Monday, December 30, 2013

'American Hustle' sparkly bit of '70s fun - and a great film to boot

This review was originally posted at KPC Media Group's website. You can read the original review here. It was also published in KPC's three daily papers. Reprinted with permission.

Conventional wisdom says that a movie that features nothing but deplorable characters with very few redeeming qualities won't work.

But conventional wisdom flies out the window in the face of a crime film as delightful as "American Hustle." While it does indeed feature some pretty terrible people in the leading roles, everything is just so glittery, funny and so darn likeable that there isn't anything to do except love this film.

The movie, based loosely on the FBI's ABSCAM operation, follows con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his beautiful partner-in-crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The pair is doing well for themselves, embezzling and selling fake art, until they're caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso is looking to make a name for himself in the FBI, and in exchange for letting them avoid a long stint in jail, he has them help him take down Camden, New Jersey, mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is trying to raise money to open casinos in Atlantic City. Unfortunately, they almost immediately get in way over their heads, especially when Irving's nutty wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), gets involved.

The people in this movie are all pretty awful people, when you really think about their behavior. Irving and Sydney are conning people left and right, with Sydney especially adept at using her feminine wiles to play Irving and Richie against each other. Irving is, of course, a cheater and a terrible husband to Rosalyn, who is unstable and goofy, but also smart enough to be excessively manipulative. Richie is an incredibly angry, unstable person himself. The nicest person in the movie is Carmine Polito, the guy that our "heroes" are trying desperately to catch bribing government officials.

And yet, they're all so likeable and sympathetic in their own ways. Their motivations, while morally questionable at best, are also incredibly understandable. They are ambitious and desire to climb the ladder of life by any means necessary. Who hasn't had a moment of that ambition? They only really get into trouble when they try to climb too high, too quickly. And as they do get into trouble, it's a blast to watch - the situations are so ridiculous, and they just keep piling up and causing more and more crazy problems.

"American Hustle" is a dynamic, energetic movie that is absolutely irresistable. It's the same talent that was on display in director David O. Russell's Oscar-nominated "Silver Linings Playbook" last year. I didn't find "American Hustle" as cozy or as compelling as "Silver Linings," which is one of my favorite movies I've seen in years, but "Hustle" has the same snappy dialogue, quick editing and dark humor that makes a movie like this so fun to watch.

It helps that the lead actors are perfectly cast. I was thrilled to see such a high-caliber cast in a movie, and they didn't disappoint. There is sleaze all over the screen - Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper made my skin crawl at times, and Amy Adams can turn from icy to sexy on a dime and make it completely believable - but there also is charisma and chemistry everywhere. Especially delightful is Jennifer Lawrence in a rather small but completely memorable role as Rosalyn. She's deliciously daffy in the role, and the screen lights up even brighter every time she's on it. It just reiterates my opinion that Lawrence is one of the most talented people in Hollywood right now.

"American Hustle" is rounded out with the perfect tone of the costumes and sets. The movie has a wonderful sense of time and place, in the overblown, scuzzy late 70s. The outfits, the hair, the decor - it all just screams 1978. That's the cherry on top of this wild sundae. It's already a treat to watch because of the story and characters and acting, and then the movie is just that much better because it's also an eye-searing spectacle.

"American Hustle" is clearly gunning for an Oscar, and it definitely deserves the buzz its receiving. It's an energetic, entertaining, darkly funny, well-told story with an all-star cast that elevates the movie into the stratosphere. It's definitely not a feel-good movie, but it sure does feel good to watch it anyway.

Jenny's Take: See it tonight.
(Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence. Runs 138 minutes.)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review of "American Hustle" posted at KPC Media Group

It's getting Oscar buzz, and it's well-deserved. "American Hustle" is a sparkly, energetic delight. My review is online at KPC Media Group - you can read it by clicking here - or you can read it in the newspaper on Sunday. I'll post it here on Monday!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' still bloated, but improves on predecessor

This review was originally written for KPC Media Group and was posted at KPC's website, as well as published in three daily newspapers. You can read the original review here.

As much as I'm enjoying three straight Decembers of new adventures in Middle Earth, thanks to "The Hobbit" trilogy, in this second installment, subtitled "The Desolation of Smaug," it's still clear to me that this trilogy is a case study in the "less is more" school of storytelling.

"The Desolation of Smaug" expands on the already-bloated story started in "An Unexpected Journey" last December. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a contigent of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) march across the land of Middle Earth with the goal of reclaiming the dwarves' ancestral homeland, Erebor. 

Along the way, they battle giant spiders, orcs and wargs; get captured by the Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace); sneak into the city of Laketown with the help of a mysterious man named Bard (Luke Evans); and, of course, face off against the dragon, Smaug (voice and motion-capture performance by Benedict Cumberbatch), who destroyed Erebor and took up residence there. They meet up with Thranduil's son, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the chief of the guards, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Oh, and at one point, Gandalf runs off to have his own adventure fighting The Necromancer, who threatens to bring darkness across the land.

In short, there is a lot going on, and it contains a lot more material than J.R.R. Tolkein's slim, delightful novel "The Hobbit" has in it. There are fights and action sequences galore, and lots of new and interesting characters to see.

And yet, here's where the "less is more" idea comes in: The best part of the entire movie is almost straight from the book, and it only features two characters. Amid all the kerfluffle of elves and dwarves and humans and wizards and orcs, the most magical part of the entire nearly three-hour movie is when Bilbo walks in to Smaug's treasure room and faces off against the fearsome dragon. It's a nearly perfect scene, taut and exciting, and with Martin Freeman showing off exactly why he was the perfect choice to play Bilbo Baggins. It doesn't hurt that Smaug is wonderfully acted by Benedict Cumberbatch and beautifully animated. It doesn't take much to believe that it's really a dragon up on the screen, instead of a series of pixels.

It's especially interesting to me that almost the same thing can be said about the best scene in the first Hobbit movie, "An Unexpected Journey." That movie only truly shines in the scene between Bilbo and Gollum. "The Hobbit" doesn't really need all of the folderol that was added - all it really needs is Bilbo, his adventure and the growth that comes from his time with the dwarves.

That's not to say that "The Desolation of Smaug" wasn't a pretty great movie, because it was. While "An Unexpected Journey" got pretty far off the rails in parts, I felt like writers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro regained the movie's narrative footing in a big way. There were still a few awkwardly huge pauses between characters' scenes - a big chunk of time passes between the times we see Legolas and Tauriel near the beginning of the movie and when they show up again near the end - but overall this was a better composed and more consistently entertaining movie. It does suffer a little bit from being in the middle of a trilogy, since it has a pretty abrupt beginning and an even more abrupt ending, but it really is a much cleaner, better movie than "An Unexpected Journey."

And, being a pretty big Tolkein fan, I can't help but love seeing so much more of Middle Earth. There are a lot of fun nods to Tolkein's writings scattered throughout the movie, and even though some of those asides are unnecessary and even distracting from a moviemaking perspective, I get a nerdy little smile on my face when I catch them.

It's not a perfect movie, and both the book and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy are better, but I had a great time watching "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." For fans of fantasy, or just epic blockbusters in general, this latest foray into Middle Earth is a worthwhile trip.

Jenny's Take: See it before it leaves theaters.

(Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. Runs 161 minutes.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Review of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" online at KPC Media Group

It's still totally overkill - there's NO WAY "The Hobbit" should be three movies - but "The Desolation of Smaug" is a huge improvement over "An Unexpected Journey."

My full review of the movie is online at KPC Media Group's website now. Read it by clicking here, or wait until Sunday to read it in print in one of KPC's daily newspapers. I'll post the full review on the blog on Monday.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Midweek Mancandy Rewind: Martin Freeman & Benedict Cumberbatch

This Midweek Mancandy post was originally posted on July 20, 2011, (you can see the original here) but with "The Hobbit: The Search for More Money The Desolation of Smaug" coming out this weekend and the new season of "Sherlock" premiering in the U.S. in just over a month, it seemed appropriate to trot out this old favorite, written shortly after the Pop Tarts discovered "Sherlock." 

And so, we give you ... Midweek Mancandy: Martin Freeman & Benedict Cumberbatch.

(Photo from Entertainment Weekly)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Review: 'Frozen' a warm, fun treat for both children and adults

This movie review was originally written for KPC Media Group and published online and in its daily newspapers. Read the original version here. Reprinted with permission.

Despite the huge amount of snow and ice in Disney's latest animated feature, "Frozen" is as warm and fun an animated musical as I've seen in several years. The movie hearkens back to the old Disney princess movies, which makes it feel extra cozy for fans, but it also has a modern edge, featuring princesses with a little more personality than the old damsels I grew up watching.

"Frozen" follows Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), the princess of a small kingdom called Arendelle. On the coronation day of her sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), Anna discovers why Elsa has been cold to her for years - Elsa is magical and can turn things to ice and snow, but she can't control her magic. When the people of Arendelle find out, however, they call Elsa a monster, and Elsa disappears into the mountains, leaving the kingdom in a deep freeze. Anna, however, wants to help her sister, and so she enlists the help of the burly Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer, Sven.

It's a sweet, exciting story, but what really gives "Frozen" some bite are the characters - specifically Elsa and Anna. The sisters are distant and at odds for most of the movie, but it's clear throughout the entire film that they really love each other. It probably helped that I was sitting next to my own sister when I was watching the movie, but I was really touched by the depth of their bond and the way they watched out for each other.
It was also incredibly refreshing to see some royal women who could stand on their own two feet. Elsa is an incredibly strong, magical woman, and although she functions somewhat as the villain for a lot of the movie, she's a much more nuanced character than the old Disney villains. As much as I adore old-school bad girls like Maleficent from "Sleeping Beauty" or Ursula the Sea Witch from "The Little Mermaid," it's refreshing to see a powerful woman who isn't irredeemably corrupted by power. She's confused and terrified, and she does some bad things, but it isn't because of jealousy or because she's just plain old evil, like the villains of old.

Anna is also an interesting and strong character. Yes, she's silly sometimes, and, yes, she does need the help of Kristoff sometimes, but she's also brave, smart and cares deeply for her sister. There's even a some sly commentary on the Disney princess tendancy to fall in love immediately with a cute guy she barely knows. A friend of mine was just complaining about that tendency a few weeks ago, so I was pleased to note that it's not treated as the norm in this movie.

There are plenty of other characters to love, too. Kristoff is quirky and adorable, and his friendship with his goofy reindeer provides a lot of the comic relief in the movie. Also on the silly end of the spectrum is a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) who Elsa has brought to life. The posters and some of the commercials for "Frozen" made me nervous that Olaf would be too obnoxiously silly, but he actually hit the perfect balance between the wackiness that children will enjoy and being a real enough character so that he doesn't annoy the adults in the audience.

"Frozen" is also a very beautiful movie. The characters' designs are fairly reminiscent of those in "Tangled," but the scenery is stunning. Arendelle was clearly influenced by Scandinavian countries, specifically Norway, and the buildings are all decorated beautiful, colorful rosemaling designs. The warmth of those buildings stands in contrast to the stunning ice castle that Elsa creates for herself. The winter scenes are the most beautiful in the movie, and they're so realistic that I shivered several times while watching the movie. You can almost feel the icy cold coming off the screen.

"Frozen" is never going to be a timeless classic like "The Lion King" or "Beauty and the Beast," but it's solidly in the second tier of Disney movies - a little less stunning and a little more silly than the best the studio has to offer, but ultimately still a pretty darn great movie. "Frozen" is a warm little treat that children and adults alike will enjoy.

Jenny's Take: See it tonight.

(Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor. Runs 108 minutes.)