposed to believe that Nick's really a nice guy, so suddenly he decides he wants to come clean and report the gold as evidence.
But before he can do that Nick gets shot and killed. He gets sucked-up in the sky, but instead of facing "judgement day" he's given the chance to join the Rest In Peace Department. Mary Louise Parker (who's so much better in "Red 2" - which was released in theaters the same day as "R.I.P.D.") greets him and explains the situation.
Nick accepts the offer and is teamed-up with a veteran member of the "R.I.P.D". Jeff Bridges combines two of his recent, popular roles (Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit" and his Oscar winning performance as drunken country singer Bad Blake in "Crazy Heart" - yes he does sing here) as Roy. The pair head back down to Boston to take down the "deados" - undead souls who avoided judgement day and refuse to leave the Earth. They look like humans but are really giant, fat, hideously disgusting zombie-like monsters. On Earth Roy and Nick don't look like themselves. Instead they are a supermodel and "an old Chinese guy" - one of the film's awful running jokes. Nick's looking for revenge on the guy who killed him and there's also a ridiculous plot involving - what else - the two cops having to prevent the end of the world.
"R.I.P.D." is based on a comic book, which is appropriate since the movie has cartoonish "effects" and a paper-thin storyline. Obvious comparisons can be made to the "Men in Black" series: "invisible" partners, an old-timer and a rookie who take down weird-looking creatures. But in those films, the chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (and Josh Brolin in last year's "MIB 3") was great and the scripts were sharp and clever.
The one thing that "R.I.P.D." accomplishes is allowing it's stars to establish new career lows. It was tough watching Bridges mumble and bumble his way through this. And it's funny - Bacon wasn't even in the trailer. I'm sure he wishes now that he wasn't in the film, either. Going in I didn't expect expected "R.I.P.D." to be funny, so I wasn't shocked by that. But it's the surprising amount of phoney dramatic moments that elevate this film to the untra-cheesy category.
"R.I.P.D." is rated PG-13 for the sci-fi violence, adult language and references. It's appropriate for teens and up. Thankfully, it's only an hour and a half, but that's still valuable time that you shouldn't waste watching this mess.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "R.I.P.D." gets a D-.
At one point in "Ender's Game" Harrison Ford tells young protagonist Ender (played by "Hugo"'s Asa Butterfield), "You will be remembered as a hero." Well, I will remember this movie, about a teenage boy recruited to lead a military force in a battle against evil aliens, as one of the biggest wastes of time at the movies all year.
Here are four crucial mistakes made by director/screenwriter Gavin Hood ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine"):
1) Going with this story. If you want to make an interesting, contemporary science fiction film you can't base it on a story that was written and published nearly 30 years ago. The concept is so paper thin it's no wonder the movie plays out like a chapter book. I know author Orson Scott Card's series is still going, and this plot had potential, but Hood needed to amp-up his adaptation to make it worthy of a 2013 audience.
2) How to Win a War Using as Many Words as Possible. Practically every scene features a preachy, overly-dramatic exchange of dialogue, highlighted by several scenes between Ford's Colonel Graff and Major Anderson (played by Viola Davis). Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays a former war hero, tries hard not to laugh during his scenes (face tattoo and all). It's unfortunate that three of Hollywood's brightest young actors - Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit") and Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine") had to deal with this mess of a script.
The entire cast is forced to go completely over-the-top in their performances in an attempt to create tension, which is non-existent anywhere else.
3) "And...Action?" Having not read the book I was expecting "Ender's Game" to be an action-packed space adventure. Instead, it's a psychological soap opera. I tried very hard to care about Ender and his situation. But he's simply portrayed as a character in a video game - literally (at times) and figuratively. Most of "Ender's Game" centers on Ender's training to take over as the next military leader. Not exactly edge-of-your seat stuff. The only "action" is made-up of high-tech simulations and zero gravity laser tag. I imagine Ford must have had flashbacks to his "Star Wars" days, thinking how much better he and George Lucas did this stuff - 35 years ago.
4) The final five minutes. With all it's problems, "Ender's Game" would have been passable, if not for the final five minutes, which qualifies as one of the worst endings of any film in recent memory. Even if this was part of the book Hood should have stopped this ship when there was still a chance to avoid disaster.
Plus, there are awkward scenes involving Ender and his older sister (Breslin), loads of bullying (a topic which should have been handled better considering how important it is today), and loads of close-ups of Butterfield tearing-up. Believe me, I could feel his pain.
Admittedly, "Ender's Game" does look great. The creative team behind the film did it's job. That, and enjoying Ford's gruff voice and stone face, are the only things that helped me survive this lifeless mission. I just couldn't wait to hear the words "Game Over" - and believe it or not, they are actually said at the end of the film.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Ender's Game" gets a D+.
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