The Lego Movie looked, at first glance, like just another early part of the year dump job. January and February are notorious for being the spot where movies no one has any faith in wind up. They are the movie industry equivalent of an organized crime "dump job." And if HOLLYWOOD doesn't think a movie is good? Boy that should really make a movie fan tremble.
But The Lego Movie is actually a charming little movie. It is one of those with lots of pop culture references for parents (some ham handed, others more subtle) while still keeping it fun for the kids. It even has a message that is out of the norm. Usually these movies overtly tell kids it is best to be an oddball while covertly telling them to be like everyone else. This movie sort of says that everyone is ok and that even bad guys might not be SO bad sometimes after all.
Basically little kids are going to be the main kid audience for this--as they move into the tweens they may lose interest in this sort of thing while missing the pop culture references.
The movie has some fun voice actors and voice cameos (I won't give them away because part of the fun is guessing). In addition to the old time-y pop culture references for the middle aged the film also takes some mild-mannered jabs at current pop culture--music, television and more. It does this in a gentle, smart way too that is also really unusual in animated films even the ones that cost a lot more than The Lego Movie.
This is a rare movie that a 47 year old, an 8 year old and a 16 year old can all sit through and walk out saying (with varying degrees of enthusiasm); "I liked that!"
How good did the remake of Robocop actually have to be? Basically all it had to do was a) be moderately entertaining and b) not be boring. It almost achieves "a" in spots but unfortunately couldn't manage "b."
For a movie about a cyborg cop this move is maddeningly talky and if anyone can can come up with a plausible reason why Samuel L. Jackson is in this movie it would be great to hear (most likely it is so he can say "motherfucker" at the end). If you excised every moment he is in the movie it would make no difference and it is a LOT of moments. It brings an already slow film to a screeching halt. His segments are so hamfisted in their writing and delivery it is embarrassing.
This said, Robocop may be the best action film released in January or February, 2014. Of course being the "best" of anything released in the first two months of the year is sort of like being the best reggae band in New Jersey.
Some of the good things about the movie include the acting and the fact that they make some effort to update and change the plot. It is nice when a remake isn't just a rehash. As much as they tried to alter the plot they kept some things around, like the criminal kingpin. But in this case that is a side-plot that is disconnected from the rest of the movie. Regardless, it is tough to get beyond boring.
Too much talking will kill any action movie. When you walk into Robocop do you want to see people debating ethics or a faux cable TV news show? No, you do not. You want to see a robot shooting bad guys and maybe some humor.
Of course, in this film one of the best segments is when Joel Kinnaman's Alex Murphy wakes up to find he is mostly machine. The brief scenes of his psychological turmoil over this information are surprisingly effective. If they hadn't sprung for the exceptional cast this movie would probably have been unwatchable--Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley and pretty much all the smaller roles don't phone in their performances even though the material isn't particularly great.
Also, if they are robots would they spray and pray with their guns? Wouldn't they fire more sparingly? The action sequences in the film are also oddly clipped and anti-climactic. They are poorly staged and run of the mill. Add that to talky and it isn't likely to yield a good result. It isn't awful but it barely hangs on to that least coveted of movie adjectives--mediocre.
Robocop redone is sort of difficult to write about because it is just so middling. Nothing new and not terribly fun, this is a sequel that should have remained in the can.
Monuments Men is something of a missed opportunity. The film deals with a fascinating part of World War II in Europe--the attempt (belated during the war) to preserve and rescue sites and art that was in danger or outright stolen during the war. There is something appealing in this--the notion that that war was not fought just for political reasons but was a clash of civilization versus barbarism.
It’s never boring? Maybe if you need a lot of explosions you might find yourself nodding out. It just doesn't develop characters and sort of lacks drama. You do not get a sense really of who these people are. Bill Murray is Bill Murray no matter if you show him up on a Chicago scaffold for a few seconds. Bob Balaban is pithy and has some funny lines but who he IS, as a character, is something of a mystery. George Clooney is a movie star and a great actor. He can do action, drama, and comedy. But here he, while he isn't bad, his role is just not memorable. The only actors whose characters come to life at all are Matt Damon's James Granger and Cate Blanchett's Claire Simone. They seem human, you care about them. This is in part due to there being enough personal interaction between them (and between them and other characters) that you get more of a sense who they are.
Monuments Men isn't at any point BAD really. It just has trouble vaulting to a level where you could say, without reservation, it is good. It has compelling moments. One of these is Balaban doing something nice for Murray. The two apparently do not get along but you never really know why. The "moment" that is moving but it goes on far too long. A scene where Damon and Blanchett have dinner works nicely. Many scenes where they value and importance of the art they are chasing work well too. A scene where Clooney talks to an SS officer is, at least, satisfying.
This scene brings up another problem with the movie; who are the bad guys? Are the bad guys the Nazis in general? The SS officer who presided over the massive thefts from France is one villain. Another villain is a different, more murderous SS officer. Then the Russians are brought into the mix (and to be sure when the Russians came across art they were not big on trying to get it back to the original owners). For the sake of a film it might have been better to pick ONE--even if it was an amalgamation of different characters.
The film moves along nicely but, as noted, the drama that should be there is not. It may be that it is all played a little too light-hearted for the subject matter. It skates past truths like the fact that the American demolition of Monte Casino was totally unnecessary (the Germans were definitively NOT using the monastery itself). This is mentioned in the film? If you mention it? Take 30 more seconds to explain what happened and they knew at the time because they covered it up, blaming the destruction on the Germans.
It isn't really a history lesson that some of the "Its BORING history" folks are saying. As an aside, if you say "history is boring" you should just add "I am a moron" because history is everything. History is last year's Super Bowl. History is your parent's wedding anniversary. History is also wars, politics, entertainment and everything else that has ever happened. If that bores you are clearly a moron.
This isn't history. It barely even tries to be and that is something of a shame. If it had paid more attention to the details of history and been a more personal movie instead of an ensemble one it might have worked. Clooney is a talented director as shown in films such as Ides of March and Good Night, and Good Luck. But this one got away from him a little.
Lone Survivor is a film you might think risks being a flag waving bit of jingoism. Let's put that to bed right away; it is not that. It doesn't really take a stand on "should we be there?" It comes down squarely against the Taliban but most people on the planet are not fans outside of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
It is also an exciting action film that has something else too--it is a true story and is depicted fairly close to accounts of what happened (the book of the same name). This also gives the film something totally fictional films do not have--gravitas. You realize, before the film proper even starts that the characters represent real people. What happens to them, or something similar, happened in real life. They had families and friend. It gives the film a different feel. It opens with actual SEAL training and ends with photos of the actual soldiers who perished.
One thing I wish the film had gotten across is that these Navy SEALs are not just bad asses. You have to be smart to do this, you have to have the sort of leadership qualities that, frankly, the world needs. It is tragic when anyone dies in war but it is even worse when men of such promise do. That is, however, not about the film that was made.
The acting is, across the board, solid. The ensemble cast never let you think of them as actors. Of course this is IDEALLY what should happen in every movie. It doesn't. I am not sure anyone stands out in the film, that anyone steal the movie. In a way it is an analogy for the military men they are portraying; they work together.
The film doesn't go into a great deal of backstory--something I talk a lot about because in some movies you need that, in others it is a distraction. Here you know enough about the men to make them real but not in the depth to make you really care for the character in the movie. Again, in the back of your head you realize these were real men so the characters get mixed up with reality. That makes it compelling so that the snatches of backstory work.
The relationship between the Taliban, Afghani villagers and the U.S. military comes of as a little false here. Perhaps it isn't so much "falseness" but rather the relationship being complicated, perhaps too complicated for a details in this film. Without giving anything away there are interactions, at the end of the film, that seem like they need more explanation. They don't ring true (although they may well be). Yet, it is also true that further details, a few more minutes, likely wouldn't help.
The film isn't Blackhawk Down or Zero Dark 30. It doesn't have the scope of those films. Yet it succeeds in telling this story. It should make you think about the gravity and tragedy of war too, which is always a good thing.
American Hustle is a caper film, period piece and gets close to being a straight up comedy. It takes a slew of genres and tosses them into a blender. Usually when this happens you wind up with a mess. Here? They wound up with a pretty entertaining movie.
The film tries to "bring you back to a time" and it doesn't really do that flawlessly. It doesn't totally fall down on the job? But it is a little too self conscious in its "retro-ness". This is a pitfall of many films set in some time viewed as iconic. Not EVERYONE dresses in the uniform of the time (usually there are fashion carry -overs aplenty). When they make a film about the 2010s everyone will be wearing beltless baggy jeans with their underpants hanging out.
But fortunately the film isn't just about wide ties and polyester. The film is sort of a caper movie. But it doesn't lean on that too heavily and, instead, relies on characters and the actors take these and run with them. Christian Bale plays against type as the out of shape grifter with a ridiculous comb over. Amy Adams as his partner whose fake English accept is a film-long gag. Her character is playing a character. Jeremy Renner is effective as the earnest politician who bends the rules for all the right, but still illegal, reasons. Sure Bradley Cooper seems to be playing the character from Silver Linings Playbook as an FBI agent but he does it well. Don't mess with success.
But Jennifer Lawrence comes close to stealing the movie in her supporting role. It is admittedly a role almost designed to do that--the sort of spurned, definitely unbalanced wife of Bale's Irving Rosenfeld. She is both comic and a mover of the film's action. And she is Jennifer Lawrence so she also looks great.
One of the saving graces of the film is that it doesn't play it too serious. It doesn't get mired down in process of the con game or the FBI investigation. It is also never excessively violent. This light touch works. If they had gone even a hair more serious? It wouldn't work because the plot and the characters wouldn't hold the weight. This isn't a knock on the plot or the characters. It is a compliment. The writers kept it perfectly balanced. It even winds up to make points about friendship, ethics and even redemption.
There are a number of great scenes in the film that have a limited amount to do with the basic plot. One of these has Rosenfeld pointing out a Master painting in a museum to Cooper's Richie DiMaso. He tells him it is a fake and the calls into question who the real master is. It is a brief and oddly compelling. There are a few others like it in the film. These do not rocket the plot forward but the set a tone for the movie. They also eschew making Renner's Mayor Carmine Polito the typical crooked politician. He may have to work with crooks, mobsters and con men but he isn't one of them. He is a true believer. It is a different approach.
Some critics may have become a little overly breathless about American Hustle but it is well paced, written, directed and acted. The film begins with a title stating "Some of This Actually Happened" and it is incredibly loosely based on the Abscam investigation. Part of the humor here is the weirdest least likely SEEMING parts of this movie did happen. The resolution makes less than perfect sense and seems a tad unlikely? Or maybe it is just that it isn't set up through the rest of the film and professional con artists wouldn't leave their "move" to chance? But this is a minor thing. If you think of the flaws well after seeing the movie? The film did its job, hiding the fact it isn't reality from you for a little while.
The Past is a film that is truly summed up in the two words of its title. Every person in the film is, in some way, held captive by their past behavior or entanglements of others. On the surface it is a film about a man returning to Paris to sign divorce papers. His French wife is involved with a new man (Samir) whose wife is in a coma. Her two daughters and his young son sit right in the middle of the "mess" as one of characters refers to the situation to Ahmad, the main character played with a cool dignity by Ali Mossafa.
Sounds melodramatic. It is but it never turns into a soap opera. Many of the issues of personal and cultural identity are raised only in passing. No one mentions them verbally but they are there. Both Samir and Ahmad exert control by "fixing" things around the house for instance.
Once you start to sympathize with one character you find out more about the perspective about another character. What you are sure happens is often, subtly and realistically, turned on its head. It is a superbly written and acted film. Bérénice Bejo is flawless. You understand her manipulations, her anger even if you do not totally sympathize with all her actions and words. This role is a long way from The Artist's Peppy Miller.
Director Asghar Farhadi is justifiably compared to John Cassavettes. But in some respects Farhadi's work seems more real. He has a different visual style from Cassavettes as well (his movies often felt suffocating for some reason and this is meant as a compliment).
This is a serious film. It isnt about some larger than life story. No one here is trying to save the world--just themselves. It is about real people and lives and it manages to capture something incredibly close to real life on screen. This is especially true in that the characters do not do what we want them to necessarily. There isn't some grand resolution here either. Life goes on.
Farhadi, who also write the screenplay, is best known for A Separation, the Iranian film that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (and was a hit in Iran). This film is like that one both in that it is a personal film about a small group of people and in that it is structured more like a mystery. You see different perspectives on the action throughout the film
In both films also there is a focus on how the actions of adults affect children. It seems to be something Farhadi is preoccupied with--but, again, it isn't articulated. You see the trauma kids go through because of their parents. And, like in real life, no one really talks about it.
When you first see a preview for a film about a man who falls in love with an operating system your natural reaction might be; "blech..." But funny thing about her, it is a unique, funny, touching and even thought provoking movie. It is every bit as good as you've heard and read. It might even be better.
It is also a film best seen with very little foreknowledge. The less you know the better. It isn't that there are huge surprises? It is the subtle points and developments here that you don't want foreshadowed. Sure, you know the basic plot but the film approaches subjects related to our existence, to technology, the nature of love, forgiveness and of personal identity and individuality. It is a complicated movie even though it seems quite the simple love story at times.
Her isn't maudlin or dreary though. It does make you feel for the characters but it also has more laughs in it than most movies that are SUPPOSED to be comedies. It probably starts of lighter and gets heavier as it moves on but the load is never terrible to bare. It is so easy to imagine a movie like this going off the rails--especially when it gets into sex! It stays firmly ON the rails throughout.
Thanks be that this film was written and directed by Spike Jonze and that some hack didn't come up with a similar idea first and put J-Lo or Katherine Heigl in it. Because this is the sort of concept that Hollywood could turn into another putrid, eye rolling, barf inducing rom-com.
After seeing 12 Years A Slave it was difficult to imagine another film taking the Best Picture Oscar--even excellent films like Nebraska or Inside Llewn Davis. But this film may have a shot. It isn't because it is necessarily better than 12 Years A Slave but that it is so incredibly unique. It is a film that looks at the future of humanity (make no mistake there WILL be sentient Artificial Intelligence in the next generation).
It is the little things in this movie that elevate it from merely good--the attention to fashion changes in this slightly future-world. The fact Joaquin Phoenix uses a safety pin in his shirt to keep his OS girlfriend from not being able to see when he walks around with her as a mobile device. There is attention to detail at every point in this movie--the video games that appear in it are fantastic and hilarious (and seem very real to boot)
12 Years is about the past and it brings that world to life in startling fashion. Her is doing an entirely different sort of thing that, in its own way, is no less provocative. Human - OS relationships accepted by society? What would JESUS say?
It is still hard to see how Chiwetel Ojiofor could possibly lose to anyone in the Best Actor category. Even though Phoenix' performance in her IS worthy it is also in a more subdued, less dramatic role. He deserves a nomination nonetheless.
This is the sort of film that Jonze makes. He isn't prolific. His last full-length was Where The Wild Things Are, the peculiar adaptation of the Maurice Sendak book in 2009. Her is every bit as good (and this is a huge compliment) as his films Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. Again, it may be even better. Like those films it also bears multiple viewings.
It is to be hoped that it is less than four years before Jonze's next feature.
Philomena is the true story (more or less) of a woman searching for the child taken away from her when she was an unwed teen in Ireland. The subject alone shows the Catholic Church in a rather unflattering light and there have been many other Irish movies dealing with the forced breaking up of families by the church and state--and all of these have been dire, harsh, cheerless films.
Not so Philomena. It isn't played for straight up laughs and it isn't really a comedy but the writing and the acting are far more lighthearted than the subject matter suggests. In fact, no one who has seen the previews will expect anything dire or harsh.
It is a tribute to Judy Dench that this seems like an easy role for her. She is so effortless, seems so real as the simple, pleasant, non-judgemental Irishwoman that you almost don't see it as a performance. She also gets the bulk of the laughs.
Philomena is a mostly cheerful woman who has harbored this one great secret, this one great regret. she finally tells her daughter and shows her the single photo she has of her son. The daughter then has a chance run in that sets things in motion.
That run-in is with Martin Sixsmith, the cashiered director of communications for a government department under Tony Blair. Philomena's daughter is working at a party he attends.
Sixsmith, a former journalist, is shown as a little prickly. He is rude and occasionally snaps at people. If you focus on him as the lead there seem to be some reasons to scratch your head; why does he take on the story he initially dismisses? Is one inconclusive conversation with his wife what really did it?
Sixsmith, played ably by Steve Coogan, who also wrote the screenplay, isn't a bad sort though and, to the movie's credit he doesn't "change his ways" after meeting and spending time with the cheery, forgiving Philomena.
This is a movie that seems to stick mostly to the real story. There are flashbacks to a young Philomena (played by Sophie Kennedy Clark) that are hints at what went on before--they are never overdone and they are cut together with the "present" part of the film perfectly.
Stephen Frears certainly can make a movie. You hear about actors who would be entertaining reading the phone book; Frears would make an interesting movie with a script based on the phone book. This may not be The Grifters or Prick Up Your Ears but it is a memorable film nonetheless. Its sense of humanity, its humor and how shows "issues" movies often pretend to grapple with as ultimately meaningless. The movie does not try to move outside the bounds of the real story. It does not try to be big--and that is why it works.
Great acting and a good screenplay don't hurt of course.
The Wolf Of Wall Street sure makes bilking people out of their money look like a lot of fun--aside from having to listen to so many boring speeches about getting rich. It is as if Gordon Gecko had a child with Zig Ziglar and then the child smoked a bunch of meth. To make up for the speechifying there is a great deal of banging, cocaine done of women's naked bodies and 'lude popping going on so it all works out in the end.
Or maybe it doesn't.
It is sort of frightening to imagine the various interpretations people might take from this film. One critic I read described it as a "morality play." I am fairly certain this person does not know what a morality play is. There is no moral here (nor does there have to be) but this is just such a meandering mess about one of a million swindlers from the last big Wall Street scam you would hope for SOME sort of focus. Others seem to just think it is a rollicking good time. If it is supposed to be that? It sure is a peculiar subject matter.
What you get here are a bunch of good actors in a good looking film that is sometimes funny, sometimes outrageous and way, way, way, way way longer than is necessary. It would have been appropriate to use several more "ways" in the previous sentence. It is never boring despite its flaws and the actors all do--at LEAST--the best they can with their given roles.
Leonardo DiCaprio does his best scenery chewing and coked-up speechifying and Jonah Hill adds to the camp with his fake big teeth as DiCaprio's second banana. Matthew McConaughey, Jon Bernthal and Rob Reiner are all sort of memorable in their roles despite limited screen time. Some seem to be bending over backwards to praise Margot Robbie too. She is fine but I expect this praise has a lot to do with her nakedness in this particular film. And yes, she looks great naked.
It is odd that in a film this long some characters appear with little intro and development. Is it possible ANYTHING landed on the cutting room floor here? But then this is an odd film. It is like Goodfellas on Wall Street--but with a lot more "direct into the camera"asides.
Is Scorsese's intent here to show us how the big economic criminals never really get their just punishment? Is he trying to leave the audience with lack of satisfaction? Of frustration? Perhaps, or perhaps this is just what you do when Martin Scorsese a film you don't like? Maybe you figure the problem is with YOU, not HIM. Some people are afraid to say they don't like a Scorsese movie. If you list his ten worst movies you'll find that eight of them are still pretty damned good.
But no one is perfect and while The Wolf of Wall Street is off and on entertaining it also is long, meandering and sort of pointless. It is at least as frustrating as it is entertaning. There is also something missing here--any look at the people swindled by DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort. This is also likely purposeful but why? How do we have context--even in the humor--of what is going on here if we see only the coke snorting good times of the swindlers? And why so many pep talks and speeches to the "troops"? It really gets to be grating.
It is possible this is a movie that will age well? But I wouldn't bet on it. Oscar nominations all around! It is Scorsese but it really shouldn't win anything except the Oscar for "film that easily could have been an hour shorter."
The Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis is an odd film. It is a "slice of life" taken from a fictionalized character in the early 60s Greenwich Village folk scene (yes he has a great deal in common with Dave Van Ronk). It has moments--especially an early scene with Oscar Isaac (as Llewyn Davis) and a cat--that are beyond beautifully shot. The film is full of historical markers, characters based on real people (sort of), jabs at the music industry and the subtle humor that graces most of the Coen's films.
The main character, a folk singer who isn't necessarily an easy character to like, is obnoxious, self-centered and a bit of a loser. You know, he's a musician. Somehow, you like the character regardless of his flaws. Isaac plays him with humanity, as a sort of everyman with talent. Sure he is a jerk but aren't we all jerks sometime? As you see bits and pieces of the business he is trying to succeed in you begin to see where how the seeds of his attitude were sown. When he decides he wants out he seems trapped in a career that he loves and hates. It is a dilemma familiar to any small time musician.
The film is also a fine bit of writing, editing and directing. It is so seamless and professional. Any attempt to describe the plot, the action, will sound flat compared with what you see. It is as much about a feeling, creating a place and a time as it is telling the story of any individual. The film does a fine job of recreating the early 60s Greenwich Village scene without being obvious.
While there are numerous characters in the film--and many of them are music archetypes--the only one the audience really gets to know in depth is Davis. In the movie Davis is given the chance to make up for his decisions, to atone for his sins. In most Hollywood films characters leap at this chance. Not here. It isn’t so easy here and it makes him more human. When there is an easy out, something to make an audience feel good? The Coens do not take that easy path.
No one in the film seems rotten to the core (with one or two exceptions) but there are not many angels either (with one or two exceptions). The people who seem decent may have had to sell their souls, or other bits and pieces, while the people who represent the worst in the music business may have more integrity than it seems.
The film leaves you with a feeling that while there is usually something dirty behind success, there is nothing noble in failure.