Saturday, January 11, 2014

Eight by Eight: Eight Exhaustingly Exciting Examinations

It shocks me that Her is only Spike Jonze's fourth feature film. The first was the eccentric Being John Malkovich (1999), with one of Cameron Diaz's finest performances - even if there are few to choose from. He followed with 2002's Adaptation, his second collaboration with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. It won Chris Cooper an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (and Meryl Streep's thirteen nomination). It took seven years - and five skateboarding films - for Jonze to release his third film, Where the Wild Things Are, based on the beloved picture book by Maurice Sendak. He wonderfully created the world of the Wild Things and gave life to a story on screen that has very few words in the book. Her is Jonze's first original screenplay. It is as provocative as it is eccentric. It is a film truly in the canon of Spike Jonze.

Set in a near-future, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, an introverted man whose life consists mainly of video games and work - he write personal love letters for people. His world is turned upside down when he installs his new computer operating system. The operating system is artificially intelligent, and with the use of an earpiece he is able to talk and converse with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johnansson). Theodore's relationship with Samantha brings light to his life and he begins to experience life's joys since his divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara). Amy Adams plays Amy, Theodore's college friend, and Olivia Wilde plays a woman with whom he shares a blind date.

I believe that if Spike Jonze made films more regularly he would be regarded as one of the most visionary directors working today. He, along with ex-wife Sofia Coppola, are two brilliant American directors whose work resonate with me. Her is such a beautiful film with such a topical theme. The idea of cyber love is so important in our modern society. How many people have found love using a computer? Joaquin Phoenix is great as Theodore, but the true heart of the film lies with Johansson. It is a shame that the Golden Globes have refused to acknowledge her acting. Her voice work is truly incredible. Besides the actors, the best part of the film is Theodore's incredibly high-waisted, belt-less pants.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

American Hustle
Siobhan and I discussed at length our thoughts on David O. Russell's overpraised film American Hustle, but I thought I needed to give more structured response.

I am not Russell's biggest fan. I practically hated The Fighter and it took me two viewings to truly appreciate that Silver Linings Playbook is slightly more than just Jennifer Lawrence out-acting every one of her colleagues. American Hustle suffers from a bloated length and a weak screenplay. Christian Bale offers a half-decent performance - even if he is constantly upstaged by his toupee. Unfortunately, Bradley Cooper is unable to sustain any momentum through the course of the 138 minute film. Amy Adams does a remarkable job keeping her breasts covered - when necessary - but this does not come close to her best work. Jennifer Lawrence is rather terrific and she is undoubtedly the best part of the film.

American Hustle could have been a much better film. I think Russell should have spent more time editing and fine tuning his work. After releasing Silver Linings Playbook last November, it seems that he and his studio were too eager to jump on his popularity. There are so many films that succeed due to minimal acting talents, but it is hard to forgive a film with substantial talent when it is so poorly handled by its director and editing team.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

Inside Llewyn Davis
I am a huge fan of the Coen brothers. Fargo (1995) is one of my favourite films. Their brand of humour and their complex characters are a welcome change to many of the recycled ideas churned out by Hollywood. Inside Llewyn Davis is not your typical Coen brothers film, even if it is musically related to their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Music plays a central role in the film and much praise must be given to T-Bone Burnett, who produced the film's soundtrack. Burnett is also responsible for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Jeff Bridges' Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart. The film examines the folk music scene of the early 1960s through the lens of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer in New York City.

Llewyn is forced to reestablish his career as a solo artist after his musical partner's death. He has very little money and spends most nights sleeping on the couch of whichever acquaintance will allow it. He spends a sizable amount of time staying with Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). The film is beautifully melancholic and Llewyn's misfortune seems to stem mostly from his own stubbornness. He makes such poor choices that you soon wonder how he is still alive.

While the film is not shot in black and white, it is photographed through a mesmerizing lens that seems to drain the picture of colour. It wonderfully supports the melancholy of the film. Carey Mulligan, who is an incredibly beautiful actress, is made to look so stern and angry that only a brief - blink and you miss it - smirk truly reveals her beauty. The Coens have crafted a terrific film, one that is beautiful to watch and to listen to. It may be melancholic, but there is something truly romantic about it.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Saving Mr. Banks
Walt Disney's 1964 film Mary Poppins is one of my favourite childhood films. I remember repeatedly watching a VHS copy that had been recorded from the television. Mary Poppins is the film that brought Julie Andrews to the forefront of Hollywood stardom. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of Walt Disney's attempt to turn P.L. Travers' story into a film.

Emma Thompson is terrific as Pamela Lyndon (P.L.) Travers. Unfortunately, Tom Hanks is a little too boorish as Walt Disney. His performance grated on me as the 125 minute film lagged on. Kelly Marcel's screenplay includes repeated flashbacks to Travers' childhood in Australia. This plot device is used to make the adult Travers' reluctance to let Disney animate her story much more believable. Travers' father (Colin Farrell) was a charismatic alcoholic and his death had a profound affect on her. Thompson's Travers never felt three dimensional because the flashbacks felt forced. There was such an emotional disconnect between the two plots of the story.

Saving Mr. Banks is directed by John Lee Hancock's, whose last film was 2009's The Blind Side. That is another film that relied far too heavily on emotion and let the plot waver from its track. Emma Thompson is such a talented actress that she storms through the film. With a less accomplished actress, Saving Mr. Banks would be unwatchable.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Check out my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey here.

The Desolation of Smaug is the third installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved fantasy novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, first published in 1937. The novel has 310 pages compared to 531 pages for The Fellowship of the Ring. The Hobbit is being adapted into three installments, whereas The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was a single film. This poses a huge problem for Peter Jackson. There is a lot of desire from fans to return to Middle Earth, but there is not enough story to require three films. The Desolation of Smaug, at 161 minutes, is over-bloated and has no distinct beginning of end. That being said, it is better than its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey.

The film follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he journeys with his company of dwarfs towards the Lonely Mountain. It is Bilbo's task to retrieve the Arkenstone from the mountain and its inhabitant, the dragon Smaug.

The Desolation of Smaug is an exciting adventure, but it is far too long. It ends on an expected cliffhanger and one almost feels cheated for paying for half a story. If anything, it is just a ploy for money. After seeing two installments of The Hobbit on the big screen, how many of us will refrain from seeing the third?

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

The Wolf of Wall Street
There are some comparisons between Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and Woody Allen's 2011 film Midnight in Paris. Both films are decidedly less true to their directors' body of work, almost as if they are meant to be more accessible to the masses. The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese-lite - even if its run time (179 minutes) is the longest ever Scorsese film. Casino (1995) comes second at 178 minutes. While Casino is an epic crime drama about the mafia's involvement in Las Vegas casinos, The Wolf of Wall Street is at least fifty minutes too long. It is practically a vanity project between Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio.

I have issues with DiCaprio as an actor. He has not aged well and it is hard to view him in some of these roles. He plays real life Jordan Belfort whose Wall Street film steals millions of dollars from its clients during the mid-1980s. Everything about Belfort is over the top. From the film's narration (an in-character DiCaprio), we learn that Belfort is heavily addicted to drugs, alcohol and prostitutes. Worse than DiCaprio's casting is Jonah Hill, who plays Belfort's partner and best friend Donnie Azoff. I was so put off by Hill's campy acting and terrible braces that I could never truly take him seriously.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an attempt to throw so much excess into one film. Martin Scorsese and his longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker should have heavily edited the film. There are so many unnecessary and excessive scenes, including a yacht crash and most scenes involving Kyle Chandler's FBI agent Patrick Denham.

The film has won numerous accolades. Sasha Stone from Awards Daily professed it as the best film of 2013. It is definitely a film that will divide audiences. I wanted to like it, and even though I was never bored, I was annoyed by its excessiveness.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

*And if you wanted to know, The Wolf of Wall Street has a fuck count of 2.83 fucks per minute - second only to the documentary Fuck.

The Spectacular Now
Shailene Woodley was a revelation in Alexander Payne's 2011 film The Descendants. She was able to upstage George Clooney - in my opinion- and she should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards (an award that eventually went to Octavia Spencer for The Help). Woodley's return to the big screen comes in James Ponsoldt's third feature film The Spectacular Now (his previous film was the wonderful Smashed, which featured a brilliant performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

The Spectacular Now is an an atypical and a typical teenage film. It stars Miles Teller as Sutter Keely, a charming high school senior who is heavily dependent on alcohol. After breaking up with his girlfriend (Brie Larson), he passes out on Aimee Finecky's (Woodley) lawn. She is a nerd, obsessed with reading and science fiction. Their differences bring them closer together, as Sutter tries to change his future and as Aimee tries to expand her horizons. Their friendship turns romantic, but Sutter's alcoholism lures Aimee.

The Spectacular Now is able to avoid many of the cliches of other high school romance films. My only criticism is that Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Sutter's parents, are falling into the trap of being cast as the same character in every film they appear in. Maybe Chandler's captivating performance on Friday Night Lights was just a fluke. For fans of The Wire, wait for Andre Royo's performance as Sutter's math teacher!

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Short Term 12
Shailene Woodley would be at the forefront of young Oscar-worth actresses this year had it not been for Brie Larson's brilliant turn in Short Term 12. Larson has received numerous accolades for her performance. It is a shame that the film, which premiered at SXSW Film Festival - where it won the Grand Jury Narrative Feature Award and the Narrative Audience Award - was put out in limited release in late August. Larson, who was excellent in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and as Toni Collette's daughter on United States of Tara, is quietly building a promising career. Short Term 12 is absolutely her finest performance.

Larson stars as Grace, a supervisor at Short Term 12, a foster care facility for at-risk youth. She is able to remain fully committed to the kids while maintaining a healthy relationship with her boyfriend and coworker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). Grace's troubled past helps her relate to her charges, including the recently arrived Jayden (Kaitlyn Denver).

Short Term 12 is 97 minutes long. It is a brief snapshot in the lives of the staff and residents at Short Term 12. Destin Cretton's film understands this and never tries to be more than just a brief moment in time. There is so much to Grace that is left unanswered, just like Brie Larson has so much left to show us as an actress. A beautiful surprise of a film.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Look for my review of August: Osage County and for a recap of my top films of 2013!


  1. I think my favourite part about your Wolf of Wallstreet review is the note about the number of expletives. It was the hardest thing I've ever tried (and failed) to sit through, second only to Greed (which comes in only slightly longer than this).

    I completely agree with your assessment of Spectacular Now, though having not watched Friday Night Lights I can't comment on that aspect. It was a poignant and touching film that wasn't overwrought and managed to be both interesting AND realistic in its portrayal. There were no easy answers, and no obvious conclusions provided to questions that were raised, rather the film ponders quietly and then moves on. I'm becoming a big fan of Woodley and am very much looking forward to her performance in The Fault in Our Stars (to be released in June).

  2. I'm not sure how excited I am for The Fault in Our Stars - popular books tend to pander to the masses. I do love Shailene Woodley though. And Laura Dern is in it.