Saturday, January 11, 2014

Short Takes: 2013 Wrap-Up

American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell, 2013)

American Hustle seems like the logical endpoint to David O. Russell's output since 2010: a lavish 1970s period piece bringing together a collection of actors he's previously worked with (and a few he hadn't) for a story loosely based on ABSCAM, an FBI sting operation that took down several high-ranking government officials. Christian Bale delivers a remarkable performance as Irving, a con artist brought in by FBI agent Richie (a terrific Bradley Cooper, whose rage is bound tighter than the curls on his head) to work on the operation, with Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as the initial target. Amy Adams, too, turns in a great, hilarious performance as Sydney, who falls for Irving and becomes his accomplish, pretending (very badly) to be a wealthy British banker. There's a lot of rich humor here, and like Russell's best films, the best moments are when everything seems to be teetering on the verge of chaos. Though the film never completely comes together, it's certainly a stronger and more focused effort than last year's Silver Linings Playbook. It looks like Russell is finally back to his old self. A-

The Wolverine (dir. James Mangold, 2013)

In all honesty, the latest solo adventure for Hugh Jackman's bitter, hairy mutant just needed to be better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and that's not exactly a tall task. At the same time, though, there's the fact that Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky was attached to this film once, and though James Mangold (Walk the Line) does a fine job filling in, it's hard not to think of what this could have been. The film follows Wolverine to Japan, where he comes to say goodbye to a man he saved in WWII only to uncover a sinister conspiracy and the possibility of mortality. Though it's nice to see some more shading to a character who's appeared in multiple films already, it doesn't really tell us anything new about him. Luckily, the film's action sequences are fun, if not necessarily inventive (with the exception of one terrific sequence set atop a bullet train). It's a lot better than its predecessor, but still not the solo Wolverine movie that the character deserves. B

Elysium (dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2013)

In 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp came out of nowhere with District 9, the unexpected (and unexpectedly incredible) hit about aliens living in Johannesburg. Elysium is his long-awaited follow-up, starring Matt Damon as a factory worker in decrepit future Los Angeles who, after suffering a lethal accident, must get to the space station Elysium - where the one-percenters live - to heal himself. There's a very obvious message here about the growing global income gap and the necessity for universal health care, but way too often that message is distracting and hammered home without any subtlety. That's a shame, because despite that and Jodie Foster's bizarre performance as Elysium's defense commander, the film is a pretty thrilling and engaging action movie. It's a shame that Blomkamp the social commentator couldn't get out of the way of Blomkamp the action director. B-

The World's End (dir. Edgar Wright, 2013)

Edgar Wright's delightful Cornetto Trilogy - which includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz - comes to a conclusion with The World's End, which follows five old friends who are reunited by deadbeat Gary King (Simon Pegg) to complete a pub crawl in their hometown, only to discover that the population has been replaced by robots (the proper term for the replacements is actually a running joke). Co-written by Wright and Pegg, the film - like those previous two - roots much of its humor in understanding the characters, and it delivers some unexpected pathos in the idea of returning "home" and finding it different from how you remember. Of course, the real gem is in the casting: in a reversal from the previous two films, Pegg now lets loose with the hijinks, while Nick Frost - in what is certainly the film's best performance - plays the straight-man with beautiful depth and hilarious repression. Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Paddy Considine round out the quintet, while Rosamund Pike and Pierce Brosnan make terrific cameos. The World's End was a fitting way to end a terrific trio of films. A-

The Way Way Back (dirs. Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013)

Coming-of-age tales - especially ones about teenage boys - are a dime a dozen, especially in independent film. And no, The Way Way Back, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's directoral debut and follow-up to their Oscar-winning screenplay for The Descendants, doesn't really bring anything new to the table. But the film, which follows Duncan (Liam James) over a summer at the beach house of his mom's (Toni Collette) jerk boyfriend (Steve Carell, somehow cast against type yet perfectly in-type), and works at a nearby water park with goofy Owen (Sam Rockwell). Lessons are learned, friendships are made, romance is discovered; basically, the film goes through the motions. What livens this up, though, are the performances from AnnaSophia Robb as Duncan's love interest/neighbor Susanna, Allison Janney as Susanna's odd mom, and Rockwell's surprisingly heartfelt Owen. All of these elevate an uneven and otherwise rote film. B-

Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013)

Superman, by his nature, is a tough character to center a movie around because he is inherently good, and that doesn't exactly create major internal conflict. Man of Steel, the latest reboot of everyone's favorite Kryptonian, attempts to give Supes a bit of a darker edge. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) knows he's different, and his adoptive Earth parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) try to protect him from the judgment of humanity. However, when he discovers a Kryptonian ship buried in ice, he not only discovers more about his origins, but brings the wrath of General Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian bent on resurrecting his destroyed home planet, to Earth. Director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer (who worked on producer Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy) add some rougher elements to Superman, but it never comes together in any interesting way. Instead, there's just a bunch of mindless CGI destruction, which Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne spend the majority of their screen time running away from, and dramatic inertia. The film's redeeming quality is Shannon's performance, as he really digs into the nationalist zealotry that drives Zod. Superman, as a character, can be a little more consumed by angst. But the result shouldn't be this dull. C

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