2004's TV news comedy "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" is still one of Will Ferrell's most popular films, even though it only grossed $85 million at the box office. Over the past decade, the film has become a "cult classic", with fans demanding a sequel. And now their wish has been granted. As was the case with its predecessor, the humor in "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" is hit and miss, but Ferrell and co-writer/director Adam McKay are much more effective this time in their skewering of the world of broadcast journalism.
The setting moves to New York City in the 1980's. Ron is co-anchoring the weekend evening news with wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate returns) at #1 station - WBC. Veronica receives a promotion, but Ron gets fired, causing a break-up of their marriage and sending Ron to a short-lived job as host of a SeaWorld dolphin show, which doesn't end well.
But soon an offer comes that Ron cannot refuse: to be part of GNN - the Global News Network, the world's first 24-Hour News channel. And he gets to bring his trusty San Diego Channel 4 News Team along with him. News reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), "Whammy!" sports guy Champ Kind (David Koechner) and whacked-out weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) return and join Ron as they prepare to revolutionize TV news.
"Anchorman 2" does a much better job of satirizing the TV news business than the original. That's because the 24 hour cable news format, started in the 80's, is such an easy target. The Ferrell/McKay script is spot-on, delivering several laugh-out-loud on-air moments and genius one-liners. Ron's "give the viewers what they want instead of what they need" philosophy turns him and the news team into ratings winners and celebrities. A scene involving the coverage of a Breaking News event involving (as the narrator points out) something so common to us today, but so shocking back in the 80s, is the strongest in the entire film.
As we've seen in "Broadcast News", "Morning Glory", and other movies involving the subject of TV news, relationships away from the job often suffer, and, of course, that happens here as well as Ron Burgundy's career goes from an all-time high to a new low when the one thing God put him on this Earth to do (other than have salon-quality hair) is suddenly taken away from him. So, once again, he needs to make a dramatic comeback and redeem himself (sound familiar).
Not everything in "A2" works, which is typical for Ferrell, McKay, and producer Judd Apatow. Scenes involving Ron's new boss, and his young son go on way too long, and the Brick character can get tiresome quickly. Since Carell has become as big a star as Ferrell over the past 10 years, Brick has a much bigger presence in this film, including getting a love interest (Kristen Wiig).
But "Anchorman 2" is Ron Burgundy's story. In multiple scenes, Brick, Brian and Champ stand off to the side and watch Ron go. James Marsden spices things up a bit as a dashing, brawny rival anchorman at GNN. And there are plenty of big name cameos, particularly in a scene near the end of the film which pays tribute to the original, while also making fun of the over-abundance of TV news outlets.
"Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" is a hard PG-13 for lots of adult language, content and references. It's appropriate for mid-teens and up. The two hour running time isn't a problem because, even though this isn't the funniest film of the year, you keep hoping that the next gag will work. And more often than not it does.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" gets a B.
Dino Disaster. Tyrannosaurus Wreck. These may be bad puns, but they perfectly describe the family adventure "Walking with Dinosaurs", which will leave its mark as one of the worst movies of the year.
The BBC is behind "Walking with Dinosaurs", which is loosely adapted from the network's groundbreaking 1999 miniseries that also gave birth to a global sensation stage show. This film version has been dumbed-down significantly, to the elementary school crowd level, which was one of many bad decision by the producers.
Even before the first dino appears on screen there's trouble brewing: A completely unnecessary five-minute, live-action intro features a teenage boy, his younger sister, and their paleontologist uncle (played by Karl Urban) in Alaska on a search for dinosaur bones. The boy is uninterested in the adventure until a talking bird arrives and begins to tell the tale that will become the story of the rest of the film. John Leguizamo does a restrained Sid the Sloth (without the speech impediment) as the voice Alex the bird, who also serves as the main narrator.
And even though Alex talks on screen (and in English) throughout the entire film, his lips never move. And it's the same with the rest of the non-human characters. This will definitely confuse little ones and confound anyone else trying to make some sense of what's going on. Alex, who apparently is ageless, then takes us back to the Jurassic period, where we meet young Patchi (voiced by Justin Long), the runt of a dino little who is the star of this story (and who sounds completely the same from the time he's a baby till he becomes the leader of the herd. Along the way Patchi experiences life as a dino, which includes dealing with predators, long treks in harsh conditions, first love, competition (particularly with his egotistical brother), and, above it all, he learns how to deliver the corniest dialogue ever written for a major motion picture.
The biggest problem with "Walking with Dinosaurs" is that the people behind the film didn't know what they wanted to make. This could have been a dramatic, intense, educational family film - a fictionalized version of the Disney Nature documentaries (as the TV series was). Instead, we get a goofy, predictable road trip comedy. The narration and endless, rapid-fire, dopey comments, consisting of phrases and references that even animated dinosaurs shouldn't know about, is embarrassing. Plus, the 3D animation is nothing special and the storyline is as thin as the springtime ice that some of the dinosaurs fall though in the film's big "dramatic" sequence.
"Walking with Dinosaurs" is rated PG for mild violence and rude humor. It bothered me that the term "Bite Me" is used in this kids' movie, a sad example of just how desperate and off-target the writers were. As for parents stuck having to sit though this, their attention will be extinct about 10 minutes in. The narrow target audience of 8-10 year-olds who LOVE dinosaurs could learn a few names and some general concepts about this period in the history of the Earth, but that's it. For everyone else, Yabba Dabba Don't bother.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Walking with Dinosaurs" gets a D. It's a shame that this is the only new family release for the two week holiday break. Take the kids to Disney's "Frozen" again, if necessary, instead of this fossilized flop.
"Winds in the East - mist coming in. Like something is brewing - about to begin." Colin Farrell's opening lines in Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks" say it all. I predicted five months ago when the first, and only, trailer for this film was released, that the "Making of Mary Poppins" movie was going to be one of the best films of the year. With two, 2-time Oscar winning stars: Emma Thompson as Poppins author P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as the legendary Walt Disney (who has never been portrayed like this on screen before), and director John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") at the helm, "Saving Mr. Banks" exceeded all my expectations. It's more than just a "Making of" film. This masterpiece captures the sadness and love, the joy and the pain it took to turn a popular children's book into one of the most beloved movie musicals of all-time.
"Banks" is designed as two parallel stories. Normally, I'm not fond of films that bounce back-and-forth between the past and the present. But Lee Hancock intertwines these two tales so marvelously, giving them both equal importance, value and emotion, that it's now impossible to imagine the movie being made any other way.
Growing up in Australia in the early 1900s, young Pamela (played by Annie Rose Buckley) lives with her mother, younger sisters, and father (Farrell), who calls her Ginty and encourages her to dream, use her imagination, and not turn-out like him: a drunk. This serves as the backdrop for the story behind the story of the flying nanny.
The adult Travers, an acclaimed author, has been courted by Walt Disney for twenty years. He promised his daughters that he would make Mary Poppins "fly off the pages of her books". But Travers has refused to give Disney the rights to her work. Finally, in 1961, in need of money, she decides to travel from London to California for two weeks, to listen to Walt's latest pitch, read the script, and see if the Disney version of her story is up to her very high standards.
The bitter Travers dislikes everything from the moment she arrives in Los Angeles: the smell of the air, the weather, the fact that no one walks. Her friendly personal driver Ralph (played by Paul Giamatti) tries to lighten the mood but can't get through to her. And then Travers steps into the Disney studios and lets her opinions loose on every single idea. She doesn't like musical numbers, Dick Van Dyke as Bert, or the use of animation because she hates Disney's "silly cartoons". Not even a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth ("Who gets to go to Disneyland with Walt Disney himself?") helps. And throughout her visit, Travers is haunted by her painful childhood memories, making her afraid to allow Disney to take her very personal story and turn it into a silly Hollywood musical.
To borrow a line from Julie Andrews herself, who won the '64 Best Actress Oscar for playing Poppins: "Saving Mr. Banks" is "practically perfect in every way". I haven't walked out of a film so touched, so invigorated and so moved in a very long time. There is so much love and care poured, by the heaping spoonful, into every scene.
You'll learn new details, including original and cut concepts, script changes, and all the behind-the-scenes process, as well as the entire Travers backstory.
Thompson captures Travers quite well. She's quick-witted and brutally honest, but has such a warm, deep soul and a troubled past that needs to be reconciled. Hanks is fantastic as the no-nonsense "Master of the Mouse". A scene with him towards the end is effortless and the reason why he could win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Farrell is very good, and Giamatti's Ralph knows just what to say. That's thanks to a wonderful original screenplay written by Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel. All of the situations are natural, sentimental, and often quite funny. Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak ("The Office") as the Sherman Brothers provide some of the best lines and facial expressions as they agonize through the process.
But as everyone gets a little bit jollier, there are some vocal renditions of classic songs "Chim Chim Cher-ee", "Spoonful of Sugar", "Feed the Birds", "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank", and "Let's Go Fly A Kite" (or as Travers points out, in proper English: "Let Us Go and Fly a Kite"). The score of "Saving Mr. Banks" is beautiful, the set design and costumes are excellent, the attention to detail is exquisite (from Walt's office to Travers' hotel bedroom), and it brought a tear or two not only to my eyes, but to everyone at the screening I attended. This film was made to be experienced in a movie theater. One of the most famous theaters is the centerpiece for the film's final showcase scenes.
"Saving Mr. Banks" is rated PG-13 for some language, drinking, and a few smoking cover-ups from Disney. It's appropriate for teens and up. This is a sweet, heart-tugging movie that's destined, like the film it inspires, to become a classic. Be sure to stay through the end credits for some of the actual candid conversations of Travers, who specifically requested everything to be recorded. It's a splendid ending to a film that truly is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Saving Mr. Banks" gets an A.
Peter Jackson directed the epic, Oscar winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. But his resume took a bit of a hit last year thanks to Part 1 of his new 3-Parter, the prequel to "LOTR" - "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey". It was long, dull, and shot using the previously unseen HFR (high frame rate) technology, which sped-up the scenes, but not the film, which clocked-in at a painful three hours.
This middle installment, back in Middle Earth - "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug", is slightly shorter (2:40), and slightly better, but has many of the same problems as its predecessor, and introduces a dastardly dragon to the cast.
The dwarves (and one hobbit) are right back where we last saw them, still on their quest to get to the Lonely Mountain so they can reclaim their kingdom. And Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is still not the central focus of this chapter of the story. And Ian McKellan is still around as Gandalf the Grey, though he's hardly in the film, separating from the others early on. The gang is assisted this time by some elves: Legolas (the return of Orlando Bloom to the series) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who realize that there's an impending evil that must be defeated.
But it's the title dragon, Smaug (voiced by 2013's Movie Man of the Year Benedict Cumberbatch) who dominates the film, particularly in the second half, once Bilbo and the dwarves battle more of the same disgusting creatures from the last film. Smaug lives in a palace of gold, waiting for the day when someone would come and try to slay him. All Bilbo has to do is find a shiny white stone and then get out. If "The Hobbit" was just one film, this section could've been accomplished in under 20 minutes. But thanks to Jackson's decision to stretch the thin J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novel into three films, every scene lasts longer than it should. This duel with the dragon takes-up the final hour of "Smaug".
And because of this lack of lively pacing, I had a hard time keeping my mind from wandering, especially during the extended stretches of conversations and contemplations. This film is simply an exercise in moviemaking. The special effects are fine and there a few quality action sequences (the dwarves barrel escape scene is a standout), but, once again, there is no resolution and yet Jackson sets-up the conclusion in such an obvious fashion that you wish he simply took another 20 minutes and ended it here. And if you're a fan of the "Shrek" movies, Smaug will look very familiar (I kept waiting to hear Eddie Murphy's voice as part of a Donkey cameo).
Howard Shore does provide a rousing score and the set design is outstanding. But we expect that from these epic, fantasy adventures. It's up to Jackson to give us more - and it's just not happening.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" gets a C. A slight upgrade from the first film, but I still can't help but feel that I just wasted more "precious" time.
One year after director David O. Russell was able to earn all four of his "Silver Linings Playbook" stars Oscar nominations in their respective categories (the first time that had been done in 30 years), he may have done it again with the extraordinary ensemble of "American Hustle", which is a smart, chic, sophisticated con-caper that's hugely entertaining.
A movie about scam artists has to be challenging and complex (and get even more so as the film goes along) and "American Hustle" delivers. You never know who's in, who's out, who's working for who and where the story will go. The setting is the dynamic disco era of the late 70's. The men sport wild outfits and hairdos to match; the women wear very low-cut dresses and platform shoes. Amy Adams will be attracting attention this Awards Season for two reasons: Not only does she gives the best performance of her career as Sydney, a small town girl who comes to NYC with big dreams, but she holds nothing back with her wardrobe.
"Hustle" is inspired by an actual event - the FBI Abscam operation. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a businessman whose greatest success is as a con man. He has a phoney money lending scheme, along with a wife and adopted son. Irving meets and falls in love with Sydney, and he invites her to become part of his illegal operation.
The pair soon get involved with FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who has big dreams of his own. He needs their help to take down some major government officials so that he can make a name for himself at the Bureau. Promises are made, deals are done, but no one knows for sure who's telling the truth and who's planning to double-cross the other partners
And then there's Irving's wife, Rosalyn. She's the "wild card" in the operation. Irving doesn't want her involved, but she just can't help herself. Jennifer Lawrence gives another wacky, off-the-hook performance as a mother trying to take care of her son, not burn down the house,and find love one way or the other. She's a shoe-in for another Academy Award nomination and could actually win again. She's just that good - simply remarkable.
"American Hustle" is electrifying from start to finish. There are plenty of comic and quirky situations to balance the high-stakes, dramatic moments. The stylized look of the 1970's is fantastic, as is the score. And, just as he did with "SLP", O. Russell gets inside each of these characters. We feel their desperation as they risk everything in an attempt to get what they want. Never has the phrase "desperate times call for desperate measures" been more appropriate.
But it's the performances that elevate "American Hustle" to its status as one of the best films of the year. Bale is excellent, transforming himself, physically and emotionally, into his role. Cooper tops his own work as Pat in "SLP" with this portrayal as the overly-ambitious agent. Jeremy Renner is solid as a mayor trying to do the right thing. Comedian Louis C.K. nearly steals the show (and tells a heck of a fishing story) as Cooper's boss. And THE Robert De Niro makes an uncredited, but important cameo as a ruthless mobster.
"American Hustle" is rated R for language, adult content, brief nudity and violence. It's appropriate for older teens and up. O. Russell has, once again, made a serious movie, with seriously good performances, that's also a lot of fun and challenges you to the final frame.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "American Hustle" gets an A-.
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 2013. 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 Descendants", makes fantastic decisions right to the end, with a perfect score supporting each memorable scene. He absolutely deserved his Best Director Oscar nomination.
Dern gives a rich 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. 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.
2012'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 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 as 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. And 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. This 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.
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