Category Archives: Movie Review

Movie Review: Her

Image via Huffington Post.

Yes, “Her” is about a man who falls in love with his computer. But eventually, the fact that the love interest in question is a computer will not faze you at all. That is the magic of “Her.”

“Her” is a little bit of everything. For anyone looking for a good laugh, a tear-jerking romance, and a science fiction fable all in one, “Her” is the perfect solution. The film takes place during an unspecified date in the future, though time doesn’t exactly matter. This is, however, one of the more accurate imaginings of the future on film. There are no flying cars or hoverboards here. “Her” is on par with “Children of Men,” minus all of the random acts of violence.

Movie Review: Spring Breakers

“Spring Breakers” walks like art. It talks like art. But it is not art. It is a scatter-brained collection of pretty colors and hot bodies disguised as art. Or maybe it is art and you just don’t get it, man.

The reason I just didn’t get “Spring Breakers” is that there was nothing for me to get. There was nothing to cling onto or explore deeper, and there was even less to be entertained by.
“Spring Breakers” follows four sheltered college girls from Kentucky. Their one real dream is to go to Florida for a real spring break experience. The problem is, they have no money. So, out of nowhere they decide to rob a store. They make off with a big enough score that they can have their spring break in a state that is mostly occupied by criminals and old Jews.

Movie Review Anchorman 2

I was going into the seventh grade when “Anchorman” came out. I was just the right age to be completely inspired and blown away by a fairly raunchy PG-13 comedy. Watching the original “Anchorman” was basically a right of passage for anybody around my age. If you can’t quote it by heart, then there might be something wrong with you.

So of course something this iconic called for a sequel.

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” knows at this point that it is kind of a big deal. Hell, it even has “The Legend Continues” in its title. That means that unfortunately, like many other sequels, it lacks the surprise of its predecessor.

Don’t get me wrong, I laughed at “Anchorman 2″ a lot. It ups the ante on just about everything it can that worked in the original. Ron has many more expressions to capture his anger beyond “great odin’s raven!” In fact, by biggest regret was not writing them all down.

“Anchorman 2″ takes place in the 1980s and weirdly the characters haven’t changed at all since the 1970s, except that they like disco and are much more casually racist than they ever were in the past. I don’t know if their lack of change is bad writing or intentional, but I would like to think that it is the latter. The gang all moves to New York to take place in an experiment called 24 hour news. Nobody thinks it will work. It actually does, when you don’t actually report the news at all. “Anchorman 2″ weirdly becomes a piece of social commentary.

The first “Anchorman” ran smoothly at a brisk 94 minutes. Meanwhile, “Anchorman 2″ runs close to two hours and proves that editing is secretly the tool that can make or break a comedy. At times, “Anchorman 2″ felt more like a blooper reel than an actual film. I guess you could say almost the same thing for Adam McKay’s last film “Step Brothers.”* However, “Step Brothers” knew when to end a scene. While blooper reels are fun, even a great extra take can drag a film down.

Weirdly enough though, the best scenes in the film are the ones where Will Ferrell is allowed to be Will Ferrell. Say what you will about how good some of his films have been lately, but the guy oozes funny. That doesn’t just disappear. To me, he is as funny as he was all those years ago in “Old School” and “Elf.” Like any good comedian, Ferrell is fearless. He is never afraid to make himself look terrible, or make himself say and do things that are borderline racist. It’s okay though, the joke is on Ron Burgundy.

“Anchorman 2″ is at its best when it revels in absurdity the same way its predecessor did. There is an entire subplot where Ron and his son take care of a baby shark. It is one of the weirdest things I have seen in a film all year. It makes no sense and yet I bought every second of it. Ditto for the fight scene, which is even more ridiculous than it was before. This time, Ron and his news team face off against one of the most successful rappers in the world, a legendary movie star, and an Academy Award winning actress, among many others. It seems like everyone wants to jump on the “Anchorman” train.

Where the film doesn’t work is when it takes a bunch of jokes that worked really well the first time around, and runs them into the ground. I love Steve Carell, and there were some classic Brick moments here, but he seemed less and less committed the more screen time he is given. Some side characters are side characters for a reason: they are good to pop in with a funny line to save a scene here and there, and that’s it.

Other times, “Anchorman 2″ veers away from utter weirdness and goes into obvious joke territory. Seriously, there is a good 20 minute chunk of jokes about being blind and not being able to tell different objects apart. Come on, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are so much better than that.

Ultimately, it is really the running time that brings “Anchorman 2″ down. As I said, I laughed a lot. But the laughs were spread out whereas in the first “Anchorman,” they crammed in as many jokes as possible, and nearly all of them landed. Instead, there are long stretches of “Anchorman 2″ that are kind of dull. Jokes land here and there. At this rate: the “Anchorman” franchise is going the way of “Austin Powers”: still funny as it moves along, but with diminishing returns.

*I mean absolutely no disrespect to “Step Brothers.” That movie is a freaking comedy miracle.

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Image via Slate

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is the rare film in which its trailer is not misleading. If you came anticipating flying midgets and strippers with money taped to them, that is exactly what you will get.

Although he has dipped his toes into very different territory over the years (“The Aviator,” “Hugo”), Martin Scorsese returns to the world of crime and money again and again. Each time, he seems to have something new to say about it, and gives us another rags to riches villain to engrain into our memories.

Meet Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a middle class kid from Bayside, Queens who just wants to make millions. His ambition brings him to Wall Street where he meets a broker (Matthew McConaughey) who teaches him how to survive on Wall Street, mainly through increased sex and drug intake.

Through some successes and failures over the next few years, Belfort finds himself in the penny stock business and eventually, he becomes a multimillionaire. He begins to live a life of excess as opposed to luxury. Those with enough money are comfortable. Then there are people like Jordan Belfort, who have more money than they can spend, and thus have wealth-induced anxiety. I hate that I am about to type this, but I feel like I have to: more money really does mean more problems.

Scorsese fights excess with excess. With a running time that just hits the three hour mark, he revels in the insane behavior that took place at Stratton Oakmont and then reprimands it. “The Wolf of Wall Street” embodies the truism that crime doesn’t pay, and it has such a fun time in doing so. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a comedy, through and through, and by far one of the funniest movies of the year. This is a satire with consequences. It allows its actors to show off comic skills that you knew or didn’t know that they ever had.

Scorsese’s films with DiCaprio has proven to be one of the most successful actor-director collaborations ever, and about as close to the pairing that Scorsese and DeNiro once had. DiCaprio has never had a real comedic role before, which is a shame; he has never been funnier than he is in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” His drug-addled physical commitment to his performance turns Jordan Belfort into the weirdest kind of cartoon – the kind that will slink and slither as much as he needs to so long as it helps him put more money in his pocket. And while DiCaprio could probably make a rock seem charismatic, he has especially good chemistry with Jonah Hill, who plays his sidekick, Donnie Azoff. Many of the scenes are focused on Hill’s ability to bounce off another person in long banter sessions. He is as good with DiCaprio as he has been in past comedies with Michael Cera and Channing Tatum.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” proves that age has nothing on Scorsese. He recently said that he thinks he only has a few films left in him. However, his directorial style is as fresh today as it was when he first started. His view of the world lends itself to so many different times and places. However, it is fantastic to see him back in his home turf. Whether it is the 1860s in Five Points or the 1990s on Wall Street, Scorsese knows New York better than anyone. He captures the neighborhoods, the accents, and the attitudes. His hyperactive directing style lends itself so well to the chaotic energy of the city.

This film has been compared many times to “Goodfellas,” you know, that movie you will watch to completion anytime it is on cable. While the comparison sets “Wolf” up for high expectations, it is a fair one. “Wolf” is filled with criss-crossing perspectives and multiple voiceovers. This is Jordan’s story, and he gets a chance to try and justify himself with the perspective of time. However, allowing the side characters to comment is a sly way to let the audience know that the narrator cannot be trusted.

In the world of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” stockbrokers are the new gangsters: kids aspire to be them, women want to be with them. They see what they want and they take it. However, Henry Hill is something of a sympathetic figure, while Jordan Belfort does not come close to being sympathetic. The fact that the film is able to get this across is part of what makes it so good. While “Goodfellas” showed that gangsters could be average guys who found some short cuts to success, “The Wolf of Wall Street” portrays criminals as reverse Robin Hoods who got rich by ripping off the working class. “Wolf” is really about class warfare. The scene where Belfort and his gang launch little people for their own entertainment struck me as biting, yet sad comedy. It is about the equivalent of the scene in “History of the World: Part I” where King Louis shoots peasants for fun, the same people he is supposed to be looking out for.

Nobody contradicts himself for artistic gain quite as well as Scorsese does. Throughout the film’s run, quaaludes are snorted and orgies are had, and we get to experience the feeling of being involved in all of these. Scorsese has an amazing ability of being able to boil down the business of crime into something understandable. Sure, little pieces could have been trimmed off of the film here and there, but no scene really needed to be removed completely. There is never a boring moment in the film, something that cannot be said for most films that are half the length of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” You will enjoy every moment of what is on screen, and then question why you enjoyed something about a subject so dark. This is provocation done right in one of the best films of the year.

Brain Farts From The Edge (Minor Spoilers/Spoilers For Real Life Ahead)

  • Matthew McConaughey is barely in the film, but he still deserves an Oscar nomination. I also like how most directors seem to have given up on trying to get him to drop his Texas accent.
  • As Always, Kyle Chandler plays the authority figure. Luckily, he has more of a personality than he did in “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Plus, he gets to curse. Go coach!
  • The chimp in roller skates needed more screen time. He is as intriguing as the llama they always show backstage on “Saturday Night Live” but never explain.
  • Apparently, Belfort’s main influence for his get rich quick scheme was Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street.” This once again proves that people are really, really bad at understanding simple irony.
  • The quaalude tripping scene is unbelievable. From the Popeye reference to Belfort’s attempt to gain control of his own body, this is one of the funniest scenes of the year. Like tear-inducing laughter. It’s like a slightly more down-to-earth version of the drug trip sequence from “21 Jump Street.”
  • During the drug trip, one very long lasting shot weirdly reminded me of the hanging scene in “12 Years a Slave.” Talk about two very different kinds of struggles.
  • Something about this movie really makes me want to go eat in a diner in Queens.
  • I immensely enjoyed the scene where Rob Reiner yelled at his wife over the TV show. It is really fun to watch old Jews argue.
  • On that note, I don’t know what “The Equalizer” is, but I would totally watch it.
  • One scene I could have done without (SPOILERS!): After Naomi (Margot Robbie) tells Jordan she wants a divorce and Jordan tries to steal his own daughter. It felt both unnecessary and painful to watch. At this point, I didn’t need any more evidence that he was selfish and pathetic. This scene just felt like overkill.
  • The storm scene. Terrifying. “The Perfect Storm” has nothing on this. (Note: I have never seen “The Perfect Storm,” so it’s probably best to ignore this).
  • I really enjoyed that nice little bit of subway symbolism in the end.
  • The fact that this escaped an NC-17 rating is beyond me.
  • F***ing Benihana.
  • Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch “Goodfellas.”

Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Image via The Guardian

Hollywood loves nothing more than itself. So I guess it’s fitting that a movie about Walt Disney was made by Walt Disney Pictures. Walt Disney made a movie about Walt Disney whether you like it or not.

That sets the tone for “Saving Mr. Banks,” a sometimes dark but mostly sugarcoated view of a Hollywood story that didn’t necessarily need to be told, but here it is anyway.

In actuality, “Saving Mr. Banks” is not even that much about Walt Disney, even if it was one of the film’s major selling points. It is really about P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the eccentric author of “Mary Poppins.” Mrs. Travers (as she would want you to call her) is the farthest thing from a sellout, but she is strapped for cash. Disney, who is played here by a mustached Tom Hanks, wants to buy the rights to “Mary Poppins” from her for a film, but Travers won’t do it until she can approve of Disney’s vision. So he sends her from London to Hollywood to work on the script.

Behind-the-scenes looks at Hollywood can be interesting. The process of getting a movie made is such a painstaking process that it usually takes an insane person to get a really good one made. “Saving Mr. Banks” is about pre-pre-production on “Mary Poppins,” before anyone even knew if it was actually going to get made. Therefore, “Saving Mr. Banks” is less about taking huge creative risks and more about the very early creative process of trying to come up with ideas. However, the film never really captures the frustration of trying to get an idea to stick. Rather, it is about a really frustrating person who will shoot down every idea she can.
“Saving Mr. Banks” takes place in 1961, and is intercut with flashbacks to Travers’ childhood. The flashbacks ultimately turn what could have been a fun, breezy look at Old Hollywood into a period piece that takes itself too seriously. The flashbacks serve to reveal Travers’ relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), a man who gave her the cynical outlook on life that was a crucial part of her creative growth. While this is a necessary element of the film, it also feels like it could have been accomplished in just a few simple lines of exposition.

Meanwhile, the film tries way too hard to seamlessly transition into these blasts from the past. Little mind triggers take Travers out of the present and into the haunted events of her Australian childhood. The most ridiculous of these comes from a bowl of pears. From there, the biggest mystery of the film is this: what did pears ever do to her? Did a pear kill her father? Or have an affair with her mother? It was these questions that helped me stay awake through the film’s dullest scenes. I would have preferred that these flashbacks were shoved into the film in a sincerely messy way as opposed to with phony subtlety.

While “Saving Mr. Banks” lets the characters live, it never lets them move around, breath, and truly explore the space. Hanks, who gave one of the best performances of his career in “Captain Phillips” in the fall, seemingly phones it in here. Or at least his potential does not seem to be fully realized. Meanwhile, Thompson gives a standout performance as Travers. At first, her uptight quirks are pretty grating but as the film moves along, they become surprisingly endearing. However, there is a sense of humor that makes up her personality that one can only see from an actual recording of one of their writing sessions (Travers liked to record everything), which is played during the closing credits. Unfortunately, this seemingly funny British sensibility doesn’t come through as much as it should in her performance.

While bias usually only applies to journalism, it can be a major problem for entertainment as well. “Saving Mr. Banks” isn’t necessarily a blatant advertisement for Disney. However, it is definitely a piece of pro-Disney propaganda. While movies don’t need to portray the past accurately in order to be good, they should at least try to come close. Instead, “Saving Mr. Banks” portrays Walt Disney as a big kid with boundless imagination. While I am sure that Disney was like that, he also must have been a pretty ruthless businessman, given the scope of the empire that he created. Instead, we are expected to be sympathetic for him because he had a rough childhood. That tidbit, like most of what the film reveals, isn’t as big of a revelation as it thinks it is.

At one point, Disney gives a cheesy, self-congratulatory speech that is perhaps perfect for this film. We give tons of awards and money to people who make things up, so why do we all need to hear a speech about how important creative people are?

I might have a little bias here myself, as I have actually never seen “Mary Poppins.” I am not sure if this would have changed my opinion on the film or not. I doubt it, because in a weird way, the ending of “Saving Mr. Banks” was emotionally satisfying, even though it fell flat at the same time. Watching the whole film is like watching a good movie duke it out with a bad movie, as if it is trying to give itself an exorcism.

“Saving Mr. Banks” never strives to break new ground. It is a good remedy for anybody looking for a feel good holiday flick. It is more “Finding Neverland” than “Sunset Boulevard.” Disney’s big final speech fell a little short: he should have mentioned that telling a story involves a bit more honesty and sincerity than “Saving Mr. Banks” has to offer.

Brain Farts From The Edge

·      Having just seen “Inside Llewyn Davis,” every other portrayal of an artist going through a creative struggle just seems trite. And on that note, it is hard to say that Llewyn is a jerk (as many have) after seeing some of things that Mrs. Travers does.

·      I am still not sure if Mr. Disney was actually an anti-Semite, but I was half expecting him to yell “bring me your finest writer Jew writer!” at several points.

·      Speaking of which, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman were completely under-utilized. I could have watched an entire movie about them trying to write a musical.

·      PEARS

·      Walt Disney’s teddy bear attitude reminded me a lot of Hank Hooper from “30 Rock.”

·      PEARS

·      I should probably mention Travers’ friendship with her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). This is probably the most weirdly used cliché in the entire film. I am not fully convinced as to how this one man suddenly made her like America more. Their friendship was way too predictable to be plausible.

·      I would love to see a separate Disney biopic made by a different studio that explores what could possibly drive somebody to have such a grand creative vision. The guy was a child, a businessman, and a futurist, all rolled into one.

·      In the film, Disney says that he likes to see the world through a child’s eyes. This film feels like a child’s perception of Walt Disney. That is not a good thing.

·      Everything in her present life echoes her past. Crazy, right?!

Movie Review: American Hustle

Here Comes the Sun(glasses). Image via TotalFilm

From the very beginning, “American Hustle” announces that it is only sort of based on true events.

Fitting, as this is an historical event so complex and bizarre that the whole truth simply could not do it justice. This is where movie truth steps in and offers a helping hand.

“American Hustle” constantly blurs the line between real and fake. In fact, the film opens with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) giving himself the most passionate combover you’ll ever see. Irv’s life philosophy is to fake it until you make it. He kind of has to, as this is part of his job: Irv is a con man, and a very good one at that.

From there, “American Hustle” is like a much better version of “The Informant!” crossed with “Goodfellas” on crack. Once Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) enters the picture, the film is a manic mix of criss-crossing voiceovers and flashbacks. The two of them try to commit the perfect crime, yet they have trouble doing this, as they are not the perfect couple. That is exactly why it is easy to get attached to these people, but especially Irv, as he does not look like a slick member of the “Ocean’s 11″ crew. Rather, he resembles a schlubby Ron Burgundy knockoff.

The other characters are crime movie misfits as well. Set in 1978 during the ABSCAM Scandal, ambitious FBI Agent Richie Dimaso (Bradley Cooper), who tries to use Irv and Sydney to bring some powerful politicians down, is terrible at his job. Meanwhile, Irv’s manipulative wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is all too aware of her husband’s misdeeds. The only character who actually acts like a real criminal is Sydney. Lesson learned: being able to fake a British accent is a very useful skill in the world of con artistry.

The difference between “American Hustle” and most heist films is that the twists here are actually surprising. Leave it to director David O. Russell, who has also added new spins to the war movie (“Three Kings”), the sports biopic (“The Fighter”), and the romantic comedy (“Silver Linings Playbook”) as well. Nobody manipulates form quite like he can.

While David O. Russell is a uniquely talented director he is also fortunate enough to be working with such interesting material. The characters here are so well fleshed out that they each deserve their own miniseries. Much of O. Russell’s work has been focused around people who call each other out on their BS. “American Hustle” is no exception (consider this elegant and stinging putdown: “she was a master at passive aggressive karate”).

O. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer have come up with some great one-liners here, but the cast truly brings the words to life in a way that, well, actors are supposed to. The fact that “American Hustle” was shut out of the SAG Awards is a travesty that should have ended awards season. Irv is one of the most interesting criminals in any movie in years. As Sydney says when she first meets him, Irv doesn’t look like much, but his confidence takes him a long way. He may be a professional liar, but he just wants people to accept him for who he is. Irv is the most authentic faker out there. There was no better choice to play him than Christian Bale, who lovingly portrays him while hiding behind a big paunch and a garish Star of David necklace.

What I would have done to be invited to this prom

While Bale probably could have done it all on his own (I’d like to think that one day he’ll get his own “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”), he gets a lot of help from a fantastic array of supporting actors and actresses. While “Silver Linings Playbook” co-stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence don’t get much screen time together, they both get a lot of milage out of playing against type. As Richie, Cooper gives the sense that this guy is thinking at an ADD pace, and this is exactly what stops him from ever doing or saying the right thing. Meanwhile, Lawrence plays Rosalyn who has been holding her rage back for far too long and now she just can’t take it anymore. Perhaps she just watched “Network.” She would rather let a microwave explode than have to listen to her husband tell her how to properly cook something. It’s hard for anybody to get a word in when Rosalyn is around, which plays quite nicely with Lawrence’s outspoken public persona, and is a fitting personality trait for just about every loud New Yorker out there. When they are all together, the ensemble plays like a great band during their finest concert.

Hitchcock once said (and Roger Ebert has also cited in a review) that he enjoyed “playing the audience like a piano.” “American Hustle” enjoys doing the exact same thing, except this time it has dismantled the piano so much that the movie plays itself as much as it plays the audience. The film gets confusing and convoluted beyond belief at times, but then it backtracks and reverses until it ultimately reaches an immensely satisfying finale that asks the viewer to be skeptical of everything that just occurred. Finally, a movie that understands that history is much more interesting when you look at it from a completely different, or even wrong, perspective.

Once it ended, I felt like I could have sat through it once more. “American Hustle” is a smart summer movie wrapped in a December Oscar bait shell. Here is a film about a long con that is also one big long con.

Brain Farts From The Edge

  • I tried to keep as much plot detail out of this review as possible. While much of the story has been altered, the less you know about ABSCAM, the better. It is definitely worth a good Wikipedia search afterwards though.
  • Some things I would talk about after a second viewing/review of this film: Irv and Richie are dopplegangers; the idea of maintaining a certain physical appearance to shield parts of your personality that you don’t like; how people in the 1970s spent way too much time fixing their hair
  • I hope that the film’s likely success doesn’t create a sudden disco nostalgia craze. Please, everybody is still distracted by 90s nostalgia!
  • No matter how brief his appearance was, seeing Robert De Niro play a gangster again delighted me to no end. More of this and less “Last Vegas,” please.
  • Louis C.K. has had minor roles in two of my favorite films of the year from two of my favorite directors. Luckily, he gets a bit more screen time here than he did in “Blue Jasmine.” He plays hilariously timid so perfectly. He doesn’t seem like a typical FBI guy here. But then again, most of the government agents here are very against type.
  • Funny how the criminal is more sympathetic than the FBI agent here. Guys, anti-heroes are the greatest.
  • For some reason, I have expected Kyle Chandler to show up as “Authority Figure #000003″ in just about every Oscar prestige movie now. Couldn’t believe he wasn’t in this at all. Come on, somebody get Coach into comedy!
  • Jeremy Renner pulls off a good Elvis hairdo, and a convincing New Jersey accent to boot.
  • There are few things in this world funnier than the site of Bradley Cooper with curling irons in his hair.
  • A David O. Russell movie without any Led Zeppelin on the soundtrack. AND it’s set in 1978? What is the world coming to??!!
  • Speaking of music, there is a scene where Jennifer Lawrence sings along to a song. I will not spoil it any further, but I will say that it is a moment that her entire career has been leading to.
  • I really want to hear how that ice fishing story actually ends. But you know Richie, whatever sounds best in his head works for him.
  • “Don’t put metal in the science oven” is the most quotable line from any movie that has come out in 2013. Apologies to “I am the captain now” from “Captain Phllips” and “[audible Sandra Bullock yelling sounds]” from “Gravity.”
It’s okay, JLaw. You’re still America’s sweetheart.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

“You see Mr. Powers…I love gooold!” Image via WhatCulture

If insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results, then it is the perfect word to describe my viewing of the “Hobbit” series.

“The Desolation of Smaug” is at least a little better than its predecessor “An Unexpected Journey.” However, it still feels like a lot of filler space for a trilogy that did not need to be a trilogy.

“Smaug” begins with a prequel-to-a-prequel introduction where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) meets Thorin (Richard Armitage) at the Prancing Pony (a fun callback to “The Fellowship of the Ring”), and the two of them set the entire “Hobbit” adventure in motion. This little scene is there simply to declare that Thorin, and not Bilbo (Martin Freeman), is the main character of “Smaug.”

That may be where the biggest problem in “The Hobbit” movies lies: backstory and character development are constantly at odds. “Smaug” has some solid world-building, as the tension between all of the different races on Middle Earth is more in depth than ever. This is all entertaining to see, and it makes Middle Earth even more alive. Yet, the more “Smaug” adds on to itself, the less it focuses on its central characters. While the main goal of “Smaug” is to help the Dwarves win back Lonely Mountain, throwing Bilbo off to the side seems unfair. The Dwarves are constantly praising Bilbo for his newfound sense of bravery. Bilbo has been reduced to somebody who can get other characters out of central situations. His own safety and well-being seems irrelevant in “Smaug.”

It really is too bad that “Smaug” didn’t utilize Bilbo more, because he is one of the best characters J.R.R. Tolkien ever created. Bilbo utilizes his short stature, as if he likes to be underestimated. What he lacks in height he makes up for in courage and cunning. Watching Bilbo work his way out of a giant spider’s nest is the highlight of the film. It’s an exciting sequence that makes Frodo and Sam seem like wimps when they battled Shelob in “Return of the King.” It stands in deep contrast to the rest of the film’s action set pieces, which often come off as cheesy.

Unfortunately, the biggest battle in the film, and the promise of the title, is something of a letdown. Smaug himself is a CGI marvel, even if he does look a little too much like the dragon from “Shrek.” et, it takes so long to get to him and it almost doesn’t feel like it was worth the wait. There is a rule of film that what we see is better than what we don’t see, and buildup to the unknown makes it even better once it is revealed. However, the buildup to Smaug never feels like a Jaws effect. Instead, it points to one of the film’s central problems: it just feels like its stalling.

“Smaug” runs much smoother than “An Unexpected Journey,” and there much more of a sense of connection between events. “Smaug” feels more like filler space than an actual film of its own; it is simply a bridge between the setup of the original and the final battle that will likely occur in the conclusion (so long as Peter Jackson doesn’t split it into another three parts). Despite the more concrete Middle Earth that is established, “Smaug” still ends with what feels like more loose ends than cliffhangers.

Brain Farts From The Edge (Some Minor Spoilers Ahead):

  • Smaug totally got Goldfinger’d.
  • Guillermo del Toro is listed as a writer. As much as I admire Peter Jackson’s work, part of me wishes that del Toro could have gotten the chance to direct.
  • I really hope that Mr. Jackson takes all of the money and clout he has earned from “The Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies and uses it to make another weird sci-fi fantasy along the lines of “Heavenly Creatures.” 
  • Is it too late to get all of the writers from “Game of Thrones” to rewrite “There and Back Again”?
  • I saw “Smaug” in 2D, and I noticed that there were many shots specifically made for 3D, which were thus ruined. For instance, the underwater shots during the barrel sequence looked like footage from a Six Flags commercial. Did anybody else have this experience?
  • While I am grateful that “Smaug” didn’t contain 45 minutes of Dwarves singing, I wish it least had something half as entertaining as that to fill the dull hour or so before they all finally reach Lonely Mountain. 
  • After Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) heals Killi (Aidan Turner), he confesses his love to her. This scene is marked by some soft lighting, and the only thing that could have made it cheesier is if they played “Dream Weaver” in the background. Or if Killi had just gotten up and done this.
  • I am now taking bets on the likelihood that Gandalf will use his giant eagles to get himself out of this mess. 

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Cat in the big city. Image via Rotten Tomatoes

Yes, Joel and Ethan Coen have given us a musical biopic. It doesn’t mean they had to give you one about a real musician. Or even make the movie you wanted to see.

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen Brothers’ first film in a very long three years, is a welcome return to the big screen. It is the perfect awards season film that is also an anti-awards season film. It’s a tale for the holidays that wears its icy heart on its sleeves.

Like most Coen Brothers films, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is based on something else, but how much it’s based off of that thing is questionable. Davis is based on Dave Van Ronk. Most the songs in the movie are his, but Davis’ personality is different. This mystery just adds to the charm.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” takes place in the winter of 1961 and follows, well Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer who is just trying to get his voice heard. Llewyn is very talented and he has even released a few albums, yet no matter what he does he can never quite reach success. He has no permanent roof over his head, a cheap manager, and a former love interest who is convinced that he is the worst person on earth.

Adam Driver’s character on “Girls” would also wear that outfit.

And maybe he isn’t so great. The Coen Brothers don’t like perfect and kind protagonists. That is part of what makes all of their films so interesting: they are more interested in the people who keep on going, despite never quite getting what they want.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is damn near close to perfection, and I get the sense that it is a result of all the right people meeting at the exact right time. Isaac’s musical ability coincides beautifully with his acting talent. Justin Timberlake continues to show why he is more talented than all of us. Meanwhile, as Llewyn’s ex, Carey Mulligan serves as Llewyn’s reality check. She sure gets a lot of mileage out of the word “asshole.” Together, the three of them bring new life to old tunes, and make 1960s Greenwich Village feel so alive. Just like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” before it, you will want to buy the soundtrack the minute you get home.

Mainly, this film would not have been possible under any other writer or director. The Coen Brothers have one of the most distinct voices in modern cinema. Every time they portray the past, it is a past that did not quite exist: it is a Coen Brothers universe filled with unfortunate circumstances and off-beat, mumbling side characters.

While every Coen Brothers film has a sense of humor, “Inside Llewyn Davis” might be the funniest one they have done in years. Usually, it takes multiple viewings to find the humor in their films (“A Serious Man,” for example, becomes more of a comedy than a drama the more times you watch it). There is an unavoidable humor to John Goodman’s mean-spirited Roland Turner, and so many jokes mined at the expense of the oblivious kindness of the Gorfeins. Still, I refuse to ever call the Coen Brothers mean-spirited.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” relishes in its musical moments because the Coen Brothers, in collaboration with T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, are so good at recreating the magic of watching a live performance. Yet, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is also an anti-musical. The songs do not teach lessons or move people to tears. “Inside Llewyn Davis” uniquely portrays a performer who’s central problem is that he cannot connect with others. Watching a portrayal of artistic failure might be sad, but it is important to know that sometimes those with talent can go completely unnoticed. Llewyn is honest and authentic, and those seem to be the exact qualities that get in the way of his success.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is often so grim yet it never feels tragic to watch. It does not follow a fluid plot but rather a series of situations that Davis is thrown into. The film is never meandering or dull, especially when this dark world is populated with such colorful characters. “Inside Llewyn Davis” strays away from all of the directions that similar films would have taken. The Coen Brothers don’t want to give you the ending that will necessarily satisfy you; they want to show you the world as they see it through their eyes as filmmakers.

After watching “Inside Llewyn Davis,” you too might realize that there might just be no better way to view a film from now on.

Brain Farts From The Edge

  • I went to a screening riddled with technical issues. There were sound and image problems, so the film had to be started over. Then, the reels had to be changed manually. Every time, a reel ended, we had to sit there and wait for the next reel to change. I definitely need to see this film again straight through. However, watching it this way was definitely an interesting experience. Call this a Coen Brothers Grindhouse experience.
  • Once again, the Coen Brothers nail the regional accent, dialect, and attitude. 
  • The Coen Brothers love them some characters with hard to pronounce/spell names.
  • “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set in 1961. In the Coens’ universe, that is exactly 20 years after “Barton Fink,” and just a few short years before The Dude would occupy various administrative buildings and smoke a lot of thai stick.
  • The cat itself is a great extra character. His name, which I won’t reveal, probably has a symbolic meaning which I have no idea of.
  • That ending. Will have to discuss it further in a spoiler-heavy review.
  • My favorite song in the film: the beautiful and moving rendition of “Five Hundred Miles.” I do have to give Adam Driver some credit for his hilarious vocal contributions to “Please Mr. Kennedy.”
  • I still am not sure whether or not this is intentional, but this poster for the film looks remarkably similar to this poster for “Taxi Driver.” It makes sense, as “Davis” has the mentality and feel of a 70s film as well as Scorsese’s understanding of New Yorkers. 
  • People Who Look Exactly Alike: Oscar Isaac, David Krumholtz, Jake Johnson
  • I like how Garrett Hedlund immediately left “On the Road,” took mumbling lessons from Rooster Cogburn, and then walked right onto the set of “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Movie Review: Nebraska

Image via Buzzsugar

Watching a director who has always directed their own writing suddenly bring somebody else’s vision to life is always interesting. “Nebraska” marks the first occasion that Oscar winning writer Alexander Payne has directed a screenplay written by somebody else. Maybe the fact that it takes place in his beloved home state helped out a bit.

“Nebraska” marks Payne’s first foray back into his home territory since 2002′s “About Schmidt.” However, it takes some time to get there. “Nebraska,” like “Fargo” and “Chinatown” before it, are about more than the setting that their titles suggest. “Nebraska begins in Billings, Montana, the current home of the Grant family. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is the patriarch of the family, whether he is aware of it or not. Woody is a sad man living a sad life. He walks with a slouch and acts like he never wasted any potential because he never had much to begin with.

Yet, Woody finally has some big ambitions. While he won’t trust the postal service to mail out a letter for him, he trusts an ad from a magazine claiming that he won a million dollars. The catch is that he can only claim that money if he goes to Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody, an alcoholic who is too mild-mannered to speak too much and too nice to burden other people, tries to make the trek on his own two feet. The mission is crazy, but his son David (Will Forte) decides to drive his father to claim his “prize.” David knows there is little hope, but he wants that sweet father-son bonding time. Mainly though, he doesn’t want his life to become as stagnant as his father’s, which tends to happen when you’re selling electronic equipment in Montana.

Stagnant is probably the best word to describe what the film portrays. “Nebraska” inhabits a Middle America in which the people grow older, yet their beliefs never change. The world immediately surrounding them remains about the same in order to accommodate their consistent attitudes.

“Nebraska” is shot in black and white, which is funny because it also looks like a painting by Grant Wood or Edward Hopper. There is something very melancholy about the grey sky in Big Sky Country or the endless hay bales that line the highways that cut through Nebraska, yet there is also something defining and quite beautiful about it. I can’t quite pinpoint what it is, but it feels like a piece of Americana that we all need to get back in touch with.

“Nebraska” is a story that would not be as effective if it were told in any other time or in any other place. Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson are to Nebraska what Springsteen is to New Jersey: a sharp voice on the problems of their land. They have earned the right to say these things because they also get what makes the people tick. I could have mistaken half of these people for actual residents of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where the most important scenes of the film take place. Based on the lack of IMDB credits for many of the actors, it is possible that most of them were plucked from obscurity to play themselves.

Payne has always had a knack for getting the best performances out of his actors. Whoever he casts manages to live up to his bleakly funny vision of the world. In his first dramatic leading role, Forte manages to tailor his comedic chops splendidly for a much more serious performance. In everything from “Saturday Night Live” to “MacGruber,” Forte always underplayed and was so funny because he could deliver hilarious lines while playing it completely straight. In “Nebraska,” he manages to lead the way as a dramatic straight man, acting like he has it all together even when he actually doesn’t.

Main characters aren’t usually supposed to be this quiet, but Bruce Dern (father of national treasure Laura Dern) gives a show-stealing performance. He is funny and a little sad all at once and does so by using so few words. When he does speak, it often comes off as beautifully poetic revelations from a simple man (when visiting his now empty childhood home: “I’d get whipped if I came in here…guess I can’t get whipped anymore”). Dern plays Woody as an old man who is grizzled and bitter yet he has gone through so much that it just doesn’t bother him anymore. He is less oblivious than he is in a child-like state of ignorance. Expect a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Dern this year.

I wouldn’t be able to finish this review properly without mentioning June Squibb. As Kate Grant, Woody’s loud and pushy wife, she at first comes off as downright despicable. Then, with a little more time to talk, she suddenly becomes the hero of the story, and then Woody and Kate’s marriage makes a lot more sense. Also, the scene where she visits a cemetery is one of the funniest scenes in any movie that came out this year.

Overall, “Nebraska” is a road trip movie and a story of finding second chances in times when redemption seems impossible. It’s the holidays now. You will be spending a lot of time with your family. “Nebraska” is a reminder that “family” and “dysfunctional” naturally go hand-in-hand. Just as David is like Woody without even trying to be, family makes us who we are, sometimes in the strangest ways possible.

The MPAA Fails Again: “Nebraska” is rated R, solely for use of language. While the sex talks gets a little explicit once or twice, its more funny than sacrilegious. Come on, your grandparents have probably said worse things than June Squibb ever says here.

Another Note: Stacy Keach gets punched in the face a lot (also see: “American History X,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”).

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Here’s the thing about sequels: they are usually at their best when they are planned and more importantly, when they come at the center of a trilogy.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second installment in “The Hunger Games” series, and the umpteenth edition of Hollywood’s colon obsession, shines as an outstanding blockbuster long after the end of the regular blockbuster season.

A few months have passed since they won the first Hunger Games and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) find that their lives have completely changed. In addition to celebrity status, they have more money than they can spend. Katniss and Peeta can barely spend anytime in their home of District 12, which looks something like coal mining country in Western Pennsylvania, as they have to go on their victory tour. During this time, the two of them are basically trained to be celebrities and participate in what is essentially an extended press junket campaign. One way that “Catching Fire,” and “The Hunger Games” series in general, justifies its translation into film is that it sometimes seems like a commentary on entertainment and being a celebrity in general.

This is where the “Hunger Games” series separates itself from most of its Young Adult counterparts: it doesn’t pander to its young generation as much as it is inspired by it. Apparently, we are a bunch of brats who love reality TV so much that it can distract us from any of our problems. The Real Housewives are the new opiate of the masses.

“Catching Fire” is about what happens when the opiate starts to fade. Escapism isn’t working in this world anymore, as the divide between the rich and poor is now so big that it is hard to avoid. Rebellion is now impossible to avoid. Katniss has become the face of the uprising. The president (Donald Sutherland) hoped that Katniss would inspire hope in the people of her district; just not in this way.

Now that most of the exposition of the first film is out of the way, “Catching Fire” can move on to more detailed world-building, which it does quite exceptionally. By focusing on class issues, and more importantly the people of each district, “Catching Fire” elevates this futuristic America from bland dystopia to complex society. While the poor suffer, the rich eat until they are full, make themselves throw up, and then do it all over again. The rich people of “Catching Fire” act like a bulimic version of the French nobility.

While “Catching Fire” adds a few new characters to the mix, such as the predictably great Philip Seymour Hoffman (who will hopefully get more screen time in “Mockingjay”), it most notably strengthens its existing characters. Lawrence continues to prove that she can turn anything into an Oscar winning performance. Katniss had to deal with a lot in this installment, including, PTSD, heartbreak, and a love triangle which finally stopped being all “Twilight.” Most things in life are better when they don’t try to be like “Twilight.” Luckily, Lawrence and Hutcherson display much better chemistry in this film than in the last one.

There is also some new blood added to “Catching Fire” behind the camera. Director Francis Lawrence adds a grittier look to the film and smartly does away with most of the shaky cam. Writers Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Michael Arndt (you might have heard of him as the man who got kicked off of writing the new “Star Wars”) structure the story in such a way that plays off the first film while also being something completely different. Without spoiling too much, the main characters end up in the Hunger Games once again. In movie terms, the way in which they end up in the competition again is surprisingly plausible, so long as you remember that mutant baboons don’t actually exist.

Jennifer Lawrence=Real life Khaleesi. Mother of Mockingjays!

I’d like to focus on the writers once again because usually in a film of this scope, the writers supposedly don’t matter. However, they mean quite a lot when you are adapting a book to the big screen. I have not read any of the original novels, so I cannot speak as to whether or not they got the voice of the original down. However, what I can say is that besides capturing the dark side of this story, “Catching Fire” is funnier than you could ever imagine. It really digs down and finds the humor in most of its characters, and that writing is supported by some great work from the likes of Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson.

“Catching Fire” is a strange crossroads in the series, as it is the penultimate story, despite the fact that there are two more films on the way (of course “Mockingjay” is being split into two parts because money). While it is an incredibly solid film on its own, “Catching Fire” ends on a note that suggests that it never wanted to tell a self-contained story, as if it just needed to serve as filler between the original Hunger Games, and what I predict will be an all out war. However, “Catching Fire” deserves to be known as much more than just that. Here’s a movie where you will gasp at a dress that turns on fire, weep over soldiers that abuse people, and then laugh at Woody Harrelson as he attempts to drink rubbing alcohol. There is no new James Bond film this year, so in terms of big Hollywood entertainment, “Catching Fire” will have to do.

Brain Farts From The Edge:

  • With “Catching Fire,” the “Hunger Games” series came of age.
  • I wish I brought a notepad to keep track of how many times Donald Sutherland says “I want them dead.” It’s a lot. If you really wanted to make Donald Sutherland look evil, you should have just had him headbutt a cat
  • Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman embodies the satirical side of “Catching Fire.” Even his name is ridiculous. In real life, Flickerman would probably be a perfect TMZ host.
  • The competition of the Hunger Games itself is like a movie. All of the contestants are putting on a performance. However, that performance is real and has consequences. It’s actually pretty meta. “The Hunger Games” series is much smarter than anyone gives it credit for.
  • Speaking of which, it is always impossible to tell whether or not Katniss’ affection for Peeta is genuine or not.
  • Amongst other things, “Catching Fire” includes a public flogging. How it got away with a PG-13 rating is beyond me…
  • …but I will try and explain (at least how I see it). There is a lot of violence in “Catching Fire.” However, most of it is not shown in graphic detail. If you avoid blood and realism in your portrayal of violence, then you can avoid an R-rating. Also, the MPAA is a little too close with all of the studios. If you want to make more sense with the horrible absurdity of the ratings system, you must watch “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.”
  • How did this trend of not showing the title until the ending start? We know what your title is, that is why we went to see the movie! You don’t have to treat it like a twist!
  • The elevator scene is by far the film’s funniest. 
  • Speaking of the elevator scene, I may or may not have been distracted for a moment as well. Johanna (Jena Malone) said “something something in our district we have TREES.” 
  • All of Effie’s (Elizabeth Banks) outfits look like costumes that the Dean would wear in “Community.”
Good luck telling Jim Rash and Elizabeth Banks apart now.