Mary Queen of Scots is billed as a showdown between two hardened female monarchs, battling for title, supremacy, and future United Kingdom lineage. In truth, the film from first-time director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon (The Ides of March, House of Cards) is really only the story of the titular character, the rightful ruler of the Scottish throne, heir to the English and alleged uniter of countries and cultures. The focus centers less on the public rivalry and secret compassion shared between Mary and Queen Elizabeth I and much more on the battles Mary must fight within her inner male-dominated circle. Read More
The corpses have barely cooled from Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman and we’re already assessing the damage and constructing solutions to the issue superhumans bring to human society. A task force is formed by a no-nonsense Government agent, Dr. Waller, (Viola Davis) to gather the world’s most notorious villains (Smith, Robbie, Courteny, Hernandez, Akinnouye-Agbaje) to tackle any upcoming issues the new generation of metahumans may cause to life in America. Almost immediately after the formation of this league of disposable heroes – this Squadron Of Suicide – an ancient witch (Delevingne) awakens her demigod brother from his three-thousand year nap and the two descend upon Midway City to transform the citizenry into an army of monsters dedicated to usurping the earth. Read More
An unmitigated, excitement-bereft disaster, The Legend of Tarzan marries the very worst tenets of spectacle-based blockbuster entertainment to a wholly abominable ringer of a script in this haphazard attempt to jump-start a franchise whose existence should never have made it past the very first boardroom meeting. Unconvincing characterization and stupendously dull scene work are overwhelmed by eye-pestering CGI with no conviction to call its own that assaults the viewer, who is turn is already forced to reckon with a dramatically barren, entirely overblown, infuriatingly retread plot. The result is a vine-swinging affront to adventure cinema that fails to even once justify why it was made and who it was made for. Read More
Focus lacks almost entirely in its namesake, flopping from one light-fingered narrative point to another, despondently coasting off the star power of its two sugary leads until its thinly veiled, ill-constructed story finally peters to an unsatisfying halt. As a discernible comeback vehicle for Will Smith‘s equally stalled career, Warner Bro’s one hundred million dollar gamble is just that; a hundred million dollar gamble. The blue chips come piled high on Smith’s stock but all the flash and pizzaz in the world can’t distract us from the real pressing questions at hand: where did all that money go?
A motif of Focus is to keep your eyes on the prize but the sheer impenetrable nature of Hollywood budgets is more than sufficient to keep us from ever being able to answer that posed question with any degree of clarity. As Focus attempts to pull off a magic trick on screen, the only slight of hand I see is transforming a hundred million dollars into this utterly disposable lark. Though undeniably stylish and as easily digestible as baby food, Focus ultimately lets down the intoxicating and downright sexy promise of Will Smith and Margot Robbie with blasé character arcs and vapid twists that come nowhere close to conjuring the imaginative, cunning power they ought.
As with any film predicated on gambits, a ruse can only be as astonishing as it is purchasable. The prestige only works if we sign off on the pledge. You can’t properly make the turn when the road is this straight and narrow. Focus gambles on its intelligence, assuming it’s slick enough and smart enough to shake off our suspicions. But upon entering, we taste the rank stench of bankrupt storytelling on our tongues the air is so thick with it. For all ye who enter, surprised ye shall not be.
Trying to pull the wool over our eyes is Smith’s tactfully reckless Nicky Spurgeon. Operating solely on a vast ocean of charisma, Nicky is a notoriously cold-blooded machine running on pilfered Rolexes and swiped wallets. Maintaining a mild empire of looters and cheats, Nicky’s illegal enterprise runs as smoothly as a Mercedes-Benz assembly line, flipping nabbed billfolds and eBaying stolen iPads to the syncopated beat of a factory whistle. The arrival of amateur con-artist Jess (Robbie) threatens to overturn Nicky’s emotionless ways as he takes her under his wing to teach her the tricks of the trade and ends up with more than he bargained for.
The official synopsis of Focus describes Nicky’s latest scheme interrupted by a femme fatale from his past. What it fails to mention is that the history between Nicky and Jess is established in the first 60 minutes of the film and the whole “latest scheme” thing is a rushed hustle that gets less than half of the film’s run time. Thusly, the meat of the picture is contained in Focus‘ final 44-minute helping, a frustratingly humdrum afterthought of a narrative appendage that is tasked with the impossible function of making up the second and third act. By the time the laughably lengthy introduction flips its “Three Years Later” card, it feels like the movie has already ended. And our patience is more than well worn.
Tit for tat, Focus isn’t all bad though. For every misstep writer/director team John Requa and Glenn Ficarra take, Smith and Robbie amp up their alluring sorcery to compensate, selling their product as a genuine Fudgsicle when we can tell it’s really a dressed-up poopsicle. Smith’s cocky charm is a suit that fits him nicely and it’s nothing short of a relief to see him back on the big screen trying it on again while Margot Robbie continues to shape herself into a coveted Hollywood figurine. Powered by so much more than just her angelic looks, she oozes chemistry like a broken DIY science kit.
With enough charm in the tanks to partially power a date night, Focus intermittently manages to overcome a narrative buckling under its lack of realism and forethought but only in periodic fits and starts. Will it be enough to jump start Smith’s downward-trending career? Probably not. Though he hardly comes out of the wholly lackluster picture blemished.
With the majority of 2013 awards winding down and the Oscars gearing up for next month, it’s time for me to reflect on the best parts about last year’s films. I’ve already published my top ten list alongside the absolute worst movies of the year but with these awards, I focus on the performances, direction, music, scene work and artistry of 2013.
At first, I tried to pigeonhole five nominees into each category but found that didn’t give me enough leeway to recognize all the talent I wanted to. When I then expanded to ten, it felt like there were times where I would be putting names down to fill up spots and didn’t really work for me either. So, instead of making an arbitrary number of nominees for each category, I opted to just recognize as many people as I saw fit in each category. So while the best actor category has 11 names of note, best foreign film only had 6 nominees and so forth. I know a lot of these may see overlap with other award nominations but I tried to recognize talent from all walks, the old to the new, and award what stood out as my personal favorites.
Look out for a short breakdown in the actors and directors sections but the other categories speak for themselves.
WINNER: Leonardo DiCaprio ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Runner Up: Christian Bale ‘Out of the Furance’ & ‘American Hustle’
Honorable Mention: Ethan Hawke ‘Before Midnight’
Matthew McConaughey ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ & ‘Mud’
Joaquin Phoenix ‘Her’
Mads Mikkelsen ‘The Hunt’
Chiwetel Elijofor ’12 Years a Slave’
Bruce Dern ‘Nebraska’
Tom Hanks ‘Captain Phillips’
Michael B. Jordan ‘Fruitvale Station’
It’s no secret that I’m a big Leonardo DiCaprio fan and it’s performances like his in The Wolf of Wall Street that earns him such a high ranking amongst my favorite working actors. With manic physicality, hypnotizing stage presence and wonderfully potent comedic timing, his take on amoral but lovin’ it Jordan Belfort is a role to remember. Christian Bale did wonders in Out of the Furnace and, even though I wasn’t head over heels for American Hustle, his performance there was nothing to balk at and one of the strongest features of the film. The most underrated performance of the year is Ethan Hawke who embodied humanity and boyish charm in my favorite film of the year Before Midnight. The film rests squarely on his and Julie Delpy‘s compotent shoulders and had their performances been any less, the impact wouldn’t have been nearly what it was.
Best Supporting Actor:
WINNER: Jared Leto ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Runner Up: Jonah Hill ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Honorable Mention: Geoffrey Rush ‘The Book Thief’
Woody Harrelson ‘Out of the Furnace’
Michael Fassbender ’12 Years a Slave’
Barkhad Abdi ‘Captain Phillips’
Ben Foster ‘Lone Survivor’
Daniel Bruhl ‘Rush’
Matthew McConaughey ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Alexander Skaarsgard ‘What Maisie Knew’
Another crowded category, I had to go with a somewhat calculated choice, a man more than likely to win at the Academy Awards this year, Jared Leto. His performance, almost moreso than Matthew McConaughey‘s, grounds the heartbreaking tale of Dallas Buyers Club and brings humanity to those that are too often dehumanized. On the other side of the coin, Jonah Hill was a riot in The Wolf of Wall Street and between his introductory scene and subsequent cousin soliloquy and the unhinged energy he brings to the Lemmons scene, his is one of the most unforgettable performances of the year. Another under-appreciated role takes my honorable mention slot with Geoffrey Rush‘s lovely performance in the otherwise forgettable The Book Thief. Rush is an acting giant and watching him effortlessly capture our sympathy just goes to show his monumental range.
WINNER: Meryl Streep ‘August: Osage County’
Runner Up: Julie Delpy ‘Before Midnight’
Honorable Mention: Scarlett Johansson ‘Her’
Cate Blanchett ‘Blue Jasmine’
Brie Larson ‘Short Term 12’
Judi Dench ‘Philomena’
Adele Exarchopoulos ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’
Shailene Woodley ‘The Spectacular Now’
Greta Gerwig ‘Frances Ha’
Emma Thompson ‘Saving Mr. Banks’
I know Cate Blanchett is the name on everyone’s lips right now and there’s no denying that her performance is a showstopper but, for me, was not quite the most impressive of the year. Speaking of cinematic giants, I just couldn’t help but give my top award to Meryl Streep for her poisonous performance in the ensemble drama August: Osage County. Streep is a chameleon and we’re used to seeing her, for the most part, play loveable roles so seeing her transform into an utterly despicable train wreck of a pill popper showcases why she is the monolithic actress she is. Watching Julie Delpy embody the role of Celine for the third (or fourth if you consider Waking Life) time, you can see how much she has sank into this role and it’s simply a beauty to behold. Although deemed ineligible for the Oscars, Scarlett Johansson is able to achieve wonders with just her voice and deserves a pile of praise for that.
Best Supporting Actress:
WINNER: Julia Roberts “August: Osage County”
Runner Up: Margot Robbie “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Honorable Mention: Kristen Scott Thomas ‘Only God Forgives’
Octavia Spenser ‘Fruitvale Station’
Jennifer Lawrence ‘American Hustle’
June Squibb ‘Nebraska’
Lupita Nyong’o ’12 Years a Slave’
Emily Watson ‘The Book Thief’
Melissa Leo ‘Prisoners’
Easily the least impressive of the four acting categories, the best supporting actress category just didn’t have quite as much to offer as the rest did this year. Going through my nominees, it was hard to choose a top spot because all were commendable but none were absolutely unforgettable. I would hardly consider Julia Roberts as someone whose films I anticipate so was caught offguard by her fantastic work in August: Osage County. She holds her own against Streep and at times even shows her up. Color me impressed. I gave the second slot to Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street because of an unforgettable scene she shares with DiCaprio that’s sexy, tortuous and hysterical all at once and would have been nothing without the presence she brings to the scene. And for all the flak Only God Forgives caught for lacking dialogue, Kristen Scott Thomas stood out as the only character with true personality and she absolutely chewed through her deluded sanctimony. She’s menacing, repulsive and commanding and totally owns every scene she’s in. And just to preempt those offended by my lack of pedastalizing Academy darling Jennifer Lawrence, I enjoyed what she did in American Hustle but could never really take her character seriously. It was fun but not near worthy the level of praise being heaped on. And Lupita Nyong’o was certainly stunning in her 12 Years a Slave scenes but remember, this is my favorites and her performance is nothing less than a chore to watch.
WINNER: Spike Jonze ‘Her’
Runner Up: Richard Linklater ‘Before Midnight’
Honorable Mention: Steve McQueen ’12 Years a Slave’
Martin Scorsese ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Jean-Marc Valee ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Alexander Payne ‘Nebraska’
Denis Villeneuve ‘Prisoners’
Alfonso Cuaron ‘Gravity’
Destin Cretton ’12 Years a Slave’
Coen Bros ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
I have to give a leg up to the director/writer combos so it’s no surprise that Spike Jonze has secured the top position. The humanity he brings to this technological world and the insight he’s able to provide is simply stunning, aided by his sharp visual style and realistic futurism. Richard Linklater may not be the world’ most hands on director but the palpably freedom he affords his actors gives them the capacity to create the caliber of tender moments we see in Before Midnight. He’s no bleeding heart but he’s not quite a cynic either and I love watching the way he sees the world. On the more difficult side of things, I’ve seen all three of Steve McQueen‘s films and, though this comment may be hotly debated, think 12 Years a Slave is actually his least tortuous. At least to watch. It’s an amazing effort that drags us through hell and yet there is a string of hope that runs throughout the story. I guess that only someone from outside of the states could bring such honesty and power to a distinctly American story.
WINNER: American Hustle
Runner Up: The Wolf of Wall Street
Honorable Mention: August: Osage County
12 Years a Slave
This is the End
WINNER: Sean Bobbitt ’12 Years A Slave’
Runner Up: Emmanuel Lubezki ‘Gravity’
Honorable Mention: Roger Deakins ‘Prisoners’
Phedon Papamichael ‘Nebraska’
Hoyte Van Hoytema ‘Her’
Bruno Delbonnel ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
John R. Leonetti ‘The Conjuring’
Yves Bélanger ‘Lawrence Anyways’
Best Foreign Film
WINNER: The Hunt
Runner Up: Laurence Anyways
Honorable Mention: Populaire
Blue is the Warmest Color
Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus
WINNER: The Act of Killing
Runner Up: Cutie and the Boxer
Honorable Mention: Dirty Wars
The Crash Reel
WINNER: “Fare Thee Well” – Inside Llewyn Davis
Runner Up: “Young and Beautiful” – Great Gatsby
Honorable Mention: “Doby” – Anchorman 2: The Journey Continues
“Please Mr. Kennedy – Inside Llewy6n Davis
“The Moon Song – Inside Llewyn Davis
“In Summer – Frozen
“Oblivion” – Oblivion
WINNER: Her ‘When it All Goes Dark’
Runner Up: The Wolf of Wall Street “Lemmons 714”
Honorable Mention: Before Midnight ‘Letter from the Future’
Captain Phillips “Check Up”
August: Osage “Family Dinner”
Nebraska “Mt. Rushmore”
This is the End “Backstreets Back”
Gravity ‘Opening Sequence’
Out of the Furnace ‘Hot Dog’
Inside Llewyn Davis ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’
The Conjuring “Basement Exorcism”
Lawrence Anyways “It’s Raining Clothes”
I’d love to hear where you guys agree and disagree and would encourage you to share your own lists in the comments section below.