‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’: Chris Pine in a Franchise Reboot

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is a “Bourne” movie without the showpiece action scenes, the quirky characters or the carefully layered narrative. There’s plenty of “Bourne”-like vehicular mayhem, and there’s a ferocious close-quarters fight scene, too; but little of it is new, and its familiarity reminds us how much more distinctively this sort of thing was done in those earlier films. “Shadow Recruit” isn’t a bad movie — director Kenneth Branagh has constructed a professional piece of tech-thriller product — but it’s clouded throughout by an air of insufficiency.

The four previous “Ryan” movies — which starred Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck as the resourceful CIA intelligence analyst — were based on Tom Clancy‘s best-selling novels. This one isn’t. Now Ryan is played by Chris Pine, an actor whose default expression of drooping uncertainty seems wrong for the role; and his character has been inserted into a tale devised by screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp. The story hinges on a sinister Russian banker named Cherevin (Branagh, with a thick accent that’s pure Pottsylvania). Cherevin nurses a bitter grudge against the United States and is plotting a terrorist attack on Wall Street (no cheering, please) and the destruction of the American economy. The movie is therefore heavy with talk of international finance, which is not especially thrilling, and further lumbered with the usual ratta-tap computer wizardry.

The picture appears to be an attempted reboot of the Ryan franchise. (The most recent film, “The Sum of All Fears,” came out in 2002.) So it gets underway, rather slowly, with a back story montage. We meet Ryan while he’s studying for a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in 2001. Jolted by 9/11, he joins the Marines and is deployed to Afghanistan, where we see a helicopter on which he’s traveling blown out of the sky by a barrage of choppy editing. Shipped back to the States, he regains use of his limbs with the help of (this is a little unclear) an aspiring ophthalmologist, named Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). Then a CIA honcho named Harper (Kevin Costner) turns up to recruit Ryan for duty on Wall Street, where he’ll monitor the funding of worldwide terror networks.

Ryan agrees, and before long his attention is drawn to Cherevin’s fiscal machinations. Ryan and Harper take off for Moscow, where they soon are joined by Cathy, who doesn’t know that Ryan is a CIA agent. (They’ve now been together for three years.) There’s much cat-and-mousing with Cherevin, and there’s a good scene in a fancy restaurant where Cathy distracts the silky financier with flirtatious small talk while Ryan slips away to do improbable things with computers. There’s also some business with a Russian sleeper agent, a very old-school ticking time bomb and a vital algorithm. Dazzling Harper with his higher-ed erudition, Ryan says, “We’re looking at the Panic of 1837!” Harper says, “We still need this algorithm!”

This sort of picture really requires the dash and charisma of a full-bore movie star in the lead. Pine isn’t there yet, and he’s outclassed by Costner’s easy warmth and old-pro line readings. And while Branagh is, of course, an excellent performer, he’s not really a “movie star,” either; murmuring his dialogue (“America vill bleed”) through tightly compressed lips, he seems more like a ventriloquist in search of his dummy than he does a world-class villain. The actors go through all the motions of genre intrigue, but the movie goes nowhere new.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website

‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’: Scorsese’s Electrifying Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Very Dirty Money

wold-of-wall-streetMartin Scorsese’s new movie hits the ground running with a montage of dwarf tossing, sex grappling and extreme drug behavior of a sort I don’t believe I’ve ever seen on screen before. Then it gets really crazy. Frantically edited down from four hours to three, and now arriving at the last moment for Oscar consideration, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is hilarious and appalling and, by the end, a little exhausting. Scorsese shows us bad men doing very bad things — ruining lives, treating women like dirt — and declines to take a moral stand about what we’re seeing. And with Leonardo DiCaprio giving an explosive performance at the center of the film — sometimes in long, rabble-rousing orations — it’s hard not to get caught up in these people’s demented exuberance.

The story is true-life, drawn from a memoir by Jordan Belfort, a stock market shark of unapologetically skeezy inclinations and prodigious appetites. We meet Belfort (DiCaprio) arriving on Wall Street in 1987, and being quickly wised up by a top broker named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, taking total possession of the movie in a very brief appearance). The dirty secret of stock-trading, Hanna tells Belfort, is that while the clients are only getting rich on paper, the brokers are getting cash-rich on commissions. He counsels taking as much cocaine as possible.

Before Belfort can put this advice to use, though, the Black Monday stock market crash wipes out his job. He’s reduced to working at a grubby suburban “boiler room” that specializes in pumping and dumping penny stocks to the financial detriment of workaday suckers reeled in by visions of quick riches. Belfort is astonished to learn that, while the standard Wall Street broker’s commission is 10 percent, in the penny-stock market, it’s five times that. He quickly takes over this piddly operation and turns it into a major company called Stratton Oakmont. Before long he’s wearing $2,000 suits and putting $26,000 dinners on his credit card. Money, Belfort says, “makes you a better person.” (In real life, Belfort was ultimately jailed for inflicting $200 million dollars’ worth of damage on his clients.)

There’s barely a dull scene in the movie. Belfort acquires a henchman, a brash weasel named Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill in one of his best performances), and moves his burgeoning enterprise into swank new offices. Here we witness uproarious staff parties with call girls servicing the cheering brokers right at their desks. Emulating the boss, everyone is cranked up on booze and drugs. There’s a gaudy beach house bacchanal and a wild orgy on an airplane (the movie is heavy with full-frontal nudity, almost exclusively female). None of the carousing scummers can imagine the good times will ever end.

But after Forbes magazine slams Belfort as “The Wolf of Wall Street’ (he welcomes the recognition), a straight-arrow FBI agent named Denham (Kyle Chandler) begins taking an interest in Stratton’s dodgy doings. By this point, Belfort is roaring out of control. Despite the blizzard of cocaine that blows through the movie, his drug of choice is methaqualone, and there’s a long, hysterically funny sequence, following massive Quaalude ingestion, in which he’s reduced to crawling from a restaurant out to his car as if he were swimming through a sea of glue. (“I went straight to the drool phase,” Belfort says in voice-over.) It’s borderline slapstick territory into which I don’t think DiCaprio has ever ventured before, and he’s surprisingly terrific.

Early critical reaction to the film has been understandably divided. In his classic “Goodfellas,” which this movie sometimes resembles, Scorsese grounded the fun in a clear-eyed acknowledgement of what monsters his mobsters really were. Here, he presents Belfort and his fellow shysters simply as raucous lowlifes, and he invites us to laugh along with them. There’s virtually no character development: Through all the episodes of unbounded debauchery, no one has second thoughts or regrets — everyone remains as heedless at the end as he was at the beginning. And apart from Cristin Milioti playing Belfort’s shabbily discarded first wife, and the sleek Margot Robbie as her trophy-babe successor, women in this picture are a tertiary concern. (Belfort offers one female employee $10,000 to allow her head to be shaved while her co-workers watch; she accepts because she wants the money to buy breast implants.)

But there’s so much to marvel at — not least the excitement of seeing a legendary director, at the age of 71, working close to the peak of his powers, his energy and technical invention still dazzling. (As is his facility with music — the picture is filled, counterintuitively, with rowdy R&B oldies by Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.) The story eventually stretches out to Geneva, where Belfort consorts with a slick banker named Saurel (Jean Dujardin, star of “The Artist”). There follows an elaborate maritime sequence that feels distinctly out of place, and from this point, the movie begins to falter. (You wonder how much better it might have been if Scorsese and his peerless editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, had had sufficient time to tighten it.) But “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an electrifying piece of work, and the actors are wonderful, especially DiCaprio and Hill, who go all out and sometimes well beyond. Whatever the movie’s flaws, it’s a great Rabelaisian entertainment whose grimy pleasures can’t be denied.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website

‘Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues’: Will Ferrell Returns in a Good-Not-Great Sequel

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

One understands why Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay waited so many years to follow up “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” That 2004 hit, which they co-wrote, seemed to take wild non-sequitur humor as far as it could go — its scabrous raunch approached perfection. A sequel would have to expand upon the earlier film’s concept of a preening TV nitwit amok in the happy-talk local-news scene of the 1970s. Could such a movie ever be more than a re-tread?

Well, Ferrell and McKay finally went ahead and made that sequel, and here it is, and yes, they’ve extended their story in a clever way. The year is now 1980, and Ron (Ferrell) and his onetime nemesis Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are married-with-kid and have moved up to the big time, co-anchoring a weekend newscast in New York City. As the story begins, we see their boss, Mack Harken (Harrison Ford), firing Ron — for being an idiot, of course — and promoting Veronica to become the first female anchor on the network’s primetime news show. Ron is crushed. After Veronica dumps him, he returns to his home turf of San Diego, where he fails to stay classy. Then he’s approached by a talent-scouting producer (Dylan Baker) who’s assembling an on-air roster for a radical new venture: a 24-hour news operation called Global News Network, which is being launched by an Australian gazillionaire named Allenby (Josh Lawson). (This conflation of CNN and Fox News is way off chronologically, but still pretty funny.)

Ron accepts the offer and sets about rounding up his old team. He finds weird sports guy Champ Kind (David Koechner) running a fast-food chicken restaurant (well, “chicken of the cave” — also pretty funny). Onetime investigative reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) has become a kitten photographer for a magazine called Cat Fancy. And bonehead weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) has just died — although not exactly. (When the boys arrive at his funeral, they find Brick, himself, giving the eulogy — a scene that’s more than a little limp.)

After surviving a really funny slo-mo auto crash on their way to New York, Ron and company arrive at GNN headquarters to discover that the hard-ass news chief (Meagan Good) is not only a woman, but a black woman (“Black!” Ron blurts out, by way of introduction), and that a rival anchor named Jack Lime (James Marsden) is already Ron’s sworn enemy. But it’s Ron who comes up with a game-changing concept for the upstart network. “Why tell the people what they need to hear?” he asks. “Why can’t we tell them what they want to hear?”

And so we see that witless Ron Burgundy is the author of ratings-obsessed cable news as we now know it — heavy with soft features, over-lacquered anchors and extra-heavy with zap-pow onscreen graphics. Very clever, as I say — although laced with predictable Hollywood condescension toward Middle America (GNN’s viewers are shown to be even bigger morons than Ron Burgundy) and lightly pocked with liberal cliche (“What happens when the powerful own the news?”).

As serviceable as the plot is, though, it’s the strafe-and-burn dialogue we’ve come to hear, and this is a bit of a letdown. There are some rousingly absurd lines. (Looking back over his long life, Mack Harken says, “I killed four men in Okinawa. That was four weeks ago.”) But Ron’s out-of-the-blue oaths this time around (“By the hymen of Olivia Newton-John!”) are strained; and some of Brick’s verbal eruptions (“I’m wearing two pairs of pants!”) are fake-funny — semi-amusing because they come out of nowhere, but basically just odd and flat.

It helps that Brick has been given a love interest here, a spaced-out secretary (Kristen Wiig) who’s just as loosely wrapped as he is. And while a big battle of international network news teams is essentially a re-run of a sequence in the first Burgundy film, here it’s pumped up with an all-new herd of guest-star cameos (as well as the ghost of Stonewall Jackson). But Ron’s jive-talking dinner with a black family is gratingly dated, and interludes with his sweet, needy son (Judah Nelson) are a recurring annoyance.

“The Legend Continues” isn’t likely to resonate in popular culture the way the first film did — its japes and random jabberings aren’t as memorable. It’s a funny sequel — there are some choice bits. But for prime Burgundy, it’s not quite funny enough.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website

‘Her’: Joaquin Phoenix and the Woman Who Wasn’t There

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Theodore Twombly, lonely guy, may have found the perfect girl. She lives inside his computer. Her name is Samantha, and she is the voice of Theodore’s new operating system. She’s really something. At first she was all small talk: “Good to meet you,” “Do you want to know how I work?” Very Siri. Then things got more interesting. “At every moment, I’m evolving,” she informed Theodore. “You’ll get used to it.” Will he?

Spike Jonze‘s “Her” is an enchanting tale of love among our many machines. The movie is charming and funny and a little unearthly. It features yet another uncanny performance by Joaquin Phoenix and an improbably dazzling one by Scarlett Johansson, who never actually appears.

The story is set in a future not far ahead of our own (a period in which the fashion in menswear inclines toward high-waisted trousers). Theodore (Phoenix) is an underachieving writer employed by a company that provides handwritten letters for clients who can’t be bothered to write their own. His wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), a successful author, is divorcing him. He is bereft. At night he cruises Internet chat rooms in search of romantic connection, but encounters only sex maniacs. His broken heart is scabbing over. “Sometimes,” he says, “I think I’ve already felt all that I’m gonna feel.”

Then, booting up his computer one day, he encounters Samantha (Johansson). With all the resources of the Web at her non-existent fingertips, Samantha quickly learns how to make herself of service. She starts by sorting through Theodore’s emails — saving this, deleting that. Soon she’s proofreading the letters he writes for work. Before long, they’re stepping out together (Samantha travels by phone). Theodore is smitten. He tries to explain this unusual new relationship to his only real friend, a videogame designer named Amy (Amy Adams). When he’s with Samantha, he says, “I feel cuddled.”

Some of this has literary overtones, recalling the Mark Twain short story “Eve’s Diary” as well as the traditional science-fiction theme of sentient machines. But Jonze, working for the first time from his own script, creates narrative inventions that are unique. (The question of virtual sex, posed by Samantha, is resolved in a novel way.) And the actors do some of their best work. Phoenix, who’s in every scene, never falters in conveying the dreamy confusion of a man for whom life is a puzzle whose pieces may never fit together. And Johansson, who’s not in any scene, is a wonder, dancing around Theodore’s befuddlement with a voice at one moment sparkling and sweet, yet at others hurt and even irritated. (Samantha’s lines were originally read on-set by Samantha Morton; when Jonze brought Johansson in to re-do them, he adjusted the movie to accommodate her extraordinary performance.)

There’s also strong support by Mara — who’s only in one scene (apart from a few flashbacks), but hits telling notes of conflicted affection and regret — and by Adams, giving a full-hearted account of a woman with love problems of her own who’s open to alternatives. (Her character assures Theodore that he’s not weird — she has another friend who’s also dating an OS.) And cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy“) wraps the L.A. exteriors in a gauzy haze that’s ideal for the story’s understated otherworldliness.

The movie has more on its mind than the old question of “What is love?” In a bracingly original way, Jonze suggests that whatever the future of digital evolution might hold in store for human romance, the danger of heartbreak will always remain, along with its attendant torments of desperate yearning and unfocused jealousy. “You helped me to discover my ability to want ,” Samantha tells Theodore. Want what, he wonders.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website

‘Saving Mr. Banks’: It’s Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

A movie about Walt Disney, you say? Produced by Walt Disney Pictures? Surely, we can be forgiven for anticipating an exercise in corporate ancestor worship.

But no. Or not exactly. “Saving Mr. Banks” depicts Walt Disney’s yearslong seduction of the author Pamela Travers in pursuit of the film rights to her popular children’s book “Mary Poppins” — the subsequent basis of his Oscar-winning 1964 musical fantasy. While the movie may have “heartwarming holiday fare” all but engraved above its title, it’s entertainingly crafted holiday fare, and it seems likely to warm the hearts of all but the grimmest cynics. Whatever the accuracy of the events it portrays (splintery real-life edges have no doubt been carefully sanded down), the Disney effect overcomes any skepticism we might have; we accept the story because we want to believe.

The picture is illuminated by the glowing chemistry of its two stars — Emma Thompson, as the maddeningly prim Travers, and Tom Hanks, as the indefatigably affable Disney. Travers is introduced as a child in her native Australia. The year is 1906, and her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell, restrained and affecting) has just lost another job. His kids love him, though, and we see that his gift for storytelling is leaving an imprint on little Pamela. (Later, with the arrival of a no-nonsense governess, we see Travers’ most famous literary creation foreshadowed.)

The bulk of the story is set in 1961. Travers has, for many years, been coasting on the success of her best-selling book. (She actually went on to write several more “Poppins” novels.) But the royalties have now dried up, and a new income stream is desperately needed. She has been pursued for 20 years by Disney, a major “Mary Poppins” fan who’s determined to build a movie out of her famous creation. She always has resisted Walt’s sizable offers for the rights to “Mary Poppins,” but now she’s forced to hear him out. So Disney flies her to Los Angeles. She hates it — hates the easygoing California lifestyle, hates the unwanted chumminess of the people she meets. Even the sunshine is vulgar, she feels.

Her hostility is reinforced when she arrives at Disney headquarters and learns that the movie Walt has in mind is a musical — and that it also will contain animation. Maybe even dancing penguins. Worse yet, Dick Van Dyke! Travers is appalled. The story proceeds as a clash of personal cultures. Travers drives the Disney artists and songwriters nuts with her pedantic demands. (She has unwisely been given script approval.) But Walt never stops humoring her. She sees him as a purveyor of witless corn, but Disney, a Midwesterner, sees nothing at all wrong with that.

Thompson is so good here — carefully unfurling the hidden sorrows at the heart of Travers’ frosty personality — that we’re left with no choice but to embrace the movie’s own large portion of corn. And Hanks, with his trim mustache and easy warmth, is a perfect foil. He doesn’t just want the best for Travers; he wants the best for the whole world. (In fact, he wants a Disney world.)

There are appealing performances around the edges of the film, too, chiefly by Paul Giamatti, as the warmhearted limo driver who tries to lighten Travers up a little, and by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, as the Disney songwriters who bear the brunt of her most exasperating creative dictates. The movie is light on its feet and cleverly constructed (the immortal “Poppins” song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is buoyantly deployed), and it ends exactly where we know it must: in tears. Of happiness, if it need be noted.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website

‘American Hustle’: Velvet Suits, Ascots, Neck Chains, and Pinkie Rings – It’s the 70’s!

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

American Hustle” is a wannabe Martin Scorsese movie that could be left wallowing in the wake of an actual Scorsese movie — the superior “Wolf of Wall Street,” which opens Dec. 25. Director and co-writer David O. Russell hits some vintage Scorsese notes — the scheming lowlifes, the dreadful ’70s fashions — and then fully bares his intentions by bringing in Robert De Niro for a one-scene cameo as a scowling mobster, instantly triggering memories of “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

Like those two Scorsese films, “American Hustle” has a true-crime root — in this case the late-’70s Abscam affair, an FBI sting operation that brought down seven corrupt U.S. congressmen. To organize that undertaking, the bureau employed a professional con man named Melvin Weinberg, here renamed Irving Rosenfeld and played by Christian Bale with all-out commitment. Bale’s Irving is a balding schlub with a billowing gut (the actor gained 43 pounds to play the role), a grotesque comb-over and a wardrobe of burgundy velvet suits, ill-advised ascots and gaudy neck chains and pinkie rings. Remember, the movie keeps reminding us, we’re in the ’70s!

Irving nominally operates a string of dry-cleaning shops around the outer boroughs of New York City. But his high-flying lifestyle is largely financed by loan sharking and a thriving trade in dubious artworks. He’s married to a honking bubblehead, named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), but has lately become infatuated with an ex-stripper, named Sydney (Amy Adams), who longs for a more adventurous life and decides to move in to Irving’s. Adopting an English accent to become “Lady Edith Greenley,” Sydney brings a helpful infusion of faux class to his various scams, and all goes well until they’re busted by manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie is intent on becoming a star G-man, and to that end, he’s devised a plan to surreptitiously record crooked politicos accepting proffered bribes. Richie offers Irving and Sydney immunity if they’ll help out, which they reluctantly agree to do.

Richie’s main target is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, N.J. Carmine is basically a good guy, and Irving likes him; the man sincerely wants to help boost his state’s economy by luring big money into the recently legalized Atlantic City casino industry. Despite reservations, Irving baits Carmine by calling in an Arab sheik with money to burn. (He’s actually a fake — a Mexican named Paco, played by Michael Pena.) Meanwhile, Richie has developed the hots for Sydney; she tells Irving she’s going to play along with the love-struck agent’s carnal fantasies, but Irving soon begins to wonder who’s actually being played. Then Rosalyn finds out about Sydney, starts eyeing a young mob hunk named Pete (Jack Huston) and … what a mess!

Russell has done memorable work with several of these actors before. Bale and Adams featured in his 2010 movie, “The Fighter,” and Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro starred in “Silver Linings Playbook.” They’re all good here, too. But the movie’s tone is muddled. Cooper and Lawrence are going for comedy. His overwound Richie is driven to fits of hyperventilating lust by the teasing Sydney; and Lawrence, who has yet to be bad in anything, brings a raucous vitality to the role of Rosalyn, a layabout wife largely occupied with doing her nails, working on her artificial tan and tormenting her hapless mate. (Summing her up in a wildly mangled metaphor, Irving calls Rosalyn “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”)

Bale and Renner are allowed to dig deeper into their characters, but that turns out to undermine the movie’s broad comic surface. Renner’s Carmine, with his ruffle-front shirts and towering pompadour, is a family man with a big heart; and Bale’s Irving grows increasingly conscience-stricken as he leads the cheery mayor toward his downfall. The director’s attempted blend of emotional introspection and screwball humor never quite coheres. (And it doesn’t help that Adams’ character never comes fully into focus. What is it that Sydney really wants?)

“American Hustle” already has been drenched with prerelease acclaim. (The New York Film Critics Circle last week named it the best picture of the year.) This does the movie no favors. Russell has gifts of his own, but his venture so deep into Scorsese territory was fated to fall short; he doesn’t have Scorsese’s mad comic energy. “Hustle” is a good solid film, very funny in parts, and it’s certainly worth seeing. That should be enough.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website

‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’: Conquering Spiders, Elves, and Dragons

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Part Two: In which we rejoin Bilbo and Gandalf on their way to Erebor in company with the questing dwarves Thorin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy — you remember. Once again, they’re menaced by fearsome orcs and snarling wargs as they gamely transit glorious New Zealand. Some familiar faces pass through, including the mind-reading Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the mushroom-addled wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Orlando Bloom’s fiercely blond Legolas is dragged back from the “Lord of the Rings” series (no word from J.R.R. Tolkien about this), and even the fiery Eye of Sauron gets a quick peek in.

OK, OK. “The Desolation of Smaug” is actually a lot livelier than the first “Hobbit” installment, “An Unexpected Journey.” For one thing, there’s nothing in it as fun-smothering as the endless hobbit-hole chow-down that opened the previous film. There’s a lot more action this time, and at several points, director Peter Jackson exceeds even his own very high standard in designing and executing it.

The story is so simple that we wonder once more why it should take nearly three hours to tell it. Bilbo (amiable Martin Freeman) is slogging along with the 13 dwarves en route to the ancestral homeland from which they were long ago expelled by the dragon Smaug. Their leader, Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage), has recruited him to join in re-entering the stony innards of the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug still sleeps, and, once there, to find and secure a glowy artifact called the Arkenstone, which is — I don’t know — really important. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, crinkly as ever) is intermittently absent, but Bilbo is still secretly in possession of the One Ring he snookered away from Gollum in the first film. Maybe that’ll help.

Entering the dark, broody forest of Mirkwood (where “the very air is heavy with illusion,” Gandalf mutters), the party is attacked by a very real army of giant spiders — a scary scene that allows Jackson to flex his low-budget-horror muscles. Before long, the hardy band is imprisoned by a tribe of unfriendly elves. But then they manage a spectacular escape — the movie’s most thrilling sequence — in which Bilbo and company, each squeezed into an empty wine barrel, plunge down a churning waterway as warrior orcs pursue them, leaping from bank to bank, and an intervening band of friendlier elves wades in to fend them off. Blood gushes; limbs fly. And the action builds in endlessly inventive ways. Only when this sequence finally concludes do we note that it’s gone on too long.

Likewise the movie’s final set piece — the confrontation with Smaug. It takes place in a vast Piranesian treasure chamber filled with shifting dunes of shiny gold coins. The dragon — a digital wonder the size of an Airbus — speaks in what’s said to be the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch. (I wouldn’t have guessed.) He and Bilbo trade tense bons mots as the nervous hobbit edges his way toward the gleaming Arkenstone and the dragon grows ever more menacing. It’s a pretty great scene, but it surely could have been cut down by, oh, 10, 15 minutes or so. But, yet again, no.

The feeling of bloat that attends the whole “Hobbit” enterprise remains off-putting. Jackson says that he keeps his Middle-earth franchise going because if he doesn’t, someone else will, and he wants to protect the unique fantasy world that he created. But the question persists: Why did he feel it necessary to inflate into a trio of three-hour films a story that Tolkien tossed off in 300 pages? The stretch marks continue to show. More regrettably, these latter-day movies lack the enchantment of the “Rings” trilogy. There’s nothing in the first two pictures as beautiful as the scene in “Return of the King” in which Pippin, detained in the castle of Denethor, gives forth with a haunting a cappella ballad while his vile host wolfs down his dinner with lip-smacking indifference. There are still marvels to be seen in these new “Hobbit” films, but they’re almost entirely technological. The magic has flown.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’: 60’s NY Folk Music as Seen By the Coen Brothers

Photo courtesy of Alison Rosa / CBS Films

Photo courtesy of Alison Rosa / CBS Films

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a ramblin’ kind of movie with several things to commend it. The ramblin’ is a problem, though.

The Coen brothers, co-writing and -directing once again, have set their story in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s — specifically the winter of 1961, just before a newly arrived Bob Dylan rose up to rock that small world and soon the bigger world beyond it. The movie is selectively drawn from “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” a 2005 memoir by the late Village folk singer Dave Van Ronk (one of Dylan’s early mentors). Oscar Isaac, who plays the fictitious Llewyn Davis, doesn’t much resemble Van Ronk — a bear of a man with bluesy inclinations. But Isaac’s sweeter voice has its own appeal, as does his unadorned fingerpicking guitar style. (Major props to the Coens for having their actors strum and sing live on set and for letting key songs play out from beginning to end, uncut.)

More problematically, where Van Ronk was admired in the Village folk world for both his musicianship and his proud-lefty politics, the apolitical Llewyn is a whiny pain, coldly self-absorbed and indifferent to everyone around him. As the movie follows him from one anecdotal incident to another and we get to know him better and better, we like him less and less.

He is introduced onstage at the Gaslight Cafe (a folkie “basket house” of the period), with a single spotlight filtering through the smoky haze as he delivers a delicate rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (a Van Ronk staple). Then the ramblin’ begins. Essentially homeless, Llewyn expends much time in finding places to crash each night. At the Upper West Side home of a dippy professor (Ethan Phillips) who prizes him as dinner party entertainment, he accidently acquires a cat, of which we proceed to see way too much throughout the film. Then he heads back down to the Village to cadge some sofa time with Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), a folk duo more successful than Llewyn, who’s unencumbered by star power. (His recent solo album has sold maybe two copies.)

Jean is not at all happy to see him; she’s pregnant, and Llewyn may — or may not — be the father. Jim is a stalwart pal, though, and he brings Llewyn in as a sideman on a recording session overseen by a producer (Ian Jarvis) who clearly represents Columbia executive John Hammond — the man who would soon be signing Dylan to the label. Also in attendance is Al Cody (Adam Driver), another local folkie, and together these three actors provide the movie’s most delightful scene. The song they’re cutting — “Please Mr. Kennedy” — is an uproarious rewrite of an old Goldcoast Singers tune. In the film, it’s a transparent attempt at a novelty hit; in the here and now, it’s actually a winner.

As the story rambles on, Llewyn catches a ride to Chicago with an abrasive trad-jazz musician, named Roland Turner (John Goodman), who is bitterly contemptuous of the surging folk-music wave that’s swamping his own scene. At the wheel is Roland’s cooled-out “valet,” an “On the Road”-type figure named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, who played Neal Cassady in the recent film version of the Jack Kerouac novel). Arriving in Chicago after considerable narrative meandering, Llewyn makes his way to the Gate of Horn, a folk music shrine, to beg a booking from the club’s dead-eyed owner, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, standing in for the real-life Albert Grossman, who later became Dylan’s manager). Grossman is unimpressed by an impromptu performance (“I don’t see a lot of money here”) but offers Llewyn a place in a frankly commercial folk trio he’s putting together. (Albert was the man who assembled Peter, Paul and Mary.) Llewyn, characteristically, rebuffs the offer.

Scene by scene, the movie is sleekly constructed and evocatively shot; the snowy Village streets quickly call to mind the famous cover photo on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” And the actors are unusually fine. Mulligan, a prize sourball, is cuttingly funny, and Timberlake makes you miss him in every scene he’s not in. The picture is subtly layered with period referents (there’s even an allusion to the once-notorious Living Theatre), and the musical interludes, produced by T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, have a shimmering sonic purity.

But as admirable as the movie is in its parts, it doesn’t add up to much as a whole. We’re presumably meant to identify with Llewyn’s struggle to break through to stardom; but he’s not hugely talented, and we can easily see why he’s failing. The circular plot is too clever for the movie’s own good, and it ends in a tiny joke that deflates much of what’s come before it. The film is an affectionate tribute to a resonant cultural moment, but as Coen brothers movies go, it’s kind of minor.

One note: Most of the music in this picture (and a lot more besides) was showcased in a September benefit concert at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Mulligan, Driver, Burnett and Mumford were among the many performers (Timberlake was unavailable), alongside Jack White, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, a duetting Joan Baez and Patti Smith(!), and the incomparable Punch Brothers. It was a spectacular night of acoustic music, and it was filmed for a Showtime special that will be airing Dec. 13. Highly recommended.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website

‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’: Jennifer Lawrence in a Bigger, Somewhat Better Sequel

catching-fireAnother year, another prime-time massacre in the sad land of Panem. You’ll recall that in the first “Hunger Games” movie, our spunky protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), outfoxed government game-runners to emerge victorious at the end of the annual rite. This should have exempted her from further participation in these bloody extravaganzas, but Panem’s evil dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), alarmed that Katniss has become a figurehead for mounting rebellion among his miserable subjects, has declared a special new edition of the Hunger Games that will pit past victors against one another in a new battle to the death. With any luck, he fervently hopes, Katniss will be among the corpses littering this year’s arena.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is in some ways a rerun of the first film — nearly 2 1/2 hours of teenage action-romance. But it’s a better movie. Even though the first installment grossed more than $680 million worldwide, the producers have brought in a new creative team to punch things up. Their wisest hire was director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”), who whips the story along in a tightly focused style; the picture never sags or wanders. It’s still a movie aimed at fans of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling YA novels — and of Jennifer Lawrence, naturally — but even viewers dragged into it kicking and screaming are unlikely to be entirely bored.

Most of the key actors are back in harness: Elizabeth Banks as Katniss’ fashion-victim chaperone, Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson as her boozy coach, Haymitch Abernathy; and the great Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the government game-show host from hell. (With his blazing-white teeth and purple eyebrows, he’s an icon of showbiz insincerity.) And there are some welcome new additions, too, chief among them Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the weaselly government gamemaker. (“Fun is my business!”) Hoffman has never met a written character he can’t improve upon, and he devises a carefully ambiguous charm for this one. Jena Malone (“Sucker Punch”) brings a punkette energy to the role of ax-wielding contestant Johanna Mason, and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer add a sweet emotional layer to the film as the brainiac contestants Beetee and Wiress, who discern a crucial flaw in Plutarch’s insidious game design. Katniss is still saddled with mopey fake boyfriend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), but he’s effectively crowded out this time by a far more engaging hunk, named Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin of “Snow White and the Huntsman“).

The movie advances the “Hunger Games” story in serviceable fashion. Katniss and her partner Peeta are compelled by Snow to leave their grim coal mining town and embark on a promotional tour of Panem’s other heavily oppressed districts. Snow also forces them to continue posing as girlfriend-boyfriend (“Our two lethal lovers!” Flickerman crows during a TV appearance) to add bogus romance to the grisly government narrative. Their ultimate destination is the Capitol, where Katniss’ stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), once again decks her out in about a half-pound of mascara and familiar fiery gowns (one of which unwisely announces his own rebel sympathies). After meeting their fellow contestants (“I want them all dead!” Snow hisses to Plutarch), they’re off to the arena — this time a hot, thick jungle arranged around a big lagoon with a Tilt-A-Whirl-style “cornucopia” of weapons at its center. The games begin.

Plutarch and Snow watch via video feed as the contestants are assaulted and knocked off by an unrelenting array of perils — an attack by giant baboons among the most fearsome. Director Lawrence stages all of this with sleek economy — there’s rarely a scene that lasts a moment longer than it should — and he skillfully balances the movie’s action with quieter interludes of plot-pushing conversation and even some chaste PG-13 nuzzling. Things grow dark at the end, as you know they must — until Katniss pulls one last arrow from her apparently bottomless quiver.

The movie was partly shot with Imax cameras for maximum widescreen impact, and you may be very happy to know that it’s not in 3-D. It is the middle installment of this story (the concluding chapter, profit-stretchingly broken into two films, will be released over the next two years), but it stands fairly well on its own. Apart from Sutherland — who, I think, murmurs too much to be convincing as a really rotten guy — the performers are well-suited to their roles and seem to be having fun with them.

The movie is tricked out with an expected component of digital and animatronic enhancements. But its most special effect, once again, is Jennifer Lawrence. Her deep talent as an actor is barely called upon here, but her serene beauty anchors the film. She’s required only to glow, and she does. And that’s enough.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website

Nebraska : Road Tripping With a Crusty Bruce Dern

NEBRASKABruce Dern gives a brave and unfaltering performance in “Nebraska,” the new movie by Alexander Payne. Dern already has won the best-actor award at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, and now his portrayal of an old man sinking into the confusion of senile dementia is being touted for an Oscar. This possibility has a sentimental attraction. The 77-year-old actor has been so memorable in so many movies over the past 50 years (he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in the 1978 film “Coming Home”) that we can’t help wanting to see him score a career-capping triumph. And maybe he will.

But Dern’s character in this movie — a crusty old coot, named Woody Grant, who has lost all interest in human interaction — is a very limited figure. Bumbling around with the splay-gaited walk of a man carefully scrunching insects underfoot, Woody is beaten-down and largely monosyllabic. He’s the fulcrum on which the story rests, but most of what we learn about him is laid out by subsidiary characters. This is an interesting narrative strategy, and Dern holds the screen with his total commitment; but the story is mostly advanced by the other actors, who are allowed more room to inject color and energy into the proceedings.

The real revelation in the picture, I think, is Will Forte, who plays Woody’s son David — a young man who, in his own way, is as confused and aimless as his father. Stuck in a dead-end job (he’s an audio salesman in an electronics store) and recently dumped by his longtime girlfriend, David knows his life is going nowhere, but he has no idea what to do about it. Forte, best-known for his comedy work on “Saturday Night Live” and in the broad-as-a-barn-door “MacGruber,” plays it completely straight here, and his warm, thoughtful performance strongly suggests a new career direction.

We meet Woody wandering along a highway in Billings, Mont., where he lives. Woody wanders a lot in his dwindling years, and David is often called upon to reel him back in. This time, though, Woody won’t be held in check. He has received a letter from a direct marketing outfit announcing that he has won $1 million — followed by a heavily qualifying “if,” which Woody ignores. He’s determined to make the 800-mile trip to Lincoln, Neb., where the company is headquartered, to claim his windfall. David knows the letter is a scam, and he’s reluctant to facilitate his father’s delusion. And Woody’s nasty, irascible wife, Kate (June Squibb of “About Schmidt”), and his eldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), are convinced it’s time to park Woody in an old-age home. But David eventually realizes that his dad finally has found a purpose in his drab life, so he agrees to be Woody’s driver. And off they go.

Dern never stoops to easy pathos here. His Woody is a surly, unpleasant man, and the actor never tries to soft-sell him. En route to Nebraska, David makes a short detour to give Woody a look at Mount Rushmore. Squinting up at the giant rock faces, Woody is sourly unimpressed. “Doesn’t look like it’s finished,” he mutters. “Looks like somebody got bored doin’ it.”

A little farther along, David decides to make another stop, at Woody’s childhood hometown of Hawthorne, Neb., to visit his even-older brother (Rance Howard). A big family gathering has been planned, and David hopes to use the interlude to persuade Woody to call off their pointless quest.

Payne has shot the film in widescreen black and white, a format that inevitably recalls such great ’70s movies as “Badlands” and “The Last Picture Show.” Here, it’s ideal in conveying the chilly winter monotony of life in a small town such as (the fictitious) Hawthorne, with its empty streets and oppressive air of nothing-ever-happening. The director, a Nebraska native himself, strikes some memorable notes; a scene in which aged members of the extended Grant family are shown crammed into a small living room and staring mutely at a blaring television has a particular kind of claustrophobic horror.

It is in Hawthorne that we begin to learn more about Woody’s past — his long-ago loves, his business setbacks (it turns out he was once a kind and generous man, a soft touch for needy friends). And when Woody unwisely announces that he is now a millionaire (which, of course, he’s not), we get an unsettling depiction of the avarice of desperate people with long-deferred dreams. A menacing character named Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) — Woody’s onetime partner in a car repair garage — suddenly remembers that Woody owes him money; now he wants it paid back, with heavy interest. And Woody’s two fat-slob nephews (Kevin Kunkel and Devin Ratray, wonderfully moronic) also begin to circle, with violence in mind.

The story proceeds along a string of carefully arranged details. Nothing showy happens; the movie is resolute in maintaining its small-bore focus on Woody and David and the low-key maneuverings of the rural characters who cluster around them. It’s a rewarding film, especially in the performances of Dern and Forte; but in the impressive resume of Alexander Payne — the man who wrote “Sideways” and directed “The Descendants” — “Nebraska” is a relatively, and perhaps intentionally, minor work.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website