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Chris K

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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from December 2013

American Hustle (Rated R)

Last year, Silver Linings Playbook came out.  It was a movie written and directed by David O. Russel (The Fighter, Three Kings) and it was nominated for tons of Oscars and ended up winning a few.  I missed the early screening of it in theaters but when the nominations came out I got sent a copy on DVD to watch it at home.  I understand that it really struck a chord in some people and they regard it as one of the best films in years but I just didn't get it.  I couldn't understand why it was considered great let alone nominated for Oscars (except for Jennifer Lawerence...she was pretty amazing).  His new movie is American Hustle and just like before, everyone is losing their minds over this but this time around, I get it.

Imagine if Goodfellas and The Sting were the same movie and it was a comedy.  What your picturing in your head is American Hustle (which was originally titled American Bullsh*t actually).  It stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradly Cooper and Jennifer Lawerence.  It's pretty much an incredible movie although you have to be patient with it because it starts off entertaining but very sluggish.  That level of tolerance though is paid off in spades when the plot starts rolling like a runaway train and you become intensely invested in these characters.

Every single person in this movie deserves an Oscar nomination and Bale and Lawerence deserve to win.  It's amazing to me how Russel can wrench these performances out of actors that we already know are mega talented but yet he gets even more from them.  Bale is a lovably derpy conman who gets caught in a scam with his girlfriend, played by Adams.  The two are then forced to pull off more cons to catch bigger crooks by Cooper who plays a manic FBI agent.  The story gets even more twisted when Bale's wife, played by Lawerence, gets involved; she's 80% of both the comic relief and heartbreak in the film.

Besides the late '70s details in every single inch of the film and the style of directing that Russel brings to the movie that keeps it moving, the real reason to see American Hustle is for the characters.  Every single person in the movie is good and evil, villainous and heroic, and it makes the film richly complex.  You have a pretty good idea of how the movie is going to end but the journey to get there is full scenes that make you laugh and make you cry but all of which is so entertaining to see how they build to this forseeable conclusion that it's one of the most enjoyable movies to come out this year.

If there's one thing that seems to be void in Hollywood now it's characters that are thick with layers.  Most films follow a formula and unravel in predictable ways and American Hustle isn't that different but the characters are so unique in this that you can't hate, love or feel apathetic about any of them.  I'm not sure if it's the success of the writing that makes them that way or the flawless performances but either way this is a movie that deserves the awards it's going to get showered with this year and one that I can't wait to see again and introduce to friends.

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Rated PG-13)

Ten years ago, my brother and I went to see Anchorman on opening night.  The theater was packed and from the opening seconds of the film until it finally ended we laughed so hard and didn't stop.  However, we were the only people in the theater that laughed.  Despite making a modest profit and getting a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film went on to have a massive cult success.  I still consider it my second favorite comedy of all time (The Big Lebowski is my #1).  That cult status has carried the careers and literal legend of Ron Burgundy to this sequel that was both unneeded yet so anticipated by people like me.

The quality of the film aside for a second, my favorite thing about this was that the cast returned.  Take Will Ferrel out of it; both Steve Carrel and Paul Rudd have gone on to be two of the top ten comedy A-listers in Hollywood since the first one.  They could have thumbed their nose at this or worse, held the film for ransom by demanding huge paydays.  They didn't.  They not only agreed to do the film but took the same secondary characters they always played and made them as limited, if not more limited, than they did before.  Now that is staying classy!

Of course, the big question is this; is Anchorman 2 as funny as Anchorman?  I think the answer is no.  The movie does an amazing job of out-weirding the first one by a massive margin but in that noble challenge loses sight of out-witting the first one.  There are sequences in this that are honestly some of the weirdest you've ever seen in a mainstream film.  But never does it go off the rails, it just slows down.  There's a whole storyline that takes the character out of the newsroom and into seclusion that makes the movie plodding and frustrating but pays it all off in a scene that involves a song that made me laugh so hard I had tears coming out of my face.

One thing I love about the writing of Ferrel and director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) is that when you strip away all the overt goofiness there is a very serious message that they're trying to get across.  In Anchorman 2 it's how perverted news has become because of the invention of the 24-hour news channels and a quest for ratings has overtaken a quest for what's important.  McKay and Ferrel, who are passionate liberals, could have landed massive uppercuts on Fox News but don't and instead aim their satircal sights on the whole industry.  Again, that's staying classy.

The movie doesn't have as many quotable lines but still has an arsenal of them.  It also features twice the cameos that the original had which becomes so gratuitous that it's hilarious.  I heard that there is a 4-hour-long version that exists and might be released one day that I would love to see since their trademark improv-style abounds but the two hours it ended up being in theaters is plenty for most people.  In the ten years that people have been able to absorb and digest Anchorman it has made the majority of a theater laugh as opposed to when my brother and I saw it but I still suspect that this film is gonna be too weird for some.  But those of you that can't get enough of Ron Burgundy and the Channel 4 News Team, like me, will love it going down...down into your bellies.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Rated PG-13)
Peter Jackson is an amazing filmmaker and there are few who deny that.  He's able to visualize sequences that make even the most jaded movie-goer scratch their head as to how it was pulled off.  Every bit of his Lord of the Rings trilogy is spectacular and should be required viewing for anyone who fancies themselves a fan of movies.  He based each movie off of one of the books by J.R.R. Tolkien and ended up getting showered with Oscars when they were all done.  Each one of those books were about 400 pages each and the movies come out to about three hours a pop.  The Hobbit, however, is shorter than all those books and is being told in three films that are almost three-hours-long EACH!  Regardless of how good these Hobbit films are, I simply can't love them based on principle.

This second installment of The Hobbit story is far better than the first one, which was tedious, silly and vastly boring.  This one has its moments of excitement and darkness.  Gone are the ridiculous songs and countless montages of dwarves walking around New Zealand.  The pace of The Desolation of Smaug is faster but still sluggish.  That's the downside when you make a movie based on a hundred pages of literature.  There's a reason why many films based on short stories aren't good and it's because they either drag stuff out or make stuff up.  Since Tolkien's world is so rich, they didn't have to make anything up but boy, do they drag it out.

The same cast returns with the addition of Orlando Bloom, who reprises his role from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Evangaline Lilly (ABC's Lost, The Hurt Locker), and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Fifth Estate, Star Trek: Into Darkness).  All three add something to the film in ways it desperately needed but none more than Cumberbatch.  He's the voice of Smaug, an evil dragon that lives in the mountain that used to be the former home of the dwarves.  Smaug is one of the great villains from fantasy literature because he has as much personality as any character in the book; maybe even more so.  Smaug is arrogant, jealous, greedy, cunning, vicious and we know all this because he not only talks but he talks a lot.  It's a fantastic villain because you're drawn to him like you're drawn to Darth Vadar.  You know he's evil but you kinda dig him.

Jackson has once again created a movie that looks utterly gorgeous.  Every frame seems as if they were painted and could hang in a gallery.  The task of creating Middle Earth is something that Jackson should be commended for for the rest of his life but it's also something he did in 2001 and we've seen if for five films now.  I'm not gonna say that I'm bored seeing it but by the next/last film, I will be.  He also has a way of making action sequences that blow you away.  There are two major ones in this film and neither have the hundreds of characters battling like we've seen him pull off before but both are feasts for the eyes and pulse-pounding to say the least.

I don't like greed and The Hobbit trilogy was made purely for that.  I don't blame Jackson entirely for splitting a 300 page book into 9 hours of film; I blame the studio.  Ever since the last Harry Potter film, studios have realized that they can split books into different films under the lie that they're super-serving the fans but really they're super-serving their bank accounts.  No matter how much we love a book, we can see too much of it.  You can leave stuff out and fans will forgive you.  What makes something exciting while reading may not translate in a film or even need to be shown at all.  Books are meant to be enjoyed slowly and movies are not.  Will The Hobbit trilogy by that jump-the-shark moment of book-splitting-movies where Hollywood says, "sure we made a lot of money but did we make good films?"  I sure hope so.


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Saving Mr. Banks (Rated PG-13)

The movie opens with a somber version of "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins, which was Walt Disney's favorite song from any of his films.  If you know that, know the song and know this true story of the battle that Disney had with the woman who wrote the book Mary Poppins so he could make the film; it makes your eyes water from the opening few seconds.  That's the power that this movie has over you and it's amazing how quickly it can grab some audience members who consider themselves Disney experts or at the very least fans.  But what about the rest of you haters and non-believers?  Is it possible to still enjoy the film about the film that dazzled everyone at least once in their lives?  In-doo-bidi-bly!

Make no mistake about it, Saving Mr. Banks is Oscar bait and perhaps some of the worst kind.  It's a historical true story that has levity and fun but also moments of devestation and melancholy.  I can overlook that and do it with ease for this however.  Maybe it's because of how cold and endearing Emma Thompson (Love Actually, An Education) is as P.L. Travers, the ice queen who made Walt Disney's life a living hell for decades.  She's a difficult character because she has to be unlikable but not so much so that you wish someone would have thrown her off the top of the Matterhorn.  Thompson tows that line extremely well by letting the moments of warmth really bring us in and make us feel her heart even if it's just to get thrown back out again.  It keeps you constantly wanting to see her transform into a big ball of mush even if you know she never does.

We all know that if you want the Academy to take your movie seriously you have to cast Tom Hanks in it and that's just what they did in Saving Mr. Hanks..I mean, Banks.  He's delightful and charming as Walt Disney although you don't believe for a single second that he's anyone else in the world besides Tom Hanks.  The same goes for all the other performances from Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) and BJ Novak (NBC's The Office, Inglorious Basterds) playing the brilliant Sherman brothers, Colin Farrel (Total Recall, In Bruges) as Travers' tortured and loving father, and Paul Giamatti (Sideways, 12 Years a Slave).  They all are basically themselves which is usually disapointing in a historical non-fiction, had they not been so good at doing just that in Saving Mr. Banks.  That especially goes for Giamatti who manages to break your heart with the slightest of lip/chin quiver.

The only downside of the film is the director, John Lee Hancock.  When I heard they were turning this story into a movie I was excited but then that was dashed against the rocks when I saw Hancock was directing.  He's not a good filmmaker.  His previous films consist of The Blind Side, The Alamo and The Rookie.  Just as suspected, he's the only thing throughly wrong with the film.  It is his best one but given his resume, that's not an impressive accomplishment.  Aside from having a great production team, he doesn't bring much to the project.  None of it is overly creative and it suffers from 2-hour-plus running time which feels closer to three.

Saving Mr. Banks may seem like a film that's for everyone but it isn't really.  It's far darker than most people are expecting.  The issues of alcoholism, attempted suicide and child abuse are all explored.  They even briliantly show the early signs of Walt Disney dying of lung cancer in such subtle ways, most wouldn't pick up on it.  But the darkness is far outweighed by the light and seeing scenes shot in Disneyland is enough to make every Disney fan buy a ticket.  Being moved to shed a tear or twenty is easy in this film, even if it feels like emotional manipulation at times and sheer exhaustion at others.

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All is Lost (Rated PG-13)
If you were to say to me that there is a film that's almost two hours long, has a cast of one person and perhaps only ten on-screen spoken words in it, I'd tell you that you just described one of the most boring movies ever made.  The good news is that you didn't ask me that since I'm someone who doesn't like to admit when I'm wrong.  The better news is that those three characteristics describe All is Lost and it's far from boring.

There's only a handful of actors out there that could pull off 100% of the screen time in a movie and rarely say a thing.  Robert Redford is one of them.  Sure, we all like it a lot more when he does say stuff and we also liked him a lot more when he was younger and making us wish we had half his charisma, but there is something about him that makes it hard to look away.  Writer/Director JC Chandor (Margin Call) knew that which is why he cast him in this film-of-one.  

The movie is about a man lost at sea after his yacht hits floating debree in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  That accident happens as soon as the film starts.  You don't get any Hollywood backstory that shows him at a retirement party or kissing his wife goodbye or even him setting sail.  It's accident and then nothing but survival.  The fact that Chandor cast a 77-year-old man as this guy says a lot about going against expectations.  99.9% of the time this would be a young actor looking to set himself up for an Oscar but in the case of All is Lost, it's someone who wanted to do this because they felt it was a challenge and a film that had something to say.

Because you're presented with zero information about this guy, including his name, means you get to project whatever backstory you want on him.  I chose to go with someone who's a widdower, has a few kids he never sees, who said he would sail around the world but never did it when he was younger.  Am I right?  It doesn't matter because it's whatever you want.  You can make him a hero, a villain, guilty, sorry, desperate, anything.  It's really exciting to have a character like that because it makes the story whatevert you want it to be.  Is he running from something?  Running to something?  Searching for God?  Heartbroken?  It's totally up to you.

The other interesting thing about the story is that it's one of the only survival films I can think of where the main character does everything right.  It seems that in these types of movies there are always mistakes made where you find yourself yelling at the screen, "No!  You'll need that fresh water!  Don't leave that gun on the beach!"  Redford thinks of everything and through no fault of his own, he finds struggles out in the open ocean still.  If that seems like it would make the film get a little tedious, you'd be right.  It's certainly a long-ass movie because each scene seems to be repetitive after a while but that still doesn't make them boring.

All is Lost is one of those movies that you'll probably never see again but you're always glad you saw it.  It's well directed and the story is so simple that it's daring.  Redford is pretty captivating as a man who's fighting with nature to stay alive.  You're pulling for him even when you don't know if he's someone worth pulling for.  It feels more like an exciting art film than an actual popcorn-chomper but in an Oscar season full of big epics, fancy FX and typical feel-good dramas, this film is far from lost.

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Out of the Furnace (Rated R)

Did you ever see the movie The Deer Hunter?  If you didn't, you still probably saw some reference to the classic and horrific Russian Roulette scene.  It's a movie that came out in 1978 with Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep.  It's a powerful film that shows the effects of the Vietnam War on guys from Western Pennsylvania after they come home.  It's widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made which is why director Scott Cooper tried to unofficially remake it with Out of the Furnace.  It's not a cheap ripoff but it's certainly a ripoff.

There are differences between the two and they are certainly obvious.  For starters, the film is not from the perspective of the veteran, who's played by Casey Affleck.  Out of the Furnace if from the perspective of his older brother, who's played by Christian Bale.  The relationship that these two have is powerful, emotional and performed beautifully by the two.  In fact, it's Bale most sublte and controlled performance and Affleck's most explosive and tragic in his career.  Everything about these two is believable and sad.  Upon returning from tour after tour in Iraq, Affleck submits himself to brutal illegal fights while Bale tries to get him to blue collar-it-up at the steel mill he works at.

The acting from the rest of the stellar cast is also flawless.  Woody Harrleson is the most sadistic and evil he's been since Natural Born Killers.  He plays a backwoods crime boss, well, as much of a crime boss as you can be when you're a redneck meth head.  As horrible as his character is, there's still moments where you find yourself liking him and that makes you feel as rotted as his teeth.  Through no fault of Harrleson's though, the performance is cliche and predictable at times which leads to the bigger problem with the film.

It's too soon to tell if Scott Cooper is a great director.  You can tell he's someone who comes from an acting background since both this and his only other movie, Crazy Heart, feature Oscar-worthy performances.  But this film is nowhere near as good as his last mostly because it features all images and themes that we've seen before.  In fact, we've seen them so much so that it seems like a parody at times although there is absolutely nothing funny about this.  I don't mind when movies are self important.  I don't mind when movies borrow from previous films that influenced it.  I do mind it when they're both.  Out of the Furnace finds itself to be very important and it is, however its imagery is too been-there-done-that to take as seriously as the movie deserves.

I know, I know; so far it's nothing like The Deer Hunter.  But you have to consider that everything besides small changes to the story is.  They both take place in Western Pennsylvania.  They show the effects of war on veterans.  They both feature the same symbolism of rusted out steel factories, sunsets, wardrobe, sets, etc.  Trust me that if you go see Out of the Furnace you'll get a feeling like you've seen this before.  Some might say that Out of the Furance is better than The Deer Hunter, but it suffered the fate of coming out in 2013 and not 1977 therefore it is not.

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Frozen (Rated PG)
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When talking about Disney films, I can understand why it's easy to hate on them.  They're as formulaic as films can be and they're cheesie as hell for anyone who views cinema as something that should only produce important art that challenges.  I, thankfully, am not one of those people because those people are the worst.  Granted, it's difficult for me to review Disney films objectively because I'm such a fan and they hit one of the last tender parts of my soul.  That being said, Frozen looked in the advertising to be one of the worst finished products I've seen.  Maybe it was aided in its debacle by coming out on the heels of Planes which, from what I've heard by the unfortunates who saw it, THE worst Disney film to come out in a generation.  Not only am I thrilled to say that Frozen was not a debacle but it may be one of the best.

Frozen is based on The Ice Queen by Hans Christian Anderson and features the voices of the amazingly adorable Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Safety Not Guarenteed) and Idina Menzel (Enchanted, Rent).  These two were hired because Frozen is every bit a musical as the classic Disney films are and it features the most catchy songs since The Lion King.  Yes, I know that Tangled was shockingly great and so was Princess and the Frog but there is something about the songs in Frozen that make you hum them for days.  Bell and Menzel singing them makes them better but they would've been great regardless.

There must be a reason for Disney not to classically animate films anymore.  When Tangled came out and we all saw that it was computer animated, I think all our hearts sunk after we were treated to the nostalgia of Princess and the Frog.  There's something about seeing hand-drawn animation that hit all us adults in our childhood and made us feel 7-years-old again.  Perhaps it was that Princess was a box office bomb (for some reason) or maybe it's cheaper and fastter to do it on the computer but Tangled proved that you can still make the classic Disney "princess" musicals in computers and not lose the soul of what they are.  Frozen is not only no exception but it's proof that they can even be, dare I say, better.

What makes this so different than the other Disney films is two things; one, there is no bad guy and two, the main female character doesn't need a man to save her life.  Those are two pieces of the Disney formula that are left out and you don't miss them at all.  That's not to say that it still isn't EXACTLY the same everywhere else.  There's a comedic creature, which is a talking snowman named Olaf played by Josh Gad (Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Broadway's The Book of Mormon) who is one of the funniest voice talents since Eddie Murphy played Donkey, there's a cute non-talking animal, an adorable Prince, a non-Prince guy who's really better than the Prince, and of course a scene featuring side characters that help and are meant to break up the story with a little fun.

Frozen isn't a perfect film because I don't think Disney movies are meant to be so.  What it is, however, is one of the best films from that studio to come out in a generation.  I've seen it twice and I can't wait to see it again.  My 1-year-old son has a Disney mix he jams out to filled with all kinds of songs from classics to films of the '80s and '90s and even stuff from the parks.  I bought the Frozen soundtrack the second it came out and loaded it on his iPod so he can learn these songs so when he sees it for the first time in a few years, he'll know them and enjoy the movie, hopefully, as much as me.
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