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Review: Grudge Match


Grudge MatchIf you mention the names Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro and ask what their single best movie each is, eventually you'll come across more than a few people who will name Rocky (any of them, except for the fifth one) or Raging Bull. Those people wouldn't necessarily be wrong either, especially in the context of boxing movies. For a lot of people, the list of best boxing movies is topped one of the Rocky films and Raging Bull.

So when it was announced that Sly and Robert De Niro would be entering the ring once again in a film called Grudge Match, why was there so much concern? Oh, that's because it was going to be played out like throwaway comedy rather than an intense sports movie drama that could have been really great.

When boxing was at its height of popularity, two boxers ruled the roost, Bill "The Kid" McDonnen (Robert De Niro) and Henry "Razor" Sharp (Sylvester Stallone). The two light heavyweights dominated the competition, except each other. They each only had one loss in their careers and it was to each other. When it was decided they would fight a third match to truly determine who was the best, Razor mysteriously walked away from boxing.

Thirty years later, despite the unanswered questions, everyone moved on. The Kid became a business man riding the fame of Eighties celebrity while Razor lived a quiet and unassuming life working in a factory. Along comes Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), Dante is the son of a sleazy ring promoter, and it's his job to get the aging fighters to agree to let themselves be characters in a video game so that people can virtually relive the rematch they never saw. Trouble brews when the two fighters are in the same room, and fisticuffs occur while someone catches the action on a cell phone video and then all of a sudden, demand for the fight is at an all-time high.

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis


Inside Llewyn Davis

It's the cat. It ties the room together.

I'm talking about the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis. And by "room" I mean "movie." Without the cat, this film would feel structureless and almost entirely unlikeable. Its success as a plot device is a testament to the writing and directing powers of Joel and Ethan Coen.

The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a jerk and a moocher. He's knocked up his friend's wife (Carey Mulligan), he insults most of the people around him, he "does not suffer fools and likes to see fools suffer."* His longtime musical partner gone, he's trying to pursue a solo career and fumbles nearly every crucial decision, almost tragically. He would be wholly despicable were it not for two things, one of which is the way he treats that cat.

Llewyn feels responsible for the cat after it escapes from an apartment where he's staying, and that triggers the events in the movie. The storyline is not strong or obvious -- it's A Week In the Life of a Struggling Musician, and it sounds tedious on paper Llewyn sleeps on people's couches, sings for his supper, plays in a dingy nightclub with a folk-singing duo (Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), performs on a novelty record and even embarks on a road trip to Chicago, hoping to succeed with a major record producer/promoter. The typical overt narrative curve does not assert itself.

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues


Anchorman 2

Even though my boyfriend commonly jokes, "Which movie are you going to make me read tonight?", my arthouse leanings are generally no match for Will Ferrell. Sometimes all I want to do is turn my mind off for a few hours and laugh at pure idiocy. If Ferrell is the star of a movie, I'm pretty much a sucker for it. When I was offered the chance to see and review Anchorman 2, I leapt at the opportunity, much to the chagrin of said boyfriend. 

It's been almost a decade since we first met Ron Burgundy. Early in this long-awaited sequel, Ron and his wife Victoria (Christina Applegate) split up after she is offered a network anchor position instead of him. After hitting rock bottom, Ron is approached by an upstart network called GNN that's preparing to launch a 24-hour news channel. He goes on a cross-country trip to put his old news team back together for GNN, but they become disheartened to learn that they're relegated to a 2-5 am shift. After a confrontation with GNN's primetime anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden), Ron makes a bet and eventually becomes the network's most successful anchor, avoiding actual news and filling his time slot with animal stories and live car chases. 

Review: Saving Mr. Banks


Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks is "inspired" by the making of Walt Disney's effervescent classic musical Mary PoppinsEmma Thompson artfully plays the caustic creator of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, who flies out to Los Angeles to oversee the cinematic adaptation of her work.  Walt Disney (Tom Hanks in a mustache) has started work on the film without her full approval. Along with the songwriting Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and The Office's B.J. Novak) and storyboard artist Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), Disney hopes to convince Travers to sign over the film rights.

As we see Travers spout acerbic wit in later middle age, scenes from the Australian childhood of the author are depicted. Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Lone Ranger) play her troubled parents. Bank employee Travers Goff (Farrell) encourages the imagination of young daughter Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley as the young P.L. Travers, nee Helen Goff) while he depends on alcohol for his own escapism.  Mama Margaret (Wilson) is so beset with problems that she sleepwalks into a lake (IRL, this happened when the author was older and Mr. Goff already dead).

Review: American Hustle


American Hustle

The Abscam sting operation is an unlikely inspiration for a film.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the bizarre public corruption investigation (it involved an FBI employee posing as a Middle Eastern sheikh) targeted more than 30 public officials. A dozen or so were convicted of bribery and conspiracy, including a U.S. senator and six members of the House of Representatives. The busts were shocking when they went down, but Abscam isn't exactly a household name more than 30 years later. Is a long-ago political scandal still the stuff of a compelling movie?

In the hands of David O. Russell, it is. Well, it's the stuff of an entertaining romp, at least. Abscam is the basis for Russell's American Hustle, a film faithful to the general gist of the scandal (the FBI recruits a two-bit hustler to help take down corrupt politicians in a bribery sting) while playing fast and loose with almost all the historical details.

The real-life hustler was Melvin Weinberg; in the film, he's Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, who deserves a special Oscar for best comb-over), a slick con man who fleeces gambling addicts and others in desperate need of cash by promising them phony loans. When an FBI sting nabs Rosenfeld's seductive partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), the two agree to help FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) pull off an elaborate sting involving New Jersey power brokers, the mafia, and politicians at all levels of government. (Like the real Abscam, the hustle involves a phony sheikh.)

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugI have been quite excited to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug despite my disappointment with last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Like many viewers, I was disengaged by the overblown focus created by filmmaker Peter Jackson's technique of shooting and playing back at 48 frames per second (fps), especially upon the practical effects of makeup and the jerky movement in action scenes.

Thankfully, for The Desolation of Smaug, moviegoers will be able to choose for themselves whether to see the film in 24 or 48 fps, as well as in 3D. I watched the 24 fps 3D format, and am pleased to report that the overall viewing experience is much improved. The artificial hair and prosthetics could still be improved upon for some of the dwarves, but it's not nearly as noticeable as in An Unexpected Journey.

In the latest installment of The Hobbit, the journey for Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the band of dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) to the Lonely Mountain continues. Along the way the group must elude and fight multiple creatures and enemies, as well as escape the dungeons of the Woodland Elves.

Review: Out Of The Furnace


Out Of The FurnaceScott Cooper transitioned from small-time actor into big-time director when his debut film Crazy Heart earned Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar in 2009. It has taken five long years for his follow-up film, Out of the Furnace, to be made and released -- and that was partially due to Cooper's insistence that Christian Bale play the lead role of Russell Baze, a long time steel miner in rural Pennsylvania struggling to make the best out of his life. 

Russell has a beautiful girlfriend named Lena (Zoe Saldana) and works hard to make the lives of those around him better, checking in on his ailing father every morning before work and bailing his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) out of his gambling debts even though he doesn't really have the money. Rodney has been on four tours to Iraq and has no interest in following in his brother's footsteps of working for a living. He's always on the hunt for a quick buck, teaming up with a local bar owner (Willem Dafoe) who specializes in underground bare-knuckle fights to make enough cash to stay afloat. 

On the way home from paying off some of Rodney's debts, Russell drives home from the bar after having one too many and gets into an accident, killing two people. As he goes off to jail, his life slowly begins to slip away from him. His father's health gets worse, his girlfriend refuses to see him and his brother goes further and further off the deep end. While we aren't shown exactly how many years he's incarcerated, the world that Russell returns to after he is released from prison is far different than it was when he went away. 

There is an artful slow-burn to the filmmaking on display here, but Out Of The Furnace shows that no matter how many talented actors you have, some stories just can't be redeemed. It's just not very original and even though Relativity is doing a full-court press for awards season, it's hard to imagine this revenge thriller gaining much traction.

The best thing about the movie, quite surprisingly, is Woody Harrelson. He gives a frightfully good performance as the ringleader of an Appalachian crime syndicate who spends his days violating women, cooking up meth and throwing fights so that he can make as much money as possible. He's pure evil personified, but even this gritty role (which kicks off the movie in a disturbingly violent way) doesn't save Out of the Furnace from feeling like something we've seen a million times before. 

Review: Go for Sisters


Go for Sisters poster

In his latest film Go for Sisters, which screened at SXSW and opens today in Austin, longtime indie filmmaker John Sayles (Lone Star, Matewan) brings us yet another almost noir-ish mystery set on the U.S.-Mexico border. But like his other films, it's primarily character driven. The characters in Go for Sisters are strong, complex and interesting, and make up for a story that seems to meander aimlessly at times.

Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is a parole officer who is inadvertently assigned to an old high-school friend, Fontayne (Yolonda Ross). Bernice was always the straight arrow, but Fontayne is on parole after serving time for drug-related crimes. But Bernice needs Fontayne's help to find her son Rodney, who has mysteriously vanished after one of his friends has been murdered.

Bernice and Fontayne soon realize they need help and engage the services of an aging, sight-impaired ex-detective, Suarez (Edward James Olmos) and end up on a long journey involving the border to find out what happened to Rodney and if he's even still alive.

Olmos could have stolen this movie quite handily, but Hamilton and Ross hold their own, especially in scenes where the two lead female characters are together. The changing relationship between Bernice and Fontayne is the centerpiece of the film, but is complemented by Olmos's charming performance. A scene at the border in which the trio poses as a musical group is one of the film's quiet gems.

The mystery plot should be in service of the characters, but it veers off into scenes that feel irrelevant. The scenes are often fun to watch, as when Hector Elizondo makes a brief appearance, but they cause the movie to drag slightly in the middle. One sequence involving the possibility of tunnels across the border felt like it could have been eliminated entirely, especially with the over-two-hour running time.

Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown


broken circle breakdown movie posterIf you stop to absorb the lyrics of most bluegrass songs, you’ll find they’re not just sad, they’re heart, gut and soul-wrenching. This gives you an idea of what to expect from The Broken Circle Breakdown, a romantic drama that uses bluegrass music to frame its characters' tumultuous lives.

Directed by Felix van Groeningen, The Broken Circle Breakdown follows two young creatives, Elise and Didier, as they meet, fall in love, play in a band together and soon enough end up married and parents to a little girl. As life continues to throw surprises at them, they find the strength to keep going in different ways.

Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh play the leads, and each brings great charisma and energy to the screen. Physically tiny compared to Heldenbergh's towering, banjo-playing figure, Baetens exudes passion and heart as Elise, an impulsive tattoo artist with a lovely singing voice and superstitious leanings. Heldenbergh is alternately gruff and warm as Didier, Elise's atheistic counterpart who is defined by his deep love for American culture and deep hate for its politics. 

The two have sharply different views when it comes to religion, philosophy, and just about everything else, but their chemistry and love for their daughter make them a believable couple who you hope finds their way towards happiness.

But just like in a bluegrass song, happiness is hard to come by. When Elise and Didier's daughter Maybelle becomes sick with leukemia, they are forced to watch helplessly as medicine, luck and their own bond as a couple all begin to fail. Maybelle, played by the extraordinary Nell Cattrysse, is the star that guides these two, and when her light begins to fade they are both at a loss. 

Review: Narco Cultura


Narco Cultura 

Director Shaul Schwarz examines the drug war in Mexico in the riveting and occasionally gruesome documentary Narco Cultura, opening Friday in Austin. Schwarz is an Israeli photojournalist who shot a series of images in 2011 on the violence erupting across Juarez, but decided the topic needed to be brought to life on the big screen. With this movie, he keeps the spotlight on Juarez, which has become the murder capital of the world while sitting directly across from the safety and relative security of El Paso, Texas.

What struck me right away about the film was the on-camera interviews with children, who could not be older than 10, talking about the murder of their family members as though it was the most common and natural thing in the world. Their day-to-day reality is skewed in an obscenely harmful way thanks to the drug syndicates who rule the streets. 

The violence in Juarez grew slowly, but steadily over the years with the murder rate eclipsing 3600 people last year alone. We are introduced to several police officers who work as the "C.S.I." of Mexico, a specialized unit that has been targeted by the drug lords. Every day they are on the job, they are taking the risk that they'll be killed, most likely to be followed on their way home after they leave the office. The irony is that for all of the evidence that they gather, there is such widespread corruption that the majority of cases are never solved. 

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