Synopsis: The story of a con artist and his partner in crime, who were forced to work with a federal agent to turn the tables on other cons, mobsters, and politicians – namely, the volatile mayor of impoverished Camden, New Jersey.
Release Date: December 25, 2013
Thoughts: David O. Russell has been very, very good to his actors that are featured in his newest film. Christian Bale and Amy Adams both were nominated for Oscars for 2010’s The Fighter with Bale (The Dark Knight Rises) walking away with an Oscar for his searing performance. Same goes for recent Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) who starred with Bradley Cooper (The Hangover Part III) and Robert DeNiro (Being Flynn) in the critically lauded Silver Linings Playbook. All five actors appear in American Hustle, a 70’s set crime drama that along with November’s 80’s set The Wolf of Wall Street indicate that the holidays are going retro. Russell is an interesting filmmaker so I’m curious to see what kind of film he can craft from this material…it certainly looks like something right up his alley.
Synopsis: As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, Clifton Collins, Jr., Burn Gorman, Larry Joe Campbell, Brad William Henke, Diego Klattenhoff
Review: So here’s a movie that had the potential to be a lot better than what it turned out to be. Director Guillermo del Toro has demonstrated over the course of his career that he’s a filmmaker truly interested in the heartbeat of a film. Though his works have always been visually arresting and skillfully created (hello Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and both Hellboy movies), he’s not afraid to take the time to let the underneath of it all show through.
Pacific Rim gets the trusted del Toro formula half right with some of the most impressively eye-popping visual effects you’re likely to see in theaters now. Add to that a production design that is realistic but not overly fussy and you have a movie that would be a slam-dunk…if you watched it on mute. The problem with Pacific Rim is that it has no heart, no brains, and leaves the viewer feeling as hollow as the mighty mechanical titans that are created to fight creatures from the depths of the ocean.
Credit should be given to screenwriters del Toro and Travis Beacham for devising a clever spin on the earth vs aliens formula that has been revisited by pictures big and small for over half a century. The lengthy prologue of Pacific Rim brings us up to speed on the last decade of war that broke out when a seismic shift in the middle of the ocean unleashed terrifying creatures that go on to wreak havoc around the world. Huge in size, our modern weapons were no match for their power so the world leaders created jaegers, battle bots that could stand tall enough to look these monsters in the eye and taken them down with a vast array of weaponry.
How these are operated from within by two humans is best explained by the film itself (it’s kinda a bunch of hooey) but soon these jaeger pilots are seen as rock stars until the creatures begin to adapt and render the program nearly obsolete after a tragedy calls into question their effectiveness. Flashing forward several years, the program is re-started when a substantial threat of major invasion is predicted.
Idea-wise, the film is a winner. Even writing about it here I had a small rush of excitement because it sounds like there is so much that a talented director like del Toro can do with it. And del Toro delivers the visuals with awesome results. The battle sequences (especially when viewed in IMAX 3D) are nearly overwhelming in their scope, size, and bravura. Even though much of these sequences take place at night and in the rain you’ll be able to follow each powerful battle royale between machine and monster.
Unfortunately, the dialogue that strings these passages together and most of the plot developments are bargain basement material with little to no surprise about what’s going to happen next. Even a post credits scene is one you’ll be able to see coming if you are familiar with del Toro and his favorite actor to use (no spoilers here!)
It’s also a shockingly bad film for acting. Let’s start with the best of the middling performances. Idris Elba (Prometheus) is a solid actor tasked weak material. I’m still waiting for Elba to be given the kind of role that will rocket him to the fame that he has the talent for. As the jaeger program director he has little to do but growl when questioned and deliver a sound byte ready inspirational speech near the end that feels like a revised version of the what Bill Pullman rambled on about in Independence Day.
The rest of the international cast is a hodge podge that run the gamut from bland to sour. You simply couldn’t ask for a more vanilla leading man than Charlie Hunnam, an actor with zero going on behind his eyes. Paired with Rinko Kikuchi (a far cry from her Oscar nominated turn inBabel) the two are asked to create chemistry that not even the folks at MIT could assist in creating. Both actors provide some truly embarrassing performances and you have to wonder what on earth del Toro saw in them to cast them as the leads in such an important studio picture. As arguing scientists, Charlie Day (who comes off like the love child of Bobcat Goldthwait and Rick Moranis) and Burn Gorman seem like they’ve time traveled out of a sci-fi spoof of this film from the future.
Lousy performances aside, this is one film that will be best enjoyed in a theater when you can be totally immersed in the world that del Toro has created. I can’t say the movie will work as well for home viewing so if you can overlook the disappointingly ordinary execution of a smart set-up and nearly an entire cast of poor performances you should try this one out when it gets to your bargain cinema.
Review: Merriam-Webster defines goofy as “being crazy, ridiculous, or mildly ludicrous” and also defines silly as “exhibiting or indicative of a lack of common sense or sound judgment”. Based on a popular graphic novel from DC Comics, 2010’s original Red was a film of goofy fun that was a surprise sleeper hit at the box office thanks in no small part to its game cast willing to poke fun at their gradual over-the-hill-ness. Unfortunately, the sequel falls into the silly category with the gang reassembled for a movie that feels constructed for a quick buck.
Red 2 throws the audience right back into the middle of the lives of Frank (Bruce Willis, Looper, Moonrise Kingdom), Marvin (John Malkovich, Warm Bodies), and Victoria (Helen Mirren, The Door, Monsters University)…all supposedly classified as Retired and Extremely Dangerous (RED). It’s hard to put the gun down though so all three still get in on the occasional action, though Frank is more focused on shopping at Costco with his quirky love Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) than playing international spy.
Elements from a mission from Frank’s past pop up suggesting his involvement with smuggling a nuclear device into Russia and that’s when Frank, Marvin, and Sarah have to go on the run to avoid several interested parties in getting their hands on the device and Frank. This leads to a globe hopping mission that would make James Bond airsick and is punctuated by title cards announcing the latest destination in a redundant fashion (i.e. one moment we are in “England” and then it’s “London”)
Willis is a curious actor that seems to appear in no less than twenty films a year, many of them instantly forgettable. Still, I enjoy the fact that he seems to realize where he sits on the Hollywood food chain and happily takes the money from the work he gets. As always, Malkovich keeps things interesting while Parker instills her character with perhaps one too many layers, effectively short-sheeting herself. You can almost hear Mirren’s eyes rolling throughout the film, yet she comes out largely unscathed thanks to the actress tackling the material and forcing it into submission.
As is the case with most sequels, this one gathers some new folks to replace those that didn’t survive the first film and that’s where the movie starts its rapid swerve off course. Korean assassin Han Cho Bai (sleepy looking Byung-hun Lee, so much more effective in the nightmare-inducing I Saw the Devil) has some beef with Frank and a running gag of Frank stealing Han’s private plane has little mileage. Neal McDonough’s American assassin is so perfunctory it almost seems like he was filming scenes for another movie. While Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock) is an interesting choice for the role of a looped-out scientist, the script by returning screenwriters Jon and Eric Hoeber never gives the award-winning actor much room to breathe and the result is a stifled performance.
Then there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones (Rock of Ages, Side Effects) as a Russian with the most pronounced Welsh-accent in film history. I thought several times that Zeta-Jones might just make a meal out of the kitten-esque spy role but she’s treated so poorly by the script that she becomes yet another casualty of uninspired creativity. In the end, the most dramatic thing about her is her bangs.
Instead of the tongue and cheek approach Robert Schwentke brought to the original, director Dean Parisot instead takes to sticking his tongue out at the audience who paid money to see this overly jokey film that takes shameless product placements to new levels. It simply never finds its footing and has too many holes and passages that can’t be taken seriously. The action sequences are devoid of any excitement and its PG-13 rating means that while lots of guns get fired and bombs explode there is nary a speck of blood in the entire film. I’m not advocating for splatter sprayed all around just for the hell of it but the film was clearly trimmed of any/all serious violence to stay within its rating.
Red 2 is the most disappointing kind of sequel – one that tries to outdo the first without tipping its hat to any of the elements that made the original so appealing. It’s a lazy and cheap looking film that might make for a decent rental down the road on a day you’re home sick from work. That way, you can fall asleep in your own bed rather than in a movie theater and not feel quite as guilty. Skip it.
Synopsis: A lawyer finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking.
Release Date: October 25, 2013
Thoughts: Three time Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Thelma & Louise, Alien) is one of my most trusted directors not because he’s been involved with some of my favorite films but because he’s never been one to be locked in a box. Comfortable with drama as much as he is with muscle-y bravado action films he’s willing to take risks with material usually to strong results. In The Counselor, he’s assembled a truly A-List cast to bring prolific author Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay to life. McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men inspired a truly haunting film that deservedly won Best Picture in 2008. I’m not sure The Counselor will be going after that big prize but with a cast this impressive teaming up with Scott and McCarthy…this is a movie to get excited for.
Review: Oh boy. This is a rough review to write because I’m such a fan of Kristen Wiig but Girl Most Likely is pretty dreadful. This misguided comedy that wants to masquerade its significant shortcomings by hiding under the guise of offbeat humor is a major step down the wrong path for its star who is so much better than this soggy material.
Making a name for herself on Saturday Night Live and then getting an Oscar nomination for writing Bridesmaids, Wiig has kept a fairly low profile for herself turning up for a supporting roles in Despicable Me 2 and Friends with Kids. So in her first true starring role I expected a lot more than the painful to watch Girl Most Likely had to offer. It’s no secret the movie has sat on the shelf for a while as it awaited a distributor and though Roadside Attractions has tried to spiff this one up with a decent poster and engaging trailer, it was all smoke and mirrors to distract the audience that the film is a dog.
The movie reminded me a lot of 2011’s Young Adult which found Charlize Theron’s not-very-nice semi-successful novelist returning to her home town with her eyes on making off with her high school sweetheart. She reacquaints herself with old friends and family and though she gets a taste of her own medicine she winds up realizing the person she’s become…and making the choice not to change. In Girl Most Likely, Wiig is a failed NYC playwright still pining for her ex who, after a faked suicide attempt, winds up living in Atlantic City with her mother (Annette Bening, The Grifters), her brother (Christopher Fitzgerald) and two new men in her life. The first is her mom’s loopy beau (Matt Dillon, In & Out) who claims to be in the CIA and the other is a performer at a local hob-knob casino renting out her old room (Darren Criss). As expected, everyone living under the same roof creates some sparks…none of them producing anything resembling laughs or excitement.
Theater guy Fitzgerald comes out the best from this mess playing the kind of role that could easily be grating but is instead instilled with some heart and charm the rest of the people, places, and situations Girl Most Likely is sadly missing. Dillon and Bening go through the motions, though one wonders how they ended up paired together because their lack of chemistry is readily apparent. Speaking of no-chemistry, though Criss and Wiig aren’t exactly a part of the May-December romance club there’s something terribly off about the relationship they are forced into just because the script from Michelle Morgan says so. Criss should be thankful for what Glee hath wrought because there’s no way he’ll be able to carry the weight of a full picture based on his weak and unconvincing performance here.
The movie reeks of low-budget not only in the incredibly uneven supporting performances but in the overall look of the film. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini manage to make both New York City and Atlantic City look like ugly, tacky, dreary places to live thanks to poor lighting and boring scene set-ups. Add to that an ending that seems to have been edited in from a totally different film and you have a movie most likely to make you want your money back.
As the movie wears on your patience will wear thin as Wiig can’t manage to do anything with this role to get the audience anywhere near her side. There’s something to be said about making a character that’s unlikable relatable but there’s no meat to the character for Wiig to sink her talented teeth into…so what’s left is a battered carcass that’s not very nice to look at. Skip it and rent Young Adult instead.
Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.
Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins
Review: It’s fun to be scared, isn’t it? I know many people that would disagree with that statement but I’ve always found a base thrill in any amount of fright that I can find be it at the hands of a ghoul in a haunted house, a towering rollercoaster that looks more than a tad bit rickety, and in a dark movie theater watching the latest horror flick designed to scare the pants off of you.
Even after hearing early positive buzz on The Conjuring and liking what I’d seen/read up until it was released, I was still wary that my expectations were raised too high to get out of the film the kind of entertainment I was looking for. That all changed frame one as the Warner Brothers logo appeared along with Joseph Bishara’s ominous music and I just knew…this is going to be one scary flick. And it was. And I loved it.
The Conjuring represents a full feast of fright after sparse offerings in theaters over the last year. For my money, it’s the scariest movie released in theaters in some time and the scares it provides are well earned and long-lasting. Moments of good old fashioned dread exist in the movie that are genuine and cleverly constructed for maximum impact. Not merely content to scare you once, director James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious) applies the pressure and maintains it for long stretches of time, creating several truly harrowing sequences.
Based on the true story of Perron family from the files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring opens with a dandy of an intro to the kind of work that Ed (Patrick Wilson, Prometheus) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) do. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling this opening but will say that it plays a nice twist on the kind of opening that Scream introduced so well and that has been oft-copied ever since.
It’s 1971 and Carolyn (Lili Taylor, Being Flynn) and Roger (Ron Livingston, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) Perron have moved their five daughters (including Joey King from White House Down and Oz, The Great and Powerful) to a large farmhouse nestled in the boondocks of New England. Though the actual events took place over 10 years, for cinematic purposes the timeline is several weeks…compressing years worth of occurrences is something the movie pretty much had to do. It’s not long before the family gets to know their house a bit better; finding a boarded up cellar filled with cobwebs and antique toys that provide a few cursory scares.
Mysterious bruising, the unexplained nightly stopping of all clocks at 3:07am, and other spooky bumps in the night don’t signal much of a warning until all hell breaks loose one night in the first of many masterfully filmed passages of piled on horror.
Though we’ve already met the Warrens and seen their suburban home life (including a locked room full of creepy items from their various cases), they finally step center stage when Carolyn begs them for help. When the Warrens arrive and start looking into the house and its dark past, they discover a history of horrifying events that shed some light on the present happenings. The deeper they dig, the more danger they unearth not only for the family but themselves as well.
Even the best made horror film is largely at the mercy of the actors that are involved and Wan has assembled a crack mix of interesting actors to take on these roles. Wilson may be a tad milquetoast in the role but he never overplays it, wisely playing second banana to Farmiga. Ah yes, Farmiga. Aside from the treasure trove of terror, the chief pleasure of The Conjuring is Farmiga’s multi-dimensional and fully committed take on the role of a clairvoyant who sees/feels more than we could ever imagine. This is a smart actress who keeps us interested in the movie even if, like most horror films centered on a mystery, the more we know about the “why” behind the terror the less we are scared of it.
Just a slight step below Farmiga is Taylor, one of the best actresses of her generation that continues to take on a range of roles in mainstream and indie films. Largely absent from the horror genre since the turkey remake of The Haunting back in 1999, Taylor is perfectly cast as a normal wife and mother that’s pitched into a nightmare she can’t wake from. Farmiga and Taylor are a dynamic duo, bravely enduring the wringer that Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes put them through.
The Conjuring has no nudity, no explicit language, and a modest modicum of blood so it landed an R from the MPAA due to its “sequences of disturbing violence and terror”. There’s something revelatory about a movie earning that restriction based solely because it’s too scary – and earn it it does. This hopefully will be a perennial classic that finds its way on the shelf next to films like Halloween, The Changeling, and Poltergeist. If your spine needs a good tingling, The Conjuring is just the medicine the doctor ordered.
Synopsis: Author P.L. Travers travels from London to Hollywood as Walt Disney adapts her novel Mary Poppins for the big screen.
Release Date: December 20, 2013
Thoughts: It’s not a huge Hollywood secret that getting Mary Poppins to the big screen wasn’t an easy task. In fact, it wasn’t an easy task to get the woman who wrote the book that inspired the classic Disney tale to even meet with Walt Disney about his long held wish to bring the magical tale of a nanny to life. By all accounts, P.L. Travers was fiercly protective of her creation and it was only when faced with some thin funds that she finally relentented….much to her eventual chagrin. No fan of the finished product, Travers liked the screen adaptation of Mary Poppins about as much as Stephen King liked the 1980 film based on his novel The Shining. This Christmas tale about Disney and Travers is made by the House of Mouse itself so I’ll be interested to see how warts and all they make it. I’ll admit that only the last half of the trailer really caught my attention when it becomes more about the reasons why Travers was so close to the material…but coupled with a nice production design and canny performances, this should be a nice way to end 2013.
Synopsis: Obsessed with the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice”, a woman travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search for her perfect gentleman.
Release Date: August 16, 2013
Thoughts: Jane Austen has it all. Endless TV and movie adaptations from and inspired by her handful of popular novels and now her very own theme park. Well, at least the theme park created for Austenland, a frothy looking comedy that feels like it should have played on the Hallmark Channel over the Labor Day weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I think the film looks nice and breezy thanks to some comedic input from Jennifer Coolidge but there’s something a little lacking in star Keri Russell. It almost feels like this was intended to be a star-vehicle for someone else and Russell was a fourth or fifth choice. Still, never underestimate the power of Austen and her ticket selling abilities.
Review: As the daughter of one of Hollywood’s most successful directors of the 70’s, Sofia Coppola began her directing career with a hat trick of smart and stylish films that felt like they had a true voice. The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation (for which Coppola won an Oscar for her screenplay), and Marie Antoinette couldn’t have been more different in tone but it was evident they all came from the same creative force. Stumbling with the troubled Somewhere, Coppola took her time in choosing her next project and what may have seemed like the right choice on paper winds up being a film that comes off as hollow and vacuous as the lives of the people it chronicles.
For a few days after seeing The Bling Ring I really thought about what Coppola was going after. Maybe I was supposed to feel empty after watching the true life tale about privileged teens in Beverly Hills that are so bored and entitled they start to break into the homes of the rich and famous stars that line the Hollywood Hills. Showing little remorse along the way, these thieves read up on the gossip blogs to see who will be out of town and then simply Google the address and get ready to line their pockets and backs with the luxurious clothing and jewelry they find within.
At a scant 90 minutes, the movie doesn’t exactly have a lot of ground to cover because the majority of the running length is just burglaries repeated over and over again. To be fair, the movie starts with some nice Coppola touches of bright colors and interesting camera angles…but soon the material gets away from her and instead of positioning the arc of her film toward a certain intent she instead lets the movie run straight down the middle with very little creativity.
The lack of depth shown is frustrating but again…is that what the movie is all about? The profound lack of worth and value started to upset my stomach after a while and had Coppola given the movie even the slightest bit of edge it could have nudged the experience into the wicked satire I think it could (and wants to ) be.
It’s hard to single out who the star of the film is. I’d say it’s newcomer Katie Chang as the scheming ringleader of the group and while it becomes fuzzy at times whether Chang plays bland to perfection or if she’s just not in on the joke I was always interested to see what she’d do next. Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, This Is The End) gets the best of the biting comedy bits but unfortunately still hasn’t mastered her American accent. This makes most of her delivery funny but not the homerun Coppola probably intended.
No great cinematic fete/feast, The Bling Ring is the kind of meal that I’m sure many of the burgled starlets probably enjoy…light and forgettable with all the sauce and cheese on the side.
Synopsis: An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities changing dramatically after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.
Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Patricia Clarkson
Review: It might be easy to dismiss The East as another indie granola thriller with an activism agenda but it’s thanks to a nuanced script co-written by star Brit Marling (Arbitage, Sound of My Voice) and director Zal Batmanglij and some seriously layered performances that should put your movie compass due north toward this nicely constructed film.
Indie-darling Marling has had a boon of opportunity in the last few years turning up in several well reviewed flicks that may not have made much of a dent at the box office but upped her street cred in Hollywood causing many to take notice. Resisting the urge to snap up roles in any number of summer blockbusters, Marling instead took a more creative route by rounding up her frequent collaborator Batmanglij and gathering a crackerjack cast for her urban potboiler.
As Sarah, an agent recruited by a mysterious intelligence firm to find a way to get inside a grassroots anarchist group targeting specific big money companies, Marling convincingly gets under the skin of her character. Without laying it all out for us she shows us the complexities of the work, what it takes to burrow in and gain trust, and the toll that double life takes on the psyche. Starting off wanting the opportunity to succeed more than having much conviction for the job, Sarah eventually winds up in the wooded compound of the members of The East including Skarsgård (Disconnect) as charismatic leader Benji and Ellen Page (Juno) as cautious rebel Izzy.
It may not seem like it on a first viewing but Marling and Batmanglij have gone to great lengths to get all their ducks lined up in a row. As the lines get blurred between what side is actually doing the most damage, Sarah sees a new challenge in adapting to the way of life the members of the group chose to live…eventually losing herself in the world she’s created.
The whole set-up isn’t anything truly original because we’ve seen these types of undercover movies dozens of times. What makes The East so different is the way it chooses to present the material in scenes that feel fresh and don’t spell out what the motivations are of anyone involved. Everyone seems to be hiding something and as soon as one secret is revealed a host of new questions emerge. The movie has a nice rhythm, allowing the characters and the tension to grow as the story progresses – not everything works out like you think it will and several times I was pleasantly surprised as a new wrinkle was introduced.
If anything, the movie is recommended on the strength of one performance. Patricia Clarkson. The head of the security firm that assigns Sarah, Clarkson’s character is colored with one of the most crisply sinister edges in quite some time and that’s not something that is thanks only to the script. I’ve been a fan of Clarkson for some time but her purring ice queen is truly something to behold.
Though The East may not pop to the top of your list during this busy summer movie season, do try and seek it out when it’s available for viewing at home in the fall. There’s a real depth to the message and a skill in the delivery that’s rare to find nowadays.