Last year, director Jean-Marc Vallee earned "Dallas Buyers Club" stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto Lead and Supporting Actor honors from nearly every major awards organization. Now, Vallee's follow-up, "Wild", has placed Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern as Lead and Supporting Actress frontrunners for their raw and brave performances in one of 2014's most engrossing dramas.
Based on a true story, Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who in 1995, hiked all 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, and chronicled the grueling and life-changing journey in her 2012 memoir. Strayed both wanted and needed to do this solo hike in order to deal, emotionally, with some difficult events from her past. And throughout "Wild", these do haunt Strayed, forcing her to deal with her mistakes and push herself to continue.
Cinematically, the wildest element of "Wild" is the editing because of the numerous flashback scenes. Some last for several minutes, showing a much younger Strayed (Witherspoon looks quite convincing nonetheless) with her mother, Bobbi (Dern). Other times we get brief snippets of events that have brought Strayed to this point in her life. Eventually everything is fully revealed as the pieces come together in this complex and fascinating story of survival.
The physical and emotional demands of this role are many, and Witherspoon is up to the challenge for all of it. In a year when the Best Actress contenders list lacks the usual star power and punch, Witherspoon is clearly the frontrunner. She embodies Strayed as flawed, sympathetic, strong, weak and hopeful. We can't help but root for her (though she is not a hero by any means) as she fights through some of the worst situations of her life, leading up to and including the hike. The complicated relationships Strayed has with her mother and husband (Thomas Sadoski) are nicely portrayed.
Vallee's use of "day markers" on the screen from time to time throughout the film doesn't quite work, and the ending is a little underwhelming considering how powerful the narrative is up until that point. But overall, "Wild" triumphs because it is daring, with no limitations. At no point, even when you think it might, does it get preachy or forceful. And it very well could win Witherspoon her second Oscar.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Wild" gets a B+.
"The Imitation Game" is one of those Awards Season films every studio dreams of having on their "For Your Consideration" list. The true-life drama captured the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and it's destined to be a favorite among voters over the next few months, as is star Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays British mathematician and WWII code-breaking genius Alan Turing.
Adapted from the book, "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges, screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum present us with multi-layered, enriching, moving and high-stakes love stories through three different periods of Turing's life. It's a lot to handle early-on, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear why all these elements are necessary.
As a teenager at an all boys' boarding school, Turing is bullied for being smarter than everyone else and a little different. It's during this period when he develops a fascination with and a talent for solving puzzles and breaking codes. At the same time, he's trying to develop his own identity. In addition we see Turing dealing with life after the war (1951 - which serves as present time). The British police are investigating Turing, believing he may be keeping more secrets than those he held while working during the war.
However, the majority of the film is set during wartime. Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) and the other top code breakers in the UK are recruited by the military and brought to Britain's Bletchley Park, in hopes they can solve Germany's Enigma Code machine, which everyday sends out orders to the Nazi troops where and when the next attacks will take place. Turing sets-out to create a machine of his own. It's essentially the first computer: a giant device that he (and only he) believes will allow him to intercept the Nazi messages and break their complicated, unsolvable codes. Turing calls it 'Christopher'.
You may already know some of Turing's life story before seeing "The Imitation Game", but in no way will that detract from your appreciation of this film. Tyldum masterfully weaves together these three phases of one life, resulting in a narrative that is easy to follow yet complex enough to genuinely surprise at just the right moments. In an early voiceover we are told to "pay attention", and that turns out to be the right advice, because you can rarely predict what's coming next.
I didn't expect Cumberbatch to be this impressive. It's a heavily emotional role, with dynamics of love, hate, true love and true hate. Through Cumberbatch's bold and brave performance, we are able to understand the turmoil Turing is going through 24/7, and why breaking the Enigma Code, the most important thing in his life, can't solve all of his problems. Knightley, who plays the lone female on the code-breaking team, is also excellent. She and Cumberbatch have pitch-perfect exchanges, including one heartbreaking scene at the end of the film, which showcases both actors and the authenticity they bring to these roles. Knightley will be in the mix for Best Supporting Actress consideration.
"The Imitation Game" presents a lot of serious ethical issues, which you'll think about long after the credits end. Tyldum has crafted a film about a group of people we truly care about, looking to do the impossible, and dealing with the harsh realities of what that may bring. It's suspenseful and surprising, heroic and heartbreaking...and one of the best films of the year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Imitation Game" gets an A-.
Not long after DreamWorks Animation released its over-the-top, all-star comedy "Madagascar" in 2005, the studio was already thinking about having the film's breakout characters, the slick and suave Penguins, headline their own movie. Now, nearly 10 years later (and following two more "Madagascar" films and a "Penguins" TV series on Nickelodeon), the Penguins are finally starring in their first big screen adventure.
"Penguins of Madagascar", the final animated film of 2014, doesn't disappoint. It's entertaining throughout, with loads of laughs. The opening 10 minutes, which includes both origin and backstories, features some of the best jokes in the entire movie. Years before they meet Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria at New York City's Central Park Zoo, the Penguins lived in the cold, Antarctica tundra. The much younger and smaller versions of fast-talking Skipper, his right-hand man Kowalski, and maniac eater Rico go on their first mission, saving a stray penguin egg. All of this is captured by a documentary film crew, of course. The egg soon hatches and Private is born. The trio take Private under their flippers and head-off into the future.
The rest of "Penguins of Madagascar" takes place following the events of 2012's "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted". Skipper and the others decide to leave the circus because they're getting sick of listening to the song "Afro Circus" over and over again. They quickly go head-to-head with a nemesis (who actually has some history with the Penguins): Dr. Octavius Brine (aka Dave, voiced by John Malkovich), an evil scientist/octopus who's out for revenge.
This cat-and-mouse (or octopus-and-penguin) chase leads the Penguins to Venice, where they meet-up with with an elite, high-tech group of secret agent animals called The North Wind. These guys are also trying to take down Dave, who's kidnapping all the penguins in the world. Their leader, Agent Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who in real-life and in the film, can't say the word 'penguin' correctly) is a hungry wolf who doesn't want or need the Penguins' help. The clash of rival spy groups is a fresh and interesting storyline that works quite well, though some of the conversation scenes between the two teams slow the pacing down and create some brief lulls.
While it is a spy/action adventure, "Penguins of Madagascar" works best as a comedy. The writers, directors, and talented voice cast know how to make the well-established Penguins characters both smart and funny. There are several running jokes, including the different names Skipper calls Dave that also start with a D, and Dave's celebrity-filled commands to his octopi assistants. At times the writers do get a little carried away with the puns. The script is filled with sharp one-liners ranging from goofy to downright brilliant. And the well thought-out plot is allowed to come full circle, with an emotionally satisfying final act.
There are more blockbuster action scenes in "Penguins" than in all three "Madagascar" films combined, meaning it will appeal to a younger audience (kids 7-12), as well as those who appreciate the gags and clever dialogue. And visually, the vibrant and electric animation style will be a hit with everyone.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Penguins of Madagascar" gets a B+. "Well done, Kowalski!"
"The Homesman" is easily the most bizarre movie of 2014. Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones, one of the most respected actors of the past three decades, co-writes, directs, and stars in this adaptation of a 1988 novel. It's a western, set in the mid-1800s. There are no trains in the film, so to be historically accurate, I have to call this a 'stagecoach-wreck'.
What intrigued me most about "The Homesman" was the Best Actress buzz two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank is receiving for her performance as the plain and bossy Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman living alone on a ranch in the western territory. She's as rough and tough, and as good a shot, as any man. So she volunteers to take three women who have gone insane hundreds of miles, by horse and wagon, to Iowa so they can be treated. She's joined on this perilous journey by outlaw George Briggs (Jones), a wisecracking, no-nonsense tough guy (basically the same character Jones plays in every movie).
And for the next two hours we watch these two getting to know each and battling the elements, while dealing with the three women tied-up inside their wagon - Cuddy in a thoughtful, caring way, Briggs - a bit rougher. There are a series of flashbacks, in which we are shown, quite graphically, just how sick the patients are. They're very tough to watch.
Unfortunately, watching the rest of the "The Homesman" isn't a picnic, either. The tone of this film is scattered like leaves in an old west dust storm. It's part western road movie, part horror movie, with elements of comedy, music, action and melodrama tossed in. And hardly any of it works. None of the characters and situations are believeable, so at no point did I invest any emotion into them. My favorite line in the film comes when one of the crazy women is repeatedly kicking one of the other crazy women in the face. Seeing this Jones says "What the Hell?!" - the same question that was going through my mind as I was watching this pure madness unfold. At times it felt like I was trapped inside the loony wagon with no way of escaping.
Swank does have a few interesting scenes, but she mostly gives a sappy, one-note performance that's far from award worthy. And Jones' Briggs seems like he wandered in from a different movie - a slapstick, saloon comedy. Together, these two display zero chemistry.
One of the few things that kept my interest was waiting for Meryl Streep and James Spader to make their appearances, which come late in the film. And it's impossible not to think - "Hey, it's James Spader" (as a goofy hotel owner) and "Hey, it's Meryl Streep" (as a pastor's wife). In fact everyone in "The Homesman" comes across as an actor playing a role, never as a believable character.
It all wraps-up with a completely ridiculous final scene, which will leave you not only shaking your head, but wondering what the heck Jones was trying to say - about these characters, their situation, and life at this time in our nation's history.
"The Homesman" is rated R for violence, language, adult content, nudity and numerous disturbing images. Having absolutely no point, other than to completely stun people with just how messy and meaningless it all is, "The Homesman" is clearly one of the worst movies of the year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Homesman" gets a D.
British actor Eddie Redmayne's breakout performance was opposite Michelle Williams in 2011's underappreciated biopic "My Week with Marilyn". One year later, he joined the stellar ensemble of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried for the big screen adaptation of the Broadway musical sensation "Les Miserables". Now, Redmayne finally takes center stage, giving a demanding and defiant performance as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything".
Felicity Jones ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2", "Like Crazy") is also quite good as Hawking's eventual wife, Jane. The film begins with the two meeting at a party in the early 1960s, while Hawking is studying physics at Cambridge. They quickly develop a fascination for each other. At the same time Hawking is beginning to experience problems with his motor skills. Following a fall, he learns that he has Motor Neuron disease, a form of ALS. He's told that nearly all of his voluntary body functions (including walking and talking) will stop, and that he only has two years to live. Hawking tries to end his relationship with Jane, but instead, she decides to stay with him so they can fight the disease together. They soon get married and begin a family. And while his physical condition continues to worsen, Hawking begins demonstrating his intellectual brilliance, coming-up with new, revolutionary theories on time, space, black holes and the history of the universe.
Director James Marsh ("Man on Wire") crafts many memorable scenes in "The Theory of Everything", some of them challenging and heartbreaking. Watching Hawking, who just earned his PhD, trying to pull himself up a flight of stairs in his house, only to see his young son looking down at him, is extremely powerful. And Marsh does a nice job in keeping the narrative balanced evenly between both Stephen and Jane. This is an intimate look at both members of this relationship, not "The Stephen Hawking Story". As Stephen's personal caretaker for most of their marriage, we see Jane helping him eat, use his wheelchair, and supporting and encouraging him to continue to work. There are similar moments seen in this year's outstanding documentary, "Life Itself", involving late film critic Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz.
And we see the Hawkings' relationship go through highs and lows and take some unexpected turns. Their daily battle to try to be a "normal family", as Stephen describes them at one point, lasts far longer than the expected two years (which is never explained). Unfortunately, in the second half of the film, supporting characters are introduced who take-up too much screen time, interrupting what, up until then, is a fascinating look at two incredible people. The screenplay is based on Jane's own memoir, and all these events apparently did take place in real life. But following the first hour filled with wonder and hope, I couldn't help but grow a little angry watching the film turn into a romantic soap opera. And the ending leaves you with a brutal dose of reality, which thematically, may have been the point, but Marsh is way too heavy-handed with the symbolism here and throughout.
"The Theory of Everything" features nomination-worthy lead performances, a beautiful score, and a vivid, almost whimsical, visual look. I guess my problem is that I wanted 'everything' to work, and it just doesn't.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Theory of Everything" gets a B.
"The Hunger Games" movie franchise, based on Suzanne Collins' wildly successful book series, reached greater heights with last year's second installment, "Catching Fire". The sequel proved to be stronger, both in quality and at the box office, than the original film. Unfortunately, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1", the first half of the epic finale, is a major letdown.
As with other recent Part 1s, such as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn", you realize, going in, that most of the action, suspense and emotion is likely being saved for "THG: Mockingjay - Part 2" (which will be released next November). Still, this movie is shockingly dull, with no spark and (other than a nice late surprise), very little excitement. In fact, J-Law's recent appearance on Letterman promoting the film was much more entertaining.
From the first minute it's clear that "Mockingjay Pt. 1" is completely different from the two previous installments. The plots of those two films revolved around the "Games", and a very mature subject: kids murdering other kids for the entertainment of society. In "Mockingjay" there are no games, but it has the most serious and darkest tone of the series. Returning director Francis Lawrence casts a gray overtone of gloom and desperation on Panem, whose citizens have been beaten down, physically and mentally.
At two hours and three minutes, "Mockingjay" is the shortest "Hunger Games" by about 20 minutes. And even though there is no competition, there are still psychological and relationship games being played: Katniss vs. the Capitol and the love triangle between Katniss, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Following the Quarter Quell, Katniss is stunned to learn that Peeta has been found alive, and is living inside the Capitol. However, Hutcherson's role is much smaller than in the other films (but he still gets second billing - good agent!) Most of his scenes are interviews with talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). On the other hand, Hemsworth's screen time is double, maybe even triple, and his performance is actually one of the most pleasant surprises.
The established roles of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and even President Snow (Donald Sutherland) have also been reduced for "Mockingjay Pt. 1", in favor of new cast members and other supporting players. Julianne Moore joins the ensemble and gives the standout performance as District 13 President Alma Coin, who works with Katniss as she becomes 13's Mockingjay symbol for the Capitol Rebellion. And the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who the film is dedicated to, once again has a few shining moments as Plutarch Heavensbee.
Much of the "Mockingjay" story, and at least half of the dialogue scenes, come as direct explanations to TV cameras, live crowds, and essentially us, the audience in the theater. You spend a lot of the film watching people talk and watching people who are watching people talk. Katniss' new, spokesperson-type training quickly gets repetitive. And when the most suspenseful sequence of the entire movie involves Katniss, her sister and her cat racing to get through an automatic door before it closes, you know there's a problem. Lawrence sings the "The Hanging Tree" at one point. The lyric "strange things did happen here" rang true as the scene dragged on, because it felt so out-of-place.
"Mockingjay - Part 1" is rated PG-13 for a few scenes of action/violence and mild disturbing images. Unlike the previous two, even diehards have no need to see this more than once, and many will undoubtedly walk out feeling genuinely disappointed.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" gets a C. It's doesn't lay an egg, but just never has the chance to soar. "Part 2" opens on November 20, 2015. For fans of this franchise, that date can't come soon enough.
1994's "Dumb and Dumber" is considered by some to be a cult comedy classic, highlighted by one of the funniest performances of Jim Carrey's career. 20 years later, Carrey (who's hasn't had much success with anything in a while) and Jeff Daniels (who's earned an Emmy for his current work on HBO's "The Newsroom") reunite with directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly for "Dumb and Dumber To". This is actually the third film in the franchise, following 1997's prequel "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd", which starred different actors. That's a film most people would like to forget, and now the same can be said for "D&DTo", which is guaranteed to be near the top of practically everyone's Worst Movies of 2014 list.
Where do I begin? The plot is absolutely ridiculous. In a nutshell: Harry (Daniels) needs a new kidney - and from a blood relative. He and Lloyd (Carrey), who's spent the past 20 years in a "home" as a prank, head-out on a quest to find the daughter Harry never knew he had. They get involved with her parents - a scientific genius father and a cheating step-mother, who's out to take all her husband's money. Everyone, including the girl's real mother (played by an almost unrecognizable Kathleen Turner), end-up in Texas at the KEN convention, the annual get-together for the smartest thinkers and inventors in the world.
But in order for Harry and Lloyd to get there, they've got to drive something. Although it's in the poster, the Mutt Cutts van prominently featured in the original is only in this sequel for about 10 seconds. It's an even shorter appearance than the odd and unnecessary Bill Murray cameo as a guy who makes meth in their apartment (this mock of "Breaking Bad" shows the level of "humor" on display). The majority of the time, Harry and Lloyd drive a hearse, symbolizing this film as rolling death.
Most of "Dumb and Dumber To" makes no sense - and that would be OK, if it was funny. But the stale, over-the-top, goofy comedy, dominated by lame physical gags, isn't worthy of a single chuckle. The story is needlessly complicated with multiple script swerves and multiple Rob Riggles. That's right, the comedic actor from "21 Jump Street" and "Let's Be Cops" plays twins here: a handyman who joins Harry and Lloyd on their trip and a secret agent who likes to literally blend-into his surroundings - another failed attempt to generate laughs.
So, for nearly two hours, Carrey and Daniels (both showing their ages) toss-out hundreds of awful, offensive, gross and just plain dumb jokes, in their ridiculous "D&D" voices. It's hard to imagine any of this was considered funny 20 years ago. It clearly isn't anymore.
I've never been a huge fan of Carrey's wacky comedies. He's so much better in dramatic roles and films where he can show a range of legitimate acting (the groundbreaking "The Truman Show" and even as Scrooge in "Disney's A Christmas Carol"). And for Daniels, what he does in this movie makes it even more shocking that he'd want this on his 2014 resume. I understand taking a role for a paycheck, but even that concept has its limits.
I'm not surprised at how bad "Dumb and Dumber To" turned-out. Anyone who's seen the trailers should expect the worst - and that's what you get. Blame must go to the Farrelly Brothers, who could have tried a lot harder by making the film more contemporary (every situation feels dated) and much smarter. Instead, what they've produced is the most depressing comedy of the year and a complete waste of time.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Dumb and Dumber To" gets an F. I hate it a lot.
Interestingly, Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence was signed to do a cameo in the film. However, contrary to previous reports that stated Lawrence herself requested to be cut out, the Farrellys say that due to scheduling conflicts, her scene was never filmed. Whatever the truth, Lawrence is not only the hottest actress in Hollywood, but the luckiest, for being able to avoid being connected in any way with this mess.
"Foxcatcher" is director Bennett Miller's follow-up to 2011's "Moneyball", making this his second "based on a true story" sports drama in a row. The first trailer was actually unveiled over a year ago (September 2013) because the film was originally scheduled for release last December. However, Sony Pictures Classics decided to take "Foxcatcher" out of 2013 Awards Season contention and push it back to 2014. At the time SPC said, "We support the decision of the filmmakers to allow for more time to finish the film."
The move surprised a lot of people, considering there was already plenty of buzz about funnyman Steve Carell, who went through a drastic physical transformation to play multimillionaire John du Pont, delivering a career-defining dramatic performance worthy of a Best Actor nomination and possibly a win. But co-screenwriter E. Max Frye (who penned the original draft in 2007), told me that additional editing was indeed the reason for the delay.
So, after more than a year in hiding, "Foxcatcher" is now out - unfortunately, with mixed results. There's a lot to like about this film, but it also has enough problems which, in my mind, keep it from being worthy of Best Picture consideration.
The set-up of "Foxcatcher" is stunningly slow, as we are introduced to Olympic Gold Medal wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum in one of his best roles), who's struggling financially with his career and his personal life. Mark's older brother Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo) also won Gold at the '84 Games. Dave has a big personality, is running a training facility, and has a wife and two kids. Even though they are brothers, in some ways they are exact opposites. But both hope to represent the U.S. again at the '88 Olympics, which are a little over a year away.
Mark is contacted by a man he is unfamiliar with, but will soon know all too well - John du Pont, heir to the du Pont chemical fortune. Along with his many hobbies (and being one of the wealthiest men in the world) du Pont is a wrestling fan and would-be coach. He flies Mark to his Valley Forge, Pa. estate so they can, as John puts it to Mark, "talk about your future". The snail-like pacing doesn't end here. Practically every line of dialogue, particularly conversations between John and Mark, and Mark and Dave, includes lengthy, dramatic pauses that get more and more annoying as the film goes on. Even if this is how these people talked in real life, it really hurts the flow of the film. Just eliminating these pauses alone could have gotten the 2 hour-15 minute runtime under 2-hours.
John convinces Mark to come work for him, and soon convinces USA Wrestling to move their official Olympic training center to du Pont's estate, becoming part of "Team Foxcatcher". But things do not go smoothly, and when Dave enters the picture, the relationships between the three of them - the "love triangle" as Frye describes it - leads to problems and, ultimately, tragedy.
"Foxcatcher" isn't "The John du Pont Story", as many people may expect. It's more "The Mark Schultz Story", but the problem is he's the least interesting of the three main characters. Carell, who at times looks more like Alfred Hitchcock that the real du Pont, gives the showcase performance, captivating the screen with several powerful moments. When you string all of Carell's scenes together, you get a dominant, nomination-worthy effort.
In my mind "Foxcatcher" would've been a stronger film had du Pont been the main focus. In fact, two of the best scenes in the movie involve du Pont and his elderly mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) who doesn't care for wrestling or any of her son's achievements. They provide insight into du Pont's mental state and some of his future actions. Redgrave's role is very small, but she and Carell provide an emotional layer to the film that's missing elsewhere.
What surpised me the most at the screening I attended was that the majority of the 400 people in the theater didn't know how this true story plays out. If you followed the news coverage of the events at the time, or read about them since, chances are you will still be surprised, as Miller does a nice job portraying the climatic events in a very simple, matter-of-fact way (which is how they actually happened) - even though the time frame is compressed drastically. Many are attacking Miller for altering the years in which some of the key action takes place, but the story wouldn't have worked any other way.
"Foxcatcher" is rated R for language, brief nudity and violence. It's worth seeing for the three showcase performances (Carell at the top of the list) and for the somewhat suspenseful story. But the plodding pacing and soap-opera feel prevents it from being gold medal worthy.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Foxcatcher" gets a B-.
Walt Disney Animation Studios hit a grand slam last year with the cultural phenomenon "Frozen", which grossed nearly $1.3 billion worldwide, won two Oscars, and was one of the best films of 2013. The studio's follow-up, the superhero adventure "Big Hero 6", will likely make a lot of money, especially overseas, but it's one of Disney's weakest animated films of the past 20 years.
"Big Hero 6" is based on a Marvel comic book series not well known in the U.S. The setting is the fictional city of San Fransokyo, which, as you may have guessed, combines the look and feel of San Francisco and Tokyo. 14-year-old Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter of Nickelodeon's "Supah Ninjas") is a science and technology geek, just like his older brother Tadashi, who's attending the city's prestigious STEM university.
Through a series of events in which the writers take Disney's trademark "main character must have a loved one die" storyline to another level, Hiro becomes friends with Tadashi's latest invention: a chubby talking robot named Baymax who's specifically programmed to be a caretaker. The two join forces with four classmates, becoming Marvel's kid (and robot) version of "The Avengers", setting out to defeat an evil, masked supervillain who's stolen Hiro's newest creation.
The plot of "Big Hero 6" is about as basic as you can get. Unlike "Frozen", "Tangled" and other past Disney animated films such as "Chicken Little" and "Brother Bear", there's no originality or imagination in a script that easily could have been written in 45 minutes by a 14-year-old. Even "Wreck-It Ralph", which I was not a big fan of, had some creativity and an edge. Baymax may be round, but this film is flat.
"Big Hero 6" can also be called "How to Train Your Robot". Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams (who each directed excellent Disney animated films, 2011's "Winnie the Pooh" and 2008's "Bolt", respectively) and a total of eight writers, including two who wrote the comic book, were clearly trying to create a relationship storyline between Hiro and Baymax that mimicked Hiccup and Toothless from DreamWorks' highly-successful "How to Train Your Dragon" films. But they failed miserably.
So, what we're left with is a movie with a very narrow target audience: 8-11 year old boys obsessed with superheroes. "Frozen" was able to balance its appeal to both boys and girls even though it was a "Princess movie". No such luck here. "BH6" will sell tickets, and boatloads of toys and merchandise this holiday season. And, because of the Japanese setting, it will be big internationally. But it's impossible not to see this simply as a money-making project.
The animation is impressive, but not overly so, and while the action scenes do look good, most drag on way too long in an effort to cover-up for the lack of any drama or suspense. The voice cast is mostly no-names, which would be fine except that none of them stand out, and except for one running fist-bump gag, there are practically no laughs. The most clever element of the entire film actually follows the end credits (and is something Marvel fans will appreciate).
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Big Hero 6" gets a disappointing C-.
Much more enjoyable is Disney's 2014 short, "Feast", which runs prior to "BH6". This delightful 6-minute rom-com tells the story of a dog who loves human food and his human owner who loves...well I can't give too much away. It's charming, sweet and satisfying - three things "Big Hero 6" is not.
Space is no longer simply the Final Frontier. Director Christopher Nolan follows-up his "Dark Knight" trilogy and the critically acclaimed but highly overrated "Inception" with a sci-fi adventure that goes well beyond the phrase "To Infinity and Beyond".
In "Interstellar", Michael Caine (a Nolan staple) plays the head honcho at NASA. He repeatedly quotes lines from the classic Dylan Thomas poem "Do not go gentle into that good night". Well, "Good night" might refer to the nap you may grab during the film's 2-hour and 49-minute runtime, as this story mulls along at less-than time-warp speed. Overall, there are elements of "Interstellar" that work, but I expected so much more.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former NASA pilot and engineer turned farmer in a future world in which the human race is on the verge of extinction. It's never explained why, but a lack of rain has turned Earth into a dust bowl (so let's assume it's global warming to blame). Cooper has two kids, including 10-year old daughter Murph. Cooper's been told that her generation will be the last of the human species, that is, unless a new home can be found.
Cooper and Murph receive a mysterious message and soon stumble upon NASA's secret headquarters (it was thought the agency was shut down), where Cooper reunites with his old professor (Caine) and meets his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway, sporting a similar hairstyle as Sandra Bullock in last year's "Gravity"). Cooper is convinced to join Amelia and two other astronauts on a mission to find another habitable planet for the humans to live. They're in a race to save the race.
But in typical Nolan fashion, time and space play a major role in this story. As Cooper and the others are traveling throughout the universe, everyone back home is getting older...quickly. And some of them (including a grown-up Murph) are also working hard to find a solution. It all gets rather muddled, and trying to follow the script's logic dealing with the two key scientific issues - relativity and (ironically) gravity - only leads to more confusion.
"Interstellar" works best in the first act, which takes place mostly on the ground, and includes the highlight scene of the entire film, in which Cooper says goodbye to his very upset daughter before heading out on his mission. There's true emotion and some very poignant details. However, once the action shifts to space, the story becomes surprisingly distant. Nolan's never able to bring us inside the space station or onto the planets the astronauts explore. I watched but never felt drawn in.
The stellar cast also includes two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon in a "secret supporting role", and Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn. In real life she's 81 but apparently not old enough-looking for Nolan, since she's forced to wear a ton of makeup. In fact, there's a lot of playing fast and loose with time and logic in this film. At one point Caine's character supposedly ages nearly a quarter century, but he hardly looks a day older. He's even wearing the same shirt.
The visual effects on display in "Interstellar" are solid (including a wild trip through a black hole - where's Morgan Freeman?), though not nearly as impressive as in "Gravity" or "Inception". The dialogue is filled with plenty of "out of this world"/5th dimension mumbo-jumbo, and at times, is extremely corny, particularly in several far-fetched decision-making scenes included to keep the audience straight on what's going on. And more than once I had a hard time understanding what was being said. Maybe Hans Zimmer's overpowering soundtrack was the problem. And I did mention the giant, wise-cracking rectangular robots?
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Interstellar" gets a C. It's epic in scale and scope, but unfortunately, not in execution. And it's not worthy of Best Picture consideration, though I'm sure it will get plenty. I survived this journey, but I can't say I enjoyed it.
I've figured-out what Nolan's next film should be: Based off the similarly titled "Inception" and "Interstellar", it's a football drama called "Interception". It stars Channing Tatum as an NFL QB looking to win Super Bowl M (it's got to be in the future) with his newly out-of-retirement head coach, played by - who else - Michael Caine.
"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" is one of the most thrilling films I've ever seen - which is pretty amazing, since it's not a big-budget, action-packed, superhero blockbuster. "Birdman" is being categorized by most as a dark comedy, though it's one of those incredible pieces of work that's very tough to describe in a few words. The story centers around a different kind of superhero, one who's desperately trying to save his career and himself.
Michael Keaton played the iconic Gotham City crime fighter, Batman, twice on the big screen in "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992). But when he was offered 1995's "Batman Forever", he thought the script "sucked", and he ended his run as the Caped Crusader. In "Birdman", Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor best known for playing the mega-superhero Birdman in a trio of wildly successful films, which made him a Hollywood superstar. But Thomson had enough with the franchise and said "No" to "Birdman 4" (also in '92). His life and his status as a famous actor haven't been the same since.
It's surprising that this role wasn't written specifically for Keaton. So we must credit incredible casting. 2014 has been a comeback year for Keaton, with small, but over-the-top and memorable roles in "Need For Speed" and "RoboCop" leading to what will go down as the top performance of his career. Keaton's Thomson is looking to make a comeback of his own, by starring in a Broadway play that he's also written, is directing and has financed. It's his final chance to prove to everyone that he can do more than simply be an action hero in a bird suit.
From the opening credits sequence, the soundtrack of "Birdman" comes from a single drum set, and the beat underscores the highs and lows of the action, in perfect rhythm with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's vivacious camera work. Inarritu follows the characters intimately throughout the St. James Theatre in Times Square (where 95% of the film takes place), sweeping through hallways, up and down stairs and in and out of dressing rooms, continuing scenes for upwards of 10-minutes straight, giving us a closer feel of what it's like inside a Broadway show than you could ever get on a backstage tour. His lens wraps around every character and every situation, from the dynamic confrontations between Riggan and new co-star Mike (Edward Norton), to the emotional breakthroughs experienced by the supporting players. And the final act is simply fearless filmmaking.
The screenplay, by a team of four writers, including Inarritu himself, is packed with witty, sharp dialogue, some dark elements, and smart, biting commentary on a variety of topics, including Hollywood vs. Broadway, movies vs. the stage, actors vs. celebrities, performers vs. critics, career vs. family, and "the biggie": the true meanings of life. There's so much happening in "Birdman", and in the play within the movie (Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", which mirrors, in some ways, Thomson's real life) and Keaton is able to maneuver this ship with such ease and tenacity that it's easy to make him the frontrunner in every Best Actor competition this awards season.
And his accompanying ensemble is equally first-rate. Zach Galifianakis is impressive as Thomson's manager and best friend. And four actresses are all outstanding, including Andrea Riseborough as Thomson's co-star and current love interest, Naomi Watts, as the other female lead in the play, and Amy Ryan as Thomson's ex-wife. But it's Emma Stone, in the role of Thomson's post-rehab daughter, who outshines them all. She should get strong awards consideration.
"Birdman" is rated R for language, adult content, drug use, nudity, peril, and brief violence. It's an odd film, which takes wild chances - and they all pay-off. Don't be put-off by the title or the quirky trailer. This is a film you need to see. It is a soaring achievement, and may just be the best movie I'll see all year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" gets an A.
Comedy is Bill Murray's forte. From "Caddyshack" to "Ghostbusters", "Groundhog Day" to "Garfield", Murray has made us laugh for decades. In 2003, he took a dramatic turn in "Lost in Translation", which earned him an Oscar nomination. Now, as a cranky old man in "St. Vincent" - his most buzzed-about role in over a decade - Murray proves that he can deliver the right mix of comedy and drama in this sweet, satisfying film.
Murray's Vincent lives with his cat in a small house in Brooklyn. He drinks, smokes, and regularly heads over to Belmont Park to bet the horses in hopes of hitting it big and fixing his financial problems. Vincent's crankiness grows with the arrival of his new next-door neighbors: Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie is going through a separation with her husband and has left him to start fresh with her son. She's a hospital tech and works long hours, often into the evening. So she needs an after school "babysitter" for Oliver and Vincent needs the $11 an hour, so he becomes the guy. The relationship between this unlikely pair is the heart and soul of the film.
And "St. Vincent" does have heart, and a little soul, but it's hurt by a story that's way too simple. Cliche situations and characters dominate the script, which includes very few surprises. This is a movie that's solely dependent on the performances, and Murray is in top form, though I don't see him getting much awards attention because the film itself is very light. He and Lieberher are a likeable pair as characters and actors. The 11 year old has great screen presence and holds his own with the veteran cast. McCarthy, known for her outrageous, over-the-top roles, tones it way down here and is genuinely believable as the overwhelmed, frustrated and caring mother. And the always hilarious Chris O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids", "The Sapphires") has some shining moments as Oliver's Catholic elementary school teacher.
There are some subplots involving supporting characters that don't work nearly as well. Naomi Watts plays Vincent's "companion", a pregnant "Lady of the Night", complete with a not-so-convincing Russian accent. And Terrence Howard pops-in for a few scenes, as part of an unnecessary storyline.
"St. Vincent" starts promising with some big laughs and clever moments. It then flattens out, taking on a more conventional "dramedy" tone before an effective and sentimental conclusion. We're left with an overall message about people not always being what they seem, and that's fine, though I was expecting something a little stronger.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "St. Vincent" gets a B-.
"The Book of Life" is Reel FX Animation Studios' follow-up to last year's Thanksgiving-themed comedy "Free Birds". Here the studio takes-on a different holiday with the help of producer Guillermo del Toro and visionary director Jorge Gutierrez, as "The Book of Life" breathes new life into the Mexican fiesta - The Day of the Dead.
Gutierrez uses a clever device - having the story not only narrated, but designed around a group of school kids visiting a museum. Mary Beth, their tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) takes them to a special section of the museum where she unveils the The Book of Life, and proceeds to tell them the epic saga of three childhood friends living in Mexico - two boys and a girl. Young Manolo and Joaquin are both in love with the lovely Maria. When she is forced by her father to attend boarding school in Spain, the boys promise to wait for her to return.
The rulers of the two afterlife worlds - the kind and beautiful La Muerte of The Land of the Remembered (home of the dead who the living still think about) and the evil Xibalba of The Land of the Forgotten (for those who die and are forgotten), make a wager on which boy will end-up marrying Maria when she comes back home.
Years later Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) has become a proud and powerful soldier, as his father once was, willing to protect the small town from invaders. Manolo (Diego Luna) has also followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a bullfighter. But his true passion is music. When Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) finally returns, she is pressured into making a choice between the two suitors. But things get complicated when Xibalba, worried he's about to lose the bet, decides to interfere, sending Manolo on a wild journey that tests his courage and determination to win Maria's hand.
"The Book of Life" is a comedy, a spiritual adventure, and a musical. But above all, it's a love story. The film moves along at such a frantic pace that, at times, it's difficult to keep-up with all the dialogue and the frenetic action. There are a lot of attempts at humor, including plenty of goofy characters and situations. Much of it doesn't work, but there are a few bright spots, including the students, who pop in and out throughout the film and Ice Cube, who appears late as the mighty Candle Maker.
By far the best thing about "The Book of Life" is the remarkably gorgeous CGI. You could argue that "The Book of Life" has now written its own chapter in The Book of Beautiful Movie Animation. The characters in this "story within a story" are designed as marionette puppet-like toy figures, each with a specific look that makes it unique, vibrant and extremely fun, especially for a young audience. And The Land of the Remembered is a visual wonderland of fantastic images and brilliant colors. And there are several basic but very sweet and effective songs.
"The Book of Life" is rated PG for some mild action/violence and dramatic elements, mostly dealing with the concepts of death and the afterlife in inventive and appropriate ways. While the script isn't on the same level as the best of Pixar, DreamWorks, or Sony Animation, the film has a big heart, providing a look at this culture and its emphasis on family and true love. This is a solid, a pre-Halloween choice for families and a must for anyone who wants to see how imagination and talent can produce the next great accomplishment in the animation art form.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Book of Life" gets a C+.
"Fury" is one of the bloodiest, saddest, and most authentic-looking war movies in recent years. Director David Ayer ("End of Watch") holds nothing back in depicting the gritty ugliness of WWII through a five man tank platoon assisting the Allies in finishing-off the Nazis in 1945 Germany.
Brad Pitt, who won his first Academy Award in 2014 as a producer of Best Picture winner "12 Years a Slave", stars as Captain Don "Wardaddy" Collier. He leads a crew of skilled soldiers: Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), Trini (Michael Pena), and Grady (Jon Bernthal from "The Wolf of Wall Street"). Their fifth member has just been killed in battle as the story begins. He's replaced by a new recruit named Norman ("Percy Jackson"'s Logan Lerman), who was trained for a desk job, not to kill Germans. But that's exactly what he's now forced to do under the direction of a leader he initially despises, but will learn to follow as he and his "band of brothers" try to play a major role in helping end the war as soon as possible.
Ayer, who also wrote the script, takes time in building the tension and suspense, first allowing us to get to know these characters. Pitt's Collier is a complex man. He leads the others with confidence and wastes no time turning a frightened Norman into a soldier who will shoot Nazis on sight. However, there are moments when the captain is shown away from the action, reflecting on everything that's taking place, possibly questioning his methods and the madness of it all. We see, simply through his facial expressions, that none of this is easy for him.
"Fury" is two hours and 15 minutes, which gives each scene the space to develop. But it feels shorter, and only drags briefly during the extended scene involving the soldiers and two German women they encounter in a town they've just secured that, while long, shows a brief glimpse of humanity during this period of evil and chaos before reality returns. It's a difficult scene to watch, with some heartbreaking moments, and features Lerman's best work. He and Pitt are the centerpieces of the film, and they share some moving exchanges. The script includes some religious themes and symbolism, which adds to its strong emotional strength. Eventually we get a typical Hollywood showdown ending, pitting the five Americans against a group of three hundred German soldiers. Fortunately, Ayer is able to pull-off a conclusion that's anything but phony.
For intense violence, including many disturbing images and strong language, "Fury" is easily one of the hardest R-rated action films of 2014. It's also a far departure from Sony's other 2014 WWII drama, "The Monuments Men". That film's tone was way too light for the subject matter. "Fury" is right on target: mature, straightforward and meaningful.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Fury" gets a B. For once, I suggest you leave the theater when the closing credits begin because they feature a series of grim, bizarre images of the war, in blood-red, with music out of a horror movie. They convey a tone which would have been much more appropriate for the beginning of the movie than the end.
"Whiplash" is one of the great indie triumphs of the year. It is exhilarating and suspenseful - daring and dark, with two scintillating performances. Miles Teller ("The Spectacular Now") plays Andrew Neyman, a percussion student at the fictional and prestigious Schaffer School of Music in NYC. In his first semester at the school, Andrew is quickly noticed by the school's top teacher, Mr. Fletcher, who is also the conductor of Schaffer's most important group - the competition jazz band. Fletcher decides to bring Andrew into his class.
Andrew has no idea what he's getting himself into. Initially, he, and the audience, think that Fletcher is simply strict. But what long-time character actor J.K. Simmons ("Juno", "The Closer") slowly and shockingly unveils is a persona of Fletcher as a man who is obsessed with the power and control he has over his students - physically, mentally, and emotionally abusing them with his relentless demands of perfection. He is ruthless in his words and actions, instilling fear in every member of the band, who know that if they screw-up they're out, and their dreams of a career in music could be shattered. And Fletcher decides to push Andrew - hard, escalating as the film progresses, to the breaking point. Their relationship is made up of Blood, Sweat, and Tears...and then some.
But yet, this is not simply the story of a bully teacher and his student. Writer/director Damien Chazelle makes sure to portray Andrew not as a victim, but a willing participant. He is extremely ambitious and cocky. He wants to become one of the all-time greats, and believes he has the talent and drive to get there. He dumps a new girlfriend, has no social life, except for occasional trips to the movies with his dad (the totally authentic Paul Reiser), who can see what's happening to his son, but is helpless to stop it.
As "Whiplash" turns into a high-stakes battle between teacher and pupil it's impossible to take your eyes off the screen. The jazz music performed by the band (which, in some ways, is a character in the story) is tremendous. There are elements of the story that push the believability of Andrew's obsession a little too far, but overall, how Chazelle is able to craft a psychological thriller out of this simple, off-beat premise, is one of the best cinematic accomplishments of the year.
And, above it all, it's the work of Simmons and Teller that make "Whiplash" a must-see. Teller does most of the on-camera drumming himself, while also handling a highly emotional dramatic role. As for Simmons - this is one of those roles that actors, especially those who never enjoyed the spotlight, can only dream of. It's amazing that the 59-year old will likely go from being the Farmers' Insurance TV commercial guy to an Oscar nominee a few months from now. He captivates the screen like a lion, ferociously feasting on his prey. The final 30 minutes of "Whiplash" is a powerhouse jammed with amazing music, intriguing mind games, and superb surprises. It's no wonder this film won both the Audience Award and Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. As an encore, a Best Picture nomination is not out of the question.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Whiplash" gets a B+.
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