Short takes: Krampus, Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 & Creed

Krampus

Krampus — Krampus is a delightful, deranged revision to the standard dysfunctional family Christmas film.  It begins as one, with a slew of perfectly cast character archetypes — Toni Collette as a controlling mom, David Koechner as her gun-toting, obnoxious brother-in-law — trapped inside a home for the holidays.  The first third of the movie is sharply written, but fairly standard.  They bicker at dinner, pick at each other’s life choices and complain about the cooking.  Then Max (Emjay Anthony), a young boy teetering on the edge of believing in Santa, is ridiculed by his cousins into tearing up his letter for the North Pole.

From here, Krampus comes unhinged in the best possible way.  Max’s lack of faith disturbs St. Nick’s evil twin, a monstrous, horned demon who lands in the neighborhood with a band of demented elves and possessed Christmas toys.  Director Michael Dougherty orchestrates a gleeful spectacle of it all, finding a perfect tone that blends absurdity with terror.  From gingerbread men cackling as they fire a nail gun at someone to a giant clown jack-in-the-box that eats children, Krampus is filled with some wonderfully terrifying imagery.  The ending slightly cheapens the overall effect of everything before it, but I can see this movie becoming a welcome holiday alternative whenever someone suggests that we watch The Santa Clause for the 800th time.  Grade: B

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Short Takes: Mockingjay Part 1, Whiplash, Force Majeure & more

Hunger Games Mockingjay

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 – The premiere dystopian young adult franchise continues its gradual steps forward in quality in this third installment, which is slightly more above average than the second.  In Mockingjay Part 1, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is at the center of a propaganda machine for a rebel group attempting to overthrow the sinister, Donald Sutherland-led central government.

This set-up, whether intentional or not, makes this third Hunger Games at times feel like a commentary on franchise filmmaking.  The rebellion’s leaders critique Katniss’ blank, disinterested performance in the propaganda in the same way Lawrence was picked apart for her apathy in the first film (to her credit she has vastly stepped up her game since then).  That’s the most interesting thing about Mockingjay, aside from seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore share the screen as those scheming rebel leaders.  Director Francis Lawrence choreographs the uprising with just enough ferocity to make it resonate while still restraining it enough for a PG-13 rating.  Grade: C+

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Short Takes: Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Only Lovers Left Alive & More

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Edge of Tomorrow- This Tom Cruise action vehicle, directed by Doug Liman, is an occasionally thrilling summer spectacle.  Cruise plays Cage, a military talking head who is thrust into a world of combat that he isn’t prepared for.  The movie utilizes Normandy invasion imagery to ground its sci-fi trappings.  Cage is a man doomed to repeat the same beach invasion every time he is killed in combat.  He and Rita (a terrific Emily Blunt) are tasked with stopping the aliens from massacring everyone on Earth, restarting their mission every time Cage dies.

Liman keeps Cage’s repeating day varied, but occasionally indulges in redundant beach combat sequences.  The movie doesn’t develop its romance subplot well enough to create a satisfying payoff at the end, but Cruise and Blunt are reliably strong screen presences so it still sort of works.  Grade: C

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2014 Oscars: Matt’s Predictions

There are a lot of worthy contenders at this year’s Oscars, and even more oversights (Also, water is wet).  Few of the best nominees are front-runners or sure-fire bets, so during Hollywood’s annual night of back-patting I’ll mostly be tuning in for potential upsets and also pretty excited that Seth MacFarlane isn’t hosting.

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

Best Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

  • Will Win: American Hustle.  Like last year’s winner, Argo, this is an un-upsetting ’70s period drama that plays at prestige and doesn’t feel the need to really deliver it.  To its credit, it is much less self-serious. Of the nominees, though, this one and Dallas Buyers Club are probably the least deserving. I’m holding out for an upset from 12 Years a Slave.
  • Should Win: The Wolf of Wall Street.  The year’s best movie was nominated for Best Picture, but has little to no chance of winning.  My second favorite in the category, 12 Years a Slave, actually does and I’d be more than happy with that.  
  • Left out: Where do I even start? Spring Breakers never had a chance but I think I would have respected the Academy forever if they’d had the nerve to give it some recognition either here or for Best Cinematography or Editing.  I’d also throw in Frances Ha, The Bling Ring, Inside Llewyn Davis, Computer Chess and Rush.  That’s just sticking with the Academy’s English-language fixation.  Foreign language picks: A Touch of Sin, Blue is the Warmest Color and Like Someone In Love.

Alfonso Cuaron

Best Director: David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón pulled off a lot of impressive tricks with a skilled crew in Gravity, and the Academy will give him the directing trophy even as it hands away Best Picture to Hustle.
  • Should Win: It’s only natural that if I picked Wolf for Best Picture, Scorsese should take home Best Director.  However, I think Steve McQueen would be just as deserving a winner.
  • Left out: Harmony Korine for Spring Breakers, Jia Zhangke for A Touch of Sin, Sofia Coppola for The Bling Ring, Shane Carruth for Upstream Color, Noah Baumbach for Frances Ha, James Wan for The Conjuring.  I could go on and on.

TORONTO

Best Actor: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

  • Will Win: The McConaissance will culminate with an Oscar win in this category.  He was good in Dallas Buyers Club, but everyone else, even Bale, is more deserving of the trophy.
  • Should Win: DiCaprio gave the performance of the year and of his career (so far) in The Wolf of Wall Street.  I’m starting to feel like a broken record giving it top honors in every category.  Ejiofor’s performance was so crucial to anchoring 12 Years a Slave in humanity, and if he somehow pulls off an upset in this category you won’t hear any complaints from me.  Same goes for Bruce Dern.
  • Left out: Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight, Joaquin Phoenix in Her and Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station.

Blue-Jasmine

Best Actress: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

  • Will Win: Cate Blanchett is pretty much a lock in this category.
  • Should Win: Blue Jasmine is the last Woody Allen film I plan on watching. That being said, when it came out, I praised Blanchett’s performance and even listed it in the top 5 performances of the year, and I still stand by that praise.
  • Left out: The biggest omissions in the acting categories this year are here. Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha and Adele Exachopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color both deserved slots over pretty much all of these people.  I’d also throw in Julie Delpy for Before Midnight.

Jared Leto

Best Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

  • Will Win: Jared Leto. Sigh.
  • Should Win: Jonah Hill. Sigh.
  • Left out: James Franco in Spring Breakers. Simon Pegg in The World’s End. James Gandolfini in Enough Said. Sigh.

12 Years a Slave Lupita Nyong'o

Best Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), June Squibb (Nebraska)

  • Will Win: I’m going to call this one for Lupita Nyong’o. I still have hope that the Academy won’t throw another trophy at Lawrence just because she yelled “SCIENCE OVEN!” with conviction.
  • Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o gave the most heart-wrenching performance of 2013. Overall this is a fairly weak category, though I’m also not going to deny how much June Squibb’s turn in Nebraska grew on me the second time through.
  • Left out: Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street, Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Color andJulianne Moore in Don Jon.

Her-Screenplay

Best Original Screenplay: American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell), Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen), Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack), Her (Spike Jonze), Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

  • Will Win: Spike Jonze, unless Hustle ends up pulling a sweep.
  • Should Win: Of these nominees, Bob Nelson for Nebraska.
  • Left out: Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for The Counselor is far and away the most original and misunderstood work from last year. I’d also nominate Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig for their collaborative effort on Frances Ha.

12 Years a Slave script

Best Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke), Captain Phillips (Billy Ray), Philomena (Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope), 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley), The Wolf of Wall Street (Terrence Winter)

  • Will Win: John Ridley.
  • Should Win: Ridley is a fine choice, but so is Terrence Winter and the collaborative team from Before Midnight (although how the hell is that adapted? Adapted from two previous movies by the same people? The Oscars are dumb).
  • Left out: Sofia Coppola for The Bling Ring.

Gravity_SBullock

My predictions in the remaining categories (Will Win, Should Win):

Cinematography: Gravity, The Grandmaster

Animated Feature:  (I didn’t see any of these)

Costume Design: American Hustle,The Grandmaster

Production Design: Her, Her

Editing: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave

Foreign Language Film: (I only saw The Hunt and I didn’t like it. They need to change the rules for this dumb category).

Documentary: The Act of Killing, The Act of Killing

Makeup: Bad Grandpa, Bad Grandpa

Original Score: Gravity, Her

Original Song: “Ordinary Love”- Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, “The Moon Song”- Her

Visual Effects: Gravity, Gravity

Sound Editing: Gravity, Gravity

Sound Mixing: Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis

REVIEW: American Hustle

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

American Hustle
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer & David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence

Two cartoonishly ’70s-looking men stand in an art gallery gazing at a Rembrandt painting, or at least what one of them thinks is a Rembrandt painting.  The other guy, a con man played by Christian Bale, explains with his thick Brooklyn accent that it’s a fake.

“The guy who made this was so good, that it’s real to everybody.  Now, who’s the master: the painter or the forger?” he asks.

It’s as if director David O. Russell is speaking through Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) at this moment, pondering the question a little too sincerely.  American Hustle, his sleek and contagiously energetic latest endeavor, is also somewhat of a forgery. It’s being released nationwide the week before The Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m curious to see which one is more widely praised, the original Scorsese or this loving knockoff.

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Short Takes: Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Oldboy and More

With 2013 winding down and noteworthy releases pummeling theaters in droves hoping for awards attention, here are a few movies I saw recently that I either didn’t have time to write about or didn’t have enough to say to merit a full review.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire- A big improvement over the first film.  The second half in particular is visceral and engaging.  Jennifer Lawrence actually looks like she wants to be here this time around too, turning Katniss into a full-fledged character instead of her deadly-but-lifeless turn in the original.

Catching Fire also feels more thoroughly alive and consistent.  Director Francis Lawrence revels in the excesses of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian nightmare but doesn’t lose sight of its dread.  He plunges right into the story from the get-go, which meant a somewhat rocky start.  By the time Katniss and Peeta are plunged back into a second round of Hunger Games, though, he paces it exceptionally well.  Grade: C+

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Oldboy- Spike Lee’s adaptation of Oldboy is better than the cult classic Korean film by Park Chan-wook.  Although it is more awkwardly stylized between an homage to that 2003 original and Lee’s own aesthetic sensibilities, it is driven by a mapped-out worldview that that movie sorely lacked.  It doesn’t come off as a revenge fantasy as much as a nihilistic journey into bottomless torment.

Oldboy is set in 2013, but the past seeps into nearly every scene.  As Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) sifts desperately through his life for the key to a torturous mystery, I was reminded more of David Cronenberg’s underrated 2002 film Spider than anything else.  The movie falters most when it tries to reenact scenes from the original instead of standing on its own bold feet. Grade: B-

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All Is Lost- This movie is almost completely dependent on an audience’s on-screen history with Robert Redford.  After a brief letter reading at the beginning, he doesn’t speak hardly at all for the rest of the movie, nor do we really get any sense of who this man is.

J.C. Chandor may have meant for this vagueness to convey an existential journey, but I left it feeling like I did after Gravity: admirable and efficient filmmaking driven by its own concept instead of any idea or purpose.  Redford is a weary, sometimes captivating old man at sea, but the movie is otherwise empty and dull.  Grade: C-

enders-game-tv

Ender’s Game- This movie will likely be eclipsed by all the glory being lauded on Katniss and company.  It’s actually a much more consistent and thrilling final product, and one of the best big budget studio releases of the year.

However idiotic and creepy the author’s views on gay people are, this (from what I understand) very loose adaptation is a terrifically conceived, well-acted spectacle. The action scenes are well-orchestrated without hovering over the violence, and the movie never loses sight of the fact that these are children being trained for war.  It also features several young stars who have given great performances in recent years, from Hugo’s Asa Butterfield to True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld and Little Miss Sunshine. Grade: B

Bastards

Bastards- Claire Denis’ latest is an unremittingly bleak neonoir about, among other things, sex trafficking.  She is a master of using expressive close-ups with her talented crew of performers; however, that humanity is in the service of a bleak and often overly-callous story. I walked away from Bastards not really feeling anything for the characters, but there are sequences so grotesque and haunting that the movie is undeniably effective.  I look forward to seeing it again and (hopefully) appreciating it a little more.  Grade: B-

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Enough Said- Nicole Holofcener has directed some of my favorite episodes of Parks and Recreation and Enlightened.  That being said, both of the movies I’ve seen by her (this and Please Give) are pretty unbearable.  Though there are a pair of excellent performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the late James Gandolfini, Enough Said feels half-conceived and lazily executed.  The conflict, that a woman is dating a friend’s ex and starts seeing his flaws the more she gossips about him, could be resolved in three minutes.  The story is so enthralled by a condescending upper middle class whiteness that it never seems to grasp that.  Grade: D+

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Passion- See Brian De Palma’s latest instead of the remake of Carrie.  It has a very, very uneven first half but by the time the corporate revenge narrative double and triple reversed I was enthralled at the spectacle.  The ballet/murder split-screen is among the finest and most beautifully done sequences this director has ever done, which is saying quite a bit.  Grade: C

carrie-2013

Carrie- De Palma’s Carrie is easily one of my favorite horror movies of all time, so I was extremely skeptical about a remake.  Kimberly Pierce seemed like the right choice to tap into the isolation of Carrie White, but the final product has none of the outcast humanity or grit of her other films.  Sadly, it felt like Stephen King’s story had been adapted to the world of an uninteresting CW show.  The crucial prom scene goes off without a hitch, and Julianne Moore is dementedly over-the-top as Carrie’s religious nut mother, but the movie is stale and uninteresting. Grade: D

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Silver Linings Playbook

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick (novel)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver

Silver Linings Playbook ends on the thrillingly odd culmination of a dance competition and an NFL football game, the result of a high stakes parlay bet between an obsessive compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan (Robert De Niro) and a rival gambler who favors the Dallas Cowboys (Paul Herman).  It is a fitting conclusion given that the rest of the movie, for all its seeming narrative conformity, is a rampant, lively piece of work that does what it wants, when it wants.

Part of the reason for this is that its two main characters, two damaged, mentally unstable people played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, do that as well and director David O. Russell is just trying to keep up with them. It could also be the other way around, though.  Russell has such a lively way with camera movement and atmosphere that the constant sense of motion and organized chaos seems exhausting. For the most part the performers, especially Lawrence, are more than up to the task.  She makes Tiffany such a force of nature that the miscasting of Bradley Cooper is barely noticeable.

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