Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, "Labor Day" is a romantic, suspense drama written and directed by Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air"). It's a tricky film to analyze and appreciate because, while it has several strong qualities, there are many critical flaws. Fortunately, the performances and emotional impact outweigh some absolutely ridiculous plot elements.
The story is set in 1987 in a rural, New Hampshire town. Kate Winslet received a Golden Globe nomination for her superb performance as Adele. She's a divorced mother with an adolescent son who's about to enter the 7th grade. Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith) has been taking care of his lonely, depressed mother, who rarely goes out in public, since his father moved out and remarried.
It's Labor Day weekend. On their monthly trip to the supermarket, Henry meets Frank (the always excellent Josh Brolin). He has just jumped out of a window and is seriously injured. He asks Henry and Adele for a ride and a place to rest for a while. But soon Adele and Henry learn that Frank has escaped from a prison hospital (where he was serving time for murder). Frank assures the mother and son that he won't harm them and that there is more to the story of his crime.
Clearly, Adele and Henry picked the wrong day to go grocery shopping. Or did they? As "Labor Day" continues, the long holiday weekend turns into a life-changing 5-days for all three of them - as Adele and Henry and Frank grow closer, each of them so needy for what the other has to offer.
Many may find the relationship twists and surprises in the script to be so unbelievable they're laughable. Two women at the screening I attended couldn't stop laughing throughout most of it. And I'll admit, "Labor Day" is often a little far-fetched: for a guy supposedly hiding from the police Frank is way too noticeable around the yard. And some of his and Adele's motives and a subplot involving Henry and his first romance are a little tough to accept. Reitman needed to tighten-up things up a bit to make the story more reality-based.
However, there's something about the simplicity of "Labor Day" that makes it engaging and effective. There are some intense, shocking, and heartbreaking moments, and in the final act (minus an unnecessary flashforward with narrator Tobey Maguire actually popping-up on screen), "Labor Day" hits so hard, particularly in one flashback sequence, that some parts are difficult to watch.
There are times when the film goes overboard in an attempt to add dramatic tension to an already tense situation, but it still keeps its hold on you. Reitman succeeds in making us care about these multi-layered characters and how this is all going to play out.
"Labor Day" is rated PG-13 for language, brief violence, some adult material, and disturbing situations and images. It's appropriate for mid-teens and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Labor Day" gets a B-.
"Ride Along" is the first box office smash of 2014 thanks to the appeal of its two stars: rapper turned actor Ice Cube and comedian Kevin Hart. The two play-off each other nicely in this solid, but not hysterical buddy-cop action comedy.
The all-too-simple premise features Cube as veteran Atlanta PD detective James Payton. His sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) is eager to tie the knot with boyfriend Ben Barber (played by Hart). He's a fast-talking high school security officer, and a top combat video game player, who has just been accepted into the Atlanta Police Academy. James isn't fond of Ben and doesn't think he's worthy of his sister. But Ben wants James' approval in marrying Angela and he desperately wants to become a police officer. So James decides to take Ben on a "ride along" for a day - showing him what it's really like to be a cop, and to scare Ben into giving up his dream.
James thinks Ben will be in completely over his head, and he's right. But then the two become part of an actual crime situation involving a major illegal weapons operation and the undersized Ben gets his chance to stand tall.
The screenplay for "Ride Along" was written by four guys (including two responsible for last year's disastrous, "R.I.P.D.") and it shows. There's no suspense and few surprises. Thankfully, director Tim Story ("Think Like a Man", "Fantastic Four") allows his two leading men to rise above the script - Cube playing it fairly straight while Hart (who's got several other comedies in the works) dominates the screen with his quick, often sarcastic one-liners. These two make a much more grounded and likeable pair than the mismatched Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat" and the too over-the-top Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in "21 Jump Street".
The jokes are very inconsistent (I laughed at, maybe, one out of every 10-15 times attempts - they do come rapid fire), but there are just enough to keep your attention and stay reasonably entertained. The most impressive scenes are the better-than-average, and fairly violent, action sequences. John Leguizamo, Jay Pharaoh ("SNL") and the always great Laurence Fishburne lead the supporting cast.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Ride Along" gets a C+. In less than two years, we'll be seeing Cube and Hart "ride" again, hopefully with a much stronger story to work with.
It's Alive, and it's Awful. "I, Frankenstein" is the perfect example of a "let's bury it in January" film. From the cheesy visuals, to the lifeless performances, to some of the weirdest action sequences ever put on screen, this truly is a horror movie, as in "horr-ific".
Written and directed by Stuart Beattie (who's contributed on all the "Pirates of the Caribbean" installments, including 2016's "Dead Men Tell No Tales"), "I, Frankenstein" is already a lock for many Worst Movies of 2014 lists - and may contend for #1 on the strength of its title alone. Aaron Eckhart takes-on the iconic monster in this adaptation of a graphic novel. So much for an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.
"I" begins with a "Frankenstein" back-story, not completely true to the Mary Shelley classic: In the 1790s, mad scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a creature out of parts of dead people and brings it to life. He then tries to destroy his creation (after not giving it the partner it desires). But the monster takes revenge by killing Victor's new wife. Victor attempts to find and kill the monster, but freezes to death instead. A group of gargoyles take Frankenstein in, re-naming him (no longer "it") Adam, and some evil demons soon get involved. Yes, believe it or not, the gargoyles are the good guys here.
Some 200 years later (claiming he "lost track of time"), Adam-Stein returns to modern-day England, where a pair of scientists (one blond, one wacky) are trying to duplicate Victor Frankenstein's success in bringing the dead back to life. When their paths cross with Frankie, the demons and the gargoyles get into the act, and literally all Hell breaks loose.
There's not much to praise about "I, Frankenstein", except that it's mercifully short (only 90 minutes). I laughed a little, thanks to the unintentionally corny dialogue and cheap effects. But this movie's not campy enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure. And at times it's simply agony watching Eckhart trying to portray the agony of this legendary character. The filmmakers didn't even attempt to make him look like the Frankenstein monster, who's supposedly the combination of body parts from 8 different corpses. We simply get Aaron Eckhart's face and body with a few faint scars painted on him.
Yvonne Strahovski (TV's "Chuck") gives a frighteningly bad performance as Terra, the good scientist, love-interest (and potential "Bride"?) for Adam. And Bill Nighy gets the award for the most blank stares in a single film. I'm sure he had even more when he attended the premiere.
The action scenes are noticeably tame and very low-tech, with plenty of fake flames hiding the stabbings and slicings. This allowed the film to get a PG-13 rating, which the studio must've thought was a good idea, but a more graphically violent version may have been the only thing that could have prevented "I Frankenstein" from dying at the box office, which it undoubtedly will. The end credits feature a decent song, as well as a special thanks for Shelley - talk about turning over in your grave.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "I, Frankenstein" gets a D.
There have been many "secret relationship" movies involving famous people brought to the big and small screen over the years. "The Invisible Woman", directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as legendary author Charles Dickens, is most recent and one of the best in the genre. Fiennes skillfully draws us into this story, making time and place a vital part of this film.
It's the mid-1800s, and Dickens has established himself as England's greatest writer for such works as "Oliver Twist", "Nicholas Nickleby" and "David Copperfield". He's also writing and performing in plays. He invites a colleague (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her three daughters to assist in a small stage production. Dickens quickly grows fond of the youngest girl, 18-year-old Nelly (played by Felicity Jones). She loves Dickens' work and admires him greatly, but knows he is married with eight children. But a relationship begins, which will have a dramatic effect on the lives of everyone involved.
"The Invisible Woman" is told in flashback, with an older Nelly, now a teacher, recounting her time with Dickens while she prepares a group of small children to perform one of his plays. Fiennes makes several smart decisions behind the camera, including not annoying us with any back-and-forth conflicts. He lays the narrative out quite simply - almost too simply. It's not until the final 10 minutes when this becomes more than a "one-note film".
Many themes from Dickens' classic books are weaved into the film, including the loneliness of Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol". Nelly and Charles do come together, but Nelly points out, while looking back on her life, that we are all still haunted by loneliness even around someone we truly love and appreciate. There's also a strong focus on the concept of choices we make and the ability to overcome them later in life.
Fiennes is incredibly natural as Dickens, immersing himself into this character as he does so well with most of his roles. We see all sides of Dickens - kind, mean, generous, selfish. Jones is very good, and Scott Thomas is solid in a largely supporting role. The period costumes (which were nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA) and set design are excellent, accompanied by a lovely score.
"The Invisible Woman" is rated R for language, and brief adult content and nudity. It's appropriate for teens and up and works nicely as an educational element for those studying and/or reading Dickens. While not extraordinary, its enticing story and credible performances make it well worth seeking out.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Invisible Woman" gets a B.
The original Jack Ryan movies, beginning with 1990's "The Hunt for Red October", were both box office and critical successes, and are still considered to be some of the best spy/action films of the past 25 years. Now "Star Trek"'s Chris Pine begins steering the ship of another reboot franchise with "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit", which adapts characters from the Tom Clancy universe, but places them in a new, origin story.
"JR:SR" begins on September 11, 2001. Jack is pursuing his doctorate degree in London when the horrific World Trade Center attacks take place. He immediately quits school and joins the military, and eventually ends-up in a rehab facility, where meets physical therapist and future girlfriend Cathy (played by Keira Knightley), and Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), the man who provides Jack with a new career.
The story then fast-forwards another 10-years and Jack is working with Harper in the CIA. Cathy has no idea that Jack is an agent. She, like everyone else, thinks he's a financial analyst working on Wall Street. But she starts to become suspicious. At the same time, Jack gets suspicious of some shady money moves by the Soviet government. He travels to Moscow to meet with Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) and quickly learns that there is a "clear and present danger".
In "JR: SR", there is no B.S. Branagh not only gives a sinisterly raw performance as Viktor but he also directs the film - constantly moving the camera to provide great 360-degree views of the action. At times this results in blurry shots and rough edits, but he's able to pull-off the difficult chase and fight scenes with authenticity.
"Shadow Recruit" locks you in and keeps you intrigued throughout, as the characters and swerves in the script get more and more interesting. Branagh clearly knows that, in this genre, being unpredictable can be too predictable, so there are just enough surprises and layers. The necessary technical set-up is completely covered in the first half of the film - a perfect decision because it allows us to simply sit back and enjoy the action-packed second half without any confusing twists or sub-plots. Pine, Costner, and Knightley all play it rather straight but are very convincing.
"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is rated PG-13 for the action/violence, including mild torture, and some adult language. It's appropriate for teens and up. This is a crisp, clean, entertaining international spy thriller that doesn't leave you in the shadows. Fear not, Clancy fans. No games here, just some exciting storytelling that would make the late author quite proud.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" gets a B+.
"The Legend of Hercules" is one of the first, and will likely end-up being one of the worst, movies of 2014. A beefed-up Kellan Lutz, who played one of Edward Cullen's vampire brethren in "The Twilight Saga", stars as the title Greek hero. We witness Hercules' rise from birth (with some electrical assistance from his father Zeus) to his position as the powerful leader of armies and prisoner to his sweetheart, Princess Hebe (what a name!)
In short - this film is god-awful. Lutz is the only recognizable actor on screen, and yes, ladies, he does have his shirt off most of the time. But he is absolutely bland in every scene in which he has to talk (though it's not completely his fault - the soap-opera script is written at a bad, junior high school level) and quite unconvincing in the mindless action sequences filled with ridiculous mid-air, slow-motion sword play. Director Renny Harlin ("Die Hard 2") even adds a few laughable 3D gimmicks with bad "300"-esque graphics serving as the backdrop. The rest of the cast of no-names contribute zombie-like performances to a story that makes Greek mythology even more dull and boring than it already is (which I didn't think was possible).
"The Legend of Hercules" is, thankfully, only about an hour and a half, and it does get unintentionally funnier as it goes along, which is its only saving grace. There is one stand-out scene featuring a rather bizarre interpretation of a lion. Of course the ferocious beast is cheesy CGI, but the way it moves and attacks is unlike anything ever put on screen in the history of special effects. At first I thought the filmmakers might be paying tribute to the late, great Ray Harryhausen. But I quickly realized that, instead, they simply had no idea what they were doing.
And the closing credits also include something I'd never seen before: Cleaning ladies. Those will be my two take-aways from this complete and utter epic failure.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Legend of Hercules" gets a D-.
I'm looking forward to Dwayne Johnson in Brett Ratner's take on "Hercules" coming out in July. "The Rock"'s got nothing to worry about from this "Legend".
"Lone Survivor" is based on the true story, chronicled in a 2007 book, of the Navy SEALS "Operation Red Wings" mission in Afghanistan in 2005. Director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") begins the film by showing us who the "Lone Survivor" is going to be. For those who don't know any details of this story going in, this decision by Berg undercuts his ability to provide a full level of suspense later on.
However, much like "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Captain Phillips", "Lone Survivor" is more about actual events than the result. Mark Wahlberg gives one of the finest performances of his career as Marcus. He and three other soldiers: Michael (played by "John Carter"'s Taylor Kitsch), Danny (Emile Hirsch) and "Axe" (Ben Foster) are chosen for the operation to hunt down and kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. Erik (Eric Bana) is their commanding officer.
In the first hour of "Lone Survivor" we get to know these men and others behind the operation, all dedicated to fight for their country and protect the family members they love. And there are a series of strategic scenes in which the mission is planned-out - all work to get us into this story.
When fighting begins about an hour into the movie Berg provides incredibly authentic, graphic combat scenes. Marcus and his "brothers" are out-manned, but they bloodily battle with courage, leading to some very intense and heartbreaking moments. Berg captures every ounce of realism, though the slow-motion falling sequences are unnecessary.
The entire ensemble cast gives moving performances. This is a nice bounce-back for Kitsch, who had a rough 2012 with bombs "John Carter", "Savages", and "Battleship" (also directed by Berg). All four of the leads here handle both the intense material from the screenplay and the physical demands of these roles.
"Lone Survivor" is rated R for the strong war violence and language. It's appropriate for mid-teens and up. Above everything, this is an honorable film. Real footage of the SEAL Team 10 is appropriately used at both the beginning and the end to showcase what these men actually went through and document their strength and courage. The film is not just a tribute piece to these men, but to all the men and women in our military who serve and sacrifice to keep our country safe.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Lone Survivor" gets a B.
Director Spike Jonze is known for his visually vivid films with quirky stories, including "Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation", and the dark, big screen version of the children's book "Where the Wild Things Are". In his latest, the futuristic romantic drama "Her", Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore, a successful greeting cards writer who's just getting over a divorce. He's looking to start a new relationship and soon finds one, and begins to fall in love again.
The hook of "Her" is that Samantha, this new love interest, isn't a real person. She's a computer operating system. And Samantha doesn't simply respond to Theodore's every command, in this futuristic world she has the ability to interact with Theodore and have real, human conversations with him. She can "see" him and the two can share their thoughts, feelings, and lives. Quickly this relationship grows past the man and machine stage and Samantha is able to assist Theodore in daily activities and meet his emotional needs, once again giving purpose to his life.
Now I know what you're probably thinking that this concept is too far out there and nothing more than a gimmick." And in some ways it is. "Her" is basically an exercise in how far humans can go to love someone. Jonze presents the up and down stages in Theodore and Samantha's relationship that are common in human relationships, shown in a slightly different perspective. He addresses real issues, but very little of what's revealed is new or enlightening.
Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha. Some of the conversations between her and the emotionally fragile Theodore are effective, while others are very forced. At times Johansson, who was brought into the project very late, over-exaggerates dialogue that makes these scenes feel even more distant than they already are. This wasn't an easy task for the actress - having to develop a real, three dimensional character simply with her voice. Warner Bros. is pushing Johansson for a Best Supporting Actress consideration. After seeing the film that seems unlikely.
For me the best scenes in "Her" involve Phoenix and the female co-stars we actually get to see, led by Amy Adams, who is very good as Theodore's longtime friend. Olivia Wilde appears briefly as a blind date, and Rooney Mara ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") is excellent as ex-wife Catherine, who is mostly shown in flashback, but also has a great scene late in the film. Chris Pratt ("Parks and Recreation") plays Theodore's boss.
There are some light, humorous moments in "Her", where Jonze is able to poke fun at modern technology and its effect on relationships, and where that could lead. The film also takes itself very seriously with its central story, and takes a few interesting turns in the second half. However, "Her" never wows. I never became truly invested in the characters or their situation, and the ending leaves you with a weird emotional after-taste. Jonze is able to show that Theodore and Samantha can have the same relationship problems that regular, human partners have. As for anything deeper, I'm not so sure.
"Her" is rated R for language, adult content and nudity. It's appropriate for older teens and up. This is a solid, "nice try" movie, that's both too wacky and too predictable.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Her" gets a C+.
When I first heard the idea for "Grudge Match", I immediately thought it was a winner: Sylvester Stallone (best known as Philadelphia fighter Rocky Balboa) and Robert De Niro (who won an Oscar for playing real-life boxer Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull") play longtime rivals who meet in the ring one final time. Throw in another spot-on, wise-cracking performance from Alan Arkin, the hilarious Kevin Hart (who's as hot as it gets right now), director Peter Segal ("Get Smart"), and a sharp script and you've got one of the best comedies of 2013.
Stallone and De Niro play seemingly washed-up Pittsburgh fighters Henry "Razor" Sharp and Billy "The Kid" McDonnen. Back in the 80's they fought twice, each winning one time. But the inevitable tie-breaking "Grudge Match" never took place because Razor decided to retire from boxing.
Now 30 years later, Razor and The Kid still hate each other, thanks to complications from their past. However, the son of the promoter of their original two championship fights, Dante Slate, Jr. (Hart) recruits Razor and The Kid to be in a new boxing video game. The two end-up in the same room together and a fight ensues, video of which immediately goes viral, setting-up an opportunity for a real "Grudge Match" between the two. Even though they're old and way out of shape they agree to get back into the ring and settle their rivalry once and for all.
"Grudge Match" is consistently entertaining. De Niro and Stallone get to throw both punches and one-liners at each other throughout. Segal draws subtle and laugh-out-loud moments from the set-up, while also delving into relationship storylines, including The Kid meeting his son ("Snitch"'s Jon Bernthal) for the first time, and Kim Basinger's Sally, who's had a major impact on the lives of both men throughout the years. The performances help elevate these characters from the sterotype level.
Hart, who owns every scene he's in, has a much smaller role than the trailers and ads for the film suggest. I would have liked more verbal sparring between him and Arkin (who plays Stallone's longtime trainer). But the reason this film was made was to showcase two Hollywood heavyweights playing two, fictional light-heavyweights. And Stallone and De Niro are up to the challenge, both in and out of the ring. The tone gets a little serious at times, which wasn't necessary, but there are enough comical moments (including a great scene at a UFC event) to remind me why I wanted to see this film - to laugh.
Technically, the fighting scenes (both flashbacks and the climactic bout) are very well done. It actually looks like these two seniors are pounding each other around the ring. And cameos by real-life boxing announcers and fighters help add to the realism.
"Grudge Match" is rated PG-13 for the boxing violence, language, and some minor peril. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. Of course it's not in the same league as "Rocky" or "Raging Bull", and it's not supposed to be. But it's smart and fun to the final bell, which is more than I can say for most fights and movies I've watched all year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Grudge Match" gets a B+.
Back in 2007 director Martin Scorsese captured an Oscar for "The Departed", a film that many thought did not deserve Best Picture honors, which it also won. For me, Scorsese departed from first-class moviemaking with 2011's "Hugo", which surprisingly, got some awards consideration. The 71 year old is back with "The Wolf of Wall Street", which is both wild and crazy as advertised, and for the most part, a complete train wreck.
Scorsese teams-up, once again, with Leonardo DiCaprio, who climbs mountains with his demanding performance as real-life stock broker/maniac Jordan Belfort, in this film adaptation of Belfort's book about his true adventures working on Wall Street starting in 1987.
DiCaprio portrays Belfort as a larger-than-life character. Not only does he chew most of the scenery but he literally howls at the screen - during business meetings, addressing his employees, hooking-up with multiple women and getting high on every drug imaginable. DiCaprio also narrates the story, sometimes looking straight into the camera and talking to the audience. It's a technique that's showy and unnecessary.
Following a promising 45-minute set-up (minus an annoying Matthew McConaughey lunch scene), where we see Belfort's determination to become a millionaire as he starts his own firm (along with partner Donnie, played by Jonah Hill), "The Wolf of Wall Street" doesn't really have anywhere to go. Belfort becomes successful, and for the next 2 hours and 15 minutes (yes, the film is 3 hours long) we get non-stop scenes involving sex, alcohol, drugs and money. Apparently only a few last-minute edits kept the film from getting a NC-17 rating. Scorsese shouldn't have stopped there. He easily could have chopped another hour out and still achieved his goal (though I'm still not sure what that was).
Do we learn anything about these characters? No. Do we learn anything substantial about the stock market or how these guys are cheating their clients? No. And most importantly, is any of this entertaining? Not really. And when the FBI finally comes down on Belfort, even that is dragged-out. Three different times I thought "Wolf" was going to end before it actually does (maybe it was just wishful thinking).
You can't make up comments you hear from other people in a theater either during or after a movie. Normally I just listen and smile, but there are a few from my screening of "Wolf" that I have to share: "Is the script 400 pages?" said one woman about two hours in. And an elderly couple walking out shared this exchange: "That was a waste of three hours of my life!" "Well, I hated it!". Clearly, this movie is not for mainstream moviegoers but I'll be surprised if even Scorsese fans embrace it. Like a wolf chasing its tail, this film simply goes 'round and 'round in a pointless circle, telling the story of a con-man who is never interesting enough for us to care about.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Wolf of Wall Street" gets a D+.
I imagined Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" to be a much stronger film than it turned out to be. This is a very loose adaptation of the 1947 original and the acclaimed James Thurber short story. The beauty of the written work was figuring out, through the words, which situations were real and which were not. In transitioning that concept to the screen, Stiller paints a very obvious picture of this "dream theme" as he stars in and directs one of the most disappointing films of 2013.
Print magazines are dying, and in life, we all have to as well. Put the two together and you get the backdrop of "Walter Mitty". Walter is a 16-year photo assets manager at LIFE Magazine, which is about to publish its final issue before the entire operation moves online, which will cost many workers their jobs.
Acclaimed world-class, world traveling photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) has sent the negative roll which contains the final shot (#25) that's to be used for cover of the final issue. But Walter opens up the canister and UH-OH! - #25 is missing! With his job on the line ("Parks and Rec"'s Adam Scott plays his cartoonish new boss) and Cheryl, a potential girlfriend (played by Kristen Wiig) in sight, lonely, unadventurous Walter decides to turn his life around by trying to become someone he's always wanted to - a hero.
So Walter goes on this incredible journey in search of Sean and the photo. He gets caught-up in a few amazing situations, with a little Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder in the form of Todd, an E-Harmony consultant (Patton Oswalt). The popular online dating site and the pizza chain Papa Johns get a ridiculously huge amount of promotion and product placement. Now we know how producer/director Stiller was able to fund this ambitious production.
To sum up "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" - it simply tries too hard. Right from the start (and the "cutsie" opening credits) Stiller relies on "quirky" instead of telling what could have been a compelling story in a more believable fashion. His attempt at mixing Wes Anderson and "Forrest Gump" fails miserably. And because the "real" situations Walter finds himself in are so over the top, his fantasy sequences don't work. And there are a few sequences, including one involving "Benjamin Button", that are very uncomfortable to watch.
90% of the story is obvious even before the film really gets going, and the lackluster script, which provides no depth or suspense, can't fill-in the other 10% with any surprises. Stiller plays typical Stiller with Walter - lost, confused, and needy. I felt the same way while watching "Mitty". Maybe it's all going to be a fantasy - with some great conclusion. That doesn't happen. The final 20 minutes, including the on-screen introductions of Penn and Oswalt, do add some much needed bite. And the ending is actually nice. I wish the entire film could have been in that same tone: simple, off-beat, emotional and rewarding.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is rated PG for some language and mild violence. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" gets a C.
Meryl Streep is a three-time Oscar winner, who has given mesmerizing performances in such films as "The Devil Wears Prada", "Julie & Julia", "The Iron Lady" and many more. And while she is fantastic as wife and mother Violet Wilson in the big-screen version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "August: Osage County", this has to be the most discombobulated movie Streep has ever been a part of.
Violet is the perfect showcase role for Streep. From scene one, the script provides her with long, drawn-out monologues, as an aging, drug addicted, mouth cancer patient, whose family has left her and her poet husband (played by Sam Shepard) to live-out their final years together, mostly alone, in their large, rural Oklahoma home. And it's not only in the soon-to-be infamous dinner table battle where Streep gets to pour it all out, complete with a wig and cigarette, but she dominates every scene she's in, which is practically all of them. Anger, sadness, pain, bitterness - Streep holds nothing back.
However, Streep aside, "August: Osage County" is a masterful mess. Tracy Letts, who authored the play, also wrote the dysfunctional screenplay about these insanely dysfunctional people. I've never experienced characters yelling at each other so loudly and so often in one film in my life: mother vs. daughter(s), daughter vs. child; husband vs. wife (x2), child vs. mother (x3), thrice-married man vs. fiance, sister vs. sister(s), daughter vs. doctor (Julia Roberts' Barbara literally throws multiple pill containers at her mother's physician), and even housekeeper vs. her crazy patient's family. It's a mad house!
But don't let the trailers fool you, "August: Osage County" is NOT a comedy. There isn't one single funny line, scene or situation in the entire film. In fact, it's often quite depressing. It's unfortunate that this first-rate cast had to be subjected to such a predictable, over-the-top script with absolutely no payoff. Ewan McGregor gets to call his soon-to-be separated wife (Roberts) "a pain in the a**", Margo Martindale has a few wise cracks while reminiscing with sister Violet about the good ol' days, and Chris Cooper delivers what is supposed to be a comical, extended version of "Grace" before dinner. But none of these scenes produce any laughs, only cringes.
And while all of this apparently worked on theater audiences, there is really no point to "August: Osage County" - the movie. If all Letts and director John Wells were trying to do is present a slice of a Southern family's life in all its misery, then I guess they pulled that off. A more practical reason why this film was made was likely to attract and showcase stars Streep and Roberts for Awards Season nominations, even though Roberts' performance wasn't worthy of Best Supporting Actress attention. If the dining room fight scene between their two characters was Roberts trying to steal one of Streep's Oscars instead of her meds, that would've been entertaining.
"August: Osage County" is rated R for language, drug content, adult material, and some serious themes. It's appropriate for teens and up. Even though Streep is very good, her performance is just not enough to overcome all the other problems with this film. I can only recommend this movie to people who may be having a stressful time with their relatives. If you think YOUR family is screwed-up, you ain't seen nothing yet.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "August: Osage County" gets a C-.
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 2013, 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 left its mark as one of the worst movies of 2013.
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 Disneynature 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.
"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. Both actors deserved Oscar nominations, and I would've liked to see Thompson win - she's simply exceptional. 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. It was the best film I saw in 2013.
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