Hollywood is putting serious pocket change into remaking vintage films using modern technology for new audiences.
It seems as though no film is beyond the grasp of remake-hungry directors, though there are still some movies that need to be left untouched.
You just can’t remake “The Godfather.”
“A Most Violent Year,” a little-seen film that the National Board of Review chose as the best of 2014, isn’t a “Godfather” rip-off or remake, but carries with it all the lessons modern filmmakers can learn from the Francis Ford Coppola crime classic.
J.C. Chandor’s third feature film — following 2011’s breakout hit “Margin Call” and 2013’s “All Is Lost” — stars Oscar Isaac as a businessman trying to stay clean in a dirty, corrupt heating oil industry.
The film gets its title from the background in which it is set — New York City in 1981, a disproportionately violent year in the town’s history.
At its core, “A Most Violent Year” is a brilliantly simple film masquerading as a gangster morality play.
Isaac’s Abel Morales, a Latin American immigrant who believes in the “American dream” in its purest form, wants to do right by his wife and daughters.
His sense of honor in a land of thieves and crooks that rob his company help define him as a more conflicted, modern day Michael Corleone, a role Isaac plays with understated, refined grace.
Counter-balancing Abel in their marriage, Jessica Chastain continues to prove why she’s the best actress working in Hollywood with a scene-stealing performance as Abel’s wife, Anna, whose Mob family background casts a shadow over Abel’s legitimate business operations.
It’s Chastain’s on-screen presence that sneaks up on viewers focused on the nuances of Isaac’s performance as Anna provides the unseen but loudly heard muscle backing Abel’s calm and calculated demeanor.
Chandor’s script provides both Juilliard-trained actors a treasure-trove of character development material from which to mine, allowing Isaac and Chastain to give some of the year’s most compelling performances.
As Abel’s right-hand-man, Albert Brooks lightly evokes Robert Duvall’s performance as concerned mob lawyer Tom Hagen from “The Godfather,” while “Selma” star David Oyelowo is capable as an assistant district attorney investigating the Morales’ business.
But it’s Elyes Gabel — in a critical supporting role as a fearful truck driver thinking of taking matters into his own hands — that offers up the best work from the supporting cast.
His nuanced performance helps give added meaning to the delicate balance between right and wrong in Abel’s struggle to achieve the American dream.
“A Most Violent Year” is as important a film for what isn’t on screen as for what is.
Chastain, with her finger on the trigger throughout, is never granted the opportunity to explode into rage and order a “Godfather”-esque series of hits to even the score.
Chandor, in both his script and direction, values restraint as a means to uphold Abel’s moral compass and flip the stereotypical gangster genre on its head.
For a film titled “A Most Violent Year,” there’s a glaring minimalism of actual violence in preference to the looming threat of violence, terror through fear, rather than action.
The film will likely be remembered most for its climatic chase scene, clearly influenced by “The French Connection.”
It’s actually “A Most Violent Year” and not “Selma” that has suffered most from poor release scheduling, which prevented the film from real consideration for Academy Award nominations.
A Golden Globe nominee, Chastain would have been the shining star in an otherwise lackluster Best Supporting Actress category, while Isaac would have found himself in the middle of a difficult to crack Best Actor race.
Cinematographer Bradford Young, also responsible for the Oscar-nominated biopic “Selma,” provides a gritty depth to “A Most Violent Year,” evoking classic ’70s films like “Taxi Driver” and “Dirty Harry.”
Many critics bemoan a lack of a nomination for Young’s work shooting “Selma,” but “A Most Violent Year” is his career best work.
Chandor’s best effort to date, “A Most Violent Year” honors its gangster genre predecessors while going somewhere new in the story telling, a lesson worth learning by the rest of Hollywood.
There’s no reason not to like “Selma,” the Ava DuVernay-helmed drama which chronicles the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1960s led by captivating activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
British actor David Oyelowo makes the most of a poorly outlined script by first time screen-writer Paul Webb, largely succeeding in the attempt to provide a larger picture of King the man while given limited opportunity for character development.
There are better movies yet to be made about King’s life, achievements and character as DuVernay’s third feature film simply scratches the surface of a complex and powerful leader.
“Selma” is the rock dancing along the top of the water of importance, skipping around from beatings in the streets to White House visits, from quiet personal moments to loud public emotions without ever diving into any of them.
Too grand for its own good, the film lacks the depth and gravitas that the first feature centering on King deserves and suffers from the same one-note flatness that befell Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.”
At the outset of the film, DuVernay chooses to counterbalance King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech with a rural church bombing, a point never revisited again in the film.
Malcolm X, a significant figure within the civil rights movement, is relegated to a single scene, while a measured performance from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King is marginalized and largely pushed off to the side.
Supporting performances in “Selma” are a mixed bag from the uneven, haphazard performance from Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson to the completely flat, uninspired Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace.
Among the minor players in the film, Henry G. Sanders’ moving portrayal of a grandfather mourning the death of his grandson provides “Selma” with its most poignant moment, and then is relegated again to the background.
“Selma” is an important film for how it frames today’s fragile racial climate following Ferguson and similar events, but its omission from larger Oscar accolades isn’t a black or white issue, nor is it a political issue. It’s a matter of quality in a given year.
Half of this year’s nominees for Best Picture are biographical films, and several also worthy films in the same genre (“Big Eyes,” “Foxcatcher”) sit idly by on the sidelines.
Racial bias didn’t cause the Academy to overlook DuVernay for a directing nomination, but rather that five directors had more impact on cinema this year. The fact that Clint Eastwood — who made a better film (“American Sniper”) and is universally beloved by the Academy in spite of political differences — didn’t receive a directing nomination should be just as shocking.
The same is true for Oyelowo as King, but the effort doesn’t match up with the likes of Bradley Cooper’s chameleon performance in “American Sniper,” Eddie Redmayne’s physical transformation to play Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” or Benedict Cumberbatch as code breaker Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.”
What works for the leads in this year’s other top biopics, especially for Cumberbatch, is the depth of character each actor is able to achieve thanks to a quality script and allowances from the director to immerse themselves in the character.
A film like “The Imitation Game,” which sees Cumberbatch shed most of his “Sherlock” persona to portray a complex man helping to save Britain while hiding a dark secret, offers the time for character development.
Viewers are allowed to see how Turing became the man who shortened World War II through mathematics, while also providing audiences with the social context in which Turing, a closeted homosexual, lived in.
Cumberbatch is able to live in the duality of Turing’s character — the public, dry and off-putting persona of Turing the professor as well as the private Turing, struggling with sexuality in an unforgiving world.
The film, respectively directed by Morten Tyldum, captures Turing in a much more complete way than “Selma” does King, and is helped by a strong performances from Keira Knightley as a colleague aiding in secret due to sexism in the workplace.
“The Imitation Game” also does a better job of providing larger context to the film’s stakes than “Selma,” whose scenes of violence feel largely forced outside of the troopers’ attack on the bridge.
“Selma” is a great story told well; “The Imitation Game” is a fine story told greatly.
Both films are among the year’s best and are worth seeing in theaters, though neither rises to the year’s elite category.
By now, if you haven’t seen or heard about Clint Eastwood’s epic war drama “American Sniper,” odds are good that the cell phone reception on that deserted island you’ve been living on is spotty at best.
The drama kicked off its national release with six Academy Award nominations — including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper — and completely dominated the cinematic landscape.
The film made $90.2 million, becoming the largest January weekend release in history and besting the $68.5 million pulled in by “Avatar” in a single weekend per “Variety.”
It isn’t an accident either.
Whether out of a sense of patriotism or Oscar buzz or a love for war films, Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper or any combination of reasons, everyone knows someone who’s seen “American Sniper” at least once, if not many more times.
What a great thing for cinema that thought is.
Put all the politics aside. Cast away the agendas on either side of the aisle and what the film is or isn’t saying and whose side “American Sniper” supports on any number of hot-button issues.
“American Sniper” is an important film within the current cinematic climate because of what the film truly is, an intimate character study of a Texas man. Certainly the context of “American Sniper” is modern warfare, but the film — and especially Cooper’s stunning performance as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle — is much more than a simple story of battles home and abroad.
Try watching interviews of Chris Kyle promoting his 2012 autobiography, on which “American Sniper” is based, and then see if you can figure out where Kyle stops and Cooper begins in the mesmerizing cinematic portrayal.
Criticizing the film for its subject matter is criticizing Chris Kyle the man as no actor in several decades has done as complete a job becoming the person they are portraying on screen as Cooper does mirroring Kyle step for step, word for word, nuance for nuance.
The rare leading man who views himself as more a character actor, opting for substance over style, Cooper’s portrayal transcends the film itself — a remarkable performance from a remarkable actor and one that will define the rest of his long career.
Sienna Miller does an admirable job facing the daunting task of counterbalancing Cooper’s performance while simultaneously honoring Chris’ wife Taya, who served as a technical advisor on the film. It’s a thankless role that could have been the film’s downfall, but Miller’s performance is steady enough to carry the film forward when needed.
The biggest flaw in “American Sniper,” which is minor enough in larger context, but noticeable enough to be distracting, is the use of clearly fake, plastic dolls serving as placeholders for real infants during dramatic home scenes between Kyle and his wife.
It’s baffling that something so trivial and unrealistic would be used and the fake baby’s appearance is so jarring that it can knock viewers completely out of their cinematic experience.
Obviously, this error can definitely explain Eastwood’s absence from Best Director accolades, but fortunately, “American Sniper” is so brilliant in the other 131 minutes that it’s just as easy to fall right back into when the film moves on.
What Eastwood gets right in his direction is a delicate balance of an intensely accurate depiction of modern warfare offset with hard-hitting drama, the best of a newer brand of “action-drama” cinema.
In stark contrast, Michael Mann’s dark and brooding cyber-thriller “Blackhat,” starring Chris Hemsworth as a veteran hacker helping the CIA prevent terrorism, is exactly what Hollywood wrongly assumes complex action-dramas are supposed to be.
Released last weekend, the film is clunky, overly technical and difficult to follow, definitely not the sort of film Hemsworth fans thought they were getting upon seeing the trailer.
It’s difficult to believe that “American Sniper” viewers ended up watching the film they believed they were going to after watching its trailer, but not in the same way.
Eastwood’s film provides so much more depth of character thanks to a complex, yet compelling performance from Cooper.
Worth every penny of the five, six or seven times it needs to be seen in theaters, “American Sniper” is an instant cinematic classic and among the best films of the 21st century.
There’s no more story to explore in the now-tired “Taken” franchise which saw a former CIA operative (Liam Neeson) rescue his kidnapped daughter in the first installment, then save himself and his ex-wife in the sequel.
There’s no one left Neeson’s character cares about to kidnap, so obviously the solution is to frame him for the murder of the ex-wife he just saved in the last movie.
Action sequels, of which “Taken 3” is just the latest example, have plot holes for days, but that’s not the reason to see B-rated, shoot ’em up thrillers.
Fortunately, what “Taken 3” has going for it is a lot of above-average, high-paced car chases, hand-to-hand combat and gun battles.
Though it’s lost all the depth and luster of the original, “Taken 3” is worth seeing if viewers just want to forget about their troubles for a while.
Don’t worry though, as quality action films are on the way this weekend with the release of Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper’s “American Sniper” and Chris Hemsworth’s “Blackhat.”
Many audiences have left the Disney-produced fairy tale film, “Into the Woods,” disappointed and with little right to be.
Certainly, the studio is to fault for not clearing up the confusion surrounding the film. Too many people have left screenings surprised they just watched a musical and many others probably were in shock when the film doesn’t end with Cinderella’s marriage to the prince.
But moviegoers should have seen this coming.
The film, a clear adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 Broadway musical of the same name, is a darker intersection of several classic fairytales, including “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rightly rated “Into the Woods” PG “for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.”
The film is more “Snow White and the Huntsman” than the animated classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
Moviegoers, especially those expecting their money back, need to take more care in researching the content of a film before purchasing a ticket. Disney didn’t help matters with an ambiguous trailer promoting the film, but the studio can’t be held entirely responsible.
Setting aside those complaints, “Into the Woods” does a remarkable job of faithfully adapting Sondheim’s award-winning musical to the big screen.
Director Rob Marshall, best known for his work on the Academy Award-winning “Chicago,” is blessed with a talented cast led by “Pitch Perfect” star Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and British sensation James Corden as the narrating Baker.
The best performances in the film are actually given by the biggest — and youngest — unknowns with Broadway’s latest “Annie” Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone, best known as Gavroche in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, as Jack.
It’s all too common to cast either actors who can’t sing well enough or worse yet, singers who can’t act well enough to be convincing.
What works in both performances, more so than any of their more famous counterparts, is that Crawford and Huttlestone maintain a balance in their responsibility both acting the part and singing the songs.
Huttlestone’s “Giants in the Sky” — along with Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and Meryl Streep’s “Witch’s Lament” — is a musical highlight.
The film isn’t without its flaws. Chris Pine as Cinderella’s prince is largely overdone in a very William Shatner-esque way, which doesn’t really work throughout much of the film, but is quite hilarious within the shirt-ripping, water-splashing duet “Agony.”
Johnny Depp’s performance as the Wolf felt too campy, though the limited screen time helped prevent the film from veering too close to 2014 “Annie”-bad territory.
Overall, “Into the Woods” is a surprisingly darker, but satisfying retelling of classic fairy tales and a faithful interpretation of Sondheim’s musical worth seeing.
Some films are designed for escapism, a chance to remove the viewer from the everyday grind and stresses of real life and pull them into somewhere new and exciting.
Other films are meant to draw the viewer into a cinematic experience, offering us something to learn from along the way.
Cheryl Strayed’s true-life story of a newly single woman hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail as a means to cope with loss isn’t meant as escapism.
There’s a passionate message of empowerment and rebirth in “Wild,” the latest film from director Jean Marc Vallée of “Dallas Buyers Club” fame. The film is an emotional roller coaster that will resonate with anyone who has lost a close loved one or feels alone with a sense of loss.
With a terrific script adapted from Strayed’s 2012 book by Nick Hornby, the film itself centers around Strayed’s journey from southern California to Canada and requires a tour de force performance from its leading actress.
A film like “Gravity,” for example, could have been as good if not a better movie with another actress taking the reins from Sandra Bullock.
You just can’t make “Wild” work without Reese Witherspoon.
Witherspoon plays Strayed with total commitment and honesty, baring her soul and body (quite literally) on screen in one of the most heartfelt performances in several years.
Audiences, especially predominantly female ones, will find themselves drawn to the unbridled vulnerability Witherspoon is able to draw from, pulling viewers deeper into the story.
Laura Dern, often the daughter and never the mother in feature films, provides a subtle, yet important counterbalance to Witherspoon’s at-times manic performance as Strayed’s mother.
The Pacific Crest Trail itself becomes a leading character within “Wild” with its expansive and varied landscapes painting a tremendous background for Strayed’s emotional journey of self-forgiveness.
Vallée’s decision to shoot the trail entirely in natural light is an inspired one that helps to maintain “Wild’s” grounded reality.
Led by an Oscar-worthy performance from Witherspoon, “Wild” is definitely one of the year’s best films and well worth seeing more than once.
“Unbroken” director Angelina Jolie wants viewers to pigeonhole her film into a single word: resilience.
It’s there in all the film’s soon-to-be-cliché catchphrases: “If you can take it, you can make it” and “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”
“Unbroken” is a film that insists upon itself, knowing its story is inspiring and refuses to allow audiences to forget it.
The movie shows so much promise in its first act, where World War II hero Louis Zamperini’s pre-war exploits — both as a youth and Olympic athlete — are seamlessly woven into what would otherwise be a routine inspirational film set in an already crowded genre.
Once “Unbroken” moves past the early years and dedicates itself solely to Zamperini’s trials and tribulations as a Japanese prisoner of war, the film largely fails to live up to the grandiose expectations it has bestowed upon itself.
There’s not enough grit within the blinding light of “Unbroken,” an area in which 2014’s other World War II film “Fury” excelled.
And it’s a problem that “Unbroken” needs to be compared with “Fury,” because the two films could not be more opposite in directorial style and cinematography, but it is all too often the case in the World War II genre.
Because of the nature of the story, “Unbroken” can’t seem to separate itself from the rest of the genre.
Jack O’Connell as the resilient Zamperini is effective in keeping the film centered and evoking the support and sympathy of audiences, hitting on all the right notes. Missing from the performance is a larger sense of Zamperini’s development of faith in God, which plays a larger role in the book and cannot be faulted to O’Connell.
The best performance in the film, however, is given by Japanese rock star turned actor Miyavi as POW camp leader “The Bird,” a violent, irrational man whose complexities are poignantly evoked both verbally and non-verbally by Miyavi.
In another year, where J.K. Simmons’ stunning turn as a demanding music instructor in “Whiplash” isn’t also eligible, Miyavi’s mesmerizing performance would make him a clear frontrunner for best supporting actor awards.
For a film whose mantra is “If I can take it, I can make it,” “Unbroken” certainly insists upon its viewers taking every plodding second of its 137 minute running time.
“Unbroken” is a very good movie, just not a great one.
Now that the final installment of “Night at the Museum” has arrived in theaters, it’s sad to think that this will be the last time that comedy legend Robin Williams will be shown on the big screen.
Sure, we can hear his voice again as Dennis the Dog in the upcoming animated feature “Absolutely Anything,” but it just won’t be the same.
Things aren’t quite the same in “Secret of the Tomb,” the last of the “Night of the Museum” movies pitting Ben Stiller as a bumbling security guard managing exhibits that magically come to life at night.
The story isn’t really relevant and takes a general backseat to the notion, played up in the film itself, that with the death of Williams, this is the end for a heartwarming era in comedy.
Stiller does yeoman’s work in a pair of roles as the driving force propelling the plot forward, while Rebel Wilson of “Pitch Perfect” fame tries a little bit too hard to throw her weight around in a secondary role as a guard at the British Museum.
Through some sort of bittersweet irony, Williams has an incredibly poignant final monologue that is all the more heart-breaking in the larger context.
“Secret of the Tomb” also marks the final film for another cinema legend, the great Mickey Rooney.
While the film itself isn’t up to the standards set by the franchise original, “Secret of the Tomb” will help provide viewers some closure on the loss to two comedy heavyweights.
It’s hard to get behind up-and-coming actress Quvenzhané Wallis as “Annie”, despite being the youngest Academy Award nominee in history for last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
It isn’t because Wallis is unlikable as the down-on-her-luck foster kid living in a group home. She just can’t sing and it’s not her fault.
“Annie” director Will Gluck knows she can’t sing either and let the whole world in on it through his less-than-subtle directorial tricks.
Annie sings a major solo at a charity fundraiser, but her mouth is almost always obscured by the microphone in front of her.
Large segments of other songs — including the classics “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” — are filmed with Wallis’ back to the camera, at an extreme angle or at a great distance in an attempt to hide Wallis’ flaws as a singer.
For all the grief given to Tom Hooper for his extreme close-up choices during major scenes in 2012’s epic musical “Les Misérables,” at least the audience could tell with absolute certainty that the performances were genuine and authentic.
Outside from the musical spectrum, “Annie” could have actually worked as a family-friendly comedy.
Wallis is charming and lovable aside from her singing, while Jamie Foxx as her rich caretaker is the absolute best thing in the lackluster film.
Choosing Cameron Diaz, however, to fill Carol Burnett’s shoes as Miss Hannigan was a major misstep as Diaz horribly overacts in a very disinterested performance. Burnett would be rolling over in her grave if she had one.
Despite the intentions of producers Will Smith and Jay-Z to modernize the classic tale of an orphaned girl during the Great Depression, this modern “Annie” just doesn’t click, trading in classic songs for cliché references to Twitter and the film industry.
Biblically-inspired 3D epic film doesn’t really sound like a very appealing genre, especially after Russell Crowe’s dud “Noah” released to much derision earlier this year.
There’s a lot of unevenness to Ridley Scott’s latest feature, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which re-imagines the Biblical story of Moses as action-adventure fodder.
Oscar-winner Christian Bale picks up sword not staff to play Moses, a highly conflicted character uncertain of what actions are morally just.
Understandably, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” might not play very well with devout Christians, who could find the liberties taken in the depiction of the plagues and God’s interaction with Moses off-putting.
In fact, if an uninformed, non-religious person watched “Exodus” with no prior knowledge of the Biblical story, religious aspects of the film could be explained away entirely as natural disasters, disease, famine and a schizophrenic man. The film is perhaps the most secular way possible of examining Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.
The film, which clocks in at well over two hours, could also benefit from a couple of extraneous scenes being left on the chopping room floor.
While “Exodus” is placed heavily on Bale’s broad shoulders, the former Batman is not the true star of “Exodus.” Joel Edgerton, who plays Moses’ brother and future pharaoh Ramesses II, stands out in a thankless villain role that probably would have gone to Ben Kingsley 20 years ago.
It would be easy to simply play Ramesses in a stiff and formulaic manner, but Edgerton — whose work in “Warrior” alongside Tom Hardy is first-rate — rises above the lesser fray and gives a more well-rounded performance than other cast members.
Kingsley and “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul each appear briefly as Moses’ chief advisors, but neither actor is given much to work with.
A lot of care — and time — is taken up early in the film to develop a brotherly bond between Bale and Edgerton, giving the inevitable rift between the two real stakes.
Edgerton actually does a better job of evoking pain and conflict about Ramesses’ relationship with Moses than Bale does. Perhaps it’s the fault of Scott, who doesn’t give Bale enough to do in coming to grips with the situation, or more likely Bale himself, who doesn’t give enough credence to showing the necessary emotion to match Edgerton.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is best enjoyed when the viewer can get past the film’s criticisms — both its Biblical flaws and lack of diversity in casting — and simply enjoy the ride.
After years of waiting, the ride through Middle Earth seems to be at a close with the release of the final film in the “Hobbit” trilogy, “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” a darker, more violent picture than the previous two films.
Continuing a trend established throughout Jackson’s Middle Earth films — the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies — “Battle of the Five Armies” shines brightest in its grandiose battle sequences, featuring towering monsters waging medieval war on men, dwarves and woodland elves.
Just like its Oscar-winning predecessor before it (the Rings trilogy’s “The Return of the King”), the final film in the “Hobbit” trilogy is leaps and bounds the best, visually stunning and impactful from the opening moments all the way through the titular battle of the five armies.
What sets “The Hobbit” apart from other, lesser science fiction and fantasy genre films is the heart brought to the series by British actor Martin Freeman as the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins.
Freeman brings a genuine lightness to the screen which counterbalances so effectively with his rougher, tougher costars to make Jackson’s film cohesive.
Ian McKellen leads a wonderful and large supporting cast, including Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett and a standout performance by Richard Armitage as blinded, conflicted dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield.
The film suffers, however, in its overly long ending after the extended battle sequences. At more than two hours in length, the third “Hobbit” stalls out when the emphasis is on dialogue and not in beautifully constructed CGI scenes.
Of the action sequences, only the rescue of Gandalf early in the film feels out of place, like a high quality video game boss battle rather than a cohesive action sequence.
Fans of the prior two “Hobbit” films as well as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy should be extremely pleased with Jackson’s final foray into Middle Earth, a fitting end to a wonderfully dynamic series of cinema.