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Reviews

31 Dec 2013
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The Coen Brothers have made films raging from dark-comedy works to Westerns—yet they all have a distinctive, specific Coen Brothers feel. Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, is loosely based on Dave Von Ronk, a Greenwich Village folk singer who tried—and failed—to captivate audiences in the early ‘60s. The story begins in a café. After performing, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is told by the owner that a “friend” is waiting for him outside. When he steps outside, he’s beaten up by a stranger. The struggling musician—his new record isn’t selling—sleeps on the couches of his friends, and he’s trying to come to terms with the suicide of a former collaborator and friend. He ponders returning to the Merchant Marines. Inside Llewyn Davis has some of the dark humor typical in a Coen Brothers film, and the comedy relief is always perfectly timed to break the moments of intense heartbreak you feel…
26 Dec 2013
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Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are charming as Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in this obviously whitewashed look at Disney’s effort to get Travers’ approval to make a movie out of her book. Of course, most of us know he succeeded, but many don’t know that Travers was quite the holdout. The movie splits time between the Disney/Travers business and Travers’ childhood, where we find out that much of Mary Poppins was based on her troubled father (Colin Farrell) and actual nanny. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman are wonderful as the Sherman brothers, who made Mary into a musical, much to the chagrin of Travers. The movie takes a lot of artistic license with the situation. Even though Travers is depicted as difficult here, she was far more adversarial in real life—and never approved of the movie. (Those animated penguins!) Still, the film is fun to watch,…
27 Dec 2013
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David O. Russell continues his impressive directorial roll with American Hustle, a semi-comedic look at the notorious 1970s Abscam scandal. Russell is shooting for Scorsese-style glory here, and while the style of the movie seems copied at times, there’s no denying the power of the ensemble cast. Bradley Cooper scores laughs as a pathetic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and Christian Bale looks great in a combover as the conman forced into an alliance with the law. Amy Adams gets one of the strangest roles of the year as a con artist pretending to be British—and she pulls it off quite nicely. Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in as a seemingly dim Long Island housewife. You also get Louis C.K. as Cooper’s field boss. (He canceled a show for which I had tickets to make this movie. I was pissed then, but after seeing how…
24 Dec 2013
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After nearly a decade away from movie screens, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), the world’s greatest newscaster, has returned for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. This time, it’s the 1980s, and a new media craze called 24-hour news cable networks has Ron and the boys (Paul Rudd’s Brian Fantana, Steve Carell’s Brick Tamland and David Koechner’s Champ Kind) working the late-night shift in New York. The plot is basically just a place-setter for weird, random humor involving bats, sharks, shadows, hair and scorpions in RVs. Ferrell and the crew manage to sell even the dumbest of things—and make so much of it funny. Even the stuff that’s simply strange has its own appeal. Carell goes super-dopey with Brick as he finds a love interest (Kristen Wiig); Champ still loves Ron in a dangerous way; and Brian has a new condom cabinet. I laughed my face off; this sequel continues the comedic…
26 Dec 2013
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Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is an explosive film—like a mortar full of deranged bliss. Leonardo DiCaprio, in 2013’s best performance, plays slimeball stockbroker and convicted felon Jordan Belfort, a real-life scumbag who made millions selling penny stocks at a Long Island, New York, brokerage. The movie, based on Belfort’s autobiography, takes people doing bad, bad things to an unparalleled extreme. The film begins with a rosy-cheeked Belfort starting work at a big Manhattan brokerage firm, where a brash, cocaine-addicted broker (played by Matthew McConaughey, capping off an incredible year) is his mentor. Belfort is ready to take the world by storm in the late ’80s, but 1987’s Black Monday strikes, destroying his new employer and putting him out of work. He winds up in a Long Island boiler room schilling penny stocks for 50 percent commission. No problem: The boy can sell, and people are writing checks.…
19 Dec 2013
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I had the misfortune of watching the High Frame Rate 3-D version of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Man, do I hate technology sometimes. Only a small percentage of movie theaters had the technology for 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but that has changed—so many of us now have the opportunity to see just how bad this technology looks when hobbits are involved. (In fact, four Coachella Valley theaters are showing the film in HFR 3-D.) I am sure there will be films in the future that will be a proper fit for the High Frame Rate presentation—films that are primarily set outside, boast a leisurely pace, and don’t have too much makeup. As for Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot The Desolation of Smaug in HFR 3-D, it’s a disaster: Like its predecessor, the film is a task to watch. The look of the movie simply doesn’t jibe…
12 Dec 2013
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Christian Bale is at his simmering best in Out of the Furnace, a dark, often scary and desolate look at two brothers who get dealt numerous bad hands. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), this is not a holiday-season film designed to send you home smiling. Russell Baze (Bale) is a good-spirited, quiet man working at the town mill. He looks out for his military-vet brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is having trouble adjusting after multiple tours in Iraq that have left him physically and emotionally scarred. This makes Russell ultra-patient when it comes to his bro—even paying off Rodney’s gambling debts behind his back to a local bookie (Willem Dafoe, who somehow makes this sleazy character seem like a nice guy). Russell, after a brutal and costly mistake, goes to jail, while his brother does another tour. When Russell is set free, he has lost his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana),…
05 Dec 2013
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It was a dumb, stupid, asinine, ridiculous, idiotic, energy-wasting, sucky, loser, moronic idea to remake Oldboy, Chan-wook Park’s insane 2003 revenge classic. While I’m fairly open-minded about the idea of remakes, some films should never be touched again. It’s amazing that the original Oldboy—a tale of captivity, octopus-eating and incest—ever made it to the big screen. Then Spike Lee somehow landed the job of Americanizing Park’s film (after Steven Spielberg flirted with the idea)—and he actually does a decent job in the first half. Josh Brolin plays a drunken louse who gets kidnapped and imprisoned in a strange hotel room for 20 years while somebody frames him for the murder of his wife. He is then released, whereupon he starts seeking revenge. The captivity scenes are the best things in the movie, with Brolin doing a good job of losing his mind. The movie falls apart when he gets out,…
05 Dec 2013
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Jason Statham and James Franco star in this piece of silliness from the pen of Sylvester Stallone. While I can’t say I liked Homefront, I can say that fans of Statham and Franco won’t be too disappointed, because they do good jobs of presenting the stupid material. Statham stars as Broker, a former drug-enforcement agent looking for a new life with his young daughter—in a place he obviously should’ve avoided. Franco stars as Gator, a small-time meth dealer looking to go bigger. When Statham’s daughter punches his nephew out on the school playground, Gator decides to get involved, and things go haywire. Statham is better than usual here, while Franco is actually kind of great as the bad guy. The problem: Stallone’s screenplay is so routine that you can guess the plot points 10 minutes before they happen. Still, it does have Kate Bosworth and Winona Ryder as meth-heads, so…
28 Nov 2013
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Vince Vaughn battles to make Delivery Man—an American remake of the 2011 French-Canadian film Starbuck (both the foreign version and this new American remake are directed by Ken Scott)—something worthwhile. He almost does. Vaughn plays David, a meat deliveryman who finds out he’s fathered more than 500 children due to sperm-clinic donations—and some of those kids want to meet him. David finds out who some of the kids are, spies on them and tries to serve them as some sort of guardian angel. The film, while containing some genuinely warm moments, lost me in the final stretch; it gets overwhelmed by its dopey plot. Vaughn gives a good performance, as do some of the supporting cast members. (It’s good to see Saturday Night Live’s Bobby Moynihan getting some lines.) However, the pieces don’t add up. The outrageous premise screams for something a little less conventional. Delivery Man is one of…
28 Nov 2013
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A new director, some well-placed cast additions, a brand-new cinematographer and a strong central performance from Jennifer Lawrence make The Hunger Games: Catching Fire a vast improvement over the franchise’s first chapter. Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and cinematographer Jo Willems (Limitless) get rid of most of the goofy, baroque sheen that made The Hunger Games so annoying. They also have a much better technique for filming action scenes—and as a result, they have made a film that feels quite brutal at times. A film about kids being forced to kill each other should be brutal, and not feel as if it is pulling punches, as the first movie did. Watching this new film, I was reminded of how the Harry Potter series switched into high gear with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Alfonso Cuarón washed out the color palette and added a new element of…
26 Nov 2013
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Adèle Exarchopoulos delivers one of the breakout performances of the year in Blue Is the Warmest Color, a shockingly beautiful—and sometimes just plain shocking—movie about a young woman discovering her sexuality. Exarchopoulos gives a performance that feels honest at every turn; she has an incredibly expressive face that belongs on the big screen. Léa Seydoux (the assassin from the last Mission: Impossible film) is also powerful as Emma, the blue-haired woman Adele sets her sights upon, and falls in love with. The two are wonderful together, providing real soul in a tremendously affecting love story. However, director Abdellatif Kechiche overdoes it with what have to be the most explicit and overlong sex scenes ever displayed on commercial movie screens. While the scenes are somewhat overdone, they don’t diminish the power of the film. I’m not surprised that the actresses are a little pissed at their director in the aftermath. Still,…