Tuesday, December 31, 2013

At the Movies – January 2014 – Part 1: Independent Films

Art-House Comedies:

One Chance (David Frankel) – Biography/Drama – Jan 10
Plot Summary: This is the story of Paul Potts, a shy and bullied shop assistant who also spent his free time as an amateur opera singer. Potts decided to take a chance and try out for Britain’s Got Talent with the hopes of changing his life. Filmmakers: Director David Frankel started in television, namely directing for HBO, but he has since moved on to making sweet and heart-warming feature films that balance drama and comedy well – films like: The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me (I also liked The Big Year, but I am one of the few). He is working with frequent collaborators composer Theodore Shapiro and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus. New to the team is production designer Martin Childs (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). Cast: The film stars James Corden, and features Alexandra Roach, Julie Walters, Jemima Rooper, Colm Meaney, Mackenzie Crook, and Simon  Cowell (who is also producing) in support. Expectations: One Chance looks like a fun light drama that should particularly appeal to those that enjoy singing shows and narratives about unlikely people achieving their dreams. The film premiered in the U.K. last October, playing to decent box office receipts and mixed reviews. This is probably a rental at best. Trailer: Here.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Movie of the Week – A Prophet

This week’s movie: A Prophet (2009).

Malik is a young Arab man who is incarcerated in France. Once he sees how the prison works, he begins playing both sides of the two main gangs to build up his status. His quick rise comes from his friendship with Mafia boss Cesar who runs the prison from the inside. But like all protagonists in gangster films, he wants it all.

A Prophet is by French auteur Jacques Audiard, who also wrote and directed the brilliant films Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped (my personal favorite), and Rust and Bone. He works with his frequent collaborators composer Alexandre Desplat, cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, and production designer Michel Barthelemy on the film. While Audiard had already established himself as a phenomenal filmmaker inside France and among those in-tune with great foreign films, A Prophet was really his breakthrough on an international level (especially in the States), garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

The film stars Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup.

The film is among the best of the gangster genre, especially among recent films. A Prophet also sets itself apart by taking place almost entirely within prison, and yet seamlessly works within the genre’s narrative style. It is a must-see for fans of gangster films.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

American Hustle (2013) – Review

Review: American Hustle is a delightfully entertaining, extremely well acted con man film. It is about two con artists, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, who are blackmailed by an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, into helping him conduct sting operations. However, DiMaso’s scope begins to spin out of control as the con gets bigger and bigger with the team now going after members of the U.S. government and the mob. Rosenfeld sees that everything is getting out of hand and needs to figure out a way to get over on everyone and survive what has become a dangerous game.

Con man films often conform to a very specific kind of narrative, one that involves deception and plot twists – usually trumping character development. American Hustle is no different in terms of its basic plot construction, as it is often difficult to tell what is real and what is for show and the film works in a very good plot twist. But unlike most con man films, its narrative does not revolve around the con. Writer-director David O. Russell has fictionalized the true events of the ABSCAM FBI operation (a real case) to create what is much more a character centric narrative. The con is then ultimately just what brings these characters together, while the character flourish and the narrative even begins to feel a bit like a romantic comedy.

The conventions of the con man genre are not entirely sidestepped however. Like all the best cons, everyone gets what they want – well except the mark. What works particularly well about American Hustle is that the audience gets what they want too, which gives the film a very satisfying feel. The audience is treated to a narrative that makes them laugh, characters that explode off the screen, and a story that engages them.

The film succeeds on the great characters that Russell has created, with the help of his fabulous cast. They are rambunctious, infectious, and overblown – yet the majesty of the film is that the actors and Russell still ground them in reality, even though they are played so big. Each has their character moments that pull the audience in (especially Rosenfeld and Prosser who feel the most relatable) and each is very entertaining.

While the film does emotionally resonate, Russell plays it much more for laughs than deep drama – playing into the film being chiefly a piece of entertainment (as it is a con man narrative after all). The film is fantastically funny. It has such an alluring and jovial energy that is it hard not to be enchanted by its charms. It is just a lot of fun to watch, but it also feels a bit unsubstantial. The characters do their dance but its does not really mean anything (due to the lack of a deeper resonance), and yet still the audience is highly entertained.

American Hustle is a showcase of talented actors teaming up with talented filmmakers, providing characters that erupt with jubilant commanding energy and a narrative that beguiles as it captivates. The film is simply a work of cinematic gratification.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: David O. Russell has really become one of American Cinema’s most successful current filmmakers, winning Oscars for his actors in both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook – American Hustle is sure to garner a few nominations as well (and maybe a win). Russell does everything well. He is a good visual storyteller, gets great performances (while demanding the attention of some of todays most talented actors), and has snappy, effective dialog. I look forward to his next feature.

Danny Elfman delivers a fun score that is very fitting for the narrative’s tone and time period, however it is completely overshadowed by the fantastic soundtrack. Russell places found music brilliantly throughout the film, heightening the mood and his visuals. And to that, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s collaboration with Russell is also very good. The lighting is just right, and the camera is aggressive in its movements screaming out to the audience, honing and pointing their attention. Accompanying the lighting is Judy Becker’s standout production design, wonderfully creating the late 1970s/early 1980s with a nostalgic flare. The same can be said for Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs, which in a way steals the show.

As a character driven film, the performances in American Hustle take center stage. Robert De Niro is good in a very small role (channeling a bit of his The Untouchables magic: the ability to make an impact without much screen time). Jack Huston is also good in a small supporting role. Louis C.K. pretty much just shows up to play himself, but it works really well in the context of the character and narrative. He also provides some good laughs (of course). Jeremy Renner gives one of his best performances to date in support (it is up there with his work in The Hurt Locker and The Town). He plays Carmine Polito very sympathetically (which was key to the narrative arc working for Rosenfeld). Jennifer Lawrence is powerfully charismatic as Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn, grabbing up all the attention in her scenes. She very well could see yet another Oscar nomination and win for her work. She is so good at playing on the edge – wildly alluring, yet kind of scary. Bradley Cooper was excellent in Silver Linings Playbook, opening eyes to his talent. In American Hustle he is even better as Richie DiMaso, a power hungry, coked-out FBI agent. He thinks he is the smartest guy in the room, even when he is being left behind. Amy Adams is also fantastic in the film as Rosenfeld’s partner in crime Sydney Prosser. Her performance is quieter than her co-stars, but her wardrobe choices are bombastic. In this way, she too pulls attention. Christian Bale just disappears into his characters, and Irving Rosenfeld is no different. Bales transforms himself into a man that is always thinking of the next move, and yet is relatable due to his compassion. Bale goes big and flashy with his look, but the performance is grounded in honest dramatic emotion – which is really true for the film as a whole.

Summary & score: American Hustle is immensely entertaining and features many of 2013’s best performances – all that, while still operating as a fun con man narrative. 8/10

Monday, December 23, 2013

Movie of the Week – Munich

This week’s movie: Munich (2005).

Following the events perpetrated by Black September against Israel’s 1972 Olympic team in Munich, five men are charged with finding all involved and bringing them to justice. These men are sent from Israel to Europe to find and kill those involved living and/or operating in Europe. This is based on the true story.

Munich is prolific director Steven Spielberg’s best film of the 2000s (and really his best film since Saving Private Ryan). Other notable films from the decade from Spielberg include: Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can. Spielberg worked with his frequent collaborators composer John Williams, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and production designer Rick Carter on the film.

Garnering five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Director, Munich is excellent because it balances it ability to be both a great spy thriller and an involving character drama. It is not just all action, explosions, and gun fights, but a searing look at the mental and physical cost that these men paid in an attempt to make right what was so heinously done to their fellow countrymen. 2005 was maybe the strongest year for cinema of the last decade (with films like: Batman Begins, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Capote, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Match Point, The New World, Pride & Prejudice, Serenity, and The Squid and the Whale), and Munich is right there among the year’s best. It is a must-see for fans of Spielberg and great thrillers.

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) – Review

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is a glorified gag-reel, very funny in moments but without much of a satisfying story. The film finds Ron Burgundy and his wife Veronica Corningstone in New York City reading national network news. However, everything changes when Veronica is promoted to primetime and Ron is fired. Ron cannot handle it and blows up his marriage, retreating back to San Diego where he falls further into a state of despair. After a few months of spiraling anguish, Ron is courted by Freddie Shapp, a news producer charged with finding talent for a new 24-hour news channel Global News Network (GNN). Now, Ron must reunite his news team and reestablish himself as a newsman, in the hopes of winning back his family.

Actor-writer Will Ferrell and writer-director Adam McKay made a name for themselves in feature films with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Thus, it was probably only a matter of time before they eventually found their way back to the character(s). With Anchorman 2, the comedy team has made a film that seems to exploit all the jokes of the first film taking them to the excess, priming fans to gorge themselves. The jokes that resonated the most with fans in the first film have been exaggerated and squeezed for every possible bit of funny still left in them.

The characters too have ballooned. They were already caricatures to some extent, but here they have become parodies of themselves. Everything that fans loved about them has been mined to completion. Yes, a lot of the material is very funny but overall it is just a barrage of comedy with any and every joke being flung at the audience, hoping some will hit (but many miss).

It is almost too much really. The sole purpose of the film seems to be rehashing all the old jokes, while sprinkling in a few new ones, in an effect to play on the nostalgia of fans (while still giving them some new great and memorable lines). To this end, the film is very successful, as ultimately there are many really great jokes and moments that carry the film (really, there are so many jokes and types of jokes that everyone will find at least a few parts and lines very funny).

But as a narrative film, Anchorman 2 is pretty weak. The story seems like an afterthought – nothing more than a mechanism to get from one set of jokes to the next. And while the main purpose of the film is to make fans of the characters and first film laugh again, one might hope that the filmmakers would still consider a sound story and narrative structure a priority (as the first film does have a good story which the jokes are built upon). Yet, that is just not the case. Without a solid foundation, no matter how funny the jokes are, the film just feels like a lessor entity (which is too bad).

Following in the footsteps of The Newsroom (though, not to quite the same extent), Anchorman 2 does do a decent job of shaming the farce that is America’s current news programming. It is not subtle about it either, clearly pointing out how news has become about entertaining rather than informing. It is nice to see that the film has some higher aspirations and social awareness.

All in all, though, Anchorman 2 is still a worthwhile endeavor, even with the somewhat nonexistent plot. The great successes of many of the jokes (winning over the many that fall flat) make the film very entertaining, and probably a film worth returning to many times (much like the first), allowing the jokes to catch the viewer in different ways. And yet, it basically plays as not much more than a gag-reel with very funny people saying and doing anything and everything to get a laugh.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were atop the comedy world with films like Anchorman, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Step Brothers, but their recent output has found them wanting. The Other Guys and now Anchorman 2 have prized jokes over story, when their past work managed to find the right balance. Yes, their films continue to be hilarious and entertaining, which to some degree is all one could really want from a comedy, but their weak narratives also leave them feeling a bit like throwaway comedies – films to be laughed at and then forgotten.

Composers Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau, cinematographer Oliver Wood, and production designer Clayton Hartley all do a good job of recreating the world and feel of Anchorman. The look and tone of the film are spot on, but really this film is just about the jokes.

The film is jam-packed with celebrity cameos (to varying degrees of comical success). Of these many cameos, Harrison Ford and especially John C. Reilly turn in very funny moments. Kristen Wiig is funny as Brick’s female counterpart Chani (but really, none of her stuff is among the film’s best). Meagan Good turns in what is probably her best comedic performance to date as Ron’s boss Linda Jackson. Christina Applegate is good again here as Veronica, as she balances her love for Ron and career drive. David Koechner was a bit of a one-note joke as Champ in the first film, and that is mostly true again with Anchorman 2, but his “Whammy!” catchphrase continues to be pretty funny. Paul Rudd has some great moments again, even if Brian Fantana is almost entirely relegated to reworking the same jokes from the first (cologne collection substituted for condom collection – though some of his lines in this bit are hilarious). Steve Carell as Brick is really the breakthrough character of the film, seeing an expanded role. And in this, Carell steals the film with many of the best comedy moments. He is brilliant. Will Ferrell is just so charismatic as Ron Burgundy. Even if he is playing the same jokes over again, it is hard not to watch him with a smile and a chuckle (which often grows to a roar).

Summary & score: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is everything fans could have hoped for comically/nostalgically – playing a bit like a greatest hits album, but as a narrative film it falls short. 6/10

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Philomena (2013) – Review

Review: Philomena is a moving drama with some interesting religious overtones. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, a young Irish girl who became pregnant in the 1950s and was abandoned by her father at an Abbey where she gave birth and was forced by the nuns to give up the child for adoption and work off her debt to them. Years later, Philomena now an old woman, she decides to look for her son with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith. She just wants to know that he had a good life and whether or not he ever thought of her.

Forgetting the overarching themes of the film and just looking at it as a drama, Philomena works quite well. Director Stephen Frears structures it with home-movie-like flashbacks to pull on the audience’s heartstrings. The leading performances are also very good, and Frears gives each actor lots of character moments, endearing them to the audience. Frears does a good job pulling the audience into the narrative and getting them to care about these characters, and yet he still keeps it light enough saving it from becoming overly depressing. It is a tearjerker that will also find the audience laughing, balancing the comedy and drama very well. Frears really finds a perfect tone for the film, from an entertainment perspective

The narrative itself is fairly simple and it does not ask much of the audience. To some extent, it is a film about two people at crossroads in their lives looking for meaning – something we can all relate to on some level. While the lighter tone does work really well in presenting the narrative as more entertainment than heavy drama, it does also leave the film feeling a bit insubstantial.

However, what is the most interesting aspect of the film is its overarching theme of religion. Philomena Lee is a Catholic who wholly believes in God and enacts the best principle of her religion in life – she is kind to everyone and forgiving (regardless of the wrongs done to her personally). Meanwhile, Martin Sixsmith is an atheist and an elitist intellectual who seems to just be angry at his place in life and annoyed by everything. At face value, it seems as though Lee is the happier of these two, but she struggles with her faith. The Abbey has wronged her to such an egregious extent that their actions feel unforgivable. And yet, she is ready and willing to forgive them at every turn, something that infuriates and frustrates Sixsmith. He just cannot understand.

This raises an interesting perspective of organized religion (in this case Catholicism). On one hand there is a person of faith who lives her life in a manner that we should all aspire to, and on the other hand you have an institution of faith that has committed malicious transgressions (seemingly against the principles of their own faith). Religion has always been a source of both extreme goodness and violence throughout history. The film presents examples of both, but with a specific distinction: the goodness is in the heart of the individual (in this case Lee) while the evil is in the interpretation of one’s religion to forward one’s own agenda (the nuns in the film). This speaks a bit to what some believe were Jesus’s own ideas on organized religion: that goodness is within each of us and it is up to us to strive towards it on our own and that an overlord telling us what is good and evil, right and wrong is not the way, which flies in the face of how religions have developed (likely as a mode of social control and organization). The film is very critical of organized religion and yet treats faith with complete affection.

Sixsmith is at first irked and endless annoyed by Lee – her faith and simple mindedness. But even he is eventually enchanted by her ability to struggle and still find the good in life. The film appears at first to be about her journey – and yes the story and narrative are about her search – but the real dramatic arc follows Sixsmith and his transformation, kicking and screaming, with Lee as his guide.

There is a lot to like about Philomena. It is a film that is funny in moments, features strong characters, an involving narrative, grave drama, and asks interesting questions about religion. However, as stated above, the drama overall does feel slightly subdued by the lighter tone that the film takes. While everything works really well, the film just never really grabs the viewer in an affecting manner.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Stephen Frears is one of the most prolific filmmakers in Brittan. His films tend to be up and down quality wise, but when he is on his game he does make rather good things like The Hit, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things (my personal favorite of his work), Mrs Henderson Presents, and now Philomena (after a dry spot of a few not so good films).

Alexandre Desplat delivers a fantastic score, one of the best of the year so far. It is playful, yet very sincere and moving – fitting the film’s tone perfectly. Desplat has really established himself as one of the best (if not the best) composers working today. Here is an example of the fantastic score. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is very good as well. It captures the beauty of Ireland and the rural D.C. area. It also has a somewhat somber feel, tinting the emotional experience of the film. Alan MacDonald’s production design does a good job grounding the film in reality. Everything looks and feels authentic, which in turn allows the audience to focus on the characters and story.

The performances in Philomena are all very good. Michelle Fairley and Anna Maxwell Martin are good in small supporting roles. Sophie Kennedy Clark is wonderful as young Philomena. A girl entranced by a handsome young man, who pays the ultimate and agonizing cost of losing her child. The audience’s heart breaks watching her collapse in complete anguish. Steve Coogan is very good as Martin Sixsmith. Coogan always plays the same sort of characters, and with this film he has crafted a role (producing and co-writing the film in addition to starring in it) that feels very much like his other work but with an element of emotional growth. Coogan is great at playing a blustering elitist, but here there is a hint of warmth to him as well (especially in the end). Dame Judi Dench is fantastic as Philomena. She is sweet and lovable, but she is able to take the audience on an emotional journey as well. There is such a powerful struggle within her that she just cannot keep contained.

Summary & score: Philomena is not going to jump off the screen and grab the viewer, but quietly it is a very sweet and moving drama, led by strong performances from its stars. 7/10