12 Years A Slave

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With so much Oscar talk buzzing around this film this year, I HAD to see it before the awards ceremony to know whether or not it was gonna clean house. Nominated for several awards, many are predicting that “12 Years A Slave” could be in for a great night come Oscar night. I have read where this film has been compared to “Schindler’s List” in its importance to cinema and it could be said that, on many levels, it succeeds in that regard. Slavery in America was a terrible time in our country’s history and this movie succeeds in showing the relentless brutality towards African-Americans during the late 1800’s. It is not a pretty picture nor is it what I would consider entertainment. As a matter of fact, this movie is almost more of a documentary than entertainment to me…and that is where I lost myself watching it more as historical fact than fiction.

Solomon Northup is a violinist from New York. He lives with his wife & 2 children and is a well-respected man in his community. One night, after working in Washington, DC, he is tricked by 2 men he considers to be his friends and sold as a slave. From there, he is put aboard a boat where he is transported to Georgia and sold in an auction. He is then sold from one owner to the next, working in one plantation or another, while he lives with the hope that one day he can find a way to communicate with his wife and return to his family.

First things first…this IS an amazing movie on many fronts. The acting is top notch, the roles are well defined and the topic of slavery is never watered down. It is very much like “Lincoln” in how it presents the plight of Northup. It doesn’t water down his predicament and when he is sold into slavery without his papers, it is a moment that makes your stomach ache.

Many fantastic performances in this film, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has been nominated for an Oscar in the “Best Actor” category and deservedly so. Michael Fassbender also has a turn as a drunken plantation owner who takes to beating & raping his slaves. Fassbender is also up for an Oscar and could be a dark horse. I thought his performance was spot on. And there is a brief role by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who plays a slave who is raped and beaten, mostly because of Fassbender’s affection toward her and his wife’s jealousy. Despite her nomination for “Best Supporting Actress”, I thought her limited time on screen will hinder her chance to win, especially since she’s up against Julia Roberts & Jennifer Lawrence.

“12 Years A Slave” definitely deserves to be considered for Best Picture of 2013. It is one of the most realistic looks at slavery that has ever been put to film and I imagine it will be represented on Oscar night with a couple of surprise statuettes…

Overall Rating: A

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Red Rental Reviews: January 2014

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With 2 Redbox locations within walking distance of my house, I have ample opportunity to get caught up on all the movies that I didn’t get to see in the theaters this past summer. This month, I got to finally see 2 that I have been dying to see and a couple I didn’t think I would really WANT to see but was pleasantly surprised! Let’s get started!

The Conjuring (Horror)

It’s about time Hollywood came to its senses and got back to good, old fashioned scares. Things that go bump in the night (or go clap in the basement) can be just as jolting as seeing someone getting hung up on a hook…and this film is a great return to classic horror. Patrick Wilson & Vera Fermiga play the Warren’s, a couple who specialize in tracking and ridding our world of demons and evil spirits. And they find a doozy in the house of the Perron’s (played by Ron Livingston & Lili Taylor). It’s all set in the 70’s and this movie reminds me of classics like “Poltergeist” or “The Amityville Horror.” Very little gore, lots of scares. Its perfect for a fun date night and will have you on the edge of your sofa!

Overall Rating: A

We’re The Millers (Comedy)

A terrific cast is bludgeoned by poor writing and not-so-funny situations as a group of misfits band together to try to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border, only to find that they need one another more than they need the dough. It’s not even a funny premise, to be honest, and to waste the comedic talents of Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston is a pity.

Overall Rating: D+

The Wolverine (Action)

I didn’t care much for the first Wolverine movie and so I had no interest in seeing this one in the theater or otherwise. But it was a slow week and I like superhero movies so…I rented it. I’m happy to report that this one actually is more of what I expected the first time around out of our favorite, moody superhero and when he lets the claws out? This one ain’t so bad. The final act is a little clunky though and I found myself wanting it to end quickly. If anything, I’ll just say this is a standard, by the numbers action film with little beyond the firepower of Hugh Jackman to keep you interested.

Overall Rating: B-

Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters (Kids/Action)

Can I just say that I really liked the first Percy Jackson so I was just as eager to see the return of Poseidon’s son as my daughter was! Unfortunately, this movie quickly gets bogged down by too many effects and silly situations and becomes a bore after about 45 minutes. I wanted to like it, but it doesn’t hold up. Which is too bad because I really like all of the characters and I was hoping Percy Jackson could become better than a low rent Harry Potter…but I guess not.

Overall Rating: D+

The Family (Dark Comedy)

At some point, mob leader Giovanni Manzoni ratted out his family and is now living under the protection of the United States government. Unfortunately, he and his family have a hard time acclimating to their new home in Normandy. And once the mob finds out where they’re living, it’s an all out war in the streets as Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) and his family must come together as a family to stay alive. If you like mob movies, then this one is for you. It has some funny moments, some decent acting (thank you Michelle Pfeiffer) and has some scenes that are engaging. But overall, as an entire film, it doesn’t hold up. It’s not dark enough, funny enough OR interesting enough for its almost 2 hour runtime and eventually becomes tedious. As a rental though? It’s not the worst thing you could do with your time.

Overall Rating: C

Kick Ass 2 (Action)

While the first Kick Ass was ultraviolent and dark, this one goes into this weird teen angst mode and never seems to get on its feet. It starts up where the first one left off. Kick Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a senior in high school, living with his dad and trying to be a normal kid with normal problems. Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a freshman who just wants to fit in while also dealing with her need to be a superhero. Meanwhile, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) seeks to avenge his father’s death at the hand of Kick Ass by becoming the first supervillain, known as “Mother#$%@.” Despite some fun action sequences and the same stylized violence of the first one, Kick Ass 2 never really becomes anything more than a John Hughes action film. And I don’t mean that in a good way. I had MUCH higher expectations for this film and it failed on almost every level except for Moretz, who manages to keep Hit Girl interesting even when the script isn’t above grade. Even Jim Carrey, in a role that seemed fit for him, seems out of place in this one.

Overall Rating: C-

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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It’s the return of everyone’s favorite news team…but this time…they’re taking over America! And leading our rowdy band of misfits is the man who puts class in classless…Ron Burgundy (Will Farrell). This film picks up a little after the original left off. Ron, Brian Fantana, Champ Kind & Brick Tamland are recruited to be a part of a start up 24 hour news organization based out of New York. They are one of many news teams that are hired to be on air and the San Diego news crew is given the coveted 2am slot.

What can I say about this movie and not give anything away? There’s action, romance, cross country adventure…even a baby shark! There’s so much packed into the 2 hours that is “Anchorman 2” that it’s hard to capsulate all of the various plot points. That being said, I CAN tell you that there is much hilarity and so much ridiculousness that it would be a disservice to mention even a single one of them. Okay….maybe one.

Brick is dead.

But THAT is the only plot line that I am gonna give you.

Oh…and Jack Lime is played by James Marsden. But THAT you can find on IMDB.

Anyway…this film is, by all accounts, a return to everything you liked about the first film. There is a storyline that can be followed here and it involves….

NO…I WON’T tell you!

The thing about A2 is that it’s BETTER than A1 and much smoother than ketchup. Oh…and the 2nd act letdown that happens in A1 doesn’t really happen in this one. It’s 2 hours of fun and, despite a couple of slow spots, it’s worthy of your time and laughs.

Overall Rating: B+

American Hustle

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It’s not very often that I go into a movie thinking I’m probably not going to like it but then I’m pleasantly blown away. In the case of “American Hustle,” I was definitely blown away. I went into it with a lot of skepticism but all of the players involved are top notch, from the director down to a surprise uncredited performance by everyone’s favorite badass, Robert DeNiro. And what looked to me like a period piece in the movie trailers, is actually a vehicle for some of the absolute best performances of this year!

I don’t want to give away the plot because it IS a lengthy storyline with a lot of twists and turns. But let’s just say that Irving (Christian Bale) & Sydney (Amy Adams) are con artists who get in WAY over their heads when they are busted by a young & feisty FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who is trying to make a name for himself. While trying to clear their names, both Irving & Sydney agree to help the FBI setup politicians & power players who may, or may not, be involved in a scheme to rebuild Atlantic City with dirty money. In itself, this plot really doesn’t seem like much. However with the powerhouse performances given by Bale, Adams, Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence (as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn), Jeremy Renner & Louis C.K., this movie is alive with fresh blood and gives director David O. Russell some of the best performances of any of his films!

Here’s what I’m seeing…several Oscar nominations (probably all 4 headliners get listed) and an Oscar nomination for best film, best directing, best screenplay and best production design or makeup. As you can imagine, that’s not much of a stretch considering all of the accolades that are being thrown at “Hustle” right now however, after watching the movie and the excellent work done by so many, I’m pretty sure they won’t be left out of the Oscar race this season. I personally think Bale is AWESOME in this role as the scam artist with a heart, Irving Rosenfeld, however I doubt he’ll win. There have been so many amazing male performances in a lead role this year that this one, while excellent, probably won’t get him the kind of push to win him a statue. Amy Adams, on the other hand, should be considered the best in her category. She is outstanding as Rosenfeld’s soul mate and right-hand woman. At any given time, she gives life to any scene that she’s in. She’s sexy as hell in one scene, a complete mess in another, and she plays this character to the hilt! I wouldn’t have ever thought that she could pull this character off but she does it in spades!

Needless to say, this will be considered one of the best films of 2013. It’s every bit a classic Russell movie with lots of emotion, lots of comedy, it’s cleverly edited and the script is perfect. Go see “American Hustle.” It’s worth seeing in the theater and will provoke lots of conversation afterword!

Overall Rating: A

Drinking Buddies

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Oh how I love little indies with actors acting like real people. Last year brought me “10 Years” and “Liberal Arts.” This year, I’ve seen a couple of good ones in “The Way Way Back” and now this movie which is about as down to earth as you can possibly get. Starring Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston in roles that they probably could have shown up at and done in their sleep, this little film isn’t as much about watching a movie for an hour and a half as it is a study into human nature and how we handle being in monogamous relationships while having friends of the opposite sex. Much like the topic approached in “When Harry Met Sally” so many years ago, “Drinking Buddies” updates the idea and brings it to a hipper and younger generation.

No more is “Harry” an uptight college graduate trying to talk his way into a young coed’s pants. In this film, the lead character, Luke (played by Johnson), is just a regular joe. He works at a brewery, likes his beer and is the best friend that anybody could have. And in this case, his best friend is a girl…and her name is Kate (Wilde). Kate is the girl that ALL guys wish they had as a friend. She is not only hot…but she’s a slob who loves to drink, loves to shoot pool and can’t be involved in a serious relationship. She’s also not above a one-night stand and she is devoted to her job. She is obviously a perfect friend for Luke, who ALSO enjoys drinking, shooting pool, and is as charismatic a character as any girl could want. Except he’s taken. And he’s faithful to his girlfriend, Jill (Kendrick). The chemistry between the 2 leads in this film is palpable. They obviously like each other and from the outside looking in, they are perfect for one another. However as the movie goes on, you start to wonder…will they ever get together? Are they really made for each other or is the unique chemistry between them simply that of a truly wonderful friendship?

Needless to say there is a lot of emotional resonance in this film. Both characters are excellent in their roles as they genuinely seem to enjoy being with one another. Wilde is excellent as Kate, a woman who is not emotionally all there and Johnson is perfect as Luke, a guy you just KNOW you could have a beer with and never have lag in the conversation. What lacks in this particular script is fire. Despite there being this underlying tension about their feelings for one another, what never seems to spark is a feeling that, if they DID pursue a monogamous relationship, that it would be any better than what they have now. It’s not until the final scenes, when Luke helps Kate move into a new apartment, that we see that, despite the fact that they SEEM to be perfect for each other, they really are VERY different in the way their lives flow.

Although I enjoyed “Drinking Buddies,” I can’t say it’s for everybody. It moves a little slow and has a very “made for television” appeal. But the chemistry between the leads and the strength of the other actors involved (Kendrick & Livingston) makes this a great date night RedBox rental. I recommend it!

Overall Rating: B-

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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When last we saw Katniss Everdeen, she had just won the 74th edition of the Hunger Games, rescuing not only herself, but also her fake lover Peeta, much to the dismay of the evil President Snow. This, in turn, has sparked a rebellion in the many districts of Panem and brought the ire of the Capitol down on Katniss. No longer can she romp freely in her district, hunting with her love interest, Gale, while attending to her family and neighbors. Now she must live under the shadow of Snow and the Capitol while touring to other districts to promote the games that she despises. And to add to her woes…the President has decided to make the 75th Hunger Games one to remember…by bringing back ALL the former winners of previous games and forcing them into the arena to fight & kill one another! Will Katniss make it out alive? Will she rebel against the President and force his hand? Or will she be forced to fight once again in order to live another day?

As most of those who have already read the Hunger Games series, you know what’s coming so it’s really about how it’s all translated onto the big screen. As our heroine, Katniss, Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence is the embodiment of the lead character. She has the restraint and the emotional resonance to make this character as deep as she seems on the written page. And her supporting cast is top notch as well, most of them returning from the first go-around. Josh Hutcherson is again excellent as Peeta and is given a little more spunk than last time. Woody Harrelson & Lenny Kravitz also return as the District 12 mentor and dressmaker. A few roles are a little more defined this time as Elizabeth Banks is given a little more to do as Effie, the team leader and Liam Hemsworth returns as the love interest, Gale. Also returning is Stanley Tucci (in possibly the only role in the film that got on my nerves) as the ringleader, Caesar Flickerman. And the cast is beefed up a little bit by newcomers Jena Malone, as a Games warrior who wields an axe and the new gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, who is played by Philip Seymour-Hoffman, possibly one of the best actors out there right now.

So what’s different about this round of The Hunger Games? Well…honestly? Not much. It’s really the same principal idea as the first one however the story IS leading somewhere so it has that going for it. And the effects, while nothing earthshattering, obviously cost more than the first movie. Other than that though, what you have here really is a lot of the same, with Katniss being forced back into the games while trying to protect Peeta. Little does she know, however, that she is soon to find out that her Nightingale imagery as well as her defiance towards the Capitol is paving the way towards a revolution…and THAT is where this series is heading. So don’t be dismayed, while “Catching Fire” isn’t groundbreaking in any way, it IS a nice transition into the final 2 films (yes…they ARE making the final book into 2 movies so as to get MORE of your money!) and all of the pieces are in place. Everyone involved with this movie, from Jennifer Lawrence to director Francis Lawrence (no relation) , does a top-notch job and all is well within the Hunger Games camp. Go in with the knowledge that you’re not gonna be blown away and this film is actually pretty darn entertaining…

Overall Rating: B