Here’s a series of short reviews I’ve had the time to sit down and write. These will be my last reviews of the year, but that doesn't mean I'm quite done with the year yet. I still have plenty more to say about certain films, and it helps that until The Monuments Men comes out, there's nothing being released that interests me. In a few days, I'll be getting around to a couple of special features I plan on doing. One will be the list of the worst films I've seen all year, and one will be of the best I've seen all year, so I hope you'll join me for those in the future.
August: Osage County:
Where to begin? This seemed like it might have been a fantastic film. A film written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts, and featuring a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, this sounds like absolute GOLD! How could this go wrong? As it turns out, it doesn’t go so much “wrong” as it is just uncontainable. This film definitely runs all over the place, from its awkward editing, the overly wordy script, to the hit or miss performers. Oddly enough, one of these happens to be Meryl Streep. No doubt that Streep is an actress of legendary status, but she gives one seriously hammy performance. Not that I can’t appreciate a little ham, but this is seriously over the top - and incredibly self-aware - to the point that she can’t even have a meal without visible teeth marks on all the furniture in the background. I find myself drawn to the more low key performances (Or, at least, low key for THIS movie) from the likes of Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, and Benedict Cumberbatch. One thing that can be said of the actors, however, is that they all knock it out of the park during that epic dinner scene halfway through. Now, if only the rest of the film lived up to those standards…
**1/2 / *****
The Book Thief:
Set in World War 2 era Germany, The Book Thief tells the story of a young girl moving in with her new foster parents, learning to read through many books she comes across, and creating a friendship with a young Jewish man taking refuge from the Nazis in her new home. It’s a delicate and beautifully crafted film to be certain, but one that does feel very predictable. I’ve said before that just because something is predictable doesn’t mean it’s bad, but the story feels especially by the numbers, and for a film of this subject matter, you do get the feeling that they’re playing things very safe. At least the performances of the cast make it all worth the experience, especially from those of Sophie Nelisse and Geoffrey Rush. Also, anything featuring a score by the legendary John Williams comes with my immediate recommendation.
*** / *****
Dallas Buyers Club:
I’m beginning to think Matthew McConaughey never sleeps. On top of having a banner year in 2012 with Magic Mike, Killer Joe, and Bernie, his sudden career resurgence continued in 2013 with Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club. Not to mention that he has Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar lined up in November, but I’m getting ahead of myself now. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey, in as much a transformative role as ever, plays Ron Woodruff, a homophobic, drug-addicted Texas man who, in 1985, was diagnosed with HIV and given thirty days to live.
When a drug called AZT failed to help his condition, he turned to smuggling anti-viral medications unapproved by the FDA, creating the Dallas Buyers Club, where for a monthly subscription, AIDS patients would be welcome to all the medication they required. A wonderful character study throughout, the depiction of Woodruff is hypnotic from the very beginning. Benefitting from an excellently written script and superb direction, Matthew McConaughey delivers what is, hands down, the best performance of his career. While the film may paint him as a heroic figure, it’s not always in the traditional way.
While he can be quite witty, and noble in getting his cause off the ground, he can also be a real douchebag, at least, initially, especially when his help extends only to those who can pay up for the medication. It’s here where his behavior can be absolutely repulsive, and yet, we still manage to be won over by him by the time the film even ends. It’s a gradual evolution that feels affecting without being overly sentimental, and McConaughey nails every nuance with perfection. Not to be forgotten is Jared Leto as Rayon, a transgender who helps Woodruff in his day-to-day routine deals, and pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Working as a heartfelt antithesis to McConaughey’s initially foul personality, Leto works as a witty, charming, but also tragic character. Oscars for one, or both of them, please!
****1/2 / *****
Inside Llewyn Davis:
Inside Llewyn Davis, along with being one of the better films of the Brothers Coen, Joel and Ethan, is perhaps their most touching one yet. The writing is sorrowful, but still very elegant and timeless, much like the wonderful folk music used throughout the film. The character of Llewyn, so caught up by his repetitive lifestyle (repetitive in a good way), and played terrifically by Oscar Isaac, just pours his heart into these songs, and you can feel every ounce of anguish with each note. Not every character he comes in contact with is all that interesting (though, that's rarely the case), but the performers are so well casted here (including a very poignant appearance from F. Murray Abraham), and the use of the numerous songs are just heartbreaking. The sound mix is amazing!
****1/2 / *****
I have no doubt that Lone Survivor means a lot to director Peter Berg, and is a marked improvement over his unintentionally hysterical Battleship, but the writing here is weak. I want to love this story more than I do, but it feels quite clichéd, the jingoism and near-patriotism propaganda are distracting, and I just wasn't invested in the characters. Don't get me wrong, the actors are all trying very hard, but I feel like I learnt nothing about or from them, and they have virtually no identity. I kept identifying characters by the actors playing them, and that's never good.
However, this is a movie where execution does help. Even if the writing is weak, Berg's direction is competent, and very well balanced. The pace at which the movie moves (and this thing really does move) is great, especially in the action heavy second half. The numerous, visceral shootout scenes are pretty prolonged, but they're not "breathless" per se. Berg knows when to take a break, and let a scene breathe, even if it's not for very long, but it fits given the state of the characters. They're shot well, and they sound fantastic. The sound mix is very traditional, but very well executed, balancing all the audio out excellently, and highlighting one of the year's most impressive achievements in sound editing (and given sound designer Wylie Stateman's enviable pedigree, such a thing is hardly surprising).
*** / *****
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones:
Why should I even bother?
* / *****
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by and starring Ben Stiller as the title character, a frequent day-dreamer who goes on a cross-global expedition to locate a world renowned and secretive photographer, is something of a mixed experience for me. First things first, this is definitely a heartwarmer. When I look at the beautiful photography and visual effects work, the sentimental but sincere tone, and the wondrously epic scope of the story, I can tell that Stiller is pouring his heart and soul into this film. However, I just don't think it all connects together as well as it should. I think the movie feels so at odds with itself tone-wise. This doesn't necessarily come from the zone-out sequences (which did give me quite a good laugh when Walter would snap back into reality), but a hefty chunk of the comic relief (specifically with Patton Oswalt's off-screen EHarmony employee) feel mismatched.
I don't think the characters Walter comes in contact with are always interesting (Adam Scott, who I love, couldn't have been any more one-note), although a big scene featuring Sean Penn was absolutely wonderful. The story has so much uplifting ambition, even if it doesn't fully realize that vision. Don't get me wrong, the substance is there, and they do take time out of the film to address it, but at the end of the day, as enjoyable as it may be, Stiller falls short of the mark. At the very least, he took the phrase "go big, or go home" to heart.
*** / *****
The Wolf of Wall Street:
“Beware of his heart of gold. This heart is cold. He loves only gold.”
There is no better way to describe the lead character of The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, than with these lines from Shirley Bassey’s theme song from Goldfinger. A long anticipated release from the incomparable Martin Scorsese, and perhaps some of the most fun I’ve had with any movie of 2013, the film raises many questions. “What lies behind the fascination of such massive con artists?” “Are these actions just doomed to keep repeating over and over?” “How do the James Bond films keep working their way into my reviews so long after my retrospective has concluded?”
This is one of the most graphic, immoral, and ridiculous movies I've ever seen... And yet, why could I never stop watching? I guess a lot of that is due to the very satirical tone that the direction and writing employs. For instance, simply watching Belfort’s dinner scene with Matthew McConaughey’s character immediately gives you an idea of the vibe they’re going for. It’s unapologetic in its unpleasant nature, and is all the better for it, and highlights one of the movie’s strongest thematic ideals of excess, showing how, after all the fun dies down, this level of excess eventually makes Belfort more miserable as his lust continues to grow, and with seemingly no way to satisfy it.
Among the movie’s best elements is the character of Jordan Belfort. He's what I consider to be an unlikable character done right. He's so crude, repulsive, reckless, deceitful, and all around one of the most despicable characters ever put on screen, but somehow, both screenwriter Terence Winter, and Leonardo DiCaprio somehow make him extremely charismatic, and hysterical. He knows he's a heartless beast, and he loves EVERY minute of it. Of course, DiCaprio - continuing what I thought of his Django performance last year - relishes in chewing the scenery, and gets completely lost in the role. A late scene where he's high on Quaaludes is an incredible showcase of physical acting, and perhaps one of the most uncomfortable, yet funniest sequences I’ve seen in any movie this year. Those first two hours are such a rush, much to the credit of Scorsese’s longtime colleague Thelma Schoonmaker, but the third hour is where the movie starts to drag. It's the first time that I ever noticed the length of the film, and it is where the whole experience seems to crumble under its own weight. Still, it wasn't enough to destroy my immense enjoyment.
****1/2 / *****