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The "X-Men" movie franchise, now up to its seventh film if you count the two "Wolverine" solo adventures, has had a lot of ups and downs over the past fourteen years. Nobody likes "The Last Stand" or "Origins." The continuity has become a snarled mess. The newest installment, "X-men: Days of Future Past," is best enjoyed if the viewer is familiar with the rest of the series, and yet it blithely ignores major developments from those films. Last summer's "The Wolverine," included a mid-credits teaser sequence that set up "Days of Future Past," for instance, but it doesn't actually connect to anything that goes on in this movie.

And yet, "Days of Future Past" makes all that history and all that interconnectivity work for it in ways that the competing Marvel Cinematic Universe films have never managed. I enjoyed "Days of Future Past" more than any superhero sequel in ages, and I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that it's been quite a few years since we've last properly seen many of the characters as they were originally depicted - "Last Stand" in 2006 was the last to feature most of the cast of the original "X-men" films - and in both of the eras that are depicted in "Days of Future Past," a lot of time has passed and a lot has happened to our heroes.

In 2023, we have a dystopian future where nightmarish automatons called Sentinels have nearly exterminated mutants and a good chunk of humanity. Among the survivors are Magneto (Ian McKellan), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), and Shadowcat (Ellen Page). In a last ditch attempt to beat the Sentinels, Shadowcat sends Wolverine's consciousness back in time fifty years to his body in 1973, to stop the Sentinels from ever being created. To do this, he needs the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who we met in "First Class," to stop the assassination and martyrdom of the Sentinels' creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), by the conflicted shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

Despite hardly any of these characters looking like they've aged, the "First Class" gang is now a decade older and more cynical, grappling with the tail-end of the Vietnam War era and the fallout of a lot of historical and personal tragedies. The original trilogy's present-day characters have been flung even farther into the future, eking out their survival in a hellish nightmare world. It doesn't matter if the little details between all the different films don't match up because the "Terminator" -esque story is strong enough, and all the important characters and their circumstances are well established enough that "Days of Future Past" largely works on its own apart from everything that came before.

It's good to have director Bryan Singer back, who is a deft hand with both the action sequences and the melodrama. While "Days of Future Past" does have the large-scale set piece we see at the end of all big-budget superhero films these days, the outcome actually hinges on some very intimate character interactions. James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman in particular shoulder a lot of the weight. I was also happy to see Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique getting a big boost in screen time and narrative importance. The movie is a little lacking in female characters, but Lawrence steals every scene she's in, and at this point she's the definitive Mystique.

The vastly overpowered cast, full of Oscar winners and RSC vets, keep the movie humming along a very human scale, and from becoming too much of a slug-fest. Not that the slugging isn't a lot of fun. There are a couple of stand-out effects sequences, including a jailbreak lead by a speedster mutant named Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and some brawling between the Sentinels and a group of future X-men that shows off multiple kinds of powers being used together. However, it's really the storytelling that makes the film, and I got much more out of the smaller moments of humor and the period touches when Wolverine finds himself back in the '70s.

I've always liked the way that the "X-men" franchise has such a strong sense of history to it, and "Days of Future Past" is perhaps the ultimate expression of this. Unlike other superhero serials that tend to drag their feet when it comes to showing any character progression or disrupting the status quo, these last few "X-men" films have embraced the passage of time. Actions have consequences that echo through the decades. People grow and change and die. The superheroes are not infallible and villains are not always wrong. This version of "Days of Future Past" depends on it.

I've seen some describe this latest "X-men" film as a reboot to some extent, because it negates some of the events that happened in earlier films, but I think that's a mistake. "Days of Future Past" is watchable if you haven't seen any of the past movies, but those who know the series and love these characters already are the ones who will get the most out of it. And they're the ones who will be the most appreciative of the complicated, but compelling time travel fable that Singer and Kinberg and Vaughn and Goldman and the rest are telling here.
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I didn't know that Richard Ayoade had this kind of movie in him. The British funnyman made his directing debut in 2010 with "Submarine," a poignant, sweet, occasionally weird coming of age story with some Wes-Anderson-y flourishes. With "The Double," he's gone in a different direction completely. Here we have a dark and paranoid adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Double" that shares similar aesthetics with Roman Polanski's 1970s psychological thrillers, most notably "The Tenant."

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a worker drone for a Kafkaesque data collection company, who lives such an anonymous existence that the security guards at his place of employment don't recognize him even though he's been working there for seven years. He pines after the girl in the copy room, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) and tries to curry favor with his boss Mr. Papadopolous (Wallace Shawn), with little hope of success. Then one day a new employee, James Simon, shows up at the office. He is everything that Simon is not: affable, charismatic, and confident. He also looks exactly like Simon, down to their wardrobes, though no one else seems to notice. At first James is friendly with Simon, even helpful, but he soon reveals sinister ulterior motives.

It is a little difficult to categorize "The Double," which looks and acts like a thriller, but is not particularly concerned with behaving like one. Instead, it's better to think of it as a very dark, wry, comedy about a hapless loser who inhabits a particularly strange and alienating universe. I love the way the world of "The Double" has been constructed, with its dark, moody atmosphere and endless bureaucratic frustrations. Nearly all the action takes place at night, or within dimly lit interiors. The technology and the television broadcasts we glimpse suggest that we're some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but there's a sense of timelessness to the murky environs, which mix Eastern European utilitarianism with peppy Japanese pop songs. The sound design is wonderful, full of oppressive ambient noises that dog our hero wherever he goes. Are they being magnified by Simon's subconscious?

Jesse Eisenberg delivers two fine performances as Simon James and James Simon with ease. These are familiar types that we've seen him play before, but he does a commendable job of keeping them entirely distinct every moment we see them onscreen, and without leaning on many gimmicks. I liked that there's really no attempt made to explain the presence of James, or delve very deeply into any existential questions about why he exists. Once it's established that no one else takes any notice of the fact that James is a double, his role is to be Simon's antagonist. Larger philosophical questions are not off the table, but they're not the point. "The Double" is primarily concerned with Simon's narrative rather than grappling with metaphysics, as the recent Denis Villeneueve film "Enemy" did.

I think that's why I prefer "The Double" to "Enemy," which is also about a pair of inexplicable doubles who wreak havoc on each other's lives. "Enemy" has more high-minded ambitions, and is full of obtuse symbols that demand dissection and interpretation. "The Double" is a far more straightforward piece of work, but with more nuanced execution. It takes the time to build its characters, acquaint us with their lives, and lets us get deeper into the protagonist's screwed-up head. There's actually a nice little romance that plays out reasonably well, which let me connect emotionally to Simon and Hannah, whereas the characters in "Enemy" came off as utterly cold, flat constructs.

My only quibble with "The Double" is that the story plays out almost entirely as expected, and the stylization makes it feel a little too slick. The movie comes off as slight as a result, a genre exercise that doesn't really pack the kind of punch that it could have. However, it is such a unique bit of filmmaking and Richard Ayoade makes a lot of interesting choices here. When searching for other films to compare it to, I kept pulling up art house obscurities like Kieślowski's "A Short Film About Love" and Scorsese's "After Hours." The aforementioned "The Tenant" is probably the most obvious precursor, with its endless insomniac night scenes and deeply confused hero.

So I suspect that "The Double" is one of those odd little films that only an art house nerd could really love. The subject matter and the style are so far off the beaten path that even with a pair of recognizable young actors like Eisenberg and Wasikowska as the leads, it doesn't have much hope of attracting a larger audience. That's a shame, because Richard Ayoade deserves kudos aplenty for puling this one off. And I can't wait to see what he does next.
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It's been a long time since I ventured into the anime sphere. After going cold turkey since 2008, I thought it was time I took a look at some of the shows that have been getting attention recently. One of the most buzzed about, which will premiere on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim over the weekend, is last year's action series "Attack on Titan." It's been available on Netflix and Hulu and all the usual anime outlets for a while now. I've worked through ten episodes so far, enough to get a fairly good bead on the show. I intend to finish it, but frankly, my impressions are mixed.

"Attack on Titan" is not about the largest moon of Saturn, and not a science-fiction series at all. Instead, it's a post-apocalyptic steampunk show, that takes place in a future with a very medieval European aesthetic. The Titans are giant naked humanoids that have exterminated much of humanity. Their origins are a mystery, but their sole purpose seems to be to hunt down and eat human beings. The survivors now live in a vast walled settlement under a feudal system of governance with very limited technology. One day, after a hundred years of relative peace, the Titans attack the outer wall and destroy a major city, Shiganshina. Three children among the survivors vow to grow up and join the fight against the Titans.

I found the first two episodes depicting the return of the Titans underwhelming. The production values were gorgeous, the design work was fine, and I liked the basic premise of humanity being under the heel of these creepy, brutal fairy-tale giants. But at heart this is a very typical fantasy anime, with all the usual tropes you'd expect - and some particularly grating ones. The chief one was the main character, a hotheaded brat named Eren Yeager whose personality is driven almost entirely by self-righteousness, and is prone to bouts of angry ranting. I've noticed this type of protagonist has become pretty popular lately. Lelouche from "Code Geass" and Light Yagami from "Death Note" are other examples of similarly frustrated young egomaniacs. I find them terribly off-putting.

However, they're common in shows like this that want to establish that they take place in particularly brutal universes. The Titan attacks involve lots of explicit violence and gore. The Titans have no private parts, but they still make for wonderfully disturbing visuals, especially when they're eating hapless humans by the handfuls. Of course, the humans aren't particularly nice either, and the series shows that they're at their worst in a crisis. While the nihilism is refreshing to a point, I wish it were accompanied by so much oveheated melodrama. When people get upset in certain action anime, they have a tendency to start screaming all their dialogue, and "Attack on Titan" is especially prone to this. The first two episodes eventually devolve into so much screaming and crying and carrying on, I hit the mute button a few times to spare my ears.

Fortunately subsequent episodes tone down the most egregious problems. Eren is aged up quickly to become a cadet in training, and his brattiness is turned way, way down. The show transitions to a character-driven military story, following Eren and his friends Mikasa and Armin as they become cadets and then join up with the army. Their primary means of combat is the Gear system, which combines steam-powered grappling hooks, parkour, and big honking swords to let the soldiers become these crazy samurai Spider-men. The action scenes are a lot of fun to watch, and eventually the series builds them up to some great crescendos. There are still intermittent screaming matches, but far fewer of them.

But as entertaining as "Attack on Titan" is, it's not really doing anything new or better than similar series have done before. Its worldbuilding is good so far, but it's starting to lean pretty heavily on the old tournament fighting show formula. The characters, the scenarios, the discovery of game-changing new powers - it's all awfully familiar. There's the female second-in-command with the glasses and the uptight demeanor. There's the sweet ditz with the food fixation. There's the absent father with too many secrets. There's the convenient amnesia. The nice production values, climbing death count, and high intensity count for a lot, but whenever things slow down, the weaknesses of the show's construction are plain to see.

I'm not surprised that anime fans who enjoy shows like this are eating up "Attack on Titan." It's a shiny new variation on a lot of old favorites. However, it doesn't strike me as a classic or a game-changer, not the way that "Evangelion" or the first "Full Metal Alchemist" series were - unless the bar for quality has seriously come down since I took my long break from anime.
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Michel Gondry made one truly exceptional film, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," ten years ago, and hasn't quite gotten back to that level since. HIs subsequent projects have all been interesting and watchable (with the exception of a certain superhero reboot that wasn't really his fault), but none have had quite the same clarity and resonance of that Charlie Kaufman-scripted love story. "Mood Indigo" isn't quite "Eternal Sunshine" either, but it does get fairly close. It's an ungainly, over-designed, exhausting film to watch because Gondry gives full rein to his usual whimsical stylization, but there is a solid core to it that gives it some real kick.

Based on Boris Vian's surrealist science-fiction romance novel "Foam of the Daze," "Mood Indigo" tells the story of a man named Colin (Romain Duris) who lives a carefree life with his talented man-servant Nicholas (Omar Sy), bibliophile friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), and a mouse roommate (Sacha Bourdo). After Chick gets a girlfriend, Alise (Aïssa Maïga), Colin decides that he too should fall in love, and soon after meets the lovely Chloe (Audrey Tatou). Colin and Chloe enjoy a whirlwind romance, but alas their happiness is short-lived. Chloe becomes ill, Chick and Alise's relationship becomes strained, and Colin's charmed life is soon beset on all sides by misfortune.

It's always a tricky prospect to make a surrealist film, and Gondry's approach seems to have been to translate every element I imagine was metaphorical in the source material as literally as possible for the screen. Colin appears to live in a Parisian Pee-Wee's Playhouse, where Nicholas consults with a cooking mentor who inhabits the oven, and the doorbell is a bug-like creature who has to be swatted to be silenced. At one point the walls physically close in on Colin when he receives bad news. Some of these conceits work, like a character who literally ages years in days due to worry, but others, like a dance sequence where all the characters are obliged to don cartoonish, elongated prosthetic limbs, do not. Some are too literal or too obviously analogues, so the film lacks the truly absurdist free-wheeling nature of something like Leos Carax's "Holy Motors." And I don't think anything involving the mouse character worked at all.

When I'd first heard that the distributors wanted to edit the film down for international release, I was completely against the idea, but now having seen it for myself, I think it's a reasonable choice. "Mood Indigo" has pacing problems and could stand some trimming, especially in the meandering first half that chronicles new love in bloom. Gondry's wild visual inventiveness is always interesting, and I appreciated his efforts, but they kept getting in the way of his storytelling. I've liked Romain Duris and Audrey Tatou in other films, but here their bubbly love connection is not so much enhanced by all the graphic blandishment, but weirdly disconnected from it, such that it feels like the couple is enduring each new scenario - a flight in a cloud car, a picnic that takes place in the sun and the rain at the same time - instead of embodying them.

The story and visuals mesh together considerably better in the second half of the film when things take a darker turn. Suddenly all the whimsy and delight begins to transition to decay and despair, and the central relationship becomes truly compelling as the pair begin to face hardship and doubt. There's a greater universality to Colin and Chloe's downward spiral, and Gondry is more adept at reflecting them in their surroundings. The performances come into sharper focus, particular Roman Duris's, and the supporting characters become more important and are better defined. I especially enjoyed the arc of Chick, who obsesses over a particular writer to such a degree that he finds new ways to consume his writings by turning them into injections and eyedrops, until his whole life is consumed by them.

For fans of Michel Gondry's work, this is about as Gondry as it gets. Though the production values of "Mood Indigo" aren't as high as those of the films he made in Hollywood, his ambitions are as large as ever, he clearly wasn't working under any studio constraints, and he attracted all the right talent to the project. Though there are a lot of missteps, I found this to be a much more cohesive and successful film than anything else Gondry has produced in a long time. Though the documentaries and smaller projects like "The We and the I" have been all well and good, it's the larger fantasy projects like this that continue to be his most distinctive and rewarding. It's hard to imagine anyone else making a film like this, with such commitment and such fearlessness.

"Mood Indigo" is far from perfect, but there's enough good mixed in with the mediocre that I'm glad it got made. I do hope Michel Gondry keeps shooting for the moon. He may never make another "Eternal Sunshine," but his work is always worthwhile.
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I was going to wait until the US release dates, but screw it. Distributors have been dragging their heels and these features have already hit home media in several other countries, so you're getting reviews of some of my most highly anticipated films from last year now.

I expect that Bong Joon-ho's science-fiction action film "Snowpiercer," is going to be pretty divisive. For one thing, it's one of those social allegory films like "In Time" or "Equilibrium" that has a really half-baked premise that is completely implausible when you think about it. And then there's the dark tone, the two-dimensional characters, and the fairly heavy-handed messages about class and persecution. There are plenty of action sequences to keep the momentum going, but they're not the point of the movie, and the director refuses to follow the usual formulas for the action spectaculars his audience may be expecting.

"Snowpiercer" takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a new ice age has wiped out most of life on earth. What remains of humanity live on a train, the Snowpiercer, which perpetually circles the globe. The elites live at the front of the train and the poorest passengers are kept in the tail compartment, downtrodden and oppressed by the agents of the train's mysterious creator, Wilford (Ed Harris). After some of the tail compartment children are taken away by the cruel Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a rebellion is organized by a man named Curtis (Chris Evans). He and a group of the passengers intend to fight their way to the front of the train, seize the engine, and overturn the system. The first step is breaking an engineer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), out of prison.

The first thing you'll notice about the film is that in spite of the Korean director and crew, nearly the entire cast is made up of recognizable Western actors, In addition to Evans, Swinton, and Harris, there's also John Hurt as Curtis's mentor figure Gilliam, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer as other members of the rebellion, and Alison Pill as a teacher they encounter further up in the train. Most of the dialogue is in English, though Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) converse almost entirely in Korean. "Snowpiercer" was clearly intended for Western audiences, and borrows lots of tropes from Hollywood action films. You have the small band of scrappy freedom-fighters rising up against a corrupt system, the loathsome totalitarian thugs, the madman visionary, and snazzy gun battles galore.

That's why the departures from the Hollywood template have more impact here. Ideas and story are given particular emphasis, while the action is a secondary concern. Violence has consequences, usually very bad, and the world of "Snowpiercer" is much harsher and more cynical than the bulk of similar American dystopia films. Bong Joon-ho doesn't flesh out its characters as well as he should, with a few exceptions, but he does a great job with the worldbuilding. If you're willing to suspend some disbelief, exploring the little microcosm of human society aboard the Snowpiercer is a lot of fun. Each lovingly designed train compartment reveals new details of the hierarchy, and helps piece together its history. The visuals are a real treat, incorporating CGI as well as any summer blcokbuster I've seen in recent years.

I was skeptical about Chris Evans in the lead role, playing the gloomy, bearded freedom fighter Curtis who pings about ten years older than Captain America, pre-defrost. However, he grew on me, and delivers a utterly ridiculous monologue in the last act with such sincerity, that he ultimately won me over. He's playing a fairly cliche character in a film full of over-the-top caricatures and larger than life personalities, but grounds him enough to pass muster. Other performances are hit or miss, but I loved the bureaucratic awfulness of Tilda Swinton's Minister Mason, and Ed Harris's benevolent madman. The Korean characters had potential, but they weren't given much to do, and often felt like an afterthought.

For me, the worldbuilding and the simple narrative were enough to keep me entertained and engaged, but I can easily see others being infuriated by the illogical nature of how of the "Snowpiercer" universe is constructed, the lack of depth to the characters, and some of the underlying philosophical ideas. This is sure to be a nitpicker's nightmare, starting with the idea of the train being powered by a perpetual-motion engine that can somehow sustain an entire self-enclosed ecosystem. I appreciate the film being so willing to grapple with big themes and being so ambitious in its scope, but the execution is far from perfect, and I sympathize with those who expected more from the film.

Of the three major South Korean directors who made films for Western audiences last year, Bong Joon-Ho has found the most success, and "Snowpiercer" suggests that he may have more mainstream prospects if he wishes to pursue them.

Go "Joe"

Apr. 16th, 2014 10:20 pm
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"Joe" is being trumpeted as the return of beloved movie star Nicholas Cage to the realms of serious acting. He gets a pretty juicy role here as the title character, an ex-convict with a past who befriends a troubled teenager. However, this is also the comeback of director David Gordon Green, who got sidetracked with idiot mainstream comedies like "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" for too many years, and is finally finding his way back to his low-budget dramatic roots with "Joe" and last year's odd but interesting "Prince Avalanche." And it also features another major turn by Tye Sheridan, the young actor last seen in "Mud" and "The Tree of Life."

Sheridan plays Gary, a Southern kid living on the brink. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a vile, abusive alcoholic who puts his son in the position of sole provider and protector of his mother and sister. Gary gets a job clearing trees with a work crew run by Joe (Cage), who is impressed with Gary's work ethic and determination, but reluctant to get involved personally. Joe has a violent streak he's been trying to keep at bay, and has made enemies, including Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a local degenerate who nurses a major grudge. At stake is the modest, but honest life he's managed to build for himself with girlfriend Lacy (Heather Kafka), and his small circle of friends. However, Joe inevitably finds himself giving into his instincts on Gary's behalf.

I admit that I nearly forgot what a low-key, subtle performance from Nicholas Cage looked like after years of his notorious hamming around in one bad blockbuster after another. As Joe, he still gets a few explosive outbursts to play with, but they're well grounded in the context of a thoughtful examination of a complicated man who is caught between the need for self-preservation and the new role of surrogate parent to a boy who sorely needs one. For the first time in a long time I forgot that I was watching Nicholas Cage onscreen, forgot about all those tell-tale mannerisms and wild-eyed facial contortions he brings out so often, and just got to enjoy his work. And it was great to see.

Tye Sheridan also continues to impress, now three for three in a great run of films. His character here shares about equal screen time and narrative emphasis with Joe, and is equally as compelling. Sheridan is so good at embodying inner conflict, and Gary has plenty to be conflicted about. His best scenes are where we see his dark side manifest, where we see the building frustration and rage growing in him that might become a more destructive force than any singular, immediate antagonist. The surrogate parent-child relationship that forms between Joe and Gary is a pretty convincing one, unsentimental and unforced, that manages to hit all the right notes.

The real star of the picture, however, is its setting. David Gordon Green's personal projects share quite a bit in common with the work of Jeff Nichols, who directed the superficially similar "Mud," another coming of age tale set in the American South starring Tye Sheridan. I admire "Mud," but I prefer "Joe" for its wonderful, simmering tensions, it's rich atmosphere, harshly beautiful environs, and its rougher cast of damaged characters. There's an uncomfortably genuine nastiness to the villains, particularly Wade, which really enhances the impact of the occasional bursts of jarring violence within the film's universe.

This commitment to authenticity extends throughout the film. Everything we see is run down or worn, and value is tied heavily to functionality. Dogs are a major metaphor, kept by several characters for protection rather than companionship. "Joe" doesn't move quickly, and many of the opening scenes are devoted to showing the daily routines and the familiar rhythms of Joe's life. I've seen the film described as an exercise in misery and impoverishment, but there are several moments of happiness and small victories that show the characters have plenty in their lives worth fighting for.

"Joe" has a lot of themes and ideas that have seen a resurgence in American film lately: Southern culture, coming-of-age stories, deteriorating working class families, and rural survival thrillers. The mix here is very strong, and "Joe" works as both a character drama and a more accessible genre picture. I sincerely hope that this isn't just a digression for both David Gordon Green and Nicholas Cage, because this is the best thing that either of them have been involved with in several years. I have to wonder why Green hasn't ever tried making a more profile thriller.

As for Nicholas Cage, I didn't realize how much I'd missed him in films like this and roles like this. "Joe" could be a real turning point for him if he wants it to be.
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Minor spoilers ahead.

Brett Ratner helming a second "Inception" movie was always an iffy prospect, but somehow he got nearly all the major cast members from the first movie back for another round (with the notable exception of Leonrado DiCaprio), and and seemed to be working with an intriguing new concept: reversing an inception, or removing an artificially implanted idea from someone's mind. Sadly, the execution frequently feels like a retread of the first film, though not a bad one.

Tom Hardy takes over the lead for "Inception: Mindscape" as Robert Eames, the chameleon "forger" who has gotten himself deep in debt with the wrong crowd, and is recruited by a government operative, Louise Revere (Joan Allen) to go into the mind of Senator Edmund Hawkes (Stacy Keach) who they suspect has been incepted by agents of a foreign conglomerate. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Ariadne (Ellen Page), Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and Saito (Ken Watanabe) are back, along with new faces Heloise (Felicity Jones) and Crawford (Anthony Mackie), Eames' new love interest and the new stick-in-the-mud respectively. We also have obvious villains this time out in the form of evil European tycoon Magnus Vang (Aksel Hennie) and his sister, the femme fatale Magdalena (Lea Seydoux).

The good news is that Ratner can still handle an action scene, and though his gunfights and car chases ping as fairly generic, they do a good job of keeping the momentum going. Less successful is the dream imagery. Apparently Ratner took the complaints about the previous dream environments being too utopian and rationally ordered to heart, because he injects several absurd elements into the mix - circus animals in the train sequence and steampunk vehicles in the cathedral showdown, for instance. A better director could have handled these more effectively, but in Ratner's hands they just tend to be distracting. More fundamentally, despite all the fancy new CGI dreamscapes, new characters, and a twisty, complicated plot, the structure of the new "Inception" movie, down to many of the action beats, is almost identical to the first one.

And that's not the only thing that feels too familiar. Hans Zimmer's famously unsubtle score is back, and way more obtrusive here than it should be. We get more gravity-defying stunts, more James Bond inspired fights, but they're only minor variations on things that we've already seen. For the most part the dream worlds are missing that meticulous construction and sense of cyberpunk dystopia that Christopher Nolan brought to his work. Brett Ratner manages to give us a decent approximation, but it's just not the same. I'd have rather seen a more radical departure from the style, maybe from a director with a more distinct visual sense, like Tarsem Singh or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Probably the best bit of imagery that Ratner pulls off is the M.C. Escher cathedral, where the climax takes place, though we don't get much of a chance to really look at it for more than a few seconds, which is a shame.

The actors pick up a lot of the slack. Tom Hardy is perfectly comfortable in the leading man role, and fortunately much more intelligible than he was in both "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Mad Max: Fury Road." However, he has far more chemistry with Seydoux than he does with Felicity Jones, and the romantic subplot really feels tacked on. The tone of the film is much lighter, with a lot more banter being tossed around by the supporting characters, and Aksel Hennie hamming it up nicely as the villain of the piece. For the most part the humor avoids being jokey and I think it works, though there are a few scenes that feel too much like material cut from one of Ratner's "Rush Hour" films. And I suspect he may have seen "Juno" one too many times considering the amount of snark he has Ellen Page deliver.

What I found really disappointing, though, was that "Mindscape" doesn't do much to expand the "Inception" universe except in the most perfunctory ways. We barely learn any more about the most intriguing characters from the first film, none of the dream technology is expanded upon, and there's little insight into the corporate hegemony that seems to run the world despite the entire plot depending on navigating its intricacies. We do learn a lot more about Eames, but it only serves to genericize him into a typical action hero. I guess that was to be expected, since the point of this sequel seems to have been to genericize "Inception" to the point where it would be easier for Warner Brother to pump out more sequels.

"Inception: Mindscape" is decent enough for a big budget action movie, but viewers hoping for something to match the original movie are bound to be disappointed. I did have fun with it though, and the movie leaves enough unanswered questions that I'm open to seeing an "Inception 3," though I do hope that Ratner cedes the director's chair to someone new.

Someone with less of a simian fixation. Seriously, what was with all the monkeys?
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The first "Hunger Games" movie was a little rough around the edges and a little oddly formed. At times it didn't feel quite committed to its shocking premise, and its young heroine was a little too opaque. Still, it did distinguish itself from all the other young adult genre franchises thanks to a good lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence and some genuinely resonant subject matter. The sequel, I'm happy to report, manages to improve on it substantially.

The last time we saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutsherson) had been crowned the co-victors of the Hunger Games, the yearly gladiatorial deathmatches used by the leaders of their dystopia to oppress the downtrodden populace. Katniss learns the corrupt Capitol is far from done with her, especially since her victory has been seen as a gesture of defiance, spurring signs of an uprising. She and Peeta are sent on a victory tour, and ordered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to continue the ruse that they're young lovers, though Katniss is actually smitten with her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Meanwhile, Snow and a new Gamemaker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) prepare for the next Hunger Games, which they plan to use to eliminate Katniss permanently.

Last time, it was everything going on outside the actual Hunger Games, the reality show spectacle, the distorted celebrity culture, and the not-so-subtle mass media critique, that delivered the most entertainment, while the Games themselves were fairly mediocre. This time the film is more competent as an action movie, but the good stuff is still mostly the maneuverings that are going on outside and around the Games. We get much more focus on the political climate and the social unrest this time, as Katniss struggles with a life in the spotlight she can't escape. Jennifer Lawrence continues to deliver a strong performance, as Katniss's survival-oriented worldview begins to shift towards rebelliousness. She really sells the paranoia and the moments of blind panic early on, which make Katniss's later bravery all the more affecting. Her would-be screen beaus can't keep up with her, though Hutcherson improves quite a bit.

The budget was noticeably increased for this film, thanks to the series' newly minted blockbuster status. The talent level of the incoming actors reflects this too. In addition to Hoffman, new characters include other former victors Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Jena Malone), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and Mags (Lynn Cohen), who may be new potential allies or enemies for Katniss. Donald Sutherland gets much more screen time and much more to do, cementing him as the real Big Bad of "The Hunger Games." He's a lot of fun bringing on the malevolence here, as are returning cast members Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson in supporting parts. More importantly we've got an action movie director onboard for this round, Francis Lawrence, best known for "I am Legend." No more shakey-cam, and though the action remains firmly in PG-13 territory, not so much squeamishness about the violence either.

All in all this is a much more comfortable, self-assured outing. In many ways the plot retreads significant portions of the first movie, but now the commentary is more pointed, the action more impactful, and the narrative much more focused. Stakes are raised across the board. The sinister tyrant who watched the first Games from afar is now right across the table from Katniss, and threatening her directly to her face. Where media manipulation was a clever strategy in the first movie, now it's a matter of life and death with both sides constantly debating ways to use Katniss's image to their own advantage. Concepts are better fleshed out, characters have more depth and definition, and it's much easier to get swept up into this universe.

I do miss some of the roughness of the first "Hunger Games," with its bluegrass infused score and gloomier, more atmospheric depictions of Katniss's impoverished home town. "Catching Fire" is much more polished, and its wilder conceits are easier to swallow because of better execution, but as a result it comes across as a little more generic. However, "Catching Fire" is much more accessible and delivers on all fronts a lot more consistently. It also does a great deal of heavy lifting to widen the scope of "The Hunger Games" to accommodate a four-film franchise. I'm much more interested in the seeing the rest of the films now than I was after the first one.

In fact, when you put it up against all the other big budget action franchises out there right now, "The Hunger Games" is one of the best that Hollywood has to offer. It does have some real substance to it, features a compelling narrative with strong ideas, and is terribly entertaining too. Let's hope they keep it up.
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Going into "The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug" with reduced expectations helped a lot. The movie has all the same problems as the first installment - way too little of Bilbo, way too many cameos, and all the issues that resulted from trying to stretch roughly a hundred pages of story into three hours of blockbuster filmmaking. However, this time at least the introductions and much of the exposition had already been taken care of, and our heroes are firmly in mid-adventure, so there weren't any problems keeping the story's momentum going. Also, the high points of “Smaug” were a good deal higher than “Unexpected Journey.”

When last we saw Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and Gandalf (Ian McKellan), they were being pursued by orcs and still a long way from the Lonely Mountain, their ultimate destination. The journey takes them to Mirkwood, where they meet the hostile Wood Elves, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace), and then to Lake-town, inhabited by humans, where they enlist the help of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Bilbo continues to the power of the ring that he won from Gollum, and readies himself to go up against Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch), unaware of the ring’s connection to the dark power that Gandalf continues to investigate.

The biggest departure from the book, and for some viewers the biggest headache will be the return of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, who along with a new female warrior elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) get quite a lot of screentime. There’s really no justification for them to be part of the story, and Tauriel seems like a much too convenient excuse to shoehorn a romance into the works, but it doesn’t come off that badly. The elves are largely limited to action sequences, and Tauriel does have some chemistry with the young dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) who catches her eye. She’s fun to watch - essentially another Arwen, but with more fancy weaponry.

Characters that do come straight from Tolkien don’t necessarily work any better. There’s a curious digression to have a few scenes with Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a “skin-changer,” which doesn’t amount to anything except that it means a favorite character from the original novel wasn’t left out. Bard gets an expanded part, which paints him as an outsider in Lake-town, but it feels like the writers are trying too hard to get the audience to view him as a hero figure without making him properly heoric, similar to their missteps with Thorin. Fortunately we see less of other problematic characters like Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and the various orc warlords this time, and they’re deployed in a more tolerable fashion. Gandalf’s expanded subplot even builds to a nice climax after all the meandering from the first movie.

Performances are pretty strong all around. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo gets more to do, Richard Armitage is growing on me, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf is as much of a delight as ever, and I was surprised at how much I liked Evangeline Lily as Tauriel after bracing myself for the worst. I found that most of the new faces weren’t nearly as effective, though. There’s something a little off about Thranduil and Bard - or maybe it’s just that the film versions of the characters have taken liberties with them that I haven’t quite gotten my head around yet. As for the return of Orlando Bloom, he honestly doesn’t get that much to do and I spent most of his screentime marveling at how different he looked from his last appearance in “Lord of the Rings” despite not seeming to have aged a day.

The movie’s main event, and what I’ve been waiting years to see, is the full realization of the dragon Smaug, a wonderful CGI creature whose interactions with Bilbo Baggins were worth waiting for. Jackson insists on adding action scenes here where none existed, but they’re well executed spectacle of the best kind. Most of the action has been improved in this movie, more well grounded, and more focused on character. Two other standout sequences are Bilbo’s fight with a group of spiders and an escape involving the heroes riding barrels down a raging river. I should also point out that most of the little quibbles that I had with visuals in “There and Back Again” because of the use of the 48 fps projection have mostly been fixed in “Desolation of Smaug.” The picture looks absolutely gorgeous.

In short, I was able to turn my brain off long enough to enjoy the new “Hobbit” movie as an action blockbuster and stop comparing it to “Lord of the Rings.” I still think that this new trilogy has been severely compromised by stretching it out to three movies and shifting the focus away from Bilbo, but at least they’re making improvements and have translated many of the best bits of Tolkein to the screen in truly epic fashion. I still can’t name more than three of the dwarves and I still think Peter Jackson included far too many callbacks to the previous trilogy, but I really enjoyed “Smaug” and have much higher hopes for the finale, “There and Back Again” coming in December.
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2013 could be called the year of the survival film in American cinema, from action films like "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" to the less obvious period dramas like "12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club." "All is Lost" is perhaps the most representative of the trend, an absolutely bare-bones, stripped down, man vs. nature story that gets to the core of the struggle to stay alive in a way that none of the others manage to.

Our protagonist is an unnamed man on a sailboat, the Virginia Jean, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The man is played by Robert Redford, and has only minimal dialogue. We learn absolutely nothing about him, not why he's on a boat in the middle of the ocean, not where he came from or where he's going, and nothing about his personal life. All we know is that at the beginning of the film, a drifting shipping container filled with shoes collides with and tears a hole in the side of Redford's boat. His radio is not working and he's very far from land and civilization. The rest of the film follows his efforts to repair the vessel, weather a series of storms, and find help. And that's it. And it's phenomenal.

J.C. Chandor made his directing debut last year with "Margin Call," which was about a group of Wall Street stockbrokers and financiers realizing over the course of an eventful night that they were on the brink of financial collapse. "All is Lost" is not entirely different, a tense character study of a man trying to stave off impending disaster and find a way to save himself from doom. This time, of course, the disaster is far more immediate, and the narrative is simplified to the absolute basics. It's one man on a boat battling the forces of nature, and Chandor does a terrific job of capturing the rising tension as one crisis after another keep compounding on each other, escalating the danger and pushing the hero to further and further extremes.

I went into the film completely sure that Redford's character would survive his experience, but by the halfway point of the movie it wasn't clear at all how things would end, and the title of the film was weighing heavy on my mind. The story plays with our expectations, systematically closing avenues of escape and subverting many tropes that are common in other survival movies. The usual narrative safety nets get slashed left and right, to great effect. Also, the film stays on a slow burn from start to finish, with little of the artifice that intrudes on even the most well-meaning studio films like "Captain Phillips." The music is as minimal as the dialogue, the cinematography stays close and tight, and the editing doesn't stray far from the subjective experiences of the hero.

This creates a very different tone that removes many of the usual assurances that everything will be okay. Even the opening scene, where Redford's character is seen writing a letter during a moment of calm to some unknown loved one, explaining what happened, sets a tone of uneasy foreboding. There are several twists that that seem to come out of nowhere, often triggered by the smallest mistakes or pure, dumb, bad luck. The protagonist is clearly an experienced sailor, capable of handling the boat by himself, and proves resourceful time and time again. However, this is a different, harsher universe than what we typically find on theater screens, where things always go wrong in the most damaging ways, and the odds are not in his favor.

It's startling to see Robert Redford starring in a project like this after a steady stream of stately political thrillers in recent years. The role is intensely physical, requiring the beloved 70-something actor and director to clamber about on the rigging of the sailboat, hang precariously above the ocean surface while repairing the damage to his vessel, and repeatedly subject himself to the misery of the elements. The performance he delivers is an absorbing one, but difficult to watch as the situation steadily gets worse and Redford's character faces exhaustion, despair, and hopelessness. This is the first time I've seen Redford truly look his age on film in a long time, those fabled good looks largely not a factor here for once.

This all adds up to a surprisingly intense piece of cinema that I found to be more visceral and more suspenseful than many similar films I've seen from 2013. I wasn't expecting much form the film beyond Redford's performance, but Chandor has proven that he's not just a one-hit wonder, and he's got the chops to tackle a wide range of subject matter. I look forward to seeing him moving on to bigger, more high profile projects in the future.
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Belgian Best Foreign Film nominee is not about bluegrass music, as it has been widely billed. Yes, the two main characters are bluegrass musicians and there are several musical performances that feature in the film, but you could substitute the bluegrass elements with any number of different things without having much of an impact on the film itself. Rather, "Broken Circle" is a particularly brutal love story about two people who suffer through enormous hardship that tests their commitment to each other and their deepest held beliefs.

We first meet Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) visiting their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) in the hospital. Maybelle has cancer and has to undergo difficult treatments. Then we flash back seven years to when Elise and Didier were a pair of carefree young artists just beginning their courtship. The narrative continues to switch back and forth between past and present, revealing the course of their relationship throughout the years. Though they remain very much in love, they have fundamentally different approaches to life, and have very different - though equally destructive - reactions to a series of traumatic events.

There are a lot of parallels between "Broken Circle Breakdown" and "Blue Valentine," another recent film that juxtaposed the happy beginning of a romantic relationship with its later decline and breakdown after marriage and children. However, "Blue Valentine" is largely about how the central relationship proves to be unsustainable as the two people who share it grow and change. In "Broken Circle," it's outside forces that wreak havoc on a happy, stable marriage. This provides the impetus for a much swifter disillusionment with far more damaging results. The possible split is anything but inevitable for Didier and Elise. The drama is so involving because the couple always seems capable of pulling through together, and clearly have a relationship worth saving. "Broken Circle" is one of the most emotionally grueling films I've sat through in some time, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

I found the film's spiritual themes were handled particularly well. Didier is an atheist who struggles to explain death to Maybelle. Elise is not especially religious but she finds comfort in spirituality. The film doesn't make a case for either for either of their worldviews, but rather extends sympathy for both sides. Both of the characters find their beliefs challenged, and neither are immune from self-doubt and anger, lashing out and looking for targets to blame in the wake of Maybelle's illness. They threaten to turn on each other and themselves, clashing over how to handle the emotional fallout in fairly realistic fashion. Both of the leads deliver utterly wrenching performances. Heldenbergh is the standout though, especially in the quieter moments. Didier initially seems steadier and better equipped to handle the situation, which makes his subsequent breakdown all the more affecting.

The use of the bluegrass music initially seems a little incongruous, but it provides some nice aesthetic and thematic touches that recur throughout the film. Elise and Didier connect through the music, and many of the songs about lost love and bad times make for a fitting soundtrack to their present-day woes. The actors do their own singing for the musical numbers, all of it in English, no less. Otherwise the film doesn't really get into the bluegrass culture much beyond showing the characters in American flag-patterned clothing, so the music largely stays in the background. It certainly helps to make "Broken Circle" distinctive, but doesn't define it. It's only near the very, very end of the film that the music briefly becomes a truly vital part of the story.

As with far too many foreign films, I'm completely unfamiliar with the talent involved. This is Flemish director Felix van Groeningen's fourth film, and it's a wonderfully self-assured, gorgeous looking piece of work. I especially like the way that he flashes forward and backward repeatedly to certain events that only make sense with the context of other events that are revealed gradually. That way the audience has some sense of what's going to happen without losing the impact of the actual moment when we reach that point in the story. There's some stylization of the visuals, mostly in the editing, but nothing overly indulgent or distracting.

In a jam-packed year, this is one of my favorites, and I was a little miffed to discover that it is technically a 2012 film according to the way I count release dates. And I'm not prepared to give it the "Plus One" spot on my upcoming 2013 ten list, usually reserved for the best films I saw too late to qualify, because "The Act of Killing" has that all sewn up. So I have to leave it out of the usual year-end passing out of kudos. However, I give the movie the highest possible recommendation, for those of you who can stand a trip through the emotional wringer, and need a little more bluegrass in your life.

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This is the last 2014 Best Picture nominee on the big fat list, which means that this is the first year I've managed to cover all of them, plus a few of the runners-ups. I'm glad that the Academy Awards are happening later this year, because there have been a lot of interesting contenders to catch up on. I'll definitely have a prediction/"If I picked the winners" post soon, but on to today's movie.

We're just starting to see narratives centered on the 1980s AIDS epidemic emerging in the popular culture, helped along by the recent advancement of LGBT rights. There were a handful of prominent documentaries last year that addressed this period, notably "How to Survive a Plague" and "We Were Here," and it's some very compelling stuff. "Dallas Buyers Club" is the first fictional dramatization that I can recall in recent memory, and approaches the subject from a very different angle.

Avoiding the LGBT rights struggle almost entirely, the focus here is on the very heterosexual Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a rodeo worker who contracts AIDS in 1985 and is given a prognosis of only thirty days to live. There was no treatment for AIDS at the time, Woodroof manages to survive on illegally acquired AZT drugs, which were in clinical trials at the time. Unsatisfied with the way the FDA and the drug companies are handling matters, Woodroof starts importing unapproved drugs and treatments from outside the US, setting up a "buyers club" for AIDS patients in the Dallas area to get around existing drug laws. He recruits a transgender patient named Rayon (Jared Leto) to help him run the club, and wins the grudging support of one of the doctors conducting the AZT trials, Eve Saks (Jennier Garner).

"Dallas Buyers Club" takes some considerable dramatic license with the facts, demonizing the AZT drug and the FDA, and painting Woodroof's transition from a redneck homophobe to a more enlightened social crusader in simplified terms. Like most "man agains the system" social issue films, it depends very heavily on its performances. Fortunately the performances here are great. Matthew McConaughey's Woodroof is a stubborn pragmatist who is only interested in his own survival, and has a very simple and direct outlook on life. He starts the buyers club to make money and befriends Rayon and other AIDS patients for his own benefit. The fact that he's helping people doesn't really enter into the equation until very late. McConaughey spends much of the movie looking increasingly frail and anemic, but also unwaveringly vital, displaying the familiar McConaughey charm that it's hard not to be won over by.

Jared Leto's Rayon is arguably an even more difficult part, who could too easily have been another sassy drag queen caricature. Fortunately he walks a fine line between comic relief and tragic figure, and the script gives Rayon some big personal flaws and interesting angles for Leto to work with. Jennifer Garner is stuck with the straitlaced lady doctor who becomes Woodroof's platonic love interest. Like Rayon, her character is a composite of several real life people, but more obviously so because of the demands of the plot. She's one of the weaker elements in the film, but certainly not because of Garner's efforts.

Frankly, beyond the performances, I can't think of much to recommend "Dallas Buyers Club." The screenplay avoids most of the usual clichés, but it's pretty rote, and there are some glaring moments of forced profundity that don't land very well. Director Jean-Marc Vallée does a decent job, but doesn't manage to find many moments of real human drama that could elevate the film above the typical search-for-a-cure narrative. It isn't nearly as engrossing or as effective as the documentaries that cover the same subject matter, because the impact of Woodroof's efforts never really comes across all that well.

I can certainly understand the appeal of using Ron Woodroof's life as the anchor of the film. He's a very good entry point into the era, much easier for the general audience to identify with, and presents an interesting set of apparent self-contradictions. However, there's still a certain sense of squeamishness about the subject matter that seems to indicate we really haven't progressed much in the portrayal of homosexuality onscreen since "Philadelphia" twenty years ago. It's hard to ignore that there's only one major gay character in "Dallas Buyers Club," Rayon, and she's essentially a martyr figure.

I know I'm putting too many outsized expectations on a film that's really perfectly fine for what it is, and McConaghey and Leto deserve all the praise for their work that they've been getting. However, I can't help thinking that "Dallas Buyers Club" could have been so much better, and could have done so much more. And that makes it a very hard movie to root for.
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I'm a long time Coen brothers fan. I've seen all their movies, even the obscure ones, even the ones they just wrote for other directors, and I hold them in very high regard. So it bothers me more than it probably should that many critics have been raving about their latest film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," and I came out of it unmoved. Sure, I think it's a very strong film, and after sitting through most of this year's Best Picture nominees I can say with certainty that it's better than at least half of them. However, I didn't connect with it the way I've connected with so many of the Coens' other films, so I find it tough to really champion this one.

The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a folk singer in the early 60s, struggling through a long winter in New York. He's talented, but has been unsuccessful in his attempts to make a living as a working musician. Perpetually broke, he stays with one friend after another, ineffectually harassing his agent Mel (Jerry Grayson) for owed payments and more gigs. We watch him bounce from one missed opportunity to the next and the calamities keep piling on. He stays with an older couple, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), accidentally lets out their cat, and ends up having to take it with him for the day. He's friends with a more successful folk duo, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean reveals she's pregnant after a one night stand with Llewyn and demands that he pay for the abortion. A trip to Chicago seeking more work means hitching a ride with hostile jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Fans of this genre of music will adore this movie. "Llewyn Davis" is a love letter to the era, recreating the New York music scene of the '60s and filled with little details and references. I didn't pick up on any of them, unfortunately, even the most obvious ones. Frankly, I respect but don't particularly enjoy folk music, so I didn't get much out of the numerous musical performances scattered throughout the film, and that may have been the fatal problem. Llewyn has a difficult personality and is not a very likeable guy, though he's very sympathetic. Oscar Isaac does a great job bringing across the personal flaws that constantly bring him trouble, which are in many ways are also what is responsible for his talent. The only time he seems truly content is when he's performing, and several of the numbers are used to convey a lot of emotional nuance. Since I wasn't really getting much out of the songs, I could only appreciate most of this on a cerebral level. Oscar Isaac does all his own singing and guitar playing, by the way.

So I was left with a perfectly good character study of a great musician who never made it, and his encounters with the usual Coen brothers parade of colorful characters. I especially liked Carey Mulligan as Jean, whose vehement attacks on Llewyn are simultaneously very funny and heartbreaking. John Goodman turns in another good appearance as the verbose Roland, and F. Murray Abraham shows up in the third act to play a legendary manager. I wish we got to spend more time with all of them. However, because I wasn't in tune with the music, which plays such a big part of "Llewyn Davis," I felt out of tune with the whole film. The story has an elliptical structure with some moody, atmospheric flourishes that cultivate an air of mystery - which the Coens have done very well before, but this time out felt a little gimmicky. I don't know why, but I found a lot of the usual bits of business harder to swallow than usual.

Technically the film is impeccable, of course. The bleak cinematography is gorgeous, and I loved seeing the collection of actors and musicians that were assembled for the film. I barely even noticed Justin Timberlake until his third or fourth scene, because everyone else in the cast was just that strong. I certainly didn't need to like the music to know the quality of it was very high in all respects. In fact, I'm surprised that even with all of the Academy's labyrinthine eligibility rules, "Inside Llewyn Davis" failed to secure any nominations in the music categories at all. I know several people who have gotten downright obsessed with the soundtrack, and I don't begrudge them one bit.

So I appreciate "Llewyn Davis." I appreciate the hell out of it. I can't think of many filmmakers aside from the Coens who could have made it. I just wish that I could have liked the movie more than I do.
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Who is Bruce Dern? I recognized the veteran actor's name, but I couldn't put a name to the face. Looking at his list of credits, I'd seen a lot of the films he appeared in, but apparently missed the ones that he won the most acclaim for. So I went into "Nebraska" knowing almost nothing about its most highly lauded actor, who has been enjoying lots of awards attention for this performance, and I think I was better off for it.

"Nebraska" is about Woody Grant (Dern), an elderly former mechanic who lives in Billings, Montana. We first see him making his slow but steady way down the side of a busy street, before he is stopped by a concerned patrolman. When Woody's son David (Will Forte) comes to pick him up at the station, we learn that Woody was trying to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his one million dollar winnings from a marketing company that sent him a letter - clearly just a solicitation for magazine subscriptions, but Woody is convinced it's real. Woody's exasperated wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are unsympathetic and discuss putting Woody in a nursing home, but after Woody makes another failed attempt to walk to Nebraska, David decides to drive him there.

I'd initially assumed from the synopses I'd read that this was a father-son road trip movie, but the bulk of the story takes place in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the Grants' original hometown where many of the extended family and Woody's old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) still live. Woody and David stay with relatives there over an eventful weekend, where they reconnect with the past and each other to an extent. But if I've made this sound like a typical feel good movie, this couldn't be further from the truth. "Nebraska" was directed by Alexander Payne, responsible for other painfully human dramedies full of disappointment and heartache like "The Descendants," "Sideways," and "About Schmidt."

Payne's vision of the midwest is a dull, depressing place. The characters inhabit small towns gripped by economic decline. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, capturing the vastness and emptiness of the landscape, and the topography of aging faces. All of it is suffused with an inescapable melancholy. It's this tone that sets "Nebraska" apart. The script is low-key, but punctuated with a lot of humor, occasionally of the ribald variety. The pacing is measured and the story is largely made up of incidental moments, but not to the point where it's off-putting. Once you settle into the rhythm of the film's universe, it doesn't feel slow at all.

I've seen some claim that the film presents an unfair view of its older, Midwestern characters, who are tripped up by simple misunderstandings and seem to conform to common cliches. And yes, some of them are very broadly drawn for comedic purposes. However, I was struck by how well-observed the portrayals were, the way a family reunion ends up centering around a televised sports game and how Woody interacts with a bartender at an old drinking spot. For the most part, the people in "Nebraska" look and behave like real people, and aside from a few obvious bad apples they're decent, well-meaning, and perfectly ordinary. And they have the flaws that ordinary people have.

Woody Grant is similarly ordinary, but a fascinating figure. Everyone offers David different stories about Woody, painting him as an irresponsible alcoholic, a damaged soldier, a bad father, a generous man who couldn't say no to anybody, a fondly remembered old lover, and many other things. Bruce Dern's performance offers clues as to how these different versions can be reconciled. Woody is frequently lost and confused, his expression vacant and his mind perhaps not all there. However, he's still aware of how others view him, remembers certain parts of his past all too clearly, and retains a stubborn pride that drives many of his actions.

For me, Dern disappears into the role fully, helped by the fact that I had no preconceived notions of his work as an actor. It's incredible how expressive he is, his posture and body language alone saying volumes about his state of mind. Part of him, however, remains impenetrable. Does he understand that his letter is a fake? Does he care? Similarly, June Squibb was also a complete unknown to me, and is the film's great comedic force as the family's scolding, worrying, and sometimes inappropriately candid maternal juggernaut. And despite all the difficulties and indignities that they embody, I found I liked them very much.

Of Payne's other films, "About Schmidt" is the one that "Nebraska" reminds me of the most, another story about the odyssey of an older man looking for a little meaning in his life. However, I much prefer "Nebraska" for its tighter focus on familial relationships, it's ensemble, and especially for Bruce Dern's work here. There's also a great sense of nostalgia and affection for the small towns and elderly denizens of "Nebraska," along with the light satiric touches, which I found tremendously affecting.

I always underestimate Alexander Payne and he keeps delivering, time after time. Really, ought to know better by now.
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Still working through the backlog.

It's hard not to assume that Cate Blanchett's much lauded performance in the 2008 revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" lead to her role in Woody Allen's modern-day retelling, "Blue Jasmine." Blanchett has confirmed in interviews, however, that Blanche DuBois never came up, and maybe that's why "Jasmine" works as well as it does.

Instead of a fading Southern belle in New Orleans, Jasmine Francis (Blanchett) is the ex-wife of a disgraced New York businessman, Hal (Alec Baldwin), who was shipped off to prison after various financial crimes. Jasmine, still clinging to the remnants of her life of wealth and privilege, goes to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Ginger's fiancé Chili (Bobbly Cannavale). Jasmine hopes to get a fresh start, but has trouble adjusting to a working class lifestyle and keeps looking for a way to climb back up the social ladder - and wants Ginger to take the climb with her.

Woody Allen fans should take note that "Jasmine" falls in line with Allen's darker morality tales like "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Match Point." The film is primarily a showcase for Blanchett's performance, and to a lesser extent Sally Hawkins, with some good assists by Cannavale, Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Skarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Louis C.K as their various suitors and ex-suitors. Jasmine is a wonderful creation, a self-deluded, status-obsessed snob whose ego overpowers good sense at every turn. And yet it's hard to dismiss her, especially as we see more and more of the fascinating contradictions that she maintains to allow her to keep behaving as she does. Blanchett's been getting raves and deserves them.

Though I wouldn't put it up there with the classics, this is definitely one of the better films Woody Allen has made in recent years, with a strong ensemble, timely material, and only occasional stylistic flourishes that can immediately be attributed to Allen. However, taken in the context of the past run of films he made in Europe, this feels like Allen returning to a post-financial crisis New York and trying to grapple with some of the resulting cultural shifts. Also, it's fascinating that the basic framework of "Streetcar" barely needs any updating or substitutions to be applied to modern characters. And I can't think of anyone who could have adapted it better.

And now, on to something completely different.

I still have my trepidations about sports films, and I've been pretty cool toward Ron Howard's work in general. "Rush," however, piqued my interest. It follows the rise and rivalry of two European Formula-1 racecar drivers, the English playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and the cerebral Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), culminating in the exciting 1976 season where the championship came down to only one point and a nail-biting final race.

I don't know a thing about Formula-1 racing except that the culture around it is a fervent as it is for any other major sport, and there are significant barriers to entry for those who want to participate. Fortunately "Rush" provides a good primer, following both drivers from obscurity into the spotlight, showing how both of them managed to excel in the sport, taking different paths to the winners' circle. Initially it seems that Hunt will be our protagonist, and if you've seen much of hte marketing for "Rush," it's Chris Hemsworth's face on all the posters and Daniel Brühl has been credited as a supporting actor. However, Lauda quickly comes to share the narrative on equal terms with Hunt, and Hemsworth and Brühl are co-leads for all intents and purposes.

The racing sequences are wonderfully put together, often capturing the intensity and the peril through the drivers' POV shots. There are a lot of fancy cars on display and lots of beautiful recreations of famous races. However, the racing drama only has momentum because the performances are so good. Hemsworth demonstrates that he's perfectly capable of carrying a non-superhero film, putting his golden boy charm to very good use here. However, it's Brühl who really impresses, as the driven, prickly Niki Lauda. The examinations of the drivers' personal lives and their relationships don't detract from the larger story, and I was thrilled to discover that the biggest stakes in the film really don't hinge at all on who walks away with the championship title.

The real Niki Lauda, who is still with us, has commented that he was surprised at how little embellishment there was in "Rush," how Howard and his team resisted the urge to Hollywood-ize the story. I don't think that's entirely true, as "Rush" does qualify as a feel-good sports film by any measure. However, it does nicely avoid a lot of common cliches, and the narrative has a welcome complexity and grounding that is more concerned with the character studies than the races. And Lauda and Hunt are a pair of subjects who are fascinating enough to sustain it.

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No movie this year has as much cultural baggage as "12 Years a Slave," arguably the first mainstream film to depict the American slave system from the point of view of an African-American, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Race relations are still such a thorny subject here that it took a black British filmmaker, Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor), and a mostly British cast to do it. This year "12 Years a Slave" has become an almost obligatory title, the Very Important Film that everyone should see, and thus the target of claims that it's just your usual Oscar bait.

This ignores that the film, regardless of its subject matter, is an intensely effective and moving piece of work with impressive artistic and technical chops. It's one of the best films I've seen this past year by any measure. It's not what I'd call entertaining, and I expect that it will be too much for some viewers, but it is an edifying, illuminating, and frequently fascinating look at a chapter of American history many would rather forget. If you know the other films of Steve McQueen, "Hunger" and "Shame," this doesn't come as much of a surprise, but the scope and ambition of this project is much greater than anything he's been associated with before.

Northrup was a free black man who lived in New York, and was tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in Louisiana under the name Platt. He spends twelve years as a plantation laborer, first for William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then the brutal Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). Solomon becomes close to other slaves along the way, including Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and Epps' favorite, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). McQueen not only examines the struggle of one man under extreme oppression, but the ways in which the slave system operates and affects the entire society.

"12 Years a Slave" is being marketed as a prestige picture, but it's so far outside the realm of the usual polished, inspirational African-American biopics like "The Butler" or "Ray," it's hard to find points of comparison. McQueen is not a mainstream director, and has a refreshing disregard for his audience's comfort level. There are precious few moments of uplifting release, and though he does frame events in a way to spare us fro the most graphic moments of violence, it still conveys the full extent of his characters' suffering. There's much more emphasis on environment, on subtle behaviors and mannerisms. I found more in common with unsettling art house auteur work like "There Will Be Blood" or "The Master" than any of the race-themed pictures Hollywood has made in recent years.

There have been some concerns about the brutal content in the film, and yes, there are very uncomfortable scenes of whippings, hangings, dehumanizing nudity, and heavy usage of racial epithets. I didn't find any of these gratuitous, and they didn't rise to the level of being exploitative. The casualness of their usage, however, is shocking. In one of the most memorable scenes, McQueen demonstrates that lynchings and hangings are so common in this era that people barely pay attention to the sight of a man on the end of a rope. But often it is the simplest humiliation tactics that are the most disturbing, coupled with institutionalized power imbalances that allow the perpetrators to act with total impunity.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o have been getting the bulk of the attention for their performances as Solomon and Patsey, and there's no question that they are stellar. I'm particularly happy to see Ejiofor in the spotlight after years of strong, varied performances. However, it's some of the actors in smaller roles that made the biggest impression on me. Adepero Oduye as the tragic Eliza and Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw are two sides of the same coin. Michael Fassbender's terrifying Epps is instantly memorable, but then there's his venomous wife played by Sarah Paulson, whose equally monstrous temper is constrained by the rules placed on her gender.

My only issue is really with the ending, where Brad Pitt sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe that's because he strikes me as an echo of the typical white savior character who toplines far too many other period films about this subject matter, like "Glory" and "Amistad." However, Pitt's appearance is brief, and in in the end it's clear that it's really dumb luck that saves Solomon Northrup, not faith, not perseverance, not bravery, and not love. It's a tough, cynical, and very necessary point, and I'm glad to see it.

I don't expect "12 Years a Slave" is going to have many imitators, but it's enough that it exists and has sparked some good conversations. There's no doubt that this is a watershed picture based on the content alone. But the fact that this is an culturally "important" and long overdue film doesn't take away from its overall excellence.
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How old is Martin Scorsese again? Just when you thought that the venerable director's tastes had turned to handsome mainstream genre pictures like "Shutter Island" and "Hugo" for good, along comes "The Wolf of Wall Street," which finds him pushing the boundaries of good taste with material so gloriously depraved, you'd swear he never left the '70s. And Leonardo DiCaprio? It feels like he's playing a proper Scorsese anti-hero at last.

You may have heard of Jordan Belfort, the notorious Wall Street broker whose shady financial practices have already inspired one movie, "Boiler Room." This time around, Scorsese and DiCaprio take aim not just at Belfort, but at the entire system and culture that made a monster like him possible - and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it. This probably doesn't say anything good about yours truly, but while many audience members have reacted with horror and dismay at the rampant sex and drug use depicted in the film, I loved every second of it, and viewed the most obscene moments with unfettered glee. Finally, after years of intense, scowling, leading men, DiCaprio has been given a role that requires him to be funny. Howlingly, absurdly, shockingly, despicably funny, several orders of magnitude greater than Calvin Candie of "Django Unchained," who now feels like a mere warm-up for this role. He may have been a great Gatsby, but he's a phenomenal Belfort.

The film follows Jordan Belfort from down-on-his-luck New York stock broker in the '80s to the founder of brokerage firm Stratton Oakmount, a fraud-riddled operation that made millions pushing penny stocks. Belfort and his chief cohort Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) are thoroughly corrupted by their wealth, indulging in sex, drugs, and hedonism around the clock. Belfort leaves his wife Teresa (Christin Milioti) for the more voracious blonde Naomi (Margot Robbie, who won't want for work after this). The FBI comes investigating, in the form of Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), and Belfort starts hiding his money overseas, with the help of a courier, Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal), and a Swiss banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin). But as Belfort's condition deteriorates, he finds it harder and harder to keep everything from collapsing.

I like to imagine that Martin Scorsese saw the visions of the American Dream run amok in "Spring Breakers" and "Pain & Gain" this year and figured that he could do it bigger and better. And boy did he ever. I have no doubt that it's thanks to Scorsese's involvement that "The Wolf of Wall Street" could be made in such epic fashion with top tier talents. And so we have Rob Reiner playing Jordan Belfort's father, who delivers expletive-filled rants at the drop of a hat. And Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's first boss on Wall Street, who extolls the virtues of prostitutes and cocaine. And the gorgeous, loving crane shots of the trading floor of the brokerage, crammed full of so many little details. And visions of Wall Street at the height of its 1990s decadence that are as indelible as the night clubs of "Goodfellas." And the film's massive three hour running time seems to fly by in no time at all.

Not everyone is happy about Scorsese plunging into this kind of material. The content, with its unapologetic raunch and record-setting profanity count, has been simply too much for some audiences to take. There have also been claims that Scorsese is making Jordan Belfort's lifestyle look too appealing, that he and DiCaprio are somehow excusing Belfort's horrendous behavior. I don't agree with this assessment at all. Sure, the brokerage bacchanalias are fun at first, and seeing DiCaprio and Hill cavorting with strippers has a high titillation factor, but the roof comes crashing down on them soon enough. The fact that their descent is really damn entertaining to watch, particularly the notorious Qualuude sequence, doesn't negate that.

I can't help comparing "Wolf of Wall Street" to "American Hustle," which in many ways pays homage to the Scorsese films of the '70s and '80s. But the difference between them is like night and day. Scorsese not only knows how to get great performances out of his actors, but he knows what to do with them. The movie is so beautifully constructed, the story perfectly coherent in spite of all the depicted chaos, and nails every theme and point and underlying message that it sets its sights on. Those who castigate the film for having no moral compass must have completely missed or misread the ending.

This is my favorite Scorsese movie in years, going back to "Casino" at least. And if you're a fan of his earlier work, this movie embodies the spirit of them for a new age like nothing else I've ever seen. Tread with caution, fellow moviegoers, but if this sounds like the kind of movie you might enjoy, go forth and enjoy.
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"Philomena" looks like your typical British prestige project. There's a remarkable true story about a lost child at its center, dependable Judi Dench playing the little old Irish lady title character, and a good dose of humor and whimsy to lighten the pathos. The story is framed by the experiences of a reporter, Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, who initially starts out as a cynic and a grump. He first dismisses Philomena's search for her son Anthony, who was forcibly separated from her and given to unknown foster parents by the nuns at a convent where she lived, as just a "human interest story." But after some further investigation and Odd Couple travels with Philomena, he comes away with a more agreeable worldview. Sounds like something perfect to take your parents to, doesn't it?

However, it's notable that the film was written by Coogan, a UK comedian with a long career in satirical programs, whose other big cinematic foray in 2013 was the "Alan Partridge" movie. Here he's put away the stings and barbs in the name of tackling more substantive, thoughtful material, but some of the sharper edged humor still gets through, and there is remarkably little sentiment, considering that so much of the story revolves around a missing child. One fascinating element that he does include is the discussion of faith. Philomena is a staunchly devout Catholic who doesn't blame the Church or the nuns for what happened to her, and Martin is an atheist with a far less forgiving nature. They clash throughout the film, often with very humorous results, and eventually learn to coexist. Dench and Coogan make for an entertaining pair, and keep the movie consistently watchable, even as the story treads on some very familiar territory.

The scope of the film is right. No grand monologues or weighty statements pass anyone's lips. The big dramatic moments are often fairly subdued. The larger fallout of the illegal adoptions is alluded to, but kept in the background. Instead of the lone woman against the monolithic Catholic Church narrative that we'd expect, events are kept very small and very personal, focusing on the relationship that develops between Martin and Philomena. Philomena herself is kept wonderfully human, full of conflicting doubts and worries every step of the way, but revealing great reserves of strength when necessary. She's one of the sweetest and most lovable characters I think Dench has ever gotten to play, but at no point is she overly idealized.

Coogan is an entertainer I've seen pop up in a variety of different projects over the years, but he's never made much of an impression on me, even where he's had major roles like in "The Trip." In "Philomena" he finally did, I think because there's an appealing self-critical streak in his portrayal of Martin Sixsmith, who is taken to task repeatedly for his caustic personality and alienating behavior. He also makes a good stand-in for the audience, who has probably sat through one too many of these uplifting issue pictures or quaint UK comedy-dramas over the years to be immediately receptive to Philomena's story. I hope that Coogan does this kind of material more often, because he's well suited for it.

A share of kudos should go to director Stephen Frears, who has a very eclectic filmography that ranges from thrillers like "The Grifters" and "Dirty Pretty Things" to romantic comedies like "High Fidelity" to prestige pics like "The Queen." His work on "Philomena" is quiet and restrained, distinguished by a few inventive touches like old home movie footage gradually filling in the details of Anthony's life as Martin and Philomena uncover more about him, and a title sequence where a young Philomena examines herself in a warped funhouse mirror. Most of the visuals are dominated by wintry landscapes and domestic interiors, with lot of subtle and not-so-subtle religious iconography peppered throughout.

There have been some criticisms of the film as being anti-Catholic, which strikes me as pretty absurd when the film has one of the most evenhanded approaches to faith and religion that I've seen in a while. A big part of Martin Sixsmith's arc is coming to the point where he respects Philomena's faith, even if he doesn't share in it himself. Moreover, there are all kinds of caveats and reminders that the crimes perpetrated against Philomena were only carried out by a few, and that the modern day Catholic Church is quite different from the old one.

There are few enough films that bother to acknowledge religion, let alone discuss it as frankly and and as candidly as Martin and Philomena do, as they get to know one another. And while the Church does play a big part in the film, the subject of "Philomena" remains the woman at its center, and her decisions in dealing with her private tragedies. And it's what makes it worth the watch.
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I didn’t know much about the controversial ABSCAM sting operation run by the FBI in the late ‘70s, and I made the mistake of assuming that “American Hustle” would clue me in on the important details. The movie has been billed as being about ABSCAM and the major players involved, but it’s not really interested in the scam itself. Rather, it’s a character study of con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are busted and then recruited by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help him entrap a New Jersey mayor, Carmino Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is trying to raise the funds to rebuild Atlantic City. Rosenfeld’s plan involves a fake sheikh, a mobster played by Robert DeNiro, and the involvement of Rosenfeld’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who he’s been trying to figure out how to divorce without losing custody of his son. I’m not too clear on the details, because director David O’Russell doesn’t concern himself much with how the mechanics of the sting actually work. Instead, it’s all about watching all these big personalities clash, as played by a cast of familiar faces viewers might recognize from his previous films.

I suspect that if you liked O’Russell’s last two films, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” you’ll probably like “American Hustle” more than I did. I’ve always found O’Russell hit-or-miss, and his emphasis on high-octane, improv-heavy performances has worked out well for some material but not so well for others. All the screaming and yelling in “The Fighter,” for example, was too shrill for me to take, but I thought the approach worked much better with a different set of actors and a different kind of story in “Silver Linings Playbook.” In the much more stylized ‘70s universe of “American Hustle,” with a mix of the cast from both movies, plus a few newbies like Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s hapless supervisor, I thought the final product split the difference. Individual scenes and smaller moments are wonderful, but it was difficult to track what is going on and what the stakes are in the story. Movies about con games usually depend heavily on the mechanics of the plot, and they’re almost totally missing here, instead putting the focus on the various relationships among these loopy characters. O’Russell’s directing, which felt so loose and free in “Silver Linings,” came across as kind of messy and obvious here, especially when it tried to pay homage to older films and other directors.

The film features some very good performances though, particularly from Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Adams in particular often feels like the voice of sanity in the picture, the one character who feels like a genuine human being in a sea of wackily costumed and coiffed caricatures. Christian Bale, for instance, sports an authentic pot-belly and an alarming comb-over that oversells Irving Rosenberg’s sleaziness. Fortunately, it’s an appealing sleaziness. Jennifer Lawrence is a lot of fun as Rosalyn, though her accent has a tendency to wander all over the place, and she’s a little too young for the role. Initially there are some bumps, but when Lawrence really gets going, she’s the most memorable thing onscreen. I could listen to her talk about her nail polish regimen all day, because she just sells it so well. Rosalyn could have easily just been another forgettable bimbo without Lawrence. Finishing off the main quartet is Bradley Cooper as DiMaso, who is trying as hard as everyone else to sell an image of himself that he feels he can’t quite live up to. I don’t think he manages as well as the others, thanks to a truly inexplicable FBI agent character whose motivations seem to boil down to being a little too eager to prove himself.

The big theme of “American Hustle” appears to be self-delusion, with all these characters chasing after big aspirations and working their own cons against each other, trying to figure out how to get what they really want without becoming a victim. The FBI sting just happens to be the biggest and most grandiose in conception. And from what I could decipher of what was going on, there was clearly the potential for a much more focused and biting piece of work here. There’s some satire that hits the mark, but most of the laughs in the film feel like they happened by accident, and any commentary on the hypocrisy of the law enforcement gets lost amid all the yelling and screaming. I know that David O’Russell’s capable of really black, biting satire, or at least he used to be before his films got taken over by over-the-top performances and big hair. Whatever happened to the guy who made “Three Kings”? I’d have loved to see that David O’Russell’s version of “American Hustle.”

This version? I found it occasionally entertaining, but a missed opportunity to do something much more substantive and interesting. And as good as this cast was, it pales in comparison with what I think they could have been capable of in a better movie.
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It doesn't matter how ludicrous a premise is as long as the ideas behind it are strong the filmmakers are committed to it. And so it is with "Her," Spike Jonze's science-fiction fable about a quiet, depressed man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with his new Siri-like operating system, or OS, named Samantha (Scarlett Johanssen). The film is frequently funny, but it takes the relationship between Theodore and Samantha absolutely seriously, and takes care to develop it like any other conventional romantic connection. The pair have their ups and downs, their problems and their issues. Theodore is still coming to terms with his separation with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), while Samantha's consciousness is still developing, and she has insecurities about her intangibility.

Because the relationship exists entirely in the conversations that the pair have, the film depends heavily on Phoenix and Johanssen, the later of whom is never seen onscreen. However, the dialogue is so strong and the actors are so committed, it works. Phoenix carries much of the film, often the only character onscreen, playing intimate scenes against nothing more than a voice in his ear. And then there's Johanssen, who manages to convey so much emotion and feeling through her monologues. I admit that I was skeptical when I heard that she was getting some awards attention for this performance, but after seeing the film it's not had to understand why. Samantha's believability as a sentient and vulnerable living being is what the whole relationship and the whole story hinges on, and she's easily one of the best artificial intelligence characters I've ever seen in film.

And around the couple, Spike Jonze creates a melancholy Los Angeles of the near-future, where human life is more intertwined with technology than ever. Creativity is still valued, though, and most of the characters we meet are artists of one kind or another. Theodore works as a writer of heartfelt personal letters. His best friend Amy (Amy Adams) is a documentarian. One of Samantha's many interests is in composing music. Instead of taking photographs to capture the moments between her and Theodore, she writes songs. The film has a unique, delicate atmosphere that is fiercely personal. Nearly everything we see is limited to Theodore's daily personal interactions, and the narrow scope is just right for the story. Larger issues about the ramifications of the OSs becoming part of society are hinted at, but "Her" is primarily concerned with being a love story, and brings up plenty of questions already.

The conversation surrounding "Her" has been fascinating to follow, because this is one of the first films to tackle this subject matter that is so sympathetic to the human that falls in love with the computer. Usually these stories have a dystopian bent, and getting too close to an AI is symptomatic of something wrong with the human partner or the relationship is supposed to be a metaphor for technology becoming too invasive. In "Her," Theodore is perfectly capable of romantic relationships with other women, as we learn from flashbacks to his marriage to Catherine and his efforts with a blind date, played by Olivia Wilde. In addition, Samantha may not be tangible, but it's the film's position that she's a real sentient being and the feelings between her and Theodore are real. So the problems that develop between them are no less valid than the problems faced by any other couple.

"Her" can be seen as a new take on the "My Fair Lady" story, where a romantic partner who is initially guided and defined by man eventually grows beyond his narrow conception of her and becomes something he couldn't anticipate. The commentary on life in the digital age also hits the mark. In a sense Samantha stands in for all technology, conceived of by well-meaning inventors to meet certain human needs, but that becomes an independent entity that takes on a life of its own, with unexpected consequences. I'd hesitate to call it a cautionary tale, though, because Theodore's relationship with Samantha is hardly more damaging than or unhealthy than one he might have had with a physical person.

This may be my favorite Spike Jonze film, because it's so personal and so idiosyncratic. Not that his earlier films weren't these things, particularly "Where the Wild Things Are," but none of them have been this unabashedly romantic. I love that it's not scared to be emotional and corny, and that Theodore is such a sensitive soul whose vulnerabilities are so easy to see. Phoenix's performance isn't very showy, but it's one of his best too. Freddie Quell from "The Master" was a lot of fun, but playing an ordinary man in love with someone that he never lays eyes on is something I don't think many other actors could have pulled off.

Considering the talent involved, I had pretty high expectations for "Her," but I didn't expect to be bowled over to this extent. "Her" is one of the best screen romances in recent memory, and one of the best science-fiction films too. It's easy to make fun of its silly premise, but "Her" makes the strong case that it may not be so silly after all.


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