“Anchorman 2″ Less Funny than First Installment, Yet Admirable in its Lack of Structure

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues occupies a bizarre place in pop culture — even more so than the famously wacky collaborations of its director and star. The duo of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have yielded some of the most enduring raunch of the last decade in American comedy — films of endearing idiocy and genuine warmth, as in Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, and particularly the original Anchorman. Perhaps what’s gone most unnoticed about their evolution, however, is that in recent years they’ve become oddly political in their product. The 2010 cop-comedy The Other Guys was, of all things, a very thinly-veiled critique of shady tactics within the financial world.

Ridiculous though it may sound, Anchorman 2 actually takes their work even farther in this direction, all the while distancing themselves even further from narrative convention than they already were. For indeed, Anchorman 2 is a bold departure from any sort of depiction of reality that its predecessor was already barely clinging to. This is a film genuinely admirable in its commitment to thumbing its nose at storytelling payoffs and character likability. The film details the reunion of Ron Burgundy with his gleefully sexist, racist news team of idiots in the late ’70′s — removing them from their San Diego hometown and dropping them in the midst of a 24-hour New York news channel, where they must adjust to a new set of pressures and expectations and proceed to obliviously smash through all of them.

The group’s antics and idiocy actually brings some weight with it this time around, however, smartly making The Legend Continues a little weightier than its predecessor. The main cast of Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carell are all back with their distinctively improvisational, non-sequitur-laden brand of comedy. But as it happens — their hiring aboard the first-ever 24-hour news network proves a terrible choice, given their tendency to inject the sort of fluffy, substance-free filler indicative of contemporary news networks. And that’s sort of the point of Anchorman 2 — all of the dumb-ass quotes and silly set-pieces all contribute, in a way, to the downfall of serious news reporting seen over the last three decades. It’s dumb as shit, but at least makes some effort to tie it into a moderately adult train of thought.

While none of the quotes in Anchorman 2 will reach the near-legendary status of the first — “smelly pirate hooker”, “Great Oden’s Raven!”, “I love lamp” — this is still a totally unstructured brand of comedy. Admirably so. But there’s no denying the returns have diminished noticeably for McKay and co. — it’s simply impossible to replicate something as indelibly goofy and spontaneous as the first Anchorman. The only moment that genuinely creatively exceeds the original cannot be discussed much — simply that it takes the famed news-anchors’ battle scene of the original and then runs with it into an even more absurd direction. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues certainly exists on a lower tier of quality than what’s come before from its creative team, but that’s more of a testament to their enduring qualities than this. Its not classic, but’s still brash and goofy and deeply, deeply lovable.

“American Hustle” is Breezy ’70s Escapism With Genuine, Penetrating Edge

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There’s few comeback stories in Hollywood that are based on genuine artistic merit — too often, they move on some sort of apologist compensation than on the actual quality of the new work. The revitalization of writer-director David O. Russell, then, has been one of the most delightful surprises in recent film history. The story goes a little like this: David, a young Amherst philosophy major, ventures out into independent film and finds great success with incendiary films dabbling in incest, psychology and the inanity of war — but soon develops a reputation as a psychologically, physically abusive asshole on his film sets and is ostracized from the industry.

The damning stories surrounding Mr. O. Russell for much of the early decade would be more than enough to sink a director with three times his reputation — but with the release of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, two Oscar-winning dramas with a nutty energy and intense focus on character, he’s rebounded into the forefront of current American cinema. American Hustle is certainly the apotheosis of this new stage in his career — it’s a loose, improvisational, swaggering period-piece with a fairly strong disregard for conventional plot mechanics and payoffs. There’s a lot of catharsis to be found in American Hustle, yes, but not through the extensive scams and heists the characters pull — moreso in the relationships amongst themselves. It’s a movie about criminals that is wholly disinterested in criminality, but rather, the psychological and emotional shrapnel that constant deception leaves in one’s self. It’s weighty stuff, but also delivered in one of the frothiest, most effortlessly entertaining works of the year.

The year is 1978 and con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are madly in love. Selling fake checks and counterfeit artwork to anyone that will buy, the two have a fairly successful operation going — until coked-out, over-ambitious FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper) catches the duo red-handed. Rather than throw them in jail, Di Maso employs the two as part of an elaborate scheme to catch other crooks, politicians and mobsters red-handed — starting off with Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a genuinely well-intentioned New Jersey mayor whose efforts to revitalize his city have led him to illegal funding. One of the recurring ironies of American Hustle is that the closest thing it has to a ‘villain figure’, Polito, is in fact, the most selfless, sweet character in the film — this being just one of many playful tweaks with audience sympathies and character dynamics.

O. Russell’s considerable skill as a technician are on full display here, too — the glitzy period details of the ’70s locations, the elaborate comb-overs and hysterical hairstyles, the swirling camerawork, the booming soundtrack of period songs both obscure and obvious. Comparisons to another American auteur whose recent work I’ve given considerable praise (Scorsese & Wolf of Wall Street, respectively) are pretty on-the-nose at face value — the swagger, the sheer confidence of filmmaking — but fairly shallow beyond there. Scorsese’s period epics tend to document elaborate lifestyles and their seductive qualities, where O. Russell’s focus is more on interpersonal deception.

Where American Hustle‘s momentum is somewhat lost is when the character crises slow to a crawl and the (mostly fictionalized) events reach their conclusion. O. Russell spends so much time asserting the moral ambiguities of the characters and reminding his audience that the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys are often psychologically indistinguishable — so when the respective characters meet their wildly different fates, it seems incongruous with what came before it. It genuinely seems to lose sight of what sort of film it wants to be, but only in its final moments. What comes before then, however, is a sort of blissful marriage of ’40s star-studded Hollywood breeze, ’70s New Hollywood egotism and the genuinely modern, original sensibilities of one of our most gifted directors. It’s good, guys.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is Audacious, Unhinged, Drugged-Out Filmmaking Mastery

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If there is a common thematic thread to be found in the films of 2013, or at least the ones I’ve bothered to consume, it’s one of excess. Of pushing limits. Of pushing one’s moral and physical boundaries to their thinnest possible point, then continuing even further. In fairly rapid succession (if with varying degrees of success), Pain & GainThe Great Gatsby, The Great Beauty, American Hustle, The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers have held up a mirror to these concepts that are increasingly embedded in our culture — yet it only feels appropriate that the most kinetic, unhinged exploration of this theme should come at the end of the year, in Martin Scorsese’s three-hour hand-grenade of an epic, The Wolf of Wall Street.

For a man so enamored with preserving cinematic history and evidence of its progression, Scorsese has really developed his own language with these sorts of pictures: sprawling, broadly textured, rampantly entertaining explorations of industries that use sin as a fuel, as a virtue. Goodfellas and Casino were famous for these qualities, and The Wolf of Wall Street not only completes this makeshift trilogy, but is every ounce the equal of its predecessors.

It’s the true story of deliriously corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort, rendered to an almost scarily accurate degree. The film charts Belfort’s rise — over the late ’80s through the ’90s — to a position of almost unthinkable power and wealth. But rather than focus on the financial ins and outs that Belfort had to navigate, Wolf of Wall Street is considerably more interested in the senseless, pummeling hedonism that his firm launched itself into: the orgies, the overdoses, the parties, the sexual deviancy, the mountains of cocaine, and their ultimately crippling effect on the soul and conscience.

Where this film seems to divide many, however, is its refusal to make a stark judgment on the events that unfold. The Wolf of Wall Street is fairly merciless in that it never shows the endless victims of Belfort’s despicable financial crimes, nor gives its characters any of the standard monologues written for movie characters to show a moral conscience. The truth is, these people don’t have one. The movie’s function, instead, is depicting the seductive, often ingenious power plays they take in order to attain a position of such trust and financial intimacy.

The film then, whether it means to or not, subtly links the seductive power of Wall Street risk with the mega-watt charisma of Hollywood stars — seeing as two of its biggest ones are the forces that propel Wolf of Wall Street forward at every minute. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill fearlessly throw movie-star ego and likability by the wayside, with the results being the funniest, most expressive performances of their respective careers. The two must communicate an articulate, smarmy evil while also absolutely losing their minds and physical composure at key intervals — one Quaalude overdose late into the film is, without exaggeration, among the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen on film.

This, to my taste and to my preference, is one of the most entertaining films ever made. It runs at 179 minutes, handily feels half that amount, and creates an insatiable need in me to see Scorsese’s original cut, rumored to run over an hour longer. With the coked-out panache that Scorsese’s held in him since his days as an addict in the ’70s, this film zips by at the speed of a bullet, and with comparable force and impact.

Martin Scorsese, at 71, has made a film with the bravado, breathless utilization of technique, and cocky amorality of someone a third his age. His career genuinely stands alongside the all-time greats of world cinema, when considering the sheer breadth of masterpieces he’s bequeathed over the decades. With this said, The Wolf of Wall Street may not be one of them. It’s a little too jagged, too unkempt, too willfully imperfect. But it’s audacious, fearless, raunchy as shit and the exact film I’ve been waiting to see through a long, dreary moviegoing year.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” review.

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Skillful and engaging though last year’s young-adult novel adaptation The Hunger Games may have been, it still felt like a film much more interested in pleasing its youthful, intensely ravenous fanbase than leaving any sort of mature cinematic imprint. Francis Lawrence’s highly anticipated sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, actually seems to acknowledge and respond to this criticism, resulting in a film that fulfills standard expectations that a sequel expand its conflict and darken its tone while feeling totally organic in doing so.

Jennifer Lawrence’s warrior-lover-heroine Katniss Everdeen returns, immediately battling the guilt and trauma over her victory in the first film’s titular hunger games, with would-be-boyfriend Peeta. The dystopian, post-nuclear government of Panem is rather displeased with their subversion to the already-fragile power structure, having defied the rules and both emerging alive from the games, which typically demand one lone survivor in their 24-man deathmatch.

And so to assert dominance over these two superstars and instill fear in the people of Panem again, a Hunger Games tournament is established again — this time, however, forcing Katniss and Peeta to compete amongst 24 past victors.

Given the much more vicious competitors and constant, oppressive governmental presence that the protagonists face, Catching Fire is a film of considerably weightier stakes than its predecessor. There is often a genuine sense of dread, even despair bubbling beneath the surface here. Given all of the blockbusters we’re forced to watch in which the protagonists have constant tactical advantages to the point of near-parody, here is a film in which its characters are often helpless in the wake of the forces governing their lives.

And when they fight back, it actually becomes rather spectacular. The extended battle set-piece, taking up the second half of the film, is vividly imagined and flows together immaculately. Admittedly, one of my major qualms from the first film — the impact-free, Disneyesque portrayal of violence — has not been addressed, but given how much more brisk and exciting Catching Fire is as a whole, such issues feel small.

Jennifer Lawrence remains one of the shining stars of new American cinema, imbuing gravity and grace to a role whose ass-kicking qualities are near-iconic with only two films. Josh Hutcherson’s limitations as an actor are gently easing up with age, bringing a new level of calm and authority as her friend and would-be lover, Peeta. The remaining supporting cast, stacked with veterans like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson, goes a long way towards lending Catching Fire’s oft-fantastical scenarios gravity.

Director Francis Lawrence, a man whose past work (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) revealed little beyond passionless proficiency, seems an oddly inspired choice to helm the remainder of this franchise. Suzanne Collins’ novels certainly provide Lawrence with a rich source of thematic texture and dramatic weight, leaving him to focus on simply translating the text to screen skillfully and with rhythm, grace and excitement. It’s odd to say this, given my fairly distant attitude towards the first installment, but The Hunger Games may have just become one of the most exciting franchises on the planet.

“Thor: The Dark World” inspires nothing but indifference

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The more enthusiasm Marvel pours into making its cinematic brand the center of pop-culture, the more difficult it is to give a damn about any of it. This much is apparent emerging from Thor: The Dark World, the eighth installment in their Avengers-centered universe and the second revolving around egotistical, beautifully-sculpted Norse god Thor. By far the weakest film in a brand that shows no signs of slowing, The Dark World lives in the shadow of the multi-billion critical smash Avengers – yet unlike Iron Man 3 of earlier this year, it doesn’t use these constraints and expectations to test its characters’ boundaries.

Iron Man 3‘s cleverest decision was to make its lead a total nervous wreck in the wake of Avengers, and so inverting one of the key tropes to heroism in the movies — the idea that the handsome, good-looking lead can brush off psychological trauma whenever he pleases. The Dark World, then, feels like a total regression in its unswerving allegiance to giving Thor as much surface charm and little depth as possible. With such a shallow foil as our lead, then, Thor: The Dark World feels less like a film and more like the worst qualities of television and video-games, all in one package; allowing episodic structure to rob its events of consequence and allowing poor computer-effects work to give the endless action sequences a decidedly cartoonish sheen. The film cost $170 million and never feels above a third of that figure.

It doesn’t help that, even in a cinematic universe where handsome leads fight with large shields and inter dimensional portals open in the middle of New York, Thor: The Dark World genuinely stretches one’s credulity past a recoverable point. The premise involves some vaguely distant enemies of Thor’s galactic kingdom, Dark Elves, and their return after thousands of years to destroy Earth, the universe, and all the rest. (If this review reads like the product of intense apathy, I assure you that’s because it is.)

If there’s life and vitality to be found in Thor: The Dark World, it’s in the dual male leads, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s gleefully villainous Loki. You may recall Loki was the chief antagonist of last year’s Avengers, and adding him back into the fold, assisting the film’s lead, adds a dynamic of unease and paranoia to the proceedings. It’s the only dimensions to be found in these characters, however, as their development is reduced to terse one-liners and what role they play in the film’s endless, endless sequences of destruction.

Thor: The Dark World is a film of small consequence, no matter how hard it may attempt to persuade you otherwise. Its conflicts are petty, its explosions are huge, and its identity is one of a lingering, haunting sadness for the state of $170-million filmmaking.

“12 Years a Slave” is a beautiful condemnation of an unthinkable collective sin

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British artist Steve McQueen’s films, to this point, have been stripped-down, simple and effective — 2008’s Hunger focused on the debilitating psychological impact of Bobby Sands’ 1981 starvation strike, where 2011’s Shame was a clinical, cold examination of sex addiction. Both were anchored by fearless performances by Michael Fassbender, but more importantly the two represented a total harmony of theme and technique — with McQueen’s exquisitely composed shots often using space and color to reflect the empty spiritual conditions of his embattled protagonists.

His new film, 12 Years a Slave, however, speaks to a much more vast discontent — nothing less than America’s most despicable institution, slavery, and so by extension America itself. It uses the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a free black man kidnapped and entrapped in various slavers’ homes for twelve years, and transforms the deeply personal tale into something of universal appeal and horror. By showing history’s devastating impact on multitudes of African-Americans through one singular nightmare, 12 Years a Slave is as keen a deconstruction of the American myth as any film, book, album, or cultural thinkpiece in years. There is no angrier film in theaters right now and there is none of greater importance.

Solomon Northrup is played by great dignity by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a long-respected supporting actor (Children of Men, Inside Man) finally getting his long-deserved showcase. Nearly every shot in the film is witnessed directly from his perspective, and Ejiofor nails the flurry of outrage, helplessness and quiet, resolved dignity that Solomon’s story entails. One of the more distinctive choices made by screenwriter John Ridley, however, is the decision to make 12 Years into a near-chamber drama; rather than taking a “traditional biopic” approach and shallowly skimming through the most ‘important’ events of Northrup’s story, the film is actually something of a series of extended conversations between Northrup and those around him

And while much of the film may be Ejiofor’s showcase, the ensemble here is a truly remarkable one. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson just may dominate the film as Edwin and Mary Epps, a domineering slave-owning couple into whose clutches Northrup falls for the final two acts of the film,  and Brad Pitt radiates mature wisdom as a Canadian carpenter who comes to oppose these two. Lupita N’yongo is a revelatory breakout as a female slave that gradually loses her will to live.

McQueen takes a totally unsparing eye to the psychological and physical torment of slavery. As admirable, even excellent, as Django Unchained was, it still had a wickedly biting sense of humor that distanced the viewer from the full emotional breadth of the social injustice on display. 12 Years a Slave, however, is both straightforward and remarkably complex in its depiction — two uncut sequences of barbaric violence elicited audible gasps from a packed audience, yet the film never deals in the black-and-white, simplistic morality one often encounters. Slavers openly express remorse, slaves violently fight one another and bask in despair, and sometimes the cruelest gestures of all to Northrup are when people offer him slivers of kindness — promises of humanity that ultimately do nothing but taunt him.

The greatest of ironies is that 12 Years a Slave, a film of such uncompromising honesty and wielding such a critical lens of our country, has found itself among standard Hollywood emotional pornography and awards-bait in being considered for this year’s Academy Awards. Make no mistake — 12 Years a Slave will outlast not only most films of this year, but most documentations of American injustice itself. It is essential viewing for all.

“Captain Phillips” politically-charged, exceptionally capable entertainment

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Few filmmakers today have as singular an interest in contemporary political turmoil as Paul Greengrass, which makes his mainstream acceptance all the more remarkable. As the helmer behind the two most kinetic Bourne installments, Supremacy and Ultimatum, as well as the superb 9/11 docudrama United 93, Greengrass has proven tremendously influential in his intensely critical view of government and the shattering impact of large-scale dissent on the common American individual.

His new film, Captain Phillips, serves as perhaps his most successful synthesis of entertainment and political criticism. It uses the real-life incident of kidnapped cargo-ship captain Richard Phillips and translates it to the screen in a way that both preserves the sweaty, tense specifics of the incident while also ensuring the wider, deeper political theses are never lost on the audience.

Phillips’ 2009 imprisonment was well-documented in American media, but not to the extent that the filmmakers’ many creative liberties are terribly noticeable. While guiding a container ship to Mombasa, Phillips found his massive vessel seized by four Somali pirates. It is only when the pirates absconded in a lifeboat, with Phillips as hostage, that the American military took intense interest and began to slowly entrap the pirates.

Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) cannily use Phillips’ ordeal as a springboard to explore and criticize American imperialist dominance. The film introduces Phillips and the pirates in identical contexts — skilled professionals undertaking the best possible job their surroundings have allowed them — and never allows us to forget their parallels. It is when the pirates are cartoonishly outmatched by our military force, however, that a genuine fury begins to emerge in Captain Phillips. As the four would-be villains continue their frenzied, desperate bargaining with our military, the ironic tragedy of their certain, jury-free execution grows ever clearer.

And how is this complex outrage shown on a human scale? One of the most famous faces in American entertainment, Tom Hanks himself.

Hanks, playing Phillips, is in absolute peak form. The unthinkably difficult development of his character, from steadfast captain into weeping, desperate prisoner makes for his most complex, emotionally bare turn in years. The four unknowns playing the pirates deserve the highest form of recognition as well, as they must both exude brute physical force and a growing sense of, if not exactly conscience, then recognition of their fate. Barkhad Abdi as their leader is exemplary.

It’s important to note that, in addition to the heft and emotional weight Phillips carries, it never betrays its identity as military-based blockbuster entertainment. This may be its downfall, in a way. There are not so much action sequences in Phillips as much as the film itself is one prolonged, escalating set-piece, and the direction is as surefooted and capable as we’ve come to expect from Mr. Greengrass. However, as the film’s third act approaches and the focus switches from Phillips and his captors to the military forces that seek to collide with them, the film gets too bogged down in its own self-contained, hyper-accurate military jargon. It creates a sense of authenticity, true, but at the expense of becoming a bit monotonous.

It’s no spoiler to say that at the end of the film, the captain is liberated from his captors and his captors robbed of their lives. Yet Captain Phillips wastes no time in patting its audience on the back or reassuring them that this ending is a happy one; one emerges from the film all-too-aware that while Phillips may be free, the socio economic inequalities that forced his captors into their duties will remain totally unchanged. The song remains the same. And blood is on Phillips’ hands.