Review: Her

Great acting and a unique look at the future more than make up for final third that drags just a bit. (Warner Bros./aceshowbiz.com)

Great acting and a unique look at the future more than make up for final third that drags just a bit. (Warner Bros./aceshowbiz.com)

I’ll have to admit that my interest level in Her was never quite high enough that I planned to go see it in theaters. Then there was the 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the praise and suggestions from friends, and an Oscar nomination for best picture. Well, after just a moment or two of consideration, I decided it was time to give the new film from Spike Jonze a chance. But a man falling in love with a computer…this couldn’t be that good…right?

Set in future day Los Angeles, the first thing this movie impressed me with was its visualization of how the world will look and how we as people will interact – or, cease to interact. It’s not a sci-fi picture, but the view of everything, from a hotel, to a train, to a phone booth, showed just how much technology has changed the look and feel of society. Then there’s the continuing disconnect of personal relationships among us as humans. Everyone is attached to their phones and devices on a seemingly 24/7 basis, which isn’t exactly a stretch to believe if you look at how we treat iPhones today.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a recently divorced, very melancholy man, whose job is to write personal love letters for people so they don’t have to put in that effort (again, this future is quite impersonal). He does a truly fine job at showing the heartbreak of divorce, the strain of emptiness, and loner mentality. But after purchasing the OS 1, the new operating system that’s more than just a computer program, everything is changed. The OS 1, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, feels and acts like a real person. Throughout the film, we witness Phoenix’s character go through the ups and downs of a real relationship with this OS 1 – or, Samantha. It begs certain questions: is what they have a real relationship? Is this a real and acceptable form of love? These topics, of which I’ve never seen put on film before, are touched on quite beautifully at times by Jonze and crew.

I gave praise to Joaquin Phoenix, as a man who literally falls deeply in love with a computer operating system, but I must also give a lot of credit to Amy Adams, who plays his neighbor. None of these roles are easy, and she gives a great performance of a wife at wit’s end, struggling to balance her sanity, love life, and career. It’s not surprising that the acting roles in a Spike Jonze film are tremendous, as we’ve seen a history of this is his previous efforts.

Were there a few moments of awkwardness, watching a man fall quite in love with an operating system? Sure. Did the last third of the movie drag on too much? Yes it did. But there was such a surprising amount of tender, emotional scenes, plenty of laugh out loud moments, and a truly bittersweet and fantastic ending as well. If you couple all of that with the great acting jobs, I can’t argue that Her was a success, that I never would have expected.

 

HER:original_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

With repetitious jokes, bad cameos, and everything else that could go wrong, Anchorman 2 turned out to be a complete bomb. (Paramount Pictures/aceshowiz.com)

With repetitious jokes, bad cameos, and everything else that could go wrong, ‘Anchorman 2′ turned out to be a complete bomb and waste of talent. (Paramount Pictures/aceshowiz.com)

The original Anchorman is widely regarded as a modern-day comedy classic of sorts, and has a ferocious cult like following. I, for one, never considered the original installment ‘great’, but rather a fun, good movie with a tremendous amount of quotable lines, and a great platform for Steve Carell. My expectations were only mild, if you will, coming into the much-anticipated, decade in the making sequel: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Well, consider me shocked, and in the worst possible way. This was not only a bad movie, it had to be one of the poorer films I’ve seen in recent memory.

All of the key players were back in this one – the big four (Ferrell, Carell, Rudd, and Koechner) – as well as a downright stupid amount of celebrity cameos. From understandable choices in Kristen Wiig or Vince Vaughn (again), to head scratchers like Kanye West, Drake, and Kirsten Dunst. For much of the movie I felt as if they were just plugging in big-time names just to have…big-time names. What’s the point of having Kanye West in this? He’s not funny whatsoever, and brings nothing but slightly cringe-worthy moments from his ‘acting’. The original movie had the classic TV station battle, with perfect cameos from hilarious comedians and actors. It didn’t need to rely on A-listers to grace the screen. This movie? Big name after big name, and useless appearance after useless appearance.

Speaking of the big four…they too, weren’t funny this time around. All of the jokes were exactly the same as the first film (a bit of a Hangover Part II syndrome) and maybe it’s because I’m 26 and not 16, but the humor just wasn’t clicking. I chuckled a few times and laughed once or twice, but everything seemed so forced and so repetitious. If the movie was a lot of improvisation, then I suppose you can blame the actors for the terrible jokes. But at some point, the script (as loose as it may have been) has to be questioned as well. Sure, the Anchorman movies are supposed to be goofy and bizarre…but this felt weird for the sake of being weird, and was terrible as a result.

It truly is a shame to see a good (again, not great) first movie get somewhat tainted by this horrible sequel. But, I suppose that is the normal course of action in Hollywood these days. My sincere hope is that Anchorman is officially done with, and Ferrell, Rudd, and Carell can all move on to other comedic projects where they’ll likely flourish (this one is a rare bomb for this kind of comedic ensemble). If there is a third installment, you can surely count me out.

 

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES: original_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

McConaughey and Leto deliver powerhouse performances in this tremendous film about the will to live. (Focus Features/aceshowbiz.com)

McConaughey and Leto deliver powerhouse performances in this tremendous film about the will to live. (Focus Features/aceshowbiz.com)

I know that it’s the same exact pattern ever year for movies, where most of the absolute best features are released in the final winter months. It’s the annual Oscar push. So, I suppose that it shouldn’t be any significant surprise that Dallas Buyers Club was one of the best films I’ve seen in 2013. What an absolutely tremendous and heart wrenching story. What extraordinary interaction and dialogue. And my god, what acting. This movie has made me say something I never thought I would every say: Matthew McConaughey was entirely terrific and completely deserves an Oscar nomination, at the very least, for his work (what?!).

The movie takes place in Dallas in 1985, where McConaughey is a real ‘Texan kinda man’ – electrician, bull rider, womanizer, heavy beer drinker, as well as an intense homophobe. Through drug use and unprotected sex, he learns that he’s contracted the epidemic known as the HIV virus and has 30 days to live. From trips to Mexico, China, Japan, Amsterdam, and everywhere in between it seemed, he starts to stockpile and research drugs that work, but aren’t approved at all by the FDA. He befriends Jared Leto’s character, Rayon, a cross-dressing, HIV positive, prostitute, and together, the most unlikely duo start the incredible successful Dallas Buyers Club. They, for a small fee, supply Dallas area HIV patients with drugs that actually work.

The story is so much more complex and beautiful that I can quickly summarize, and the moments between characters are so rich and incredible, that words can’t exactly do them justice. The back and forth between FDA and police and the Buyers Club, the trips to the emergency room and near death episodes, and the lasting friendships formed…are all so incredible to watch. The true story (well, based on a true story) is one hell of a tale, of a man’s defiance in the face of death, and the unlikely allies and friends that he makes along the way. From homophobe to friend. From a terrible person to one that is helping all that he can. The transformation is stunning.

What to say about the acting performances? Where to begin? Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, as the two leads, both deserve any award that they might receive. Both men were emotionally gripping in their deliveries, and in such different fashions. Each lost at least 30-40 pounds to play these HIV and AIDS patients, and the physical and emotional dedication to actually becoming Ron Woodroof and Rayon is so staggering to me. Acting is an art form, and these two made some beautiful art, giving the performances of their careers. Facial expressions, arguments, jokes: they nail all of it.

There are a number of scenes in Dallas Buyers Club that will hit you hard emotionally. Scenes that will bring tears to your eyes and sadness to your heart, moving you in such devastating ways. From beginning to end, this film is a huge success of human determination, overcoming bigotry, and friendship.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: original_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar half_barnstar(out of 4)

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence and an impressive supporting cast make 'Catching Fire' a huge improvement in the popular series. (Lionsgate Films/aceshowbiz.com)

Jennifer Lawrence and an impressive supporting cast make ‘Catching Fire’ a huge improvement in the popular series. (Lionsgate Films/aceshowbiz.com)

Of the three biggest and most popular book series among young adults in recent memory - Harry PotterTwilight, and the Hunger Games – I have read just one, in Harry Potter. I thought the books were some of the best I’ve ever read, and the movies were quite good as well. The other two series though? Little to no interest is putting it nicely (especially Twilight). But just a few weeks ago, I watched the first Hunger Games movie, and it ended up being almost exactly what I expected: silly, strange, unimpressive effects, childish, and just mediocre overall. So I was more than pleasantly surprised this past weekend when I saw, and very much enjoyed, the Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

There are plenty of good things to say about this movie, but one of the biggest and best changes was the transition from a kid-friendly or childish kind of movie, towards a more intense, violent, and gripping film. There are plenty of scenes that really would make me think twice about taking a pre-teen to watch this, even if they’d read the books. A fair amount of credit would have to go to the director, Francis Lawrence, for taking the franchise in a more adult direction while staying true to the uber popular books (I was assured this was indeed the case).

While I still can’t get over the oddities and strangeness of parts of the movie (the party in the Capital, Elizabeth Banks, etc.), it has a serious amount of damn good actors and actresses that helped transform this fantasy world into something that felt much more real and gritty. Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, and Philip Seymour Hoffman were all very, very good in their respective roles, and brought a certain legitimacy to the film. Jennifer Lawrence is one incredible young actress, who at age 23, is already an Oscar winner and lead of this worldwide phenomenon.

The special effects were improved, the story was darker and more intriguing, the acting was better, and it actually left me wanting to see the next installment in the series. When you combine all of those impressive aspects of a movie, it’s hard to say it was anything but good. Catching Fire was nothing that blew me away, but it was a tremendous amount of fun to watch and a healthy improvement over the first film in the Hunger Games trilogy.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE: original_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: 12 Years a Slave

Ejiofor and Fassbender deliver powerhouse performances in this chilling tale of slavery.(Fox Searchlight/aceshowbiz.com)

Ejiofor and Fassbender deliver powerhouse performances in this chilling tale of slavery.(Fox Searchlight/aceshowbiz.com)

There has never been a film with such brutal honesty about American slavery in all of Hollywood’s history. If there has been one, I haven’t seen it, and neither have most of the critics across the country who are praising this movie as a landmark achievement. Americans are quite embarrassed and shamed to talk about slavery these days, and rightfully so. This might be one reason that a Brit (Steve McQueen) ended up directing this story. And with an all-star cast, he achieved not only an outstanding film, but something powerful beyond words. It immediately elicits such a strong sense of guilt from you, as you’re once again reminded – with such horrifying and real imagery – that slavery was and is part of this country’s history.

The movie is based on the true story of a free African-American man living in New York state with his wife and two young children. Tricked and betrayed, he is suddenly chained on the wrists and ankles, his freedom now stolen. Torn from his family in the blink of an eye, he is brought from Washington to the south, where his life is forever altered when he’s sold as a slave. There are a few moments in this transitional period in the film that leave you so disgusted and heartbroken, it’s somewhat overwhelming. Little children being purchased like cattle, parents being sold to separate plantations. It all happened. It’s all true. That’s why it’s so revolting.

McQueen chose to direct 12 Years a Slave in the best way possible: the truthful and honest way. The audience gets a first-hand look at lynchings. You hear it, and you see it. We also see whipping and lashing that is so intense, it makes you remarkably squeamish. The constant use of the N-word, treating humans as if they are worse than animals, and most of all…the idea that God and scripture justifies this nature. It’s a torment to watch, but something that’s important to do.

The star-studded cast is led by outrageously good performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead character, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Michael Fassbender as plantation masters, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as a slave and friend to our main character. Paul Giamatti makes a good, but very brief appearance, as does Brad Pitt (although Pitt’s accent wasn’t too good, I should add). The shining stars, and ones that will most certainly be nominated come Oscar season, are Ejiofor and Fassbender. You need not do anything but look at Ejiofor’s face and expressions to understand the hell he’s enduring. And Fassbender, one of my personal favorite up-and-coming actors, plays his role with such blind hatred and filth, it’s incredible.

Much like Schindler’s List, this movie is so powerful and so graphic, that I don’t feel the need or want to see it ever again. That doesn’t diminish the film’s importance or success at all to me, but it’s something so depressing and gut-wrenching, I am making the choice not to witness this, at least for a while. And while it doesn’t immediately come across to me as a classic or ‘one for the ages’, there is no question it’s a damn good movie, with incredible acting and directing. It isn’t something you have to see it, but very much something you should. This is part of our history, and after watching 12 Years a Slave, you’ll realize even more, just how horrible that is.

 

12 YEARS A SLAVE: original_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks is outstanding in this pulse-pounding story on the ocean. (Columbia Pictures/aceshowbiz.com)

Tom Hanks is outstanding in this pulse-pounding story on the ocean. (Columbia Pictures/aceshowbiz.com)

Paul Greengrass hasn’t been around the Hollywood scene for too long, and had directed just four major motion pictures in the last decade prior to Captain Phillips. But with two of those previous films from the Bourne trilogy, you get the idea that he has nearly perfected the frenetic, incredibly intense action/thriller. This effort is no different, as the true story of Captain Richard Phillips (well, based on a true story), is told in an almost terrifying pace on the Arabian Sea.

In an interview on NPR, Greengrass explained how difficult but rewarding it was to actually film most of the picture out on the water. There was no CGI used, no special effects. Scenes might have needed more takes than normal, but the payoff is a very authentic looking picture of piracy on the open sea. The movie also benefits from the director’s love of handheld camera use, which creates a sometimes ‘shaky’ look of things, but again adds to the element of authenticity. There is brilliant work done by so much of the cast and crew, to truly capture the debilitating fear, adrenaline, and pulse-pounding events of the real life piracy episode from 2009.

Now, of course, I have to talk about Tom Hanks. This guy is one of the best actors, not just of this generation, but probably of all-time. What puzzles me so much however, is the last decade and his choice (or lack thereof) of work. I know he produced some HBO specials with Spielberg, and I know he voiced a few more Toy Story movies – but I can’t quite be completely satisfied with those for someone who’s an Oscar-winning lead actor. In the last ten years or so, he hasn’t done a single role that has been memorable, nor starred in a single movie that was terrific. Very un-Hanks like. But it’s safe to say that he is back in a very big way with the title role in Captain Phillips. He shows off a lot of the things that have won him those golden statues in years past, and conveys the terror his character feels so effectively. What might get him a nomination for this role though, were some of the final scenes in the movie. The end sequence in the lifeboat, as well as the medical examination on the Navy ship were so raw and emotional…it’s as if the intensity of everything he has gone through (and carried the audience through as well) wells up and bursts open. It’s really extraordinary to see. 

 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS: original_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: Gravity

Sandra Bullock was tremendous in this beautiful, pulse-pounding film. (Warner Bros/aceshowbiz.com)

Sandra Bullock was tremendous in this beautiful, pulse-pounding film. (Warner Bros/aceshowbiz.com)

There are a number of aspects about Gravity that left me in awe: the mind-blowing, beautiful scenery and the remarkable soundtrack, just to name a few. It was certainly able to live up to the massive hype that it stirred up, too. With all of that said, however, I think it has to be pointed out that nothing extraordinary or profound is conveyed in this movie. It won’t stick with me because of its message or ideas, like instant classics so often do. But for everything that this movie was (and I don’t believe it was trying to be some grand, profound movie that it wasn’t), it was a true triumph of film-making.

Gravity is a movie with a very simple plot, if that’s believable at all: the human will to survive. Sure, it’s set thousands and thousands of miles above Earth in the silence of space, but what’s true down here about human determination to live and move forward is just as true up there. What impressed me so very much about this film was Sandra Bullock. I have never been a big fan of hers, and her Oscar for The Blind Side was a “cheap” win (there was nothing tremendous about her performance or that movie as a whole). That aside, you can’t knock her job in this movie, as a terrified scientist thrown into a series of disasters. Apparently, she trained for six months prior to shooting, mainly working on her breathing, and how she would fluctuate it during different scenes. Her breathing, and everything else about her performance was so honest, so sincere, and terrific. In a movie where the cast is for the vast majority of the time just two people, she was the one who really shined. I wouldn’t be surprised to see yet another Oscar nomination from this.

Of course, you can’t even begin to discuss Gravity without talking about the way it looked. With a mouth simply gaping, I wondered in my head as I watched, “how the hell do you shoot something like this?” Obviously I know that there’s CGI and other special effects, but my goodness – this film was absolutely flawless. It felt more like you were watching a space documentary than a major Hollywood production. With space, and Earth in the background, as your canvas…I suppose it’s not hard to create a visual masterpiece.

One of Cuaron’s previous films - Children of Men – is one of my all-time favorite movies. So it wasn’t hard for me to understand that by the end of Gravity, when it had consumed me completely, it had also deeply affected me emotionally. And it had an ending that I just loved, and thought was just so perfect, in so many ways.

 

GRAVITY: original_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar half_barnstar(out of 4)

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