Month in Review: December ’19

Happy New Year from Thomas J! New year, new decade and a new slate of movies to take in and start complaining about immediately! 😀 Let’s do it!

I’ve come out of 2019 tripping over my own damn shoelaces. Not only did I botch the landing when it comes to finishing off the Marvelous Brie Larson actor feature within the year (that final installment is still coming by the way, it’ll just be posted in a new decade instead), I reviewed exactly none of the movies I watched in December: The Irishman; The Report; Waves; The Two Popes; Uncut Gems; Ford v Ferrari; Tennessee Walking Man.

But that’s why these monthly re-caps are handy, right? Below you’ll find a few blurbs about a select few of those titles, and while these movies absolutely deserve more expanded reviews — two of them were really best-of-year material for me — I feel like getting something out now is better than likely nothing later.

How long can you keep a movie in your head before the details start to blur? If you write reviews, are you a note-taker or a no-note-taker? 

For those who missed it, here’s what little actually did happen on Thomas J during December.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Jojo Rabbit

Alternative Content: When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Walking on a String


Bite Sized Reviews: Three from, uhh, November 

Waves · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Trey Edward Shults · Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults is in the family business — all three of his films thus far have been about families in crisis. Waves is his follow-up feature to his 2017 horror/thriller It Comes at Night and in it he provides one of the most extraordinary, if not also painful film experiences of the year. Replacing the cold and lifeless backwoods of the Appalachians with the sunny and vibrant coastlines of South Florida his new film may not take place in as much literal darkness but as an exploration of guilt and grief, a testament to familial love and perseverance, it certainly goes to some deep and dark emotional places. A powerfully affecting journey that follows an African-American family through a tragedy and how they come together again in the aftermath, it’s really the authenticity of the performances you notice first. Not a single actor here registers a false note, yet it’s perhaps Kelvin Harrison Jr. (returning from It Comes at Night) who crests the highest, encapsulating both the Jekyll and the Hyde sides of his gregarious, fun-loving and athletically gifted Tyler. When he receives some medical news that’s not necessarily favorable for his plans to go to college for wrestling, he goes into a tailspin that ends up having devastating consequences for his entire family. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted. (5/5)

The Report · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Scott Z. Burns · This dour-faced legal thriller (available via Amazon Prime) details the efforts of a young and ambitious White House staffer named Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) as he leads an investigation into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The five-year process would result in a 6,700-page document called The Torture Report and, ultimately, in the McCain-Feinstein Amendment being passed in November 2015. What begins as an inquiry into the destruction of  videotapes by a high-ranking CIA official — this at the behest of California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) — builds into the largest investigative review in Senate history, with Jones both making a name for and a nuisance of himself even after the Bush administration has left the building. Director Scott Z. Burns confidently guides us through an information-dense narrative, and Driver’s stoicism is well-matched by the gravitas provided by a very good supporting cast, which include but is not limited to the likes of Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, Tim Blake Nelson, Jennifer Morrison, Corey Stoll and Ted Levine. Ultimately a quiet celebration of a whistleblower who’s name has already been forgotten, The Report is perfectly watchable though not exactly what I would call gripping drama. (3.5/5) 

Ford v Ferrari · November 15, 2019 · Directed by James Mangold · A pure joy ride from start to finish, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari does for Le Mans what Ron Howard’s Rush (2013) did for Formula 1. It alleviates the air of elitism that tends to hang over these kinds of races with a crowd-pleasing tale of triumphing over the odds. You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to feel the thrills of these movies. Ford v Ferrari is a superior racing movie because not only does it describe multiple levels of competition, the most fascinating scenes are those that take place behind closed doors at the Ford Motor Company as a clash between blue and white collars threatens to derail the company’s grand plans of besting Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. That’s not to say the sequences along the Circuit de La Sarthe aren’t positively thrilling themselves. But Ford v Ferrari really puts its characters first, and you have to admire Mangold because there are a lot of human components and even more technical ones to juggle. Like a finely tuned engine all those parts work in harmony with one another — and Christian Bale and Matt Damon as British racer Ken Miles and acclaimed American car builder Carrol Shelby once again prove why they’re so highly paid actors. The result is a racing movie that may just be one of the year’s best movies, period. (4.5/5)


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Photo credits: IMDb; IMP Awards 

 

 

Decades Blogathon — Empire of the Sun (1987)

Welcome back around to another week in ‘Decades.’ Lucky Number Seven may be entering into its final stretch these next few days, but it bears worth mentioning again — it’s been another really fun event for me and my wonderful co-host Mark of Three Rows Back. There were so many things to choose from — evidenced by the fact that no one claimed perhaps the most obvious choice, a certain Star Wars episode. Yet we do have another ‘Empire’ title in the mix though, and it is brought to you by Rob of MovieRob, who is returning for his third straight blogathon. His contributions have been greatly appreciated, and please do check out his site after you’ve read his piece! 

“Learned a new word today. Atom bomb. It was like the God taking a photograph. ” – Jim

Number of Times Seen – Between 5-10 times (Theater in ’87, video, cable, 24 Aug 2008 and 17 May 2017)

Brief Synopsis – A young British boy living in pre-War Shanghai must learn to fend for himself when the Japanese occupy the city.

My Take on it – I’m sure that most people will be shocked to learn that this film was the debut of Christian Bale who played the small role of Batman in a little known trilogy by Christopher Nolan.

This film has always been a favorite of mine ever since I saw it in the theater in 1987 when I was 13.

Bale is actually three weeks younger than I am, so I always find it interesting to watch him on film because I can always imagine that the character he is portraying is my age too.

This is one of Steven Spielberg’s least appreciated film despite the fact that he did an amazing job filming this movie.

The way that the film is shot gives it such an epic feel and I loved the fact that there is actually one scene which depicts the main character wearing a red blazer walking through a crowd hundreds of people all dressed in white or gray is quite reminiscent of one of his best scenes from Schindler’s List (1993) which he would make 6 years later.

The idea to keep this film’s narrative wholly from the perspective of a child is a great one because it gives us a viewpoint not usually seen in films.

I really loved the way that the story unfolds around the main character and we get to see how the war affects him and how he changes over the course of the experiences depicted here during this very turbulent time in his life.

Besides Bale, the cast is pretty good and I liked seeing John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantoliano and even spotting a young Ben Stiller as a prisoner in the POW Camp, but Bale is able to carry this whole film all by himself which shows us that even at such an early stage that big things were in store for this young actor.

My favorite part of this film tho is the music which was composed by John Williams which also helps give this film an epic feel.  In addition the song ‘Suo Gan’ is among my all time favorite musical pieces in a film.

Check them both out here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NY_v93S_Xfg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU0yI2ugvgA

Bottom Line  Excellent portrayal of the depiction of war from the perspective of a young child.  Loved the way that the story unfolds around the main character and how we get to see how he changes based on his experiences during this turbulent time of his life.  The cast is pretty good, but the fact that Christian Bale carries this film all by himself shows how much of a future he would have in the industry.  My favorite part of this film tho is the music which is spectacularly done by John Williams.  Spielberg does a great job giving this film the epic feel that it deserves.  Highly Recommended!

MovieRob’s Favorite Trivia – About almost halfway through the film, Jim is taken to Basie’s den in the internment camp and the window behind him looks suspiciously like the window the Emperor sat in front of in the Death Star (while watching the Rebel Alliance take down the shield generators on Endor) in Return of the Jedi. Basie is even seated in a chair on the left-side of the frame in one shot with Jim on the right side, lower, similar to the placement of the Emperor/Luke and Basie’s “guards” leave when Jim enters the room. Since Spielberg and Lucas are close friends, it seems evident this was a nod to Star Wars suggesting that Basie is the Emperor of the internment camp. (From IMDB)

Rating – Oscar Worthy (9/10)


Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com

Knight of Cups

'Knight of Cups' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Terrence Malick

Directed by: Terrence Malick

The cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick continues in his cryptic Knight of Cups, an offering that may well epitomize everything his admirers adore and everything detractors feel scorned by for not ‘getting.’

I know how pretentious that sounds but truth is I land squarely in the middle when it comes to both understanding and appreciating his work.

I don’t know what he was like pre-Tree of Life but admittedly I was more ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ over the visual grandeur rather than being pulled in to deep meditative thought (as I was probably supposed to be). And then To the Wonder came out and the same thing happened: I struggled mightily to relate to the relationship woes and the characters involved but the cinematography once more seduced me.

So when it started happening a third time during Knight of Cups, an experience I’d liken to hypnosis rather than just another trip to the movie theater, I had to wonder: is it enough to think highly of a movie just based on how it looks and how the aesthetics make me feel? (And I ought to differentiate that from how the product as a whole makes me feel.) What does that say about me? What does it say about the film? How can I like something without first understanding it?

It might help to first gain a general understanding of what Malick is basing his latest evocatively-titled production on. The Knight of Cups is one of many tarot cards — played in 15th Century European card games, now more commonly used by mystics to predict outcomes as related to divine intervention — and is considered the “most feminine of all the knight [cards],” representing someone very much attuned to their own emotions and intuition. (Here’s where the comparisons between the two knights Christian Bale has now played abruptly end. Although, interestingly enough, both turn out to be fairly broken men who struggle to relate to or even interact with others.)

In what can only be described as an incredibly introspective performance — most of what little dialogue he has is restricted to ethereal voiceovers while his physical being drifts nomadically between the bright lights of L.A. and the people-free sprawl of Elsewhere, California — Bale’s introduced as a shell of a man searching for love and true contentment in a world where the only thing that matters is what you see on the surface. He plays a screenwriter named Rick, a man so lost within himself no one, including his crazy father (Brian Dennehy), his lonely brother (Wes Bentley) and a slew of beautiful women, can awaken him from his stupor.

In case you’re wondering — no, it’s not as simple as finding the handsome prince (or in this case, the beautiful princess) and having a simple kiss break the spell. Sleeping Beauty this ain’t.

Knight of Cups starts out pretty lethargically but then starts to spite even the most patient viewer’s best efforts to adapt, the deliberately disorienting nonlinearity as Malick-y as it gets. It’s a journey into the psyche of a man who seems to have it all but finds very little comfort in his abundant material possessions. To complicate matters further, we don’t really get any context clues about the genesis of his misery. (As if this was ever going to be an easily relatable character anyway.) Rick’s had a successful career, evidenced by his upscale apartment in the glitzy downtown area. He has access to all the swanky parties, a byproduct of his connection to a superficial industry.

A rare insight comes at the very beginning, where we’re informed via a deeply-voiced, god-like narrator that Rick has recently suffered something of a fall from grace, some internal pain that has created a numbness to not only the life he leads but to the world in general. Of course, Malick prefers the metaphorical (I can appreciate that about him): we’re actually told the knight has fallen from his horse and lost his cup. That he no longer acts as though he realizes he is a Prince, and that his privileges are vast but constantly fleeting.

We watch as he tries desperately to reconnect with the world that is simultaneously at his feet and in constant motion, either away from or around him. Well, it’s more like we watch the revolving door of women interact, or attempt to interact, with a distant Rick as they come and go in a series of vignettes that simultaneously bemuse and bewitch. Delia (Imogen Poots), the first girl we sort of get to know, is a playful, adventurous ball of energy who disappears as quickly as she appears in Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving frame. We later meet the quieter, gentler Isabel (Isabel Lucas) and later still a fun-loving stripper played by Teresa Palmer. Of all the women we see him with it’s his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) who seems to leave the most lasting impression. That is until we meet Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a girl who comes in to the story later but with whom he’s been earlier in his life and whom he has apparently wronged egregiously.

It’s his many escapades with women, be they in his apartment or on sun-kissed beaches, that save Knight of Cups from being totally devoid of structure, and thus from being totally free-form and inaccessible (not unlike this unfocused review). It’s divided into eight chapters, all of which bear the names of other tarot cards, minus the closing chapter — ‘Freedom’ — and a prologue. While the titles seem to make sense, the material contained within each set vary from slightly random to downright inexplicable: watching a kaleidoscopic frame of a girl doused in black paint means little to me even if it looks really cool. Then, the repetition begins to set in. Dare I say it, a sense of fatigue. Even if Lubezki’s serene camerawork creates the kind of imagery you can only dream in, there’s little hiding the fact Malick is dealing in a narrative that’s no denser than a piece of paper.

Because the objective — I think — is to coax the audience into the same head space the protagonist is damned to, Malick has the unenviable task of emphasizing the psychological process of internalizing thoughts and feelings we generate in response to daily interactions with the world. In other words, he has to rely heavily on highly abstract concepts to do much of the steering. Things like longing for a way to mend the wounds his brother and his father share after the death of another family member, or a way to make himself feel love rather than being motivated by the idea of love. Very little of that translates to something that viewers can consume on a visual or aural level. Hence my spending large chunks of the film somewhat detached, mesmerized almost exclusively by Chivo’s consistency behind the lens.

Seriously. It’s like the guy didn’t just recently win his third consecutive Academy Award.

Malick might be a genius. Paired with the record-breaking Chivo, he’s a force to be reckoned with even though the man needs perhaps more help than any working director today in bringing his unusually high-concept visions to life. But he also might be crazy. Many say the two are inextricably linked — the gap between creativity and sanity seemingly widening the higher up the ladder of creativity you climb. I’m more comfortable describing Knight of Cups as a crazy leap of faith taken on his part, requiring so much of his audience while giving them so little to work with on any sort of practical level.

So in the end . . . was it third time’s a charm with Knight of Cups? For me it certainly wasn’t. This is perhaps the most alienated I’ve felt by his directorial approach but I also left the theater lost in thought about the world outside of that very building. I was accounting for my physical presence for a much longer time than was really necessary. I might have been talking to myself. I can’t decide if what happened to me in the aftermath made any sense or if that just makes me sound crazy but I do know it is such a rare thing to come out of a movie and keep thinking about it long after you’re back home. Even if those thoughts ultimately leave you exasperated.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 10.51.50 PM

Recommendation: One of the infamously strange Terrence Malick’s strangest and least satisfying efforts, Knight of Cups is a tough sell to anyone unfamiliar with the name. In fact it’s been a pretty tough sell to anyone, even those Malick fanatics. (Are there many of those?) Consider yourself a fan of abstract filmmaking? Signing up for this wouldn’t be the worst thing you could do but word on the street is there’s another Malick offering coming right down the pipe this year so it might be best to wait for something even MORE new and even MORE shiny.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “You think when you reach a certain age things will start making sense, and you find out that you are just as lost as you were before. I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Because Oscar Said So: Best Supporting Actor Nominees

BOSS - best actor nominees feature image

Because Oscar Said So (B.O.S.S. for short) is yet another first for this blog. In years past I haven’t spent much time going into detail about the major categories recognized at the Oscars ceremony, particularly the official selections as quite often I find myself at odds with the Academy’s choices. Longtime readers of the site know that I like to take matters into my own hands by putting together a mock awards ceremony, a post in which I overwhelm my poor readers with my ramblings on break down several different aspects of the year in film. If you’ve yet to come across The Digibread Awards, you can click here to find out what’s up with all of that.

When it comes to my reaction to the official recognition of achievement in the acting categories, this year has been a little different as I’ve found myself agreeing with an unusually high percentage of the names that have made the Oscar’s shortlist, and now I would like to offer some thoughts on the subject; hence, B.O.S.S. This two-part post shall manifest as Thomas J’s coverage of outstanding achievements in a supporting role for the year 2015. Why the supporting roles, you ask? Great question.

While I made a concerted effort to see as many films as I could where the odds of making an appearance at the Oscars in February were very much in their favor, I wasn’t entirely successful and therefore I can’t comment on every lead performance that’s been nominated. (Missing from my list is Charlotte Rampling’s Kate Mercer in 45 Years, and Brie Larson’s “Ma” in Room.) That’s a major motivation to look to other categories.Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in 'Creed'

Secondly, I find the supporting role category needs a stronger cheering section. There’s almost no comparison between the amount of recognition headlining names get versus those of supporting players. And yet, when it comes right down to it, preparation for each type of role is far more comparable — particularly when supporting parts become so substantial that the line between ‘lead’ and ‘support’ begins to truly blur. However, with prestigious lists like the ones we have this year, perhaps the tide is slowly changing. Names like Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Sylvester Stallone are so large you’d be forgiven for assuming these are the film’s major stars . . but in these cases, they are indeed taking a backseat to other talent, or at the very least they’re willing to share the spotlight. The relative humility is refreshing.

Basic (read: compulsory or less memorable) supporting roles offer, if nothing else, structure to a given story. Strong support affords emotional balance (or occasionally the lack thereof) and perspective; superior actors know how to interact with more prominent characters, while lending both depth to the environment (be it fictitious or real) and credibility to the story being told. Fulfilling a supporting role doesn’t necessarily mean one has an easier task ahead of them than a lead, though. Often it can be a thankless proposition, with a variety of factors playing host to challenges both large and small, including, but certainly not limited to significant physical, emotional and psychological transformations. Actors take on these assignments and the research necessary to bring the characters to life, all while knowing they’re not going to be receiving the level of attention some of their colleagues undoubtedly will.

Rare are the productions that don’t require supporting parts to occupy screen space in some way, shape or form; only two films come to mind in the past several years (that I’ve reviewed, anyway) in which a single actor was called upon to carry the entire film. Those films, Locke and All is Lost, are rare exceptions — low budget but ultimately high risk productions. But if done well, these can be incredibly effective.

When it comes to this crop of nominees, there seems to be a movement towards bigger, stronger, more popular casting and films like Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant — the former a dramatic comedy centered around the collapse of the housing and credit bubble of 2008, the latter a brooding take on life on the frontier in 19th century America — epitomize star-studded casts.

Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in 'Spotlight'

Christian Bale has been selected for his contributions to the energetic but awkward financial flick, playing hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who is one of the first to point out the instability of subprime mortgage loans circa 2005. The role is a completely different beast for Bale who has spent a lifetime putting on dramatic disguises and turning in powerful performance after powerful performance. He’s nearly unrecognizable in  a role this casual; the portrayal of a man who prefers to listen to death metal while at work, and parading around the office without shoes on.

Tom Hardy (who happens to be the star of that one-man road show Locke), on the other hand, cranks up the intensity with his portrayal of 19th Century fur trapper John Fitzgerald. He manifests as The Revenant‘s primary antagonist and conveys open hostility from the word ‘go.’ The man is ferocious in a film that demands a lot from its actors. In fact he’s so good the Academy likely is going to find a way to deny Leo once more, stripping him of the Best Leading Actor trophy and bestowing it upon the native Londoner. It would be a move that would surprise very few.

Sylvester Stallone makes a triumphant return to glory, reinvesting in his iconic Rocky Balboa but this time with an entirely different energy and sense of purpose. Here’s a supporting role that has already garnered a Golden Globe and a global standing ovation for the Rocky we have come to know and love has matured into his latter years with uncommon grace, providing a mentor figure that most sports films require, only this one is far more believable than any other that have come before. I suppose it helps that Stallone has lost none of his imposing physique. Sure, he’s older but the guy is still a massive screen presence and the material surrounding him elevates a performance with gravitas already built in.

There are quieter, more humbled performances lying in wait this year as well. Mark Ruffalo and Mark Rylance turn in tremendous work with their respective contributions to fact-based stories Spotlight and Bridge of Spies. Whereas the former focused on the troubling investigation into the molestation of children at the hands of Boston-area priests, the latter finds Steven Spielberg once more tapping into the history books as a source of inspiration. Spies revolves around the tensions between American and Russian diplomacy, when a suspected Communist spy is arrested in New York only to be represented by insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); meanwhile, an American pilot is downed over Russian soil, leading to a protracted set of negations and creating a drama that resembles a high-stakes chess match.

Of all the nominees this year it’s Ruffalo who is most likely to go home empty-handed this year as in my opinion his work isn’t all that distinguishable from his co-stars — and that’s a very, very good thing. His Michael Rezendes, a contributing reporter to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, epitomizes actors sharing in the burden of absorbing an information-dense and conceptually rich script. The work from the others (Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James) is just as outstanding, and it seems odd to single out any of the actors if the entire cast can’t take the stage in February. (Of course, I realize the fantasy of that argument. The Academy isn’t exactly fair.)

Rylance is subtle and graceful as the suspected Communist, casting a shadow that’s nearly as long as that of the legendary Tom Hanks. He’s not too shabby for an actor who has worked most of his life in theater, and this relative break-out performance is one not to be missed by anyone who has typically got along well with the Spielbergian brand. Never mind the fact political movies always seem to curry favor with critics, it’s quite possible we have a  dark horse in our midst with his restrained, brilliantly nuanced performance. Sweating over whether he’s a lock seems to be both a waste of time and energy, though. Would it help?

Ultimately the call isn’t mine to make. It isn’t up to any of us to decide; it’s up to whoever happens to be announcing the winner on stage in the Dolby Theater. And for anyone watching on, we just have to trust that the name that echoes throughout that auditorium, is the same name that’s written on the index card. Sure, the popular vote counts for a lot, but if it has taken Leo this long to get to a place where he seems like a shoe-in for Best Actor in a Leading Role, I’m prepared for all kinds of surprises. The argument that the Oscars are rigged is a bit overblown but there’s no doubt the politicization of the whole thing is very much a reality we have to deal with. Who really ought to go home with the trophy? That’s another great question, to which I can only respond: it’s whoever’s name gets called on that fateful night.

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in 'Bridge of Spies'

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Photo credits: http://www.variety.com; http://www.cinemablend.com; http://www.ew.com; http://www.ftw.usatoday.com; http://www.moviescopemag.com; http://www.tvguide.com; http://www.zimbio.com; http://www.dailymail.co.uk; http://www.cineplex.com

The Big Short

The Big Short movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Adam McKay; Charles Randolph 

Directed by: Adam McKay

When it was announced Adam McKay would be putting his comedic muse Will Ferrell in time out so he could make a film not only steeped in but specifically commenting on the 2008 financial crisis (and the events that precipitated it), I knew there could only be two possible outcomes.

This was boom or bust. The Big Short was either going to be an exciting new direction for the guy who gave us a NASCAR driver with two first names and the Channel 4 News Team    . . . or it was going to be an unbearable misfire, proving the limitations of a director who likes to keep things casual.

It turns out I was wrong. There was actually a third option, a middle ground — the dreaded ‘it was just okay’ territory where you’re not sure whether what you’ve just watched is something you’re going to care about by the time you get to your car. But The Big Short lingers in the mind for at least that long because you just can’t shake the weirdness. It is a weird experience; I mean, really weird. Not in a Rocky Horror Picture Show or Guillermo Del Toro kind of way, where weirdness is beneficial, even a signature.

It’s a film in which weirdness is just off-putting. Events are rooted very much in dramatic realism but tonally McKay prefers going for that whole meta ‘breaking the fourth wall’ thing that made Scorsese’s commentary on the wealth of Wall Street a couple of years ago oh so much fun. He douses character dialogue and interaction with an arrogance that would make Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby proud. And, okay, even Jordan Belfort. Key players are more caricatures than characters and they’re this way because McKay doesn’t want to be lecturing audiences with characters who aren’t fun and in that way, relatable.

It’s a film where strippers lament having to pay multiple mortgages and Ryan Gosling can almost pull off the fake tan and hairstyle á la Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. Christian Bale doesn’t have the gut or the really bad wig this time around though.

Working from a script written by Charles Randolph and himself, one based upon Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name, McKay zeroes in on three groups of finance geeks who predict the destabilization and eventual collapse of the national and global economy several years in advance, paying special attention to the precarious state of subprime mortgage loans. The borrowing of money was an issue further compounded by big banks’ frivolous selling of what are known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), ways of bundling together poor loans in a package those banks would sell to their investors as a way of transferring any responsibility of debt repayment.

Those key players probably could use some sort of introduction. There’s the eccentric Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) who is first seen in the film doing his homework on the health of the housing market in 2005. He’s the guy who realizes he too could profit immensely off of the blindness (or is it just ignorance?) of suits who don’t realize how faulty their investments actually are. He also doesn’t wear shoes in his office and blares loud music whenever he’s crunching numbers.

Sometime later a slithery, opportunistic investor named Jared Vennett (Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s idea and, realizing just how right he is, wants in. Vennett smells blood in the water and taps stock traders like Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join in on the action. Carell colors Baum as a self-righteous, idealistic man who’s cynical so far beyond his years the question has to be asked: what are you still doing here on Wall Street? His wife Cynthia (Marisa Tomei) repeatedly tells him he shouldn’t try to fix every problem in the world. Baum experiences a crisis of conscience when he realizes how much money there is to be made off of the greedy bankers’ investments, and also realizing the parallels between that reality and the white collar crimes that have been perpetrated to create this entire mess.

There are also two young hot shots who discover the credit bubble and are eager to gain from it. Otherwise . . . it’s back to living at home with mom! Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are seeking a way to establish their own names so they enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) — this is the wizened old fool who has been sickened by corporate greed and has sworn off of the trade — to help them short up (a.k.a. buy bonds cheap now to sell them for profit later) several high profile accounts.

I know, doesn’t this movie sound like so much fun? It is a credit to McKay and his entire crew that The Big Short maintains any semblance of energy whatsoever, as the story becomes far more bogged down by industry jargon than by the emotions this still raw subject matter is liable to generate in viewers.

Setting aside the inherent complexities of the story, The Big Short is just too much. It’s information overload, and on top of that it’s a whole lot of opinion flying in from all directions. Gosling’s character is entirely condescending and annoying — even more so than the dictionary definitions we must read occasionally on screen (McKay knows most people would be lost without them). Carell is a nervous wreck who challenges his own Michael Scott for most grating characters he’s ever played. Performances are otherwise, for the most part, not all that notable.

Somewhere buried deep inside this hodgepodge of statistics, dramatic license and comedic interplay there is genius. McKay embraces a challenging story with confidence that can’t be ignored, but just as unavoidable is the fact his dramedy is about as strange a concoction as I had presumed it would be, what with a cast that it is essentially split 50-50 in terms of comedic and dramatic talent. If you want to talk about big bailouts, The Big Short definitely benefits from its high-profile personnel.

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Recommendation: An odd and mostly unsatisfying blend of comedy and dramatic realism, The Big Short could very well divide the Adam McKay faithful as it doesn’t quite offer the memorably quotable scripts from times past, but it does suggest the man can do more than just provide a couple of comedians a line-o-rama for 90-plus minutes. Fact-based story is ultimately bogged down by jargon and dizzying editing that makes the whole thing kind of a headache. Disappointing. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is strictly prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Decades Blogathon – Batman Begins (2005)

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They say all fun has to come to an end sometime. Here we are at the end of the first ever Decades Blogathon and I know Mark has said it already, but I would just like to reiterate how much fun it’s been getting to read everyone’s contributions and seeing the variety with regards not only to genre but to the years in which they came out. It’s been a great time, and Mark and I thank you for participating. We hope to be back next year with another version. Let’s round out this year’s version with a look at 2005’s reboot of Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

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Release: June 15, 2005

[Theater]

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

From Wikipedia: [Batman Forever‘s] tone is significantly different from the previous installments, becoming more family-friendly since Warner Bros. considered that the previous film, Batman Returns (1992), failed to outgross its predecessor due to parent complaints about the film’s violence and dark overtones.

Poor Joel Schumacher. Pressured by an industry where — not unlike many others — the bottom line is defined by the dollar bill, he was only trying to expose Bob Kane (and yes, Bill Finger)’s creation to broader audiences. Unfortunately (and naturally) in so doing, he lost the trust of more than a few of the long-been faithfuls. Though everyone regards the variations on cape and cowl as a singular symbol of hope for a city desperately needing it, very few are likely to conjure images of Val Kilmer in the process. Michael Keaton is to this day more often than not understood to be that presence lurking in the shadows, occupying the space between hero and antihero.

How to explain the 2005 re-boot? How do we go from Batman and Robin to Batman Begins? And how did they do it without coaxing Keaton back? Batman Begins, representing a heightened sense of thematic and literal darkness, is on one level a natural progression of a long-running story. Other proposed continuations of the saga (what about a Batman Triumphant, or perhaps Batman: DarKnight?), looking back now, just don’t feel . . . right. On another level, Batman Begins is highly memorable cinema independent of the legacy preceding it throughout the decades.

Call it a culmination, call it enigmatic, call it what you want. Me? I call this film the best thing Christopher Nolan has ever done. He may be a filmmaker by title but what Nolan really is is a magician. Wave a little magic wand and presto! Memories of a family-friendly era of Gotham’s Knight in not-shining armor, who hunts down the vilest criminals from the rooftops and down back alleys — they’re all but gone. Christian Bale is in as the handsome but aloof billionaire Bruce Wayne, a man who has a legitimate fear of bats because of a childhood trauma. And the metaphorical rabbit to be pulled from the hat? Setting the film in our world, our reality — or at least paralleling it with remarkable precision.

Batman Begins operates fundamentally as one of the most celebrated reboots in all of cinema . . . or at least in an era where reboots and revisitations became an acceptable trend. A proper origin story that affords the night-abiding vigilante a plausible and compelling resurgence. The story, and eventually the titular hero, thrives on fear and the instilling of it in others. For Bale’s Bruce (and by extension, in Nolan’s interpretation) fear goes far beyond those nocturnal little creatures. Having lost his parents at an early age and fled to all corners of the globe to seek justice — this isn’t the kind of grief you might mistakenly label as teenage angst in things like Spiderman — Bruce Wayne is afraid not so much of life beyond his parents but of one devoid of meaning or purpose.

That a film — a Batman film, no less — plays so well to people’s fears (you don’t have to have any special powers to deduce the simultaneous death of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne was a pretty horrible event) speaks to the power of good storytelling. Nolan has proven himself a talent in that regard with previous films like the mind-bending Memento and perhaps it was a matter of inevitability that he took the Batman legend and bolstered its image for an entirely different generation, a generation more tolerant (is that the right word?) of violent and brooding imagery and action that fails to become cartoonish.

Passionate requests from reinvigorated fan bases notwithstanding, Nolan’s take could also function as a comic in and of itself. It’s not difficult to imagine an overhauled DC strip based upon this new chapter in Gotham history, one that would see the introduction of Rachel Dawes and versions of Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow that no longer need revamping. Given the way The Dark Knight trilogy eventuates, this too might be a matter of inevitability. This is all assuming such a comic doesn’t exist already.

Batman Begins is a sign of the times. The first installment in one of the most commercially and critically successful trilogies in cinematic history is a challenge to the status quo, at least when it comes to first comprehending and then translating to the big screen such celebrated super-heroic beginnings. 2005 is the year Warner Brothers realized taking a drastic step away from Batman’s more cartoonish roots — no more Bat-turn or Bat-nipples, folks — not only could work, but had to work. Realism blends with the fantastical in Batman Begins in ways that, while not expected, when all is said and done, just feel . . . right.

If it seems a little hypocritical for the same studio that tried moving away from the ‘darker’ side of Batman is now passionately embracing the box office numbers in the same way fans have embraced the gritty new films, it’s because it is. But I don’t know how anyone can blame Warner Brothers for reversing course. Blame is not even the right word. We should, in some ways, be thanking the studio for greenlighting these very dark, very real stories and recognizing the power laying dormant in this legend. Perhaps Warner Brothers ultimately decided the timing just felt . . . right.

Recommendation: Dark, moody and yet unbelievably enjoyable, Batman Begins is the film that started it all (again) for the Dark Knight et al. I challenge anyone to watch this film and not have a great time. Of course, fans of the comic version should find even more to latch onto with Christopher Nolan’s stunning attention to detail, and it should go without saying that fans of his directorial CV have this one high up on their list of favorites. For me, personally, a film doesn’t get much better than this.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 140 mins.

Quoted: “It’s not who I am underneath . . . but what I do that defines me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.dcmovies.wikia.com

Exodus: Gods and Kings

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Release: Friday, December 12, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Adam Cooper; Bill Collage; Jeffrey Caine; Steven Zaillian 

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Often I feel that I am needlessly ambiguous with what I’m trying to say in past reviews, but here I have this concern I am going to be too overt. The great Ridley Scott — yes, the one of Gladiator fame — has clearly relied too much on star talent to help carry his Biblical ‘epic’ (and sorry to those who think the word is inextricably linked to prepubescent Bieber fandom) to the Promised Land. Top billed are terrible in their roles while a boring and unevenly paced script contributes to a disastrous outing for all involved.

GODS VS. KINGS 

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Somewhere in the dust and ruin of his attempt at resurrecting temples he once had so majestically created, there’s a lesson to be learned for Sir Ridley Scott. If there were one commandment I would issue immediately, as someone who has been eagerly anticipating this supposed return to form, it would be for him to refrain from treating his selected actors as gods and kings. Forget Christian Bale’s mixed South African and Welsch ancestry. Forget Joel Edgerton’s emo eye-liner — he at least looks better in it than Bale sounds like with whatever accent he’s trying to pull off here. And you can forget all about Cecil B. De Mille’s commitment to Charlton Heston (oh, swoon!) in the 1956 classic The Ten Commandments. Indeed, the only thing that shall be remembered over the course of a whopping two-and-a-half hours, is the pain of watching one of the premier filmmakers of our time climbing out of a dank, oppressive cave with a single message inscribed on a rock tablet:

“(I’ve) let my standards go!”

In the Gladiator director’s newest venture out into the sands of Egypt Bale takes on the role of Moses, a former Egyptian General banished by his legal, but not blood, brother Prince Ramses (Edgerton) into exile after it becomes evident what Moses’ true blood lineage is. Raised in a climate of political convenience rather than one of familial love, Moses conflicts with Ramses ideologically, emotionally and eventually physically. All signs point to Ramses’ deep-seated envy of his sort-of-brother. This is a relationship dynamic we’ve known for as long as we’ve been out of grade school as well as it being a classic example of the friend-turned-foe story. It’s also the strongest bargaining chip Mr. Scott has at keeping an audience on board here. And we agree; we are too curious as to how thing will play out between these versions.

While he appreciates the relationship between Moses and Ramses, he is much less appreciative of his peripheral vision. Rather than going the Jim Caviezel route by casting someone who at least looked the part, and through coating much of his cast in a thick smathering of tanning lotion (this is actually the story of how Moses goes to the beach and gets badly sunburned), Scott surprisingly approved of everything here without what one would naturally assume to be a pressing need to fire a casting director, or even someone in make-up and wardrobe. Not that these actors aren’t talented. And we can’t pretend that it’s an alien concept for a big studio and a big director to skirt past native actors in search of bigger box-office draws. But why does everyone have to look like the Beach Boys? The likes of Edgerton, Bale, Ben Mendelsohn (who plays the creepy Viceroy Hegep with gleeful abandon) and Sigourney Weaver are caked in comical cosmetics that distract more than they contribute, but this isn’t the major issue. Visually, at least these pretty peeps eventually blend in with the dulcet environs.

Frustratingly Exodus: Gods and Kings — I’ve never been one to read into film titles too deeply, but this particular subtitle does seem superfluous — is intent on featuring caricatures rather than characters. Bale is ridiculously over-the-top as he forces vigilante machismo into a character that has decidedly much less of that built into his DNA. Edgerton acts like the spoiled brat Pharaoh Ramses apparently was. After succeeding the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro, also ridiculous-looking when bald), Ramses becomes something of a harbinger of doom, driving the Hebrew slaves to the brink of collapse through extremely hard labor and miserable working conditions. As if life wasn’t tough enough before. During Moses’ exile, he learns of these changing conditions back home in Memphis and despite having formed a family with the beautiful Zipporah (María Valverde) he vows to return and free over 600,000 Hebrews from his brother’s oppressive, bloodthirsty rule.

WE ARE NOT ENTERTAINED!

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It’s not the big picture Mr. Scott misses. Though Exodus hardly inspires with its languid pacing — that’s actually a compliment, as it drags for a good 75 minutes out of a grand total of 150 — there is definitive movement in the saga and the enthusiasm for Moses’ finest hour begins to build in earnest when the plagues set in. But even then, it’s a dash of visual splendor that sits a little too long in waiting and appears somewhat randomly in gradually darkening skies. Rest assured, if those in attendance are awaiting spectacle, they will still get it. But it’s too little too late.

His placement of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea — each element elegant in their CGI rendering — ought to be considered the equivalent of audiences sitting in for Gladiator and having minimum expectations of seeing Russell Crowe in leather jockeys. Yes he dons such a garment, but this doesn’t exactly complete the character. And it says nothing about the way Mr. Scott’s masterpiece captures ancient history in all its grim and bloody frankness; says little about the defiance of a single gladiator who goes up against the Roman empire — except that maybe our fearless leader has an eye for men in skivvies.

But this sadly is no laughing matter. It’s difficult trying to rectify the substantial decrease in quality between the film that came out at the turn of the millennium and the one we’ve just been handed on a not-so-silver platter. If you factor in how much Exodus seems to mime the story arc of Gladiator the coalition for reason becomes even weaker. Formulaically speaking, this is no different from the adventures of Maximus Decimus Meridius. A man has his pride and political status stripped from him following a particularly bitter (and yes, unfair) betrayal, then must strike out on his own into the great unknown before deciding to return balance to the universe. Crowe had at it first, and Crowe comes out on top on almost all counts. But if we were judging this based on who rides a gigantic tidal wave of water better, then the odds are more in Moses’ favor.

As an undertaking, Exodus is a mightily ambitious undertaking. It’s easy to dismiss the film as a redundant journey back in time to a place where religious conflict brimmed more heatedly than any of those scenes between Bruce and Rachel. (Or Miranda Tate — that part was actually better.) Maybe we really didn’t need it. Maybe I was just foolish in expecting great things here. Though it’s hard to not get excited when the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton (and throw in Sigourney Weaver for the hell of it) are involved, when there’s a director of Mr. Scott’s stature leading the charge.

Casting controversy aside, Exodus is simply a film with few excuses for becoming as flaccid a drama as it truly becomes. It’s mired in surprisingly subpar performances, drifting narrative pacing and an unenthusiastic, although granted, educational, tone. No one on screen ever feels inspired. And to say that about this particular cast is a move that ought to make one feel the need to exile themselves to. . . . well, somewhere else. For right now anyway, it looks like the opposite case is going to hold true.

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2-0Recommendation: If you were holding out hope that Exodus could survive the plague of criticism that has washed over it in the past week, let me drown that hope right now. It’s not a good movie. If the odd casting decisions don’t strike you (the argument being staged for racist casting is just plain nonsense by the way; the move to hire Bale and Edgerton in particular was one of financial matters, and this is clear) then the slow, awkward pacing and the sloppy dialogue surely will. I’m done talking about this movie. Two thousand words later. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 150 mins.

Quoted: “You sleep well because you are loved. I’ve never slept that well.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The 86th Academy Awards Afterparty: Will there be pizza?

Despite my fascination with film, I consistently have never really cared for the awards ceremonies as I’ve always seen them as rather trifling procedures. The night of Sunday, March 2 barely amounts to more than a shallow beauty pageant. The proceedings inside L.A.’s famed Dolby Theater are in effect an incredibly expensive circus in which wealthy people converge on a single venue to watch their extremely well-off colleagues accepting gold statues as a way of validating that their work was actually experienced by more than just the people in that stuffy little room.

And don’t even get me started on the actual reporting on the event beforehand. Christ, the quality of the news on the Red Carpet makes a mockery of journalism to the highest degree. There isn’t an apology to be found or heard. Ever. Cameras (and conversations) prefer to be aimed towards fashion trends, intentionally converting performers into walking billboards for the young and impressionable. People aren’t really people in these moments. But that’s okay. . . .I guess. After all, these centers of attention are the same folks who gave us those great moments in the films we liked over the past year. Now it’s fun seeing Jennifer Lawrence stumble all over her real-life awkwardness. Or how about seeing sworn on-screen enemies pal-ing around together over a drink? That’s the stuff that causes the warm, fuzzy feeling in your tummy to grow intensely, apparently.

In spite of my ranting, the end-of-the-film-year presentation is actually greatly entertaining to watch. Why is that, you ask, understandably now confused.

Perhaps its partly because of the phenomenon of the fourth wall still protecting these successful and talented individuals from the claws of the public. We have a right to see our favorite action hero star stripped of his/her dramatic veil so we can get a better look into that person’s mind and see how they do what they do so well. Harrison Ford struggling to look sober during this year’s Oscars is one such insight that might well cause an obsession-fueled Twitter thread. Then there was Ellen Degeneres doing something as mundane as delivering pizza to certain members in the first few rows of the audience while Brad Pitt humbled himself by serving plates and napkins that caused us to nearly soil our pants from laughter.

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They aren’t on the silver screen at the moment, yet the likes of Amy Adams, Chris Hemsworth, the aforementioned Lawrence who can’t seem to catch a break from intentional or unintentional public embarrassment as Degeneres appeared to roast her before kicking off the ceremony this year, or a legend like Robert DeNiro — they all still possess a mystique we can never hope to chip away completely because they are in some way, shape or form still performing for us, the humble viewers. They give possibly the most honest performances of their lives before these particular cameras, but we will never get to be at the Oscar afterparty with them when they all shed the burden of the pretense and of the pomp and circumstance. And, possibly their clothes, too.

As a person who loves film I have been notorious for either accidentally or purposefully avoiding these sorts of events because a great majority of the time I either vehemently disagree with the ultimate selections or I just have no comment on what is going on at the time. There’s also that little issue I have with the false emotion surrounding it all. But nevermind that for a bit. This year I watched the Oscars from start to finish, even tapping into the Red Carpet action (which I will probably never do again, based on the intro paragraphs above). But with a few staggeringly honest acceptance speeches delivered by gold statue recipients, my faith in what these people are doing with their lives has been reinvigorated.

There were obviously the requisite number of speeches that dragged on for far too long, some that became dangerously close to sounding arrogant, and some that were borderline unintelligible. But thanks to highlights in Jared Leto (who took the stage for his snagging of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Lupita Nyong’o (with her remarkable work in 12 Years a Slave garnering her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and the potentially crowd favorite Matthew McConaughey (the McConaissance can now be officially acknowledged following his Best Actor prize) this year’s Oscars offered up strong doses of humanity and humility, a display of appreciation that extends to those who have spent any amount of time paying attention to them — that includes us bloggers! There comes that warm, fuzzy feeling again. . .

Dedicating three hours to watching the awards ceremony proves that this movie-watching business is indeed an addiction. It is equal parts exciting and frustrating knowing that famous names are to receive even greater plaudits than they have already earned in being cast into money-making machines. Such is the nature of their jobs. Everyone should save themselves a pat on the back for me. Especially Mr. McConaughey. I say good for him.


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: google images 

American Hustle

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Release: Friday, December 20, 2013

[Theater]

Catch Me If You Can‘s little brother decides to show its face in 2013, sporting a cool name, a slick, sexy visage and the necessary wardrobe/make-up department to cover up all the acne pimples and skin blemishes its suffering from as it starts to stumble awkwardly into adolescence.

To that end, little bro has turned out to be quite the attention whore as well (if guys can be whores). My, how the previews have hyped this one up; puffed up its chest to the point where one might think if it were pricked by a pin, the entire thing would explode. But the only thing that would rush out — don’t worry, it wouldn’t be all gory and bloody — would be a substantial amount of air. That would be the sound of an ego slowly deflating as the excessive two-hour runtime plods ever onward.

The story of American Hustle is similar to the story of Frank William Abignale, Jr., at least structurally, in that it purposely meanders, it likes to take its time developing, and (here’s some great news) it makes outstanding use of a cast that is to die for. That last quality applies more to David O. Russell’s follow-up to Silver Linings Playbook, considering it has possibly the best one of the year.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con man with a hairline not many would be jealous of. His fashion-oriented, equally cunning partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) finds the man to be a little physically out of shape but his confidence and mental tenacity far outweigh his belly. Together they con people out of thousands of dollars, posing as art appreciators or collectors. . .or, whatever they are. Getting hung up on those details is not so important. What is, though, is the fact that their good luck of making money illegally eventually will run out, and indeed they get busted by the loose cannon FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (an incredibly fun Bradley Cooper).

DiMaso strikes a deal with the pair, telling them that if they apply their skills to a sting operation in which he’s targeting some of the nation’s most crooked politicians and power brokers, both Irving and Sydney will be pardoned of their previous crimes. They need four major busts, which will include nabbing Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). They soon embark on a wild journey through some of the most politically corrupt and criminally-linked tiers of society that inhabit the streets of 1970s New York City.

While it features a grab-bag of talent, little bro is pretty reluctant to get out of bed in the morning. The opening act drags us deeply into the slightly questionable relationship between Irving and Sydney. But O. Russell realizes we need to have an anchor point somewhere with a cast this large; he attempts to root our emotions the deepest with this only slightly more empathetic duo. But once we are through the first thirty or so minutes, the real fun and glamour commences.

American Hustle seriously benefits from O. Russell’s direction, as he cleverly infuses a substantial bit of humor with some scenes of solid tension and applies it to the entire colorful cast in nearly equal measure. Jennifer Lawrence plays up Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn perfectly — it’s nearly impossible to think the actress is a mere 23 years old (two years older than my little brother for crying out loud), as her performances, perhaps capped off by this one, are marks of an incredibly matured, seasoned actress. The director’s hand and the talented cast blend for some truly brilliant scenes that make up for American Hustle‘s otherwise rather bland and frankly disappointing story.

After you strip down the fancy clothes, the over-the-top characterizations and lush, elegant settings, what you have left might be best described as a pissing contest between professional liars and cheaters. Who shall come out on top? Chances are, it won’t be the ones most are expecting from the outset. And chances also are that none of them are quite as adept as Frank William Abagnale, Jr., to invite yet another comparison. Unfortunately such comparisons are hard to avoid when the essence of the story is so similar. This may be a more glamorous cast to stick with, but expectation levels are so high with this film that anything less than perfect feels a little like a con in itself.

True that the art of conning is made more complicated here, since it will involve the government (whereas DiCaprio’s character was constantly outlasting and outsmarting it). Still, there’s a lot left to be desired when this one concludes.

American Hustle is nonetheless a pretty fun time at the movies. Reiterating, there are some sequences and moments that shout Oscar potential and there’s no denying each incredibly talented performer here is having a blast with the material. A lot of that can also be pinned down to what they get to wear, though. Brad Cooper’s hair in curlers is downright chuckle-worthy. The banter back and forth between Cooper and Bale is priceless. The last thing that springs to mind when seeing Lawrence here is Katniss Everdeen. Heck, even Amy Adams is decent.

Throw in a couple of silly cameos and you’ve got a little brother that flaunts his swagger so casually you don’t really mind because you know he’s putting it to good use more than you are.

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3-0Recommendation: American Hustle is a raucous comedy that is mostly successful in bringing forth the laughs. It’s story is a little confusing at times and it won’t be until the very end that things become clear (if they do at all), but as long as you go in with an open mind and expectation levels at a reasonable height, this should be the fun you might necessarily expect out of all this excess bullshot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated, didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favor over money. Effin’ Jesus said that as well.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.moviehdwallpapers.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Out of the Furnace

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Release: Friday, December 6, 2013

[Theater]

Sneaking up on you quietly, toxically, like steam billowing from the chimneys that scratch and tear at a skyline of charcoal gray, this original screenplay from Scott Cooper is most likely not the product most people were expecting. It is a solemn look at the not-so-quiet life in the Appalachian region; a story that’s as laced with brilliant performances as it is populated with shots of its gorgeous, rustic backdrop.

That the affairs ongoing in this unrelentingly dark tale might lead anyone other than Russell Baze (Christian Bale) to the breaking point much sooner than the two hours it takes for him is not really the surprising factor that I refer to. A title like Out of the Furnace is — yes, okay, grimly poetic — but moreso foreboding, and the title alone should be enough for most people to realize that what they are laying down $10 for is not for the sake of comedy.

Just as the thick plumes of smoke snake ever higher into the air, eventually to caress and blend in with the clouds, expectation levels of this particular story have similarly soared. Not that that was an unexpected phenomenon, or anything. Cooper’s ensemble cast in 2013 far and away outdoes that of his critically more successful debut film in 2009, and is probably one of the best casts of the year. Understandably, it’s difficult not to imagine a film featuring a cast like this offering up dramatic and epic grand gestures, scene after scene.

That’s not the case here, though. There is such a thing as actors also humbling themselves.

If the main impetus for seeing Out of the Furnace is for the performances, then it is going to be equally difficult to consider this an underwhelming experience. The talented cast should leave audiences speechless, as only one this good can.

Bale in particular is exceptional. In fact, he might be less recognizable as this down-and-out, soft-spoken countryboy than he was behind a cape and cowl. As Russell, Bale plays the elder brother to Rodney (Casey Affleck) with a heartbreaking tenderness and vulnerability that should virtually wipe clean any memory that he was indeed our Dark Knight.

He works a dead-end job at the local steel mill in an effort to keep a roof over his and his beautiful girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana)’s heads. At the same time, his family life burdens him. Russell splits his time working longer hours to pay off Rodney’s ever-mounting debts — for reasons he doesn’t quite know — and caring for their terminally ill father. As if this isn’t stress enough, Russell is for the longest time left oblivious to the real reasons his younger brother is in such debt. Until the day Rodney goes missing in New Jersey.

Rodney, desperate to pay off the debt himself and already having fallen in with a tough crowd, forces local bar manager John Petty (Willem DaFoe) to put him into a legitimate street fight in which he could stand to win good money. Rodney’s been serving in the military for years and whenever he’s back home he fights for money, finding himself unable to take up a normal job or joining his brother at the steel mill. Unfortunately his pride, blind determination and short temper land him in a ring overseen by the notoriously violent and demented redneck Harlan DeGroat (an ice-cold Woody Harrelson). He’s told to take a dive (intentionally lose) in this match, but will his ego be too big to obey this simple request?

Out of the Furnace examines these issues — pride before the fall; showing mercy versus seeking vengeance; the deliberate counting of one’s own sins — using a myriad of characters facing a different set of circumstances to show what they would do to right the wrongs. In so doing, the film takes a much more graceful, deliberate pace than many might be expecting to undergo. It might be difficult to understand that each of these brilliant actors, each with a legend preceding them, are much less of a “key” factor in the story as they more quietly assume puzzle pieces in a tragic story — much like the gigantic cast of Prisoners. Instead of jumping off the page as we all might expect them to do — an exception might be Harrelson, as he’s truly the personification of vile filth here — they end up passionately coloring in an otherwise black-and-white story of loss and redemption.

There are more than enough emotionally charged and nuanced performances that, even if are unsuccessful in breaking your heart, will at least make it ache.

The last thing screenwriters Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby are likely to be accused of here is a convoluted script. The hotheaded Rodney falls into the wrong crowd and it is up to Russell to try to bail him out. While the describable “problem” that arises out of the story is about as simple as that, the overarching story is actually an emotional journey that is something to behold.

The steam that belches out of the factories suitably obscures good guy from bad here. The moral ambiguity on display runs fathoms deep; hence, the beauty of this film. Each character, acting on his or her own reasons, is rendered with deep flaws, some perhaps more severe than others. DaFoe operates as a bartender, yet he finds himself balls-deep in debt with DeGroat and several nasty fellas up north as he spends a lot of money betting on bad street fighters. . .namely, Rodney. Saldana’s limited role as Lena is not without complication, either. Undoubtedly though, Bale’s character is the one who stands to lose the most, and becomes the centerpiece to this grim tale.

It’s not a film without its shortcomings, however. Forest Whitaker, as Sheriff Wesley Barnes, feels a little underused to say the least. As does Saldana. In fact, trailers seem to be quite misleading as the cut that is used in a rather dramatic moment involving Whitaker’s character does not actually make final cut. (This appears to be one of the movies that suffers from a pretty misleading trailer, in terms of its editing anyway.) Suffice it to say, though, that the limited screen time Whitaker gets he uses to its full potential. Ditto Saldana. The two add more concrete evidence for the argument that each character involved is deeply flawed, on some level.

There are also a few moments that feel a bit drawn out and redundant, but mostly these boil down to editorial issues rather than the innate elements that compose this surprisingly harrowing story. It’s again nothing to do with how unwelcome these people will likely make you feel; these are their woods you are trespassing in, and Harlan DeGroat’s neck of the woods is the meanest of all.

The acting is inspirational. It’s cinematography almost dreamlike. Cooper’s follow-up film respectably relies on its remarkably talented cast to bear the weight of the heavy emotions that penetrate these small towns and unstable relationships. It doesn’t need to lean on big-budget police chases, the high-stakes dramatic stunts and whatever else may go into what may be getting misperceived as a blockbuster film to get its brooding message across.

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4-0Recommendation: The film is quite simply incredible, while still possessing a few dents in the armor. Look to this film for it’s powerful performances and beautiful scenery; the story may be a bit lacking for some, and it’s likely this will become more obvious on repeat viewings; however it’s more than easy to overlook simplicity for the sake of some of the year’s most provocative performances.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “The people up in those hills, they have their own breed of justice, and it does not include us.”

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