[6 December 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Scott Cooper came out of nowhere to lead legendary actor Jeff Bridges to his first (!) Academy Award win with the saga of a sad country singer, Crazy Heart. Since then, fans have been eager to see what he would do next. The answer is this well acted if redundant thriller that borrows liberally from other, better offerings while staying true to the genre tropes it needs to survive. Christian Bale gives a definitive performance as a working class Joe who sees his life systematically unravel around him. When the tragedies start striking too close to home, he decides to get revenge on those who’ve wronged his family.
It’s the Coen Brothers. It’s another period piece (this time set in the evocative world of a pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village), and it contains a terrific soundtrack full of classic folk songs. So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, the title character (essayed perfectly by Oscar Isaac) is a bit of an asshole. Second, the film is more or less a loop, ending where it begins and causing us to reconsider everything we’ve seen before. So all cinematic complications behind, this still rates as one of the brothers’ best, an intricate character study of how a life in service of fame can be fleeting, or an outright failure.
2013 has been a pretty good year for sci-fi. We’ve had the realistic lost in space impact of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, while a little indie gem entitled Europa Report did a decent job of exemplifying the effects of prolonged space travel. Now we get this unusual quasi-horror film focusing on potential life on the Angry Red Planet and how a group of explorers (lead by Liev Schreiber and Elias Koteas) come face to face - some literally - with a menacing Martian “bug.” Sure, the film tends to fall into the pseudo-zombie style of scary movie toward the end, but the use of the interplanetary setting and Ruairí Robinson’s direction help sell it.
As usual with foreign films with little commercial appeal beyond the arthouse, this 2012 offering is just seeing a perfunctory, end of 2013 release. It tells the story of a war widow (Penelope Cruz) trying to reconnect with her angry teenage son (aren’t they all???). Interestingly enough, Emile Hirsch plays the husband she lost in the battles of Bosnia some 16 years before. Critics have complained that there is enough of the enigmatic actor in the narrative, but for the most part, this looks like another strong if somewhat standard mother/son story. Cruz is a fine actress, so if anyone can make this work, she can.
If it’s Christmas (or at the very least, the end of the year), it must be time for another trip into Tolkien by beloved New Zealand son Peter Jackson. When last we left our diminutive hero and his pack of revenge hungry dwarves, they were almost to the mountain where the dragon Smaug is sitting on a massive pile of gold. Apparently, this three hour installment will see Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) use his “robber” skills to defeat the evil lizard and then…well, who knows. Since this story has been dragged out over three installments, it will be interesting to see where Part 2 takes us, and leaves us.
With the success of Best Man Holiday and the equally interesting returns for Black Nativity, it seems the African American renaissance started by the former gospel circuit performer is solidly in place. Perry can be slagged off by those who believe he is nothing but a low brow melodrama drag donning novelty, but with more the $750 million in receipts for his films (as well as the additional revenue from his plays, TV shows, and other media), he’s clearly here to stay. This time around, our gun totting, pot smoking granny is off to help reunite a family. Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy turn up as the token white people.
This is going to be a tough one, both from a marketing perspective and a narrative ideal. Paul Walker’s recent passing makes this one of his last performances onscreen and those who’ve seen it say it’s his best work ever. The story centers around a father trying to get save his newborn daughter while both are stuck in the neo-natal ward of a hospital - all in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. Early reviews suggest that the plot works well considering the limits of its scope. Of course, all anyone will care about is that Walker’s memory is not marginalized by this movie.
Famed documentarian Errol Morris sits down with one of his most interesting subjects - former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld - and from all reports, the gloves definitely come off. As he did with his remarkable movie about Robert McNamara and Vietnam (The Fog of War), or the invasion of Iraq and our detainee policies (Standard Operating Procedure), this filmmaker is very good at setting up his targets and letting them talk themselves into very hot water. Rumsfeld avoids this pitfall - mostly - but we still end up with a telling indictment of his time leading George W. Bush and the rest of the nation into an unnecessary skirmish.
Otherwise known as Electric Dreams - the post-iPad edition. For anyone who remembers that ‘80s antique, the Steve Barron comedy centered around a man whose computer becomes sentient, hoping to help its owner improve his lot in life. Here, Spike Jonze tackles similar subject matter, though this time around, our humble individual (Joaquin Phoenix) who writes personal letters for others falls for the operating system on his device. Seems “Sam” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is programmed to be intuitive, and as she becomes more and more “human” our hero discovers “feelings” for her. A lot of buzz has built around this film. It will be interesting to see if it earns any additional love comes Awards Season.
Will Ferrell is back with the sequel many wanted to see - if, perhaps, not exactly in this form. Early rumors had co-writer/ director Adam McKay considering a musical - or better still, an operetta with the characters singing all their dialogue - and even a tryout on Broadway. Eventually, the decision was made to “go traditional” and send Ron Burgundy and his infamous KVWN colleagues off to New York to be part of the burgeoning ‘80s ideal of 24 hour a day news. Add in an interracial romance for our hero, an angry ex back in San Diego, and new group of reporters to clash with, and you have all the makings of a major holiday hit.
David O. Russell has been on quite the winning streak since those notorious YouTube videos of his childish behavior on the set of I Heart Huckabees surfaced. He’s lead several noted actors to Oscars and created three amazing movies - The Fighter, The Silver Linings Playbook, and now this one - as part of his career redemption. In fact, this fictional look at the infamous ABSCAM case of the late ‘70s sparks with a kind of kinetic drive we expect from someone like Scorsese, or Tarantino. With an Awards Season win thanks to the New York Film Critics, it looks like Russell’s name will once again be part of this year’s Oscar mix - and it deserves to be. This is a great film.
The story of how Walt Disney convinced reclusive and stand-offish children’s writer P. L. Travers to let him adapt her popular Mary Poppins character for the big screen has long been the stuff of House of Mouse legend. Now, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson take on the roles of animation giant and stubborn artist in this loving tribute to both perspectives. Over the course of this sentimental studio valentine we learn about Travers past, how important the character of Mr. Banks was to her, and how Disney’s designs for the adaptation drove the author to distraction. It’s all very sunny and bright and brimming with good intentions. Luckily, the movie makes the most of the material.
Based on the BBC Series, this animated movie has all the trapping of a modern day CG experience. We’ve got cute characters, capable voice acting, and enough visual splendor to keep the kiddies intrigued. Adults may have a bit more problem with this production, however, since it supposedly doesn’t shy away from showing the dangers - and death - that existed during our prehistoric past. In fact, one fears many families coming to see this movie thinking it’s a Disney-fied version of the dinosaurs and not a quasi-realistic attempt to educate the audience on life back a few million years ago.
The last time Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi was in the spotlight, he was accepting awards and accolades for his stunning work of political and personal commentary, A Separation. Now, the famed director is back with another potential winner, this time centering on a group of Iranians in Paris trying to work out the complicated details of their various relationships. With overwhelming support from the critical community and a pair of wins at Cannes—including Best Actress for Bérénice Bejo and the Ecumenical Jury Prize for the film itself—it looks like Farhadi will be part of this year’s Academy Award conversation as well.
This long gestating project, often linked to funnyman Jim Carrey, is given a hipster make-over by star Ben Stiller (who also directed), and the results are so niche you’d need a shoehorn, a can of Crisco, and a longshoreman to squeeze anyone outside the intended 28 to 35 year old demographic in. Even the soundtrack is product of Patton Oswalt’s favorite pro-DB target - Arcade Fire. Still, even with its narrow window of personal perspective, this is an amazing accomplishment, a film which finds the inner wanderer in all of us while tapping into the realization of what growing up is all about.
Here’s all you need to know about Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece: Leonardo DiCaprio is at his mancrush best, the supporting actors are equally excellent, and instead of indulging in violence and blood this time around, the noted American auteur goes heavy on the sex and drugs. Critics have complained that studio pressures may have dulled Scorsese’s vision, but the eventual early screenings indicate otherwise. For someone still making important and inventive movies some 40-plus years after he started, it’s clear that no one can top our man Martin. Opening Christmas day, this is a present every film fan will want under their tree.
Otherwise known as “famous faces yelling at each other,” we are once again faced with the prospect of Meryl Streep taking an award-winning play and making it her own. In this case, she is the dying matriarch of a massively dysfunctional family who come together, not to pay their respects, but to rip each other a new…well, you get the idea. Much has been made of this Weinstein Company endeavor, from the lack of legitimate press screenings (some groups have seen it, others are being shut out completely) to Harvey Scissorshand notorious meddling in post (the ending has been given an unnecessarily upbeat approach). Here’s thinking it won’t have much Best-of support.
When a movie is shifted around from release date to release date, that’s never a good sign. It means one of two things - the studio has no faith in what it otherwise a decent film, or they believe it is so bad that there is no way they can make their money back. In the case of this Keanu Reeves martial arts epic, the former seems to be the case. Made back in 2011, this fictionalized look at the real life 18th century Japanese samurais has all the feel of slight superficial CG spectacle and none of the majesty that makes these kinds of films so special. When you consider that this is director Carl Rinsch’s first feature, you can understand the studio’s reluctance.
Every year, a movie seems to come out of nowhere to gain significant awards season traction without having to do much of the proposed pre-Oscar heavy lifting. Like the previously mentioned Crazy Heart, which landed Jeff Bridges a much deserved Academy Award, this film appears poised to push Mark Wahlberg back into the year-end discussion. Directed by Peter Berg (of Battleship and The Kingdom fame) and focusing on a real life failed Navy SEAL mission, this is supposedly one of the most realistic depictions of combat ever captured on film. When you consider the subject matter and our country’s tireless jingoism toward the military, we could be seeing a dark horse in the making.
Now this is just depressing. Apparently, both Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro don’t have enough money (or sense) and are incredibly desperate. Or just plain dumb. How else can you explain their desire to crap all over their legacy and trade on the iconic early roles as Rocky Balboa and Jake “the Raging Bull” LaMotta for this lame boxing comedy. Maybe some dweeb who first experience the Oscar winning efforts of these men on cable or video cassette can look forward to watching a 67 year old (Stallone) take on a 70 year old (De Niro) for late in life athletic glory. Who knows, maybe director Peter Segal (Anger Management, Get Smart) can make it work. We severely doubt it.