(Attention: This is a SPOILER FREE blog)
Final scenes can make or break a movie. These are the standout conclusions (the extraordinary and the epic failures) of 2013:
"12 YEARS A SLAVE" - The culmination of Chiwetel Ejiofor's fine performance.
"CAPTAIN PHILLIPS" - Tom Hanks at his best (and most emotional).
"DESPICABLE ME 2" - Two hysterical Minion musical numbers!
"FROZEN" - An untraditional, perfect ending to an animated masterpiece.
"NEBRASKA" - Underdogs always come out on top.
"SAVING MR. BANKS" - A powerful finale set at a movie theater that needs to be experienced in one.
"THE WOLVERINE" - The best "Easter Egg" (or post-credits scene) of the year features a glimpse of May 2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past".
Honorable Mention: "PAIN & GAIN" - After wasting two hours of my life watching Mark Wahlberg and co.'s awful shenanigans, they got what they deserved.
"AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY" - I don't know what Julia Roberts' character or director John Wells were thinking.
"THE BOOK THIEF" - What's up with Death?
"ENDER'S GAME" - Five minutes I am still trying to forget.
"GROWN UPS 2" - If you count the entire pool party fight sequence as one scene, it was a disaster.
"PRISONERS" - Jake Ghyllenhaal looks around for a minute and then hears something. In my mind: "That's a stretch."
Honorable Mention: "THE SPECTACULAR NOW" - Confusing and just plain goofy.
"ALL IS LOST" - Can be interpreted in multiple ways. At least it was the liveliest minute in the film.
"THE FIFTH ESTATE" - A contradiction of the entire movie from a main character: UNHEARD OF!
"FREE BIRDS" - Move over turkey, there's a new Thanksgiving entree.
"GRAVITY" - A stretched-out scene from an obscure angle and location.
Honorable Mention: "THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE" - It is rather abrupt.
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-.
Four years ago Morgan Freeman received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing legendary South African activist Nelson Mandela in the rugby-based film, "Invictus". Now, Idris Elba takes-on the task of playing the iconic figure in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom", which is based on Mandela's autobiography.
This is a full-on life story. The movie begins with Mandela as a child in Africa, going through the ritual of becoming 'a man'. Then it jumps to his life as a ruthless attorney, working in white-dominated South Africa. It was then, in his early twenties, that Mandela was inspired to take a stand for the oppressed blacks in the country. He joined a small group and started the African National Congress, making speeches and organizing boycotts. The government responded with violence, and hundreds of residents were killed for protesting. Mandela and his crew responded with violent attacks of their own. They would eventually be captured and sentenced to life in prison, with Mandela leaving his wife Winnie (played by "Skyfall"'s Naomie Harris) and children to continue the fight without him. And the film takes us through his long prison stay, the efforts to free Mandela, and Winnie's role as a leader in his absence.
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" lives-up to it's title: it's long - as in 2 hours and 20 minutes long. The recent trend in film biographies has been to focus on one, specific time period or event in the life of a historical figure ("Invictus", for example). But because director Justin Chadwick has taken-on so much material with "Mandela", he's unable to provide much depth or insight into the man.
The middle section of "Mandela" is the strongest, when he's suffering in prison, waiting for the day he can touch his wife, see his children, and attempt to make things right. The film is gripping at times, but doesn't stay consistent throughout. Chadwick does take some chances that pay-off, but there are chunks of this film that needed some inspirational moments - or simply could have been edited-out altogether.
Elba's performance as Nelson Mandela is solid (complete with accent and some nice makeup as he progresses in age), but is noticeably restrained. However, Harris is almost too over-the-top as Winnie, who consulted on the screenplay, along with the couple's two daughters.
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" is quite violent for its PG-13 rating. There are beatings, shootings, killings, and lots of blood, often involving young children. It's appropriate for older teens and up. This is a solid, certainly tolerable, but superficial and far from extraordinary biopic that could've been much more.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" gets a C+.
When I was younger, I used to go through my grandmother's mail with her. Every once in a while we would come across one of those contest entries claiming that she could win a large cash prize, when all they really wanted was to sell magazines or get her personal, private information. Sometimes we'd play along and scratch off the number combinations to see what her prize would be if she went along with the scam. But most of the time we treated these offers as junk mail and tossed them away.
In "Nebraska", Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) has a different philosophy. He's received a letter in the mail stating that he's the winner of $1 million. And he believes it to be true. His son David ("Saturday Night Live" alum Will Forte) and frustrated wife realize that it's completely false. But that doesn't stop Woody. He's determined to travel from his home Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize, even though he's in poor health and can no longer drive. So David, against the wishes of the rest of the family, decides to take his dad on this road trip. Along the way they reunite with old family members and friends, learn a lot about them and a lot about each other.
"Nebraska" is beautifully directed by Alexander Payne, who shoots the film in black and white, which highlights not only the vast geography and settings but the true colors of the characters. This is one of the most intricate and engaging narratives of the year. Payne lays-out what is, on the surface, a very simply story, yet you have no idea where it's going next. The director, who dealt with similar issues of family, loyalty and greed in 2011's powerful, "The Descendents", makes fantastic decisions right to the end, with a perfect score supporting each memorable scene. In a tight Best Director Oscar race this year, expect Payne to be one of the frontrunners.
Dern gives a rich, nomination-worthy performance as a man of few words, but unforgettable emotional control. "Nebraska" occasionally strays away from Woody when the rich group of supporting characters get involved. But when Dern is on screen you're watching a master-class actor in top form. Forte is also excellent in a star-making dramatic role as a son trying to do what's right, even though he knows it may be wrong. June Squibb provides some of the quirky, off-beat humor as Woody's endlessly nagging, sarcastic wife. She could earn some awards attention as well. There are plenty of lighter moments in this serious family drama.
Stacy Keach as Woody's old business partner and Bob Odenkirk as Woody's other son, Ross lead a solid supporting cast. Unlike most movies about siblings and elderly parents, David and Ross actually get along. And the black and white footage makes all the actors and extras look like authentic residents of America's Heartland.
"Nebraska" is many things: a 'father-son' story, a comment about life, dreams and missed opportunities. And it's one of the best films to come along in some time. Dern and Forte provide some of the most heartfelt on-screen moments of the year. It's rated R for some language and adult references and is appropriate for teens and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Nebraska" gets an A-.