Everything opens on Friday, except for a certain questionable sequel, which starts today.
After 2011’s narrative-weak The Descendants, I worried that Alexander Payne (Election; Sideways) was in trouble without his former writing partner Jim Taylor. Less than a minute into Nebraska, those worries subsided. Shot in gorgeous black and white, Payne’s latest film centers on Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, in one of the year’s best performances), an 80something recovering alcoholic who may or may not be suffering from some form of dementia. Upon receiving a piece of junk mail from a Lincoln company claiming he’s won a million dollars, Woody sets off on foot from his Billings, Montana home toward the titular state. Seeing through the scam but recognizing opportunity for one last bonding opportunity, Woody’s son David (Will Forte, proving there’s more to him than weird SNL characters) decides to drive him there and, in true Payne road trip fashion, the pair encounter more than they imagined along the way. From the music to the humor, I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, but it has landed high on my Top 10 list for 2013 and I’m thrilled for others to see it for themselves.
Saving Mr. Banks looks at the struggle to bring Mary Poppins to the screen, and what a struggle it was! A pill’s pill, author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was intensely reluctant to allow Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) the rights to her treasured story, but witnessing her iceberg melt makes for one of the year’s most pleasant movies. If you love Mary Poppins, you’re sure to love its back story, especially early versions of its now classic songs as conceived by screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and song-men Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman). My main qualms are with Travers’ crucial Australian past, including the questionable casting of Colin Farrell as her father, but without these sections the film’s overall power would be greatly diminished. If there’s a bigger crowd-pleaser this holiday season, I’ll be greatly surprised.
Now we get to the dicier selections, beginning with a film that’s nonetheless doing well in year-end critic awards. David O. Russell’s American Hustle comes a quick year after his beloved Silver Linings Playbook and brings together the stars from that film and Russell’s film before that, The Fighter. In this fact-based tale (the opening card reads “Some of this actually happened”), Christian Bale and Amy Adams play con artists who get pulled into helping FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) bust bigger fish as part of ABSCAM, including Camden, NJ mayor Carmine Polito (Russell newcomer Jeremy Renner). Compromising the operation is Bale’s wild card wife (Jennifer Lawrence, playing a character nearly a decade older than her 23 years) and compromising the film at large is an inconsistent tone that never melds its humor and grittiness. Bale is wonderful as are Louis C.K. and 2013 pariah Robert De Niro in small supporting roles, but without a director behind the camera willing to get his or her hands dirty and raise the story to its potential (e.g. Scorsese), the results are uneven, overlong, and often frustrating. It’s still worth seeing, but don’t say you weren’t warned.
Nearly ten years after its debut, I’ve still only seen Anchorman once. Sure, it’s funny, but on the heels of the superior Old School, Elf, and Starsky & Hutch, I didn’t find it to be the Will Ferrell masterpiece so many claimed. Now we get Anchorman 2, in which Ron Burgundy (Ferrell), Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) return to the air on the world’s first 24-hour news network. If you consider the first square-dance with these characters a cornerstone in your life, then Dec. 18, the release date of this rehash of a sequel, is bound to serve as another major event. If you were slightly cooler on the results, then this amplification of Anchorman‘s issues will be a long, barely funny ride, as it was for me.
Ever feel like you were born in the wrong era? Perhaps the Jurassic period is more in line with your personality? Short of a time machine, Walking with Dinosaurs offers one of the best vicarious trips to the prehistoric age, throwing viewers in the midst of these prehistoric beasts in what’s being billed as a special 3D experience. Like The Land Before Time, there’s a narrative tying it all together, this one about an underdog dino who strives to “become a hero for the ages.” Justin Long, John Leguizamo, and Karl Urban are among the actors providing voices.
Fleeing the Scene
Not that they’re performing poorly, but something’s got to go to make room for the new guys, so 12 Years a Slave and About Time are the ones saying goodbye. Considering all the critic awards the former is racking up, I wouldn’t be surprised if it returned in late January or early February for an extra Oscar push.
A wide wild range this week, including the year’s two best blockbusters (Elysium and The Lone Ranger), a star-studded mostly good Zodiac wannabe (Prisoners), a pretty yet mumbly indie (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), a dull Harry Potter wannabe (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters), a for-superfans-only concert film (One Direction: This Is Us), a sequel that’s a bizarro bad version of its predecessor (Kick-Ass 2), and the second of Robert De Niro’s three horrible films from 2013 (The Family)…though we still have his boxing movie with Stallone to look forward to next week.
On Netflix Instant
Johnnie To’s Drug War might be the best action film since The Bourne Ultimatum. Apparently less accomplished is The Wire creator David Chase’s Not Fade Away; Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela, with Terrence Howard as her recently deceased husband; and the documentary Our Nixon, which sources inform me is not about the beloved Boston Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon.