Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Her: Isn't She Lovely?

Romantic comedies are supposed to represent all the aspects of love in a light-hearted way.  There's a definite story structure to every romcom you've ever seen: Boy meets girl, boy courts girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy learns life lesson, boy gets girl back.  Boom.  Done.  The end.  Happy new year.  They're escapes from the drudges of real life, but there are hardly any romcoms that accurately depict what it's like to be in a REAL LIFE relationship.  Some kind of get there, but substitute the ultimate realism for humor and sticking to the structure.  Films like Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Love Actually.  These are top of the class for the romcom genre, but their ability to show real life relationships are a little bit skewed.  Two films come to mind, and strangely enough they would be dubbed indie films, that have come the closest I have ever seen to being the most realistic depiction of love and what it means to go through a relationship with another person: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer.  Both of these films were so well-written, so well acted, the characters had such chemistry that it felt like anyone watching it was able to put themselves in the shoes of the actors and see the same situations playing out before their own lives.  Well, the indie world has done it again with Her.  A movie about a weirdo and a robot voice has joined the ranks of the aforementioned romcoms as being one of the most real depiction of love ever on film.

So, after the spiel about realism, here's the plot of the film:  In the distant future technology has advanced... again.  Now available are artificial intelligence operating systems in order to help people keep their lives organized as well as provide company to those who are lonely.  Enter Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) an awkward, semi-creepy divorcee who works at a fascinating futuristic company called beautifulhandwrittenletters.com where he writes the most amazing love letters to people pretending to be them.  He surrounds himself with love everyday, though he's experiencing sorrow from his recent, and surprising divorce.  This is when he meets his new operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johannson).  She's sweet, she's inquisitive, she wants to get to know everything about Theodore and he's unable to anything but fall in love with her.

Okay, wait, dude, I thought you said this was realistic??  It is.  In a way.  The way that Theodore's and Samantha's relationship blossoms is identical to the way any one of us connects to another human.  There's the awkward meeting period, then once you become comfortable with that person there's the cheesy jokes and fake laughter and real laughter and flirting and butterflies and wanting to talk to that person 24/7.  Then, there's the moment where you have sex for the first time and even though it's a little awkward (even more so if you're doing it with a computer voice) it's still an exhilarating moment.  There's the honeymoon phase, the first fight, the romance, the realization the honeymoon phase is over, the misunderstandings, the jealousy, the beautiful moments, and sometimes a happily ever after, sometimes a bitter end.  Even though Spike Jonze deals with love between a human and an artificially intelligent voice, there is nothing fake about Theo and Sam's relationship.  It's brutal, it's honest, and anyone who's ever been in love will be able to recognize this in the film.  It's sweet, it's touching, and it's very funny, but at times it can even be a bit heartbreaking.

It's wonderful to see Joaquin Phoenix in a role so tame and honest like Theodore.  He has to carry the movie with his face and his voice.  95% of the film he is reacting to someone who isn't even on screen.  But, for some strange reason, we care about his relationship.  We long, like Theodore longs, for Samantha to become real and for them to ride off into the sunset together.  On the other hand, we feel pity for Theodore as the only person he's able to make a romantic connection with is a computer, while he's missing someone right under his nose (Amy Adams).  His acting is fantastic and real.  Theodore is a real person with parts of himself missing or ripped away from a devastating break up.  His connection with Samantha is about learning to love again and picking up the pieces and putting himself back together again.

The strangest thing about the movie though is the "acting" from Scarlett Johannson.  It is her voice that steals the show.  She knows just the right way to say everything, the right way to giggle, the right way to moan, the right inflection when trying to be cute or when trying to be firm.  You will fall in love with her just as Theodore does.  I doubt it, but this could quite possibly be the first time someone receives an Oscar nomination for an acting category while never actually being seen on screen, and it wouldn't be unjustified at all.

Her was a beautiful and funny film.  One of the best of 2013 and a great movie for anyone who's ever had someone special in their lives, whether lost or kept.  It transcends the romcom genre, with a little sci-fi mixed in, and it's refreshing to see how any one of us could be a Theodore falling madly in love with a Samantha.  This is a highly recommended film.


Monday, December 30, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis: Fare Thee Well My Honey

There's a certain expectation one has when viewing a Coen Brothers film.  One, it's going to be very unconventional.  It will follow no Hollywood structure in the slightest.  Two, it will be stranger than most films average movie goers are used to seeing.  And three, it's going to be a great movie.  There are only a handful of writer/directors active in the industry right now that we can put our faith in that their films will be great no matter what and the Coens are among that list.  They haven't really made a bad film yet.  They've made less-great films, even one mediocre film, but a bad film... no.  Hasn't happened, and at this point, I see no way that it will happen. Their newest feat Inside Llewyn Davis follows suit to their not-following-suitness of their lengthy careers.  It's a darkly funny, meditative, musically brilliant, highly enjoyable film.

One thing I've gotten a little tired of as of late as far as the Coens are concerned are the character studies without any sort of character change or life altering.  I understand that there is a certain realism to that where you understand that some people never change and sometimes bad things happen to good people and life goes on and whatnot.  But, they've employed this tactic to their last few films: No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, True Grit, and now this one.  And it's only the Coens who can have such a melancholy outlook on life and film that can get away with it and it still referred to as brilliance.  Because it is.  The title character Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer, is a dick.  He got a small taste of fame, a record, and a shot at the big time with his partner "back in the day".  But, since his partner jumped of the George Washington bridge, he's constantly wandering New York looking for that one shot of fame once more.  Doing this he crashes on couches, he borrows money, he ostracizes nearly everyone he knows, and it's all for one outcome-- that his life will always be this way.  It's a downer thought that maybe sometimes life is just going to take it out on you no matter how hard you try.

To make matters even more complicated, Llewyn has found out that Jean, a former lover of his, who is now presently one of his least favorite fans, is pregnant and needs money for her abortion.  Llewyn, of course, has none.  He decides to take one last shot at a gig by traveling to Chicago to audition for a large venue.  He travels with an ex jazz musician and curmudgeon played by John Goodman (who is fantastic in every single Coen brother film).  Llewyn is given a glimpse into his future if he continues on the path that he's on, and it's not a pretty one.  Yet, all of these situations that arise, all of the obstacles that come into play in Llewyn's life... they seem to have no affect on him other than beat him down further.  He doesn't stop to contemplate his life or how he treats those around him or what he needs to do in order to bring balance to the force.  He's going to continue to be a dick and hope for the best possible outcome.

What the Coens do that no other director would have the ability to do is make Llewyn a likable guy.  With the way they defy convention in their writing and directing, we watch Llewyn treat others badly, but when it's reciprocated upon him, we feel bad for the guy.  We want him to succeed.  Why?  Who the hell knows.  It's because the Coen Brothers decided that's the way we would feel.  "Newcomer" Oscar Isaac is fantastic as Llewyn too, playing him with such dark subtlety and angst.  He's what I think of as the epitome of 60s folk-- the look, the sound, everything.  And, the magic of the brothers comes to light as they actually made me not completely hate Carey Mulligan in a film.  She's actually very good in it, and gets some of the biggest laughs.

This film is a definite Oscar contender for sure.  And, it's soundtrack is as good as their last musical feat O Brother Where Art Thou.  In the caliber of Coen Brothers films, I would say it ranks near the top of the middle.  Right around Burn After Reading, Barton Fink, and A Serious Man.  But in the realm of 2013 films this is definitely among the top of the class.


The Wolf of Wall Street: A Wonderful Clusterf*ck Of Insanity

First, let me start by saying that The Wolf of Wall Street is batshit insane!  It's a movie that people watching on drugs even go "whoa!"  Keanu Reeves wouldn't even be able to believe it.  It's perfect Scorsese.  It's an unapologetic look at the life of Jordan Belfort - self made douchebag.  This dude just wanted to be a stock broker and ended up doing... well... a lot of illegal shit, making more money than I can fathom, and becoming one of the most awesome anti-heroes in film.  You know, like every Scorsese film.

The film is three hours on the dot of pure madness.  What's great is that the film could've been played as a drama all the way and it would've been some seriously mental shit on screen that was very difficult for the audience to watch.  However, instead of wagging their judgmental fingers at the lives of these characters, DiCaprio and Scorsese decided to go the comedy route.  Granted, it's an incredibly dark comedy, it is still probably the funniest movie I've seen all year.  These are despicable people doing debaucherous things.  And, for some reason, we love every minute of it.  It was a bold move for the filmmakers to go the route that they went, but because they did, we've ended up with probably the best movie of 2013.

Like I said before, DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a stock broker who winds up getting so astonishingly rich that he's able to use his money for nearly any heinous feat of his choosing.  Yes, he's the decay of society in a nutshell, but he could've wound up more evil than he was.  In a Scorsese film, you're expecting him to wind up being a drug kingpin, whacking guys in the knees with baseball bats and murdering a bunch of people before going off to witness protection for the rest of his life or getting killed.  He was a white collar criminal.  He was able to employ hundreds of people and make them stinking rich as well.  On the other side, he's a drug addict, a sex addict, a white collar criminal, and a pretty terrible husband.  His best friend is Donnie, a jew'd out Jonah Hill, joins in on the "fun" with Belfort only to wind up on the wrong side of the law just as much.  I can't help but think if this movie had been made in the 90s that the role of Donny would've gone to Joe Pesci.  Watching Belfort's rise to power, his enjoyment in power, and his downfall is some of the most entertaining filmmaking this year.

Scorsese is also very unapologitic in his depiction of Belfort's unabashed hedonism.  This is truly a no-holds-barred film.  There's more nudity in the film than a late night skinemax show, there's more drugs than a documentary about Colombia.  There are more uses of the word 'fuck' in this film than any other film in the history of film!  It's a total clusterfuck of sheer madness, yet it's so enjoyable watching these rich douchebags taking the American dream and dropping a fat deuce right on it.

Yes, at times the film can be a bit masturbatory in it's hedonistic tendencies, yet every bit seems to be as important as the next.  It's important to see that Belfort isn't an awful human being (even though he is).  He's not a bad guy (even though he is).  And his lifestyle choices and circumstances he could've easily avoided, led to his fall from power.  It's a great character study of one of the most interesting people I've ever come across.

The acting is superb as well.  I've always loved DiCaprio as an actor and there will be a time that he finally nails that Oscar.  I don't think this is the time (I think the film will just be too much for Academy voters), but again he gives a fantastic performance.  Watching the man on a bad Quaalude trip try to role himself out of a building and into his car for a solid five minutes of film, is both impressive and hilarious.   Hearing the vulgar things coming out of his mouth, watching him do unspeakable acts like snorting cocaine out of the ass of a hooker... is so un-DiCaprio that it appears as though he's really amped up his game -- a game that needed no amping whatsoever.

The biggest surprise here, however, is Jonah Hill.  As much as I want to believe that he's a one-note actor and probably a dick in person, the kid can act.  And showing your acting skills next to an acting God like DiCaprio is no easy feat.  He could've easily hammed it up with the Jew act and made his character into a caricature of the real guy, but he's actually a believable person.  You like him, even though you hate him.  He's funny, even though he's deplorable.  And he steals nearly every single scene he's in.

I loved this movie and I will watch it many more times in my life.  It's certainly not for everyone.  It could quite possibly be the most R rated film I've ever seen and some of the things Scorsese gets away with was a little astonishing.  However, it all works.  It all fits.  It's a story about a hateful person, yet you love watching this guy every second of the way.  What a perfect way to end 2013.


Friday, December 27, 2013

12 Years A Slave: Here Oscar, Oscar, Oscar!!!

Hey, I like a slave movie just like the next guy, but do they have to be so emotional???  Okay, yes, I understand that dealing with slavery is a lot like dealing with... well, anything slave-related and there is a significant amount of baggage that comes along with it, but it just feels that every time a movie like this is released it's more about how much of a lock for that Oscar it can be rather than telling a great story.  The story of Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped from his family and sold into slavery for the next 12 years is a heart-wrenching and harrowing tale, but the whole time I couldn't help but feel as though each scene was shot with a picture of a gold statue in front of the director's eyes.

There are moments of prolonged camera shots that are overt and unnecessary.  The dialogue is strangely written as if it were for a play, not a movie.  Even the most uneducated slaves still speak better and more educated than most people today.  But, the performances are fantastic.  Mostly Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender.  Ejiofor plays Solomon, an innocent man who only wants to rejoin society as a free man and get back to his family.  Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, Solomon's malevolent slave owner.  He's a disgusting and horrid human being with a chip on his shoulder and an eye on Solomon.  Solomon's journey is a miraculous one, but one that just seems a little bit too dramatic and searching for that Best Picture announcement.  I know it's ridiculous to call a movie like this overly dramatic, but come on... it ain't no Amistad.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Find Yourself... In The Himalayas

Ben Stiller has done something truly incredible.  He's able to show his range as a director as well as an actor and produce a very good film.  The film has gotten a lot of flack from critics, but it's undeserved.  Sure, some of the moments are forced and a bit emotionally manipulative, but it all works.  It's a beautiful film to look at with some great cinematography and a great cast.

Stiller plays Walter, a dreamer, who hasn't actually accomplished anything in his life.  He loves Cheryl played by Kristin Wiig, but is too inside his own head to even approach her.  Through some circumstances involving his job, he's off on an adventure to Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, the Himalayas.  During his travels, he discovers himself and realizes his life can be just as great as his dreams.  Sounds hokey?  Yeah, it does sound hokey.  But it doesn't play out that way.  This is a quaint little film that I thoroughly enjoyed and can't wait to watch again.


American Hustle: Somebody's Getting Played By Everybody

Play close attention because everyone plays everyone in this film.  If you turn away for a second, you're gonna miss it.  The movie plays off like a magic trick.  Except it's not hokey.  It's not juvenile.  It's not forgotten soon after.  It plays off like real magic, with real misdirection, and real brainpower. 

American Hustle is one of the best films of the year.  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner are all fantastic and at the top of their games.  Bale is a scumbag, but a very likable scumbag you actually feel sorry for (a role I've never seen him play before).  Cooper is a scumbag, but a scumbag trying to do good that you actually kinda hate.  Adams is a scumbag, but a hot scumbag that you secretly want to be with Bale.  Lawrence is a scumbag, the most vile disgusting piece of trash in the film (and she's excellent at it).  Renner is the only one in the film who I wouldn't deem a scumbag, but he's the one that gets the most screwed over.  It's a beautiful film, with sharp dialogue and a great story.


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: By The Hymen Of Olivia Newton-John!

Let's face it.  It was going to be exceptionally difficult to replicate the magic that the first Anchorman had.  Ten years later, these aren't characters anymore, they're caracatures.  So, writing them into a cohesive movie without it seeming like they were acting like the characters they used to be was going to be troubling from the start.  I had a few concerns going into it: re-used gags were going to fall short, they were going to over-use the Brick schtick, and Burgundy was going to come off as too pompous and annoying for any of us to like him anymore.

Thankfully, only one of my concerns came true.  They did re-use gags, but they amped up the comedy and weirdness that it was okay.  They did have Burgundy come off as pompous and annoying, but somehow it still made us like him.  However, they did over-use Brick and he was the least funny character in the film.  Him and his love interest were nothing short of terrible.  It was unfortunate because used sparingly could've generated way more laughs.  It's a funny film, it just doesn't have the magic of the first one.


Saving Mr. Banks: Heavy, Heart-warming, Film

Advertised, not necessarily as a kids movie, but with Walt Disney at it's center, this movie is a lot more heavy than you'd expect.  It's not entirely about the struggle Walt Disney had in getting the rights to Mary Poppins from it's author P.L. Travers, but more about why Travers' background leads to her not wanting to sell the rights to Disney.  There are flashbacks to her childhood when her hero of a father's alcoholism leads to his own personal downfall.

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are extraordinary in their respective roles.  The acting is fantastic and watching what happened behind the scenes between these two is a lot of fun.  But, the emotional weight is almost too much to carry, especially families taking small children.  The tone of the film often shifts too abruptly as well.  It was marvelous to watch two iconic actors play two iconic people, but the film was just a little bit too much for one sitting.  Especially a film starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.


Oldboy: A Korean Spike Lee Joint

This is another instance where I watched the foreign version before the American remake.  Sometimes us Americans have the ability to clean up a foreign film, take out all the fluff, and put in that great American film making sentimentality that makes our films so "great".  I personally think that there was an improvement in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo film.  However, an improvement in Oldboy there was not.

It's a strange film.  And it translates well in Korean.  It's weirdness flows steadily and smoothly throughout and, oddly enough, it makes sense.  Here, in our newest version, it feels forced.  If I hadn't seen the original, I'd have to be wondering how a guy who'd been locked away for 20 years can suddenly take on a hundred dudes all at once with only a hammer and win.  In the original, the thought never crossed my mind.  It wasn't a complete failure of a remake, it just didn't have the "it factor" that the original Korean version had.


Homefront: Statham In The South Still Beats Bitches Like Statham... Anywhere

I love Jason Statham movies.  They're never going to win any awards.  The acting is not particularly stellar.  The story is not particularly great.  But watching a badass like Jason Statham beat people to death with his bare hands is something of a guilty pleasure of mine.  And when I saw that there were actual decent actors in his latest feat, Homefront, well then I knew I had to get over and see it.

The result is better than your typical Statham vehicle.  There's less violence in favor of story, but the story actually holds your interest.  It's fun to see Statham battle deep south rednecks and square off against James Franco's Gator character.  I did wholeheartedly enjoy this film, even though I probably shouldn't have.  Had it been another actor, I'm not sure I would've given it a chance, but seeing as how it was Statham, I may be a little bit on the biased side.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Viva La Revolucion!

I liked the first movie... but I felt it was a little disappointing.  I read the first book and the movie just didn't hold up as well.  It was missing just a few key elements that could've made it gone from good to great.  So, I decided not to read the other two books in favor of enjoying the films.  This is some backwards-ass thinking, but whatever, I like movies.

So, this second installment of the Hunger Games franchise was exceptional.  I thought it was fantastic and much more matured than it's predecessor.  The acting was better, the CGI was better, the story was better, and it actually didn't suffer too much from "middle-movie-syndrome".  Other than its ambiguous ending, this film could stand alone.  The actors have really made it their own, the direction has stepped up the game, and I'm extremely excited for the third film.


Last Vegas: The Hangover XXXVIII

I know.  I know.  There's no reason for this review to even be on here.  It looked terrible from the trailers and I shouldn't have seen it.  But, I'm sorry, I have a fondness for every actor in here, in particular Kevin Kline.  I've been waiting for the dude to do another comedy for a long while and if this is the one he chose, then he gets my "I wonder" money.  And the result is... better than you'd expect.

From the trailer, it looked as though the writers went for the easy jokes, the old people humor and didn't channel any of what made The Hangover such an success.  And to an extent, this is true.  But, it also has a lot more funny in it than I expected.  Kline and especially Morgan Freeman will make it hard to keep that scowl on your face.  It's not a great movie by any stretch, and it's not a movie I will probably ever see again, but it was a fun time and I actually enjoyed myself.


Bad Grandpa: Jackass Lite

Why do we, as Americans, in a somewhat civilized society love watching the Jackass films so much?  Does it have anything to do with our inner child wanting to perform such ridiculous and body-harming acts that we see these idiots perform on television?  Is it that we're too afraid to do it ourselves so we have our surrogate jackasses do it for us?  Of course it is.

Bad Grandpa was actually quite hilarious.  There were moments where I was laughing so hard, it made it difficult to breathe.  However, it just didn't retain that same level of laughter the other Jackass films were able to stronghold.  There were too many luls in-between laughs.  Don't get me wrong, there were still plenty of laughs to be had.  It just wasn't as balls out as I expected it to be.