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The Great Gatsby (2013) Movie Review

I never had the pleasure of reading The Great Gatsby in school. Though I recall clearly certain classmates walking around with it, I never considered reading it. When I first saw the trailers for “The Great Gatsby” I was not particularly enamored by what I saw. The glitz and glamor at the heart of the story became the center of the advertising. For a time it was rumored that Jay Z would be doing the music, which meant I would never watch the film in theaters. What if it was just some big wasteful party film filled with hip hop?

Thankfully, though it has short snippets of extravagant party music, it does not get over-used and is always used tastefully. Many of the songs central to the film are much more elegant, along with the music by Craig Armstrong. Armstrong’s score captures the outward appearance of royalty Gatsby portrays while also exploring the softer emotions hiding beneath.

Though I can’t say how accurately the film portrayed the novel, I found Baz Lurhmann’s portrayal to be enchanting. The true story is revealed in bits and pieces so that the unfamiliar viewer is pulled along wondering what little details will come out next. Leonardo DiCaprio’s powerful performance only serves to sweeten the allure.

Perhaps the marketing department relied on enough people knowing the true story under the shiny trailers. However, the marketing that was meant to lure in those without a clue simply served to push me away. “The Great Gatsby” is a fine film that is especially important to watch given the similarities between the time portrayed and recent times. I highly recommend it.

4.5/5

American Hustle (2013) Movie Review

“American Hustle” captures the style and flair of the 70’s beautifully. Each of the characters has a unique personality and there is plenty of comedy in the dialog. It isn’t easy to describe but instantly pulls in the audience. The trailers do a fantastic job previewing the characters and the feel of the film.The film has an enchanting aura that will capture most people and stick with you for quite some time. Though it opens with a statement that some of this actually happened, I expect the connection to real life is much attenuated.

Director David O Russel splashed into the awareness of modern audiences with the 2012 film “Silver Lining’s Playbook.” For “American Hustle” he manages to bring back a classic style of cinema that has all but disappeared from theaters. Though Danny Elfman wrote a few pieces for the film, I was hard pressed to identify any of it. The songs in the film take center stage and help drive home the 70s setting with plenty of jazzy tunes. I noticed a distinct lack of bass in the sound mix, refreshingly so. It is nice to remember a time before all music needed to be mastered so that the bass shook the room.
What makes American Hustle so refreshing is that it surprises audiences with many unexpected things. Little actions the characters take seem like what real people might do in that situation but yet are unlike what you typically see in a film. This also leads to quite a bit of comedy. I probably laughed more in “American Hustle” than I have for most comedies. Unlike a comedy, the rest of the film is engaging in other ways.
“American Hustle” has a cast that showcases the new generation of stars. Though some bigger actors show up at times, the film focuses on characters played by Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner. If there was any doubt of the talent of any of them the performances given here dispel that. Louis C.K. has a small role in the film as well and fits the part perfectly. Out of all of them, I found Christian Bale the most enchanting, in part because of how over-the-top his character was.
“American Hustle” is a delightful film that will enchant you from start to finish. I expect it would stand up nicely to repeated views. If you need a reminder of what made films so alluring in the past, “American Hustle” will renew your spark.
5/5

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) Movie Review

I was ready to give up on this movie after about forty minutes the first time I watched it. Of course I don’t write reviews of movies I haven’t finished. This is the perfect example of why.

Unlike some movies that progress in a predictable way, “The Place Beyond the Pines” takes a few unexpected turns. The first such turn takes place about five minutes after I first gave up. Thanks to some urging from fellow bloggers I did eventually finish the film. Thankfully I hadn’t returned the Netflix disc yet (or sealed it).

The first forty minutes or so of the film explores the character of Luke (Ryan Gosling) as he does what he can to provide for the son he discovers he fathered. Though Ryan Gosling does a great job in his role, I had a few problems with his character and the choices he made. It is important to pay attention to his development though for reasons that become clear later.

Once Avery (Bradley Cooper) is introduced, the film takes a big shift in tone. Though I was somewhat engaged before, I suddenly got sucked into the world much further.

What makes the film so interesting is the way in which it blends stories together and explores a long window of time. The story doesn’t end anywhere near where you might guess and that is part of why it is do impressive.

Musically, the film has a solid score by Mike Patton that captures the mood wonderfully. Some of the song choices were a bit more distracting. Though I can understand why the hip hop shows up near the end, some songs used in the first half were quite annoying and should have been left out.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is an engaging character drama even though I never really got into Luke’s part of the story. It explores the paths people take through life and the impact having a son can have on the choices of their fathers.
4/5

The Hobbit Desolation of Smaug (2013) Movie Review

If you are reading this, chances are you enjoyed the first Hobbit film. The question on your mind is most likely does this have all of the epic awesomeness that you might expect? For sure this is one of the biggest spectacle films you will see in theaters this year. It surpasses even Man of Steel with this year scope of what you see on screen. The characters we loved from the first film are back to continue their journey that will end in the third film. There are plenty of long treks across vast expanses of wilderness and plenty of action keep you excited until the final act. One particular scene had me shaking in my seat when what seemed like countless numbers of spiders descended upon the band of dwarves in the forest. I never liked spiders, and this was particularly difficult to watch even though I know it was just a movie.

The action has plenty of comedy mixed in, keeping you and the rest of the audience laughing through most of it. Acting wise, everything is about as you would expect. All of the returning actors who are any good do a fantastic job in their roles once again. Some of the new actors are entertaining, especially one who I was not expecting to see. Musically, the film is a little bit darker than the first. There is a lot more action music, as well as some fantastic music for the finale. Howard Shore does a great job writing some new themes for characters for the second film, including some interesting music for Smaug himself. Old familiar themes both from the first Hobbit film and the Lord of the Rings trilogy return at the right moments.

If you enjoyed the first Hobbit film, you will find that this new film ramps up the action and does a great job filling the void until what will hopefully be an exciting and climactic final film. Despite its long-running time, I found myself engaged for most of it. And of course it is right when things start getting really good that it ends. I found the last section of the film to be especially engaging, as we rarely get to see me such a fantastic dragon on screen. If you enjoyed the first film, you absolutely must check out this one in theaters. I did not see this in high frame rate 3D or IMAX so I can not comment on how well either of those is done here.

4.5/5

Do theaters show too many trailers?

I love going to the movies. When I first started reviewing movies I went to 40 to 50 movies per year. It took a while before I got so fed up with various experiences at the theater that I cut back on what I watched in theaters so that I only watched the more interesting films. This year I may end having seen just barely over 20 films in theaters. This is not for lack of interest but because of a declining theatrical experience.

In 2012 I watched a lot of films in the last three months of the year as tends to happen most years. Nearly every film I watched had either a trailer for “Les Miserables”, or a special Regal Cinemas feature telling me about how amazing it was going to be. I almost passed on the movie in theaters entirely because by the time it was released I had been bombarded with trailers. The same thing happens with films that are delayed for some reason. “Zero Dark Thirty” was originally planned for a September 2012 release until the studios decided to delay it because some people suggested that it was trying to sway people’s views for the upcoming presidential election. By the time the film was released in late December of 2012 (January 2013 depending on the theater) I had seen the trailer so many times that I purposefully avoided the movie until I could rent it.

I realize that this is an annoyance that only affects frequent movie viewers. When I complained on Facebook in late 2012 that I had seen the Les Miserables feature so many times my friends quickly responded that they really appreciated seeing it the one time they went to the theaters that year because they would never have known about it otherwise. In the same way, I am already pretty tired of the trailers for “The Hobbit Desolation of Smaug” and I expect by the time “300 Rise of an Empire” is released I will be similarly tired of the trailer.

At times I consider showing up late to movies so that I don’t have to sit through 20 minutes of trailers. I did this when I watched “Out of the Furnace” because I knew the film wasn’t going to be crowded enough that finding a seat would be difficult. Good luck doing the same thing for “The Hunger Games Catching Fire” or “The Hobbit Desolation of Smaug.” It just isn’t likely that you will be able to get a decent seat in a larger film if you do not show up early. It is precisely because studios know that they have a captive audience in these larger films that you tend to see trailers that are revealed for the first time when you arrive.

To a lesser extent I find all the commercials shown before the trailers to be annoying enough that I sometimes consider going to Arclight exclusively for the rest of my life despite higher ticket prices. The cheap ass in me resists such an option when I have early morning films available for half price at the local Regal Cinemas.

I ask all my fellow movie bloggers and frequent movie viewers out there, do you find it tiresome to watch so many trailers every time you go to the theaters? Or do  you look forward to them knowing that it saves you from having to seek out each trailer online?

Out of the Furnace (2013) Movie Review

If you watch enough movies you come to recognize certain things that characters get into before things go crazy. “Out of the Furnace” is the kind of movie where I recognized early on the bad path some characters were going down but there wasn’t anything I could do but wring my hands and yell at them for being stupid. In many ways the movie is like watching a train wreck. You can see that things are going to turn out bad but there isn’t anything you can do so you can’t stop yourself from watching. Considering all the craziness in the film, it moves forward rather slow at times. Though chronologically speaking it is nice because the film captures a rather long period of time, it feels pretty slow periodically.

The main thing that drew me to “Out of the Furnace” was Christian Bale. His performance was quite satisfying and really shows how fantastic he can be in the right role. Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson both give solid performances though neither gets enough time on screen to properly appreciate them. Harrelson’s character was particularly scary and psycho but he doesn’t show up enough to truly get a taste for him. Musically the film doesn’t have very much going for it. There are a few fitting songs but the score is mostly sonic wallpaper. It helps enhance the film’s brooding feelings but doesn’t have much to separate it from other similar scores.

I found myself let down slightly through most of the film. Tough it has a solid finale that I was hoping for, it feels like there is more that could have been done to reach its full potential. The downward spiral of the characters is a bit too predictable and I never really cared enough for Casey Affleck’s character to worry when he was in dangerous situations. “Out of the Furnace” is a dark film that is at times difficult to watch because of the obvious poor choices being made in front of you. Though I was satisfied by the ending, I felt that it failed to do much other than caution people against taking on debt that you can’t repay. Still, if you are a fan of Christian Bale and like to see him in roles where you can understand what he says, this film is worth checking out to see his performance. It doesn’t really beg to be seen in theaters though so it is worth waiting for it to show up on Netflix.
3.5/5

The Book Thief (2013) Movie Review

There is something magical about the right kind of story. As a child I was drawn into other worlds for days on end, reading all I could get my hands on. The wonders we find in those pages that can transport us away from the harsh reality in which we live. “The Book Thief” captures this child-like wonder beautifully. Sadly, the film is not all lighthearted fun. The story shows some of the darkness of Nazi Germany and the horrors of war. John Williams’ beautiful music helps highlight the beauty and awe present. The lush melodies transport us away from the horrors even if only for a few moments. In the same way, the smiles Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) displays when reading a book help us escape with her from this dark world where books are burned and Jews hunted and killed.

The title here alludes to how Liesel borrows books from a wealthy neighbor in order to find something to read in a town where most of her neighbors’ parents are illiterate and many books have been burned. In a poignant scene early in the film we watch as Liesel’s adopted father admits to her that he is not so good at reading and that they shall have to help each other on this journey. The value of literacy and the power it brings becomes clear early on and continues to run as a theme throughout. I found it beautiful to watch the childish adventures Liesel embarks on with her friend Rudy, as they laugh and explore the world together. They each provide convincing performances signifying their acting talents.

Some might find it a bit overwhelming to watch another movie about Nazi Germany, especially one that highlights the brutality it brought. I’ve concluded that it was necessary to include such scenes in the film because it helps drive home how essential books were to Liesel and the other characters in the book. At one point later in the film, Rudy catches Liesel stealing a book and asks her why she would steal a book when people are starving. Why not steal some food? He asks. At this point it becomes clear that to her there are more important things than simply surviving. She needs to experience the worlds inside books in order to truly live. In an age where I can have access to hundreds of books on a Kindle it is easy to forget just how valuable a book is. If you can sit through some of the darker sections that accompany Liesel on her journey you will share her wonder as she escapes into books one by one.
4/5

The Hunger Games Catching Fire (2013) Movie Review

In a rarity for a second film, “Catching Fire” takes everything good from the first film and leaves behind all that was not so good. The shaky cam that drove me nuts is gone and the music is much more prominent. Both are thanks to a new director. “Catching Fire” moves forward at a much faster pace this time and the games are much more action-packed. If you have read the book, you know how terrifying some of the obstacles in the games are this time around. They were even harder to watch in the film. Each of them is rendered with convincing accuracy such that the games are quite thrilling. The new games bring with them new interesting characters as well. Each of them is cast quite well to capture the individuality of the combatants.

Musically, I found “Catching Fire” to be much stronger this time. I could tell that the director of the first “Hunger Games” film wanted music to take a back seat so I only noticed a few themes the first time. For “Catching Fire” James Newton Howard returns, giving his themes from the first film some much-needed fleshing out. We also get a beautiful new love theme for Katniss and Peeta that works very well. There is some solid action/horror music for the games that has the needed ferocity as well as some hints of Newton Howard’s previous work in some beautiful string music. I was also quite impressed by a few of the songs in the end credits. Usually they make me want to leave the theater right away but the Coldplay and Of Monsters and Men songs were quite nice and very fitting.
If you are reading this I suspect you have come to enjoy the characters that make “The Hunger Games” so much fun. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson both show that they have grown as actors since the first film. I was also quite struck by how Willow Shields shows as Prim this time around. Though she has a short time on screen, she has quite a presence. Sam Clafin also makes a great Finnick. He has the pretty boy look and arrogance to fit his character and a solid presence as well.
“Catching Fire” moves along at a brisk pace and looks gorgeous for most of it. The dull colors of the districts are countered nicely by the bright colors of the capitol. The new arena for the games is beautifully shot in the jungles of Hawaii and pops off the screen in the IMAX version. The entire section in the games was shot with an IMAX camera and it works really well. I don’t think any other film before this had as much continuous IMAX footage. When I left the theater I was quite satisfied by what I saw and very excited for the third film, which will be broken into two parts. It is time to start reading the third book in preparation.
5/5

12 Years a Slave (2013) Movie Review

The history of slavery in this country is a grim one and a movie chronicling the lives of them is inevitably going to be hard to watch. Steve McQueen succeeded crafting “12 Years a Slave” because it is not easy to watch. It follows the true story of a free black man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Eliofor) living in New York who was sold into slavery and treated like any other slave and his fight for freedom. He moves between plantations owned by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). He also has some short encounters with a mean overseer named Tibbits (Paul Danno) and a strange abolitionist (Brad Pitt).

This is a fantastic breakout role for Eliofor. The film relies on him to carry the day and he does so handily. Fassbender is menacing in one of his darkest roles to date. It was refreshing to see Cumberbatch in a role different than what he has been in lately. Though Danno and Pitt both have small roles to play, they do a fine job as well. Musically speaking Hans Zimmer provides a different score than one might expect to hear. The music ranges from some of his darkest material yet to some of his most minimalist and emotional. It fits the film nicely though at times I felt it could have used more music.

The film is expertly written, with a script that is refreshing in its wit and sophistication. The cinematography is solid though some shots are a bit too close and others too long. I appreciate long shots when done right but some lingered much longer than seemed necessary. “12 Years a Slave” is a powerful film worth experiencing for those who can watch without turning away. It is a necessary reminder about a past that is rarely portrayed as brutally as it was.
4.5/5

Ender’s Game (2013) Movie Review

With all the talk about boycotting this film I feel it is necessary to address some concerns from the outset. Some suggested that anyone who supports gay rights should avoid the film because Orson Scott Card, the author of the original novel, said some seriously offensive things about gay people. Then again, he is an old Mormon and a member of a church that still holds beliefs about gay people that I find offensive. If that is enough for you to pass on the film or the book that is your choice. I prefer to judge entertainment for the quality of the finished product, not the views of the creators. In the book and to a lesser extent in the film there are some positive themes that I think outweigh any problems with the author. Lionsgate has also said that Card had no involvement with the creation of the film. Beyond the initial money from the sale of the rights and any profits from additional book sales, the sales of tickets won’t give more money to Card.

Unlike most reviews, I listened to the audiobook of the source material close to the release of the film. So there will be some spoilers in this review of both the plot of the film and plot elements left out from the book.

“Ender’s Game” moves at a quick pace as it blazes through the plot and yet barely makes it under two hours. Though the book describes multiple battles Ender fights with each team in battle school, we only see a small number of fights on screen. The same can be said for the battles at command school. Though I will expand later on certain plot elements I was sad to see left out, I think the writers did a solid job packing in everything truly important and retaining the essence of the story. The big moral questions behind it still come forward at the end and the characters still develop and mature, even if it does feel a bit rushed.

Steve Jablonsky wrote a fairly typical epic score with synth elements that never gives us a solid theme or elevates the film beyond what is on screen. I expect most people would have a hard time distinguishing the music from similar recent film scores other than most of the ones it mimics have at least some originality. Despite its flaws, the music serves its purpose of telling the audience that they are about to watch something epic and there are some interesting musical ideas for the enemy.

The two biggest draws for the film are Asa Butterfield (Ender) and Harrison Ford (Colonel Graff) Butterfield makes a fantastic Ender and truly shines throughout the film. He is quite convincing as the cold, calculating battle commander. Harrison Ford does a good job as well though it isn’t particularly noteworthy. The supporting cast isn’t given much time on screen but they are good as well.

So what exactly is missing from the film? One of my favorite parts of the book was when Valentine and Peter (Ender’s siblings) become involved in the big political debates of the time, arguing over the role the Hegemon should have in the world and in the universe. We see Peter briefly at the beginning and Valentine is only seen slightly more. The relationships Ender develops with his squad is also seriously cut short. The strength of their bond is implied well enough but I would have liked to have seen it fleshed out more on screen. We also miss out on a lot of Ender’s battles with Dragon army. While in the book he engages in battle after battle, gradually increasing in difficulty, here we get one battle with Dragon army.

I recognize studio’s reluctance to make a film longer than 2 hours, especially with something as unproven as Ender’s Game, but it could have been a much more thought-provoking film if some of these ideas had somehow been added in. If you want some quick thrills, the film is a serviceable adaptation. If you want to enjoy a more intellectual take on the story, go read the novel, or listen to the audiobook. I doubt the executives will add in any of the politics in any future films so the only way to enjoy it is in the book.
4/5