Philomena

That Dame Judi Dench sure knows how to pick her roles. (Chronicles of Riddick being ignored of course.) Dench plays the eponymous Philomena in a star vehicle supported by a wonderfully understated performance from Steve Coogan. This film is a tad overbearing at times with tragedy around every single corner. If you can imagine the worst possible outcome in every situation that will be what happens. What mostly saves the film from being unbearable is Dench and Coogan who are both heart-wrenching and inspired.

Philomena has held a secret for 50 years. She bore a child as a teenager and was then banished to a convent to atone for this sin. The child was adopted against her will and she never spoke of the incident to anyone even after she left the convent. Now 50 years later she enlists the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith to see if he can help her find the son she lost long ago.

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Judi Dench is of course wonderful as the aging Irish woman who is one step back of the times. She is a devout Catholic and the contrast plays nicely off of Coogan’s intolerable cynicism as Sixsmith. The interplay between the two is the reason to watch the film. The plot is fairly heavy handed and contains all of the melodramatic elements one would expect from this type of material, but to the film’s credit it underplays most of the emotions rather than exaggerating them. Every scene between Dench and Coogan is wonderful while the rest fall flat or reek of manipulation. The tone is uneven and the emotional ride gets tiring by the end. Sadly, Dench and Coogan deserve a better script than the one they got, although Coogan’s credit as a screenwriter makes him fairly responsible for it as well as a victim.

Philomena is being marketed as a comedy which is baffling to me. There are a few laughs here and there but the story is far from a comedy. The story is depressing, but the manipulative tone belies some of the genuine emotions that come. All of this leads to a film that can’t be a comedy due to the nature of the story and is too contrived to be genuinely dramatic. The true heart of the film is the relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith. Their interplay is wonderful and a whole film could be supported of them just talking about life. Take the burden of tragedy out of the plot and I envision a non-romantic version of Before Sunset with these characters would be amazing. As it is, Philomena is a tad underwhelming.
Grade: C+

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Nebraska

Alexander Payne has crafted Nebraska in a remarkably specific style and tone that is very reminiscent of the subject matter itself. It’s flat. Nebraska is filmed in black and white which serves to mute everything and give it that sameness that is so closely associated with middle America. There are no false steps in the film, nor are there any detracting performances. I say all of this at the forefront to explain that there is nothing wrong with this film, and yet, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it because this film comes so close to everyday life around where I’m from that it ended up depressing me. That’s not the film’s fault and I wanted to make sure that level of transparency was intact before I begin.

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Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, an elderly man that thinks he’s won a million dollars in a marketing sweepstakes. Woody enlists the help of his son David (Will Forte) to travel from Montana to Nebraska to claim the prize stopping along the way to visit Woody’s hometown. The booze-addled Woody has little love for pretty much everybody and as the news of Woody’s winnings spread the vultures begin their hunt.

Bruce Dern is superb as Woody. He effortlessly portrays a man that has lost his tenuous grasp on anything resembling usefulness and somehow manages to make his eyes vacant and determined. Will Forte is primarily known for being a comedian and a fairly risqué one at that, but he has a common man vulnerability as David that he hasn’t shown much before. However, both leads are shown up by the wonderful June Squibb as Woody’s long suffering wife. She is charming in every scene she’s in and it’s a shame that she wasn’t in them all. Squibb is a treasure.

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Nebraska is a pitch perfect portrayal of small town life in the middle of nowhere. Everything is extremely well done from the top to bottom. I’m assuming even the craft services people were exceedingly competent. Even with all this it wasn’t a movie I enjoyed. I certainly connected with it, which may have been the problem. These are people that just exist with their greatest happiness coming from a new truck and a country song on the jukebox while they drink away the banality of it all. Sounds awful to me. Grade: B-

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller’s lack of belief in his audience is so immense that at one point he literally spells out the theme of the movie just to make sure everyone gets it. I do mean literally. He LITERALLY has words in the background of scenes telling the audience to grasp life. It could not have been more obvious what Stiller was attempting to get across if he had spoken directly to the camera. It is so heavy handed and derivative that it sinks under the weight of its own narcissism. Pure dreck with unbelievable performances and ridiculous coincidences. In its defense, I did like half of the opening credits.

Ben Stiller plays Walter Mitty, a man so devoid of a life that he can’t fill out an eHarmony profile. He has a crush on a co-worker, but doesn’t have the courage to ask her out possibly due to his frequent daydreams that are so all-encompassing he literally freezes in place and zones out regardless of where he is or what he’s doing. Sometimes he zones out mid-sentence. At no point does he prove that he can adequately function in society or hold a job of any consequence. Mitty is a negative assets manager for Life magazine which means he is in charge of film negatives used in the magazine. A famous photographer has sent in a roll of film which will be used as the cover for the last ever issue of Life with specific instructions on which picture should be the cover. The only problem is the picture isn’t on the roll. Does Mitty immediately go to his bosses and tell them that the negative was never there? Of course not. Instead he treks across half the world looking for the photographer. Why? Because he needs to seize life of course.

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Tonally the movie is all over the place. Part satire, part self-help, part inspirational, part comedy (I guess). It even goes for the aw shucks ending that it doesn’t even remotely deserve. There is zero realism at any point in the film and it is some of the laziest screenwriting I’ve ever seen. In his quest to find the photographer that apparently lives in a forgotten age before cell phones Mitty must even climb a Himalayan mountain. Most people would train or at least prepare for a mountain climb, but does Mitty? No of course not, because he’s seizing life and all. Never mind the fact that the kind of life seizing he partakes in is far more likely to be life ending. He fends off a shark with a briefcase for god’s sake.

This is a gigantic misstep for Ben Stiller who is not generally a bad director or actor, but could have fooled me here. Screenwriter Steve Conrad deserves to be publicly flogged for this atrocity if for no other reason than his obvious doubts that an audience can have coherent thoughts or be aware of subtext. Every decision was bad at every turn and it would probably be best if this movie was put on the shelf and forgotten. Grade: D+

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Top Ten of 2013

My top ten movies of the year. Feel free to offer your own opinions and let me know what you think.

Honorable mentions- Movies that just missed my cut- Frances Ha, Blue Jasmine, The Conjuring, and Prisoners.

Full disclosure- Movies that I wasn’t able to see but have garnered some critical acclaim- Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska, and Philomena.

10. The Wolf of Wall Street- Wolf is an unrestrained full on manic bonanza of rich people behaving like degenerates. There is enough cocaine and strippers in this to satisfy anyone’s debauchery needs, but it also contains a brilliant performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. Some editing issues and an overall too long running time are what keeps this from being higher on this list.

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9. Fruitvale Station- This is a powerful true story about a young man who was shot in the back by a police officer while handcuffed and laying on the ground. The film shows the last day of his life as he interacts with family and friends. The tragic story is all the more powerful as we know where the story is headed and we have to impotently watch him head there. Wonderful direction decisions from Ryan Coogler and a standout performance from Michael B. Jordan elevate this to a tragedy worth crying through.

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8. Inside Llewyn Davis- The Coens continue to fascinate with their well structured and confident films. Davis shows one week in the life of a folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961. Llewyn Davis’s selfishness and lack of regard for the situations of others make him hard to root for, but the longing for something out of reach and the passion he puts into his craft make him relatable as well. Solid storytelling.

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7. Before Midnight- Jesse and Celine are back again. It’s been 18 years since they met on a train in Before Sunrise. While the first two films focused on the wooing period with an emphasis on love, life, and the romantic nature of everything, Before Midnight shows the dark side that can exist when that love is followed. Both Sunrise and Sunset featured snapshots of love. It was easy for them to fall in love (Sunrise) and wax nostalgic about that one night (Sunset), but Midnight shows the mundane, boring, and even cruel elements that can surface when the timetable is elongated. Loving someone for one day is easy. Loving someone for 9 years is hard. Before Midnight dares to take romantic characters to places we weren’t expecting them to go and is a remarkably worthy addition to the series.

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6. Stoker- This is an exercise in style. Every frame in Stoker is beautiful with awe inducing shots and a visual palette to die for. Chan-Wook Park, of Oldboy fame, directs with his typical attention to detail using measured performances from his actors as a part of a larger visual story that he is telling. First time screenwriter Wentworth Miller serves an adequate script that has its issues but are overcome by the other filmmakers involved. Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowski prove adept at the dry and nuanced material, but it is Matthew Goode who is utterly remarkable as the creepy uncle moving into the family house. His performance is so reminiscent of Anthony Perkins on Psycho it is unnerving. While the style and story might not be for everyone this is the kind of material that film was intended for. It is poetry realized on screen.

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5. Captain Phillips- This movie can be summed up in one word- tense. This is a white knuckle grip your seat thriller that never lets up. Tom Hanks stars as the eponymous captain who fought and was taken captive by Somali pirates. Both sides are given their screen time and Barkhad Abdi shines in his role as the leader of the Somali pirate crew. The last scene with Tom Hanks is some of the finest acting I have ever seen.

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4. Gravity- Sandra Bullock and George Clooney alone in space. That is ostensibly the whole plot as written, but Bullock makes it so much more. This is a story of survival, both emotionally and physically, in a situation where a very limited number of people have ever been. Ultimately though, the story and performances have to take a backseat to the technological wonder of the film. An entire film taking place in zero gravity with ridiculously long takes should have been a disaster, but director Alfonso Cuaran makes it breathtaking.

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3. 12 Years A Slave- Steve McQueen’s unflinching take on slavery is brutal and uncompromising. Slavery is not a topic that is tackled often in film, especially with this kind of stark realism, and as a result 12 Years feels burdened. McQueen is trying to make you uncomfortable and you should be. Chwitel Ejiofor leads the cast as Solomon Northup who was a free black man that was stolen and sold into slavery with no recourse. Very strong supporting turns from Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender elevate Ejiofor’s performance and the film as whole giving the whole affair an unbearable feel while being extremely well made. This is not an entertaining movie and I will likely never watch it again, but that is a credit to the film and not a critique.

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2. Dallas Buyers Club- I don’t cry often during movies. I don’t cry often in general to be honest. I cried buckets during Dallas Buyers Club. As someone who has had to watch someone close fade away from a terminal disease this movie affected me deeply. This is a story of AIDS patients in the 1980’s with Matthew McConaughey starring as a good old boy who contracts HIV from all the drugs and unprotected sex he partakes in. AIDS was still at the time thought of as a homosexual disease and McConaughey’s character can’t figure out his positive test. When he is told about the results he asks how that can be because he “ain’t no faggot.” That pretty much tells you all you need to know about the character. He finds out about medicines in Mexico that are helping but aren’t sold in the US due to the FDA. He eventually figures out a way to obtain and distribute those drugs with the help of a transgender fellow AIDS patient named Rayon. Jared Leto’s performance as Rayon will stay with me forever. Watching people fight for life is hard and both McConaughey and Leto captured every heart breaking tragic aspect of it.

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1. Her- On its face Her is absurd. Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his phone. However, Spike Jonze manages to take that concept and craft something so beautiful and profound that it is mind boggling. Her is about so much more than a man and his phone. It is about what it means to be human. It is important in the sense that this future that is depicted is not that far away from our own. We are already trying to invent more and more ways for technology to replace any real human interaction and Her is a logical extension of that endeavor. Every frame of Her is beautiful, yet it is the sad sack vulnerability that Phoenix brings to the table that truly makes it one of a kind. This is a must see movie.

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There you have it. My top ten for 2013. For the record, the worst movie I saw this year was Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Feel free to let me know what you think or give me your top ten.

Inside Llewyn Davis

We all know that self-centered jerk who is never malevolent, but selfish and petty. The protagonist from the Coen Brothers’ latest film is exactly that person. Llewyn Davis can’t quite get his life in order and takes it out on those around him, which makes him instantly unlikable and utterly relatable. The Coens have crafted a slice of life tale of a folk singer in the 1960’s that rambles and detours as much as the folk music genre itself.

There is little to say about the plot itself of Inside Llewyn Davis. The film meanders and roams through Llweyn’s life with no overarching story to tell, yet the story feels complete at the end. Llewyn Davis is a New York City folk singer that can’t break though into the world of paid artist. He had a partner at one time and his new solo act can’t get traction anywhere. He is reaching the point where he has to choose a new field or a life of sleeping on the couches of various people. He has alienated all of his friends and family to the point where tolerance of him is diminishing. His life is slipping away.

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The Coens have long been masters of making tightly controlled and almost literary films. From Greek mythology to modern quasi-westerns the Coens have a unique ability to bring words to the screen. They have a history of using sparse visuals and static landscapes to bring the fullness of the language to the forefront and Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception. It is mostly through words (and songs in this case) that the Coens are able to weave their narrative. The visuals maintain their style, but are always there to serve the story. There is also a stark plainness to the setting for Llewyn Davis which completely feels like 1961 New York City. Everything feels authentic. Not only is nothing out of place, but the Coens don’t draw attention to things that detract from the story. While another recent film, American Hustle, took every opportunity to remind us that the story took place in the 70’s Inside Llewyn Davis’s 1960’s fades into the background where the scenery is supposed to be. It is the sign of a filmmaker that is confidant in the material.

First time lead actor Oscar Isaac is brilliant as Davis. His performance, both acting and singing, is extraordinarily confident. That confidence in his abilities is also shared by the directors as he is in nearly every scene. It is a credit to Davis’s talent that he is never overshadowed by a strong supporting cast of Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman who all turn in strong performances as well. As Coen brothers movies are typically far short of blockbusters, I hope enough people see this film so that Oscar Davis continues to get the kinds of roles he deserves.

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Inside Llewyn Davis is not the strongest film to come from the Coens. That being said, it’s better than most other movies. It has strong and well realized characters and has been made with the confidence of two directors that are sure of what they are doing. There are no wasted scenes in Coen movies. Oscar Isaac is superb with a talent for making Llewyn Davis sympathetic as he’s being a prick. This is a strong film from people who were sure of the story they wanted to tell. Grade: A-

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American Hustle

American Hustle is full of nice little moments and a couple of stand out performances, but ultimately it doesn’t quite add up. It is a confusing heist movie with strange character motivations and the biggest con of the whole affair seems to be the filmmakers insistence that the screenplay was finished. This isn’t to say that there are no enjoyable moments, because there certainly are. Christian Bale and Amy Adams shine in their parts with a realistic emotional connection to the story. Director David O. Russell continues to show his technical skill behind the camera, but it is his decision making that I question in this film.

The story loosely follows some of the players involved in the Abscam scandal in the 1970’s with Christian Bale and Amy Adams providing the bulk of the story’s focus. Bale and Adams play a con artist team specializing in small time money laundering and art fraud. They are caught by Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent who recruits them to work for him in exchange for their freedom. Cooper has wild ambitions and dreams of running the kind of big time operations that will get his name in the paper. Together the team works their way from small time deals to catching crooked politicians. The biggest monkey wrench in their plans is Christian Bale’s wife played by Jennifer Lawrence. The other problem is that the film is never clear on who the audience should be caring about.

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The downfall of American Hustle is not the performances, which are actually fairly solid. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are perfectly cast and perfectly realized. They have character arcs and realistic motivations for the most part. It’s when the spotlight moves to the periphery that the problems truly begin. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is fine and could even be considered good if it weren’t for the fact that it seems to take place in a different movie. At no point did I ever believe that Jennifer Lawrence could be married to Christian Bale or have a six year old son. Lawrence looks as if she’s playing dress up with her mom’s clothes. Bradley Cooper has a different problem in that he actually has two different performances. Cooper’s character changes drastically midway through the film with no clear explanations for why. The character Cooper plays at the onset of the film resembles the one at the end only in hairstyle.

Speaking of hairstyles, American Hustle really really wants you to know that it takes place in the 70’s. There are closeups and slow motion shots covering hair, suits, dresses, and dancing. Anything that is now associated with the 1970’s is given its screen time. This kind of decision making from David O. Russell is where the film really falters. Russell’s insistence of focusing on the side stuff bogs the film down and makes it feel far longer than its actual running time. He also has a problem with starting a camera shot low on a person and panning up. He does this numerous times throughout, particularly with Amy Adams who never put on an outfit that didn’t require double sided tape.

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These would be small annoyances if there weren’t so many of them. There is no one single thing that derails American Hustle, but a multitude of minor problems adding up to an uneven film and lost potential. Russell has made a heist film that tries desperately to be Goodfellas. It is nowhere near the quality of Goodfellas, and fails at being a good heist film as well. The best con artist movies have a strong character as the through line. The audience needs to know who’s trying to get the best of whom and films like American Hustle lose their focus when there are too many people involved. There is a solid two thirds of this film where it isn’t clear who is in charge which is only truly a problem due to the ending that was chosen. Without going into spoilers, the ending of this film doesn’t work because it wasn’t set up properly.

I have enjoyed David O. Russell’s movies and while this certainly isn’t a film that will tarnish his legacy it falls short of films like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Bale and Adams do their best, but they can’t overcome the script issues and Russell’s insistence on focusing on all the wrong things.

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Her

Her is beautiful and uncomfortable. It is a film about how far people are willing to go to fabricate the very things that make us human. Spike Jonze has crafted a sublime film that tackles the subject of human emotion with a deft touch. It is a slightly sci-fi love story that takes place in the near future under the most unusual of circumstances.

Theodore Twombley has recently split with his wife and he is merely existing. He avoids his old friends and splits his time fairly evenly between playing video games, having late night internet sex chats, and staring vaguely into space. He is haunted by the break up and has adopted a melancholic disposition as his face for the world having spent nearly a year withdrawing further into himself. Ironically, Theodore is employed as a letter writer for a company that specializes in crafting personal letters for people. If you want to send a letter to your husband to celebrate your anniversary you just send some information to the company and they will craft a heartfelt letter on your behalf. Memories can be manufactured.

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There is a new operating system on the market for the bluetooth like devices that are widely prevalent and Theodore is not prepared for the ramifications of his purchase. The operating system’s selling point is that it’s intuitive. It changes and grows the way humans do. Theodore answers a few questions and the OS is programmed specifically for him. A voice enters his earpiece and he is forever changed. This doesn’t sound like a computer and it isn’t long until Theodore is letting this OS fully into his life. Not long after that he has fallen in love.

Joaquin Phoenix grounds Theodore with a morose vulnerability that makes every action seem reasonable. There are few actors that can project hopelessness from their eyes and Phoenix takes it a step further by letting glimpses of joy break through in very guarded ways. It is a wonderful performance and one that can both enrich and devastate. Phoenix is also given the help of Scarlett Johansson’s voice in his ear. Johansson is amazing with only her voice to work with. She makes the self-named Samantha come alive and gives it a personality that never rings fake. What Phoenix and Johansson do with these characters is remarkable.

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Her works on every level. It is a story of love, loss, hope, communication, and the dirtiness of being human. There are questions throughout the film that touch on subjects that are both unique and universal. How much technology will we allow into our lives? Why do we feel that we can be more honest with a computer than we can with people? What defines a relationship and is it only valid if society is ok with it? The film asks all of these and many more, but often leaves the answers to the audience. Spike Jonze has brilliantly sidestepped any moralizing and left us with a poignant and graceful story about love in a digital age. Every frame of this film is wonderful and is most definitely worthy of an audience.

Grade: A+

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