This weekend's "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is expected to be one of the biggest films of the year. But, considering we're in the early stages of the most crowded holiday season ever, will it be able to surpass the original's $303M take at the box office?
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" opened to $85 million on the very same weekend last year. Keep in mind, "Lord of the Rings" fans didn't know what to expect from Peter Jackson. The result was a very lengthy journey indeed (almost three hours). Plus, the HFR (high-frame-rate), with even higher ticket prices than 3D, made it a must-see.
"Smaug" is ten minutes shorter than "Journey" and is again in HFR, but I don't think the attraction will be quite as strong. Yes, "Smaug" will absolutely win the weekend with at least $75 million. Obviously diehards are going to go, and even those who didn't love the first installment but think this second chapter looks better (I'm in that group) will be giving it a shot this weekend.
The interesting other new option at box office is "Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas". Perry movies, particularly those starring the crazy old lady, traditionally open quite well and then die very quickly. "Madea" may steal some of "The Hobbit"'s thunder (grabbing some patrons who get sold-out of "Smaug"), as well as bring in Perry's strong African American audience ($30M target open).
"The Desolation of Smaug" should have some legs before the bombardment of Christmas Day releases, and end up with an estimated $260-$270 million total, landing right in between WB's other two 2013 blockbusters, "Man of Steel" and "Gravity".
One year after David O. Russell was able to earn all four of his "Silver Linings Playbook" stars Oscar nominations in their respective categories (the first time that had been done in 30 years), he may have done it again with the extraordinary ensemble of "American Hustle", which is a smart, chic, sophisticated con-caper that's hugely entertaining.
A movie about scam artists needed to be challenging and complex (and get even more as the film goes along) and "American Hustle" delivers. You never know who's in, who's out, who's working for who and where the story will go. The setting is the dynamic disco era of the late 70's. The men sport wild outfits and hairdos to match; the women wear very low-cut dresses and platform shoes. Amy Adams will be attracting attention this Awards Season for two reasons: Not only does she gives the best performance of her career as Sydney, a small town girl who comes to NYC with big dreams, but she holds nothing back with her wardrobe.
"Hustle" is inspired by an actual event - the FBI Abscam operation. Christian Bale plays Irving, a businessman whose greatest success is as a con man. He has a phoney money lending scheme, along with a wife and adopted son. Irving meets and falls in love with Sydney, and he invites her to become part of his illegal operation.
The pair soon get involved with FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who has big dreams of his own. He wants their help in taking down some major government officials so that he can make a name for himself in the Bureau. Promises are made, deals are done, but no one knows for sure who's telling the truth and who's planning to double-cross the other person.
And then there's Irving's wife, Rosalyn. She's the "wild card" in the operation. Irving doesn't want her involved in this scheme, but she just can't help herself. Jennifer Lawrence gives another wacky, off-the-hook performance as a mother trying to take care of her son, not burn down the house,and find love one way or the other. She's a shoe-in for another Academy Award nomination and could actually win again. She's just that good - simply remarkable.
"American Hustle" is exciting from start to finish. O. Russell provides plenty of comedy and quirky situations to balance the high-stakes, dramatic moments. The stylized look of the 1970's is fantastic, as is the score. And, just as he did with "SLP", he gets inside these characters, and we feel their desperation as they risk everything to pull-off this operation. Never has the phrase "desperate times call for desperate measures" been more appropriate.
But it's the performances that elevate "American Hustle" to the status as one of the best films of the year. Bale is excellent, transforming himself, physically and emotionally, into his role. Cooper tops his own work as Pat in "SLP" with this portrayal as the overly-ambitious agent. Jeremy Renner is solid as a mayor trying to do the right thing. Comedian Louis C.K. nearly steals the show (and tells a heck of a fishing story) as Cooper's boss. And THE Robert De Niro makes an uncredited, but important cameo as a ruthless mobster.
"American Hustle" is rated R for language, adult content, brief nudity and violence. It's appropriate for older teens and up. O. Russell has, once again, made a serious movie, with seriously good performances, that's also a lot of fun and challenges you to the final frame.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "American Hustle" gets an A-.
"Winds in the East - mist coming in. Like something is brewing - about to begin." Colin Farrell's opening lines in Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks" say it all. I predicted five months ago when the first, and only, trailer for this film was released, that this "Making of Mary Poppins" movie was going to be one of the best films of the year. With two, 2-time Oscar winning stars: Emma Thompson as Poppins author P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as the legendary Walt Disney (who had never been portrayed like this on screen), and director John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") at the helm, "Saving Mr. Banks" exceeds all my expectations. This is a modern masterpiece which captures the sadness, love, joy, and pain it took to turn a beloved children's book into one of the most beloved movie musicals of all-time.
"Banks" is designed with two parallel stories. Normally, I'm not fond of films that bounce back-and-forth between the present-setting and the past. But Lee Hancock intertwines these two tales so marvelously, giving them both equal importance, value and emotion, that it's now impossible to imagine the movie being made any other way.
Growing up in Australia in the early 1900s, young Pamela (played by Annie Rose Buckley) lives with her mother, younger sisters, and father (Farrell), who calls her Ginty and encourages her to dream, use her imagination, and not turn-out like him: a drunk. This serves as the backdrop for the story behind the story of the flying nanny.
The adult Travers, an acclaimed author, has been courted by Walt Disney for over twenty years. He promised his daughters that he would make Mary Poppins "fly off the pages of her books". But Travers has refused to give Disney the rights to her work. Finally, in 1961, in need of money, she decides to travel from London to California for two weeks, to listen to Walt's latest pitch, read the script, and see if the Disney version of her story is up to her very high standards.
The bitter Travers dislikes everything from the moment she arrives in Los Angeles: the smell of the air, the weather, the fact that no one walks. Ralph, her friendly personal driver (played by Paul Giamatti), tries to lighten the mood but can't get through to her. And then Travers steps into the Disney studios and lets her opinions loose on every single idea. She doesn't like musical numbers, Dick Van Dyke as Bert, or the use of animation in the film because she hates Disney's "silly cartoons". Not even a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth ("Who gets to go to Disneyland with Walt Disney himself?") helps. And throughout her visit, Travers is haunted by her painful childhood memories, which force her to hold-on even tighter to her very personal story.
To borrow a line from Julie Andrews herself, who won the Best Actress Oscar in 1965 for playing Poppins: "Saving Mr. Banks" is "practically perfect in every way". I haven't walked out of a film so touched, so invigorated and so moved in a very long time. There's so much love and care poured, by the heaping spoonful, into every scene. Following in the footsteps of "The Artist" and "Argo", "Banks" is a great movie about the making of a movie. You learn previously unknown details about "Mary Poppins" involving the script, the songs, and the cast, along with the fascinating backstory.
Thompson captures Travers beautifully. She's quick-witted and brutally honest, with a warm, deep soul and a troubled past that needs to be reconciled. Hanks is fantastic as the no-nonsense "Master of the Mouse". There's a showcase scene near the end of the film that Hanks pulls-off with such ease you simply sit and watch in amazement. This scene alone should make him a lock for several Best Supporting Actor nominations and awards. Farrell is also quite good, and Giamatti turns Ralph, a minor character, into one of the most memorable in the entire film. Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi, and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak ("The Office") as the Sherman Brothers get to deliver some of the best lines (and facial expressions) as they agonize through the creative process with Travers.
And this is also a great musical, with some unique vocal renditions of classic songs "Chim Chim Cher-ee", "Spoonful of Sugar", "Feed the Birds", "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank", and "Let's Go Fly A Kite" (or as Travers points out, in proper English: "Let Us Go and Fly a Kite"). The score is tip-top, as are the sets and costumes. No detail is missed. And above it all is the wonderful original screenplay by Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel. It was impossible not to tear-up at times and join in with the cheering audience at the end of the screening. And "Banks" is meant to be experienced in a theater. In fact, one of the world's most famous movie houses is the centerpiece for the film's climactic scenes.
"Saving Mr. Banks" is rated PG-13 for adult language and situations. It's appropriate for teens and up. This is a sweet, heart-tugging triumph that's destined, like the movie it chronicles, to become a classic. And be sure to stay to the end of the closing credits for the special treat that wraps-up a film that truly is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Saving Mr. Banks" gets an A.
Joel & Ethan Coen are known for their off-beat and ambitious films which often mix comedy and crime, and feature colorful characters. "Raising Arizona", "Fargo", and "The Big Lebowski" certainly fall into that category. The Coens have also gotten gritty, beginning with 1984's "Blood Simple" and highlighted by 2007's Oscar-winning "No Country For Old Men" (and I called it, friendo). Their latest film doesn't fit into either of those categories or really follows anything the brothers have done in the past, which clearly, is exactly what they we going for.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is a quiet, sincere look at a musician struggling to find purpose in his life in the midst of the 60s music scene in Greenwich Village, NY.
Oscar Isaac ("Drive") hits all the right notes as the title character. It's 1961. Llewyn, a folk singer, is still mourning the loss of his partner, who committed suicide. So now he's attempting to make it as a solo artist, but is getting no help from his crabby manager and is left to perform at the same club night after night.
His former girlfriend, Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant, and she doesn't know if Llewyn or new boyfriend Jim (played by real-life music superstar Justin Timberlake) is the father. They are also a folk singing duo. Nonetheless, Jean wants an abortion.
Llewyn has no home and hardly any money. We follow him (and a cat or two) over the course of a week, as he wanders through the city and then goes on a road trip with businessman Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his driver ("TRON: Legacy"'s Garrett Hedlund) to Chicago, where he hopes to finally get his big break.
But the struggling singer can't escape his problems. He believes he's doing the right thing with the decisions he makes, but instead, often fails to think things through, which only gets him in deeper. Llewyn is not the hero of this story by any means. He is a lost soul, troubled by his past, and incapable of planning a future.
With "Inside Llewyn Davis" the Coens have created a character and a film that audiences should be able to relate to. His struggles are our struggles. Life continues to throw Llewyn curveballs, which he has difficulty handling. And still we see glimmers of hope for him as he pushes on.
Unlike the Coen Brothers' previous film, the 2010 remake "True Grit", "Inside Llewyn Davis" relies on an unconventional storyline to the finish. Llewyn is a victim of the poor decisions he's made and continues to make. And his pride often prevents him from getting the help he needs. There are life lessons here for everyone.
At times this is a moving film with a standout performance, great music and some smart dialogue, which also has important things to say. It will be very interesting to see if it inspires Awards Season voters. There are several strong scenes, but the movie is emotionally inconsistent. The quirky supporting characters are a bit flimsy, forcing Isaac to carry the film on his back. And the device of the cat doesn't work at all, resulting in more of a mainstream feel than, I'm sure, the Coens intended.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is rated R for language, adult references, and smoking. It's appropriate for teens and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Inside Llewyn Davis" gets a B.
"Out of the Furnace" is an unconventional, gritty drama from director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart"). Christian Bale is very good as Russell, a steel mill worker in rural Braddock, Pennsylvania whose brother Rodney (played by Casey Affleck) is about to serve his fourth tour of duty in Iraq. A fatal DWI accident sends Russell to prison for several months, and during this time his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) leaves him and his ailing father passes away.
And Rodney returns, scarred from war, both physically and mentally. With no money, no job and debts to pay Rodney gets involved in bare-knuckle fighting. He is lured to New Jersey for "one final fight", organized by evil hillbilly crime boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). When Rodney doesn't return home and is feared dead, Russell, with nothing to lose, heads out to find him.
"Out of the Furnace" is nearly two hours, but Cooper makes sure it never drags. He does a nice job early on establishing the bond between these two brothers, allowing the audience to become emotionally invested in them and their situations. This is only Cooper's second film, but as with "Crazy Heart", he takes an anti-Hollywood approach with the story and character development, and he shows a great eye for capturing these Rust Belt towns and their residents.
However, "Out of the Furnace" lacks the suspense and energy it deserves. This isn't the action film that the trailers and previews are advertising it as, but more of a family crime drama. And it's the human element that elevates the film, thanks to the tremendous supporting cast, led by Saldana, who shines in all her scenes. In a year of showcase roles, Forest Whitaker delivers a subdued performance as the Braddock police chief and the new boyfriend. Willem Defoe and Sam Shepard are also outstanding. And Harrelson is simply mesmerizing. You hold your breathe every second he's on screen not knowing if or when he's going to explode in another violent rage.
"Out of the Furnace" is rated R for language, strong violence, and drug use, and is appropriate for mid-teens and up. This is another off-beat and compelling effort from Cooper, who is clearly a director to watch.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Out of the Furnace" gets a B-.