This is a horror element that the movie industry likes to employ. A person authorized to wear a badge and carry a firearm has a seriously messed up or tragically altered personal life, making great potential for dangerous instability.
Such is the case with Liam Neeson’s Bill Marks in the thriller “Non-Stop.” Bill is first seen sitting in his vehicle with the look of a person gloomily dreading another day of work. He needs a bracer of hard liquor to help him cope. The kicker here is that Bill is a U.S. Air Marshal, his workplace being commercial aircraft in which he is tasked with thwarting terrorism or any other unlawful activity.
Neeson has found a niche in recent years of portraying men who have resigned themselves to the fact that the profession in which they are engaged – and superbly so – requires violence and dedication that often kills any semblance of a normal life. And certainly being an air marshal – a job wherein if you have to spring into action it means you are dealing with some very dangerous people – is not the kind of work for someone who prefers a routine if occasionally stressful occupation.
Assigned to a flight to London, Bill is already irked about the prospect of being stuck in England for three days before being able to return to the United States. Yet despite that irritation, once he is in the airport he begins his work, scoping out fellow passengers, looking for any sign of possible trouble.
On board before take-off he goes into the lavatory and puts duct tape over the smoke alarm so he can enjoy a cigarette. Then later, when the passenger sitting next to him, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), notices his anxiety, he confesses that he gets nervous when the aircraft takes off. Then he settles down.
But settling down is not going to be possible on this flight.
He receives an anonymous text, via what is supposed to be a secure network, stating that if $150 million is not transferred to a certain off-shore account in 20 minutes, someone on board the airliner will be killed, with another person killed every 20 minutes until the funds transfer is confirmed. Additional texts taunt Bill, detailing personal information about Bill’s life, leading him to believe his on-board air marshal partner, Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), is pulling off a sick joke. Hammond convinces him otherwise but insists that Bill keep cool because the threat is likely a hoax.
The script by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle is at its best at this point as Bill tries to locate the person delivering the threat while also arranging with the pilot to have the ransom transferred to the designated account, only to find himself outflanked by the plotter, making it look like Bill is the actual person attempting to hijack the plane.
Of course there are several potential suspects and none of them can be ruled out for certain, so the suspense builds nicely. Unfortunately, “Non-Stop” falls victim to a problem that deflates a lot of effective thrillers, and that is once the bad guy is revealed there has to be an obligatory pause in the action as that person reveals a motivation for the crime. Rather than having the standard reasons for the threats and murders such as terrorism, extortion or greed, the screenwriting trio tried to get clever with what they thought might be a unique twist. But it is so ludicrous that it prompts eye-rolling and almost derails the movie.
Fortunately, the nail-biting final sequence of whether the imperiled aircraft will survive helps put the movie back on track.
Neeson carries this movie, nailing yet again a portrayal of a man who must set aside his personal demons and tragedies and be strong when so many people are depending on him. Most of the supporting cast, including Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), does not get much to do. Moore has a few good moments as the enigmatic Jen Summers, as well as Corey Stull as a passenger who looks like he could be capable of committing violent acts against people.
Airline thrillers have the advantage of being heart-pounding action with the confined spaces, the high speed and altitude and potential for nasty conclusions. It’s too bad the writers tried too hard with a key plot element, but “Non-Stop” does mostly succeed as an adrenalin-pulsing movie.
His name is Emmet and he is blissfully content in his regimented life as a construction worker. Within this comfort zone he has no idea of his lack of creativity and free choice. He is a prime candidate to be thrown into a situation that will challenge him — and he will stumble along.
This is a familiar story line but the catch is that Emmet is a Lego mini-figure in a Lego world in the aptly named “The Lego Movie.”
The movie is the brain-child of co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, writing a script based on the story by Dan and Kevin Hageman. It is what one would expect from the current trend in animated features — a simple story line aimed at providing a message for young viewers but with a lot of touches that only adults, especially those who grew up with Lego products, could appreciate.
“The Lego Movie” begins with a back story in which the wise Vitruvius (voice of Morgan Freeman) is overtaken by the ambitious Lord Business (Will Ferrell), with Vitruvius issuing a prophecy in which a chosen one will find the Piece of Resistance that will foil the plans of Lord Business.
Emmet (Chris Pratt) is then introduced, part of a population of mini-figures that has been brainwashed to follow instructions on every aspect of their lives. Then fate steps in when he encounters WildStyle (Elizabeth Banks) foraging around a construction site — violating the instructions. But in his pursuit of WildStyle, Emmet falls into a hole and comes in contact with the Piece of Resistance. WIldStyle, witnessing this, helps Emmet — now with the Piece of Resistance attached to his back — escape as he is pursued by the Lord Business-back police force led by Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson).
Believing Emmet is the chosen one, possibly a MasterBuilder, WildStyle takes Emmet to Vitruvius and other MasterBuilders now living in exile. Although Vitruvius is steadfast in his belief Emmet is indeed the chosen one to help topple Lord Business, the other MasterBuilders are more skeptical. And naturally, Emmet makes one mistake after another as Lord Business continues to increase an advantage in the quest to carry out his diabolical plan.
While all this is going on, there are so many background details that will keep the viewers alert. The animation, all CGI with an attempt to make it seem like stop-action, is gorgeous and busy, with lots of references not only to the ever-expanding Lego product line, but to other aspects of modern life.
That, along with a multitude of colorful characters, makes “The Lego Movie” a visual feast, covering a major objective of animated features — enough stimuli to please both children and adults.
Yes, the 2013 crop of Academy Award nominated movies were superb efforts with excellent performances. But watching them was like sitting in a dentist chair — professional work but not much fun to sit through.
These movies included piracy on the seas, AIDS, an outer space disaster, a love affair with an operating system, slavery, fraud and greed and broken families. Looks like if you want to have a few good laughs, go to the animated features category — ah, those minions love life.
Of the nine Best Picture nominees, only one, “Her,” does not have an acting nomination. And of the 20 acting nominations only four — Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine” and Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County” — are in movies not nominated for Best Picture.
If the other awards presentations are any indication, Oscar night on March 2 will be a big one for “12 Years a Slave.” A grim and harrowing true story about Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery, is brutal in its depiction of the pre-Civil War south, and director Steve McQueen does not hold back in showing the violence toward slaves.
If there is a surprise on Oscar night, it could be a surge for “Dallas Buyers Club,” also a sober story about AIDS sufferers but with humor and an element that can draw votes — redemption. Also, it is boosted by a stunning performance by Matthew McConaughey that makes him a frontrunner for the Best Actor award. High-profile nominees like “Captain Phillips” (Tom Hanks’ omission as a nominee has triggered some grumbling), “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are drowning out the quiet but sweet movies like “Nebraska,” “Philomena” and “Her.”
If McConaughey is not named, it will be the surprise of the evening. Already a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild winner, McConaughey’s performance is a blue print for an Oscar — the story of a man, Ron Woodroff, a hard-living electrician and sometimes rodeo performer who contracts AIDS and then finds a new focus on life as he works to provide non-FDA approved medications for AIDS patients and develops friendships with homosexuals and transsexuals, forcing him to change his biases toward them. McConaughey dropped a lot of weight for the role but still had his strong presence in the movie.
Like McConaughey, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a first-time nominee, a splendid actor who could have earned a nomination for his work in “Dirty Pretty Things” in 2002. Ejiofor’s role as Solomon Northup was a grueling physical demand, but the part forced him to spend much of his screen time being low-key and submissive.
Christian Bale, the only previous Oscar winner (“The Fighter”) in this category, also went through some physical alterations, putting on weight and pretending to have a receding hairline, to play con man Irving Rosenfeld in “American Hustle,” who is forced by an ambitious FBI agent to help bring down bigger criminals and who eventually turns the tables on the authorities. He’s very good, but not quite enough to overcome McConaughey.
Likewise, Bruce Dern, who last was nominated in 1978 for “Coming Home,” is funny and tragic but not not as showy as an addled senior citizen in “Nebraska” who believes he has won $1 million in a publishers sweepstakes and is determined to collect his prize. Along the way he finally emotionally connects with one of his sons.
On the other hand, Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street” runs the gamut of emotions as Jordan Belfort, a Long Island penny stockbroker who rises to superstar status on Wall Street using less than legal means to get rich. This may be DiCaprio’s best performance ever although it borders on parody, and he might have had a better chance at his first Oscar in four nominations were it not for “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Up until a few days ago, it was looking like Cate Blanchett would be a shoe-in for her second Oscar, having won the 2004 Best Supporting Actress for “The Aviator.” Her work as New York socialite Jasmine in “Blue Jasmine” took the Golden Globe. She is stunning and sad, a woman in denial as her high-class life falls apart when her philandering husband, played by Alec Baldwin, commits suicide while serving in prison for white-collar crimes, and she has to live with her sister, much lower on the social ladder. This was a role created by Woody Allen, and as Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”), Dianne Wiest (“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”) and Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) have learned, Allen-written roles can lead to Oscars. Unfortunately, recent allegations regarding Allen’s personal behavior are creating speculation about an anti-Allen sentiment while Academy voting is still taking place that could cost Blanchett the Oscar.
If that happens, it could be a wide open race. This category is full of Academy Award veterans with the five actresses combining for 38 nominations and six Oscars. If Blanchett falls, Amy Adams, as Sydney Prosser, partner in crime with Bale’s Rosenfeld in “American Hustle,” a woman whose loyalties could be anyone’s guess, could bring home her first Oscar in five nominations. Another strong possibility is seven-time nominee Judi Dench as the lead role in “Philomena,” an absolutely charming performance as an aged woman forced years earlier by nuns to give up a baby boy she had out of wedlock trying to track him down as his 50th birthday has arrived. Dench previously won a supporting Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love.”
Meryl Streep continues to add to her unprecedented list of nominations, earning her 18th as Violet Weston, a strong-willed Oklahoma woman battling drug addiction and alienation from her husband and daughters in “August: Osage County.” Streep chews up the scenery here in yet another study of dysfunction in families.
Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock is a surprise nomination for “Gravity,” portraying a medical engineer who must keep her wits amid overwhelming odds of survival after a mishap on a space station. Grumblers noted all she did was pant a lot, from exertion and panic.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jared Leto, folks. A gutsy performance as transsexual Rayon, who develops a volatile friendship and business partnership with the homophobic Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Leto’s Rayon puts up a fragile brave front in a losing battle against AIDS, strengthened by efforts to bring medications to fellow AIDS sufferers.
An upset is unlikely here, but calling it would be tough: Barkhad Abdi as the lead pirate in “Captain Phillips” who becomes overwhelmed by U.S. military might; Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent willing to bend the rules and abuse whoever to bring down big-time cons in “American Hustle”; Michael Fassbender as the Bible-quoting but cruel plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave” and Jonah Hill as partner in fraud with DiCaprio’s Belfort in :”The Wolf of Wall Street.” Hill’s work might slip ahead in this pack as it is a multi-layered role of a seemingly grounded man who can be a shark when selling bad goods to people yet be an incredible goof-up when the booze and drugs render him a babbling fool.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
This always seems to be a tough category to call. Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s wife who might be more sharp and lethal than he would expect in “American Hustle” has generated some enthusiasm, but so has first-time nominee Lupita Nyong’o in the heartbreaking role of Patsey, a favored slave of Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, making her vulnerable to abuse when he suspects her lack of loyalty.
Julia Roberts does have some moments as the oldest daughter in “August: Osage County,” but is bogged down by yet another “blaming my parents for my unhappy life” role. Sally Hawkins is cute and sweet as Jasmine’s sister in “Blue Jasmine,” trying to tolerate her sibling’s self-absorption while finding herself hooking up with guys who turn out to be jerks or liars.
The dark horse here has to be June Squibb, a first-time nominee at age 84 as the put-upon, loyal but obscenely candid wife of the mentally unraveling Woody Grant (Dern) in “Nebraska.” Hers is a performance that is fun to watch, coming up with observations that are painfully honest and squirm-inducing, a woman who has had to accept a less than rewarding life but refuses to go down without a fight.
Is movie acting only for young people? Note these ages of nominees: Dern 77, Dench 79, Streep 64 and Squibb 84. Squibb, incidentally, is the second-oldest nominee, behind Gloria Stuart, who was 87 when nominated for “Titanic” in 1997.
Speaking of ages: Adams, Bale and DiCaprio all turn 40 this year, Bullock 50.
“American Hustle” is the second movie in which Bale and Adams have worked together and earned nominations, having both been nominated for “The Fighter” in 2010. Blanchett and Dench both were nominated for “Notes on a Scandal” in 2006.
Dern’s two nominations occurred 35 years apart.
Nyong’o was born in Mexico, raised in Kenya and had her higher education in the United States.
Dark Delicacies in Burbank is a place where any fan of horror movies, books and collectibles can go crazy. Making things even more interesting is that the store also serves as host for great events. On Sunday, Jan. 26, Dark Delicacies offered The Day of the Scream Queens, and some of the great ones were there.
Not all of the ladies in attendance were actual horror movie screamers. Deanna Lund was invited for her work as Valerie Scott in the television series “Land of the Giants,” which ran for 51 episodes in 1968-70. She was married to co-star Don Matheson, and her daughter Michele Matheson is an actress (“Mr Belvedere” TV series). No longer taking on movie or television roles, Deanna is a happy grandmother and dotes on her cats and dogs.
Although Jamie Lee Curtis is regarded as the scream queen — she was not in attendance Sunday — a trio of actresses have become known as excellent scream queens: Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer, who were present and had many visitors to their tables.
Quigley is best known for her roles in “Night of the Demons” and “The Return of the Living Dead” but has had an active career since 1975. She has starred with Stevens and Bauer in such movies as “Nightmare Sisters,” “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama” and as recently as 2012 they were in “1313: Cougar Cult,” a made-for-video movie in which Quigley was out sick for much of the principal shooting but whose footage later was added in through the technology of modern editing.
Quigley is currently promoting a film in which she has a role titled “Virginia Obscura,” due for release in late February.
Eileen Dietz is an actress who has had many roles over the years, from soap operas to guest shots in television series to movie roles. But she can claim fame to being a performer a lot of people saw but did not know it. A lot of the scenes in “The Exorcist” in which Regan (Linda Blair) is possessed by the demon Pazuzu actually were Dietz in heavy makeup, making an uncredited appearance in what is regarded by many as the scariest movie of all time. Dietz has recently written an autobiography, “Exorcising My Demons: An Actress’ Journey to ‘The Exorcist’ and Beyond.”
Laurene Landon made her mark in the horror/sci fi and action realm with roles in “Maniac Cop” and Maniac Cop 2″ and in the title role as “Hundra” in 1983 in what she called a “female version of ‘Conan the Barbarian’.” But she also had a high-profile role as one of the flight attendants on the troubled space shuttle in “Airplane 2: The Sequel” and was featured in “I, the Jury.”
Early in her career she starred in “.. All the Marbles,” a film about female wrestlers, which was the last movie directed by Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”), who died in 1983. Landon said she trained for about eight months to learn all the wrestling movies and did all of the wrestling scenes herself. Veteran actor Peter Falk played the role of her manager.
“He was crazy,” she said of Falk. “He was into improvising and would call me and Vicki (Frederick, who played the other lady wrestler) after the day’s shooting and go over upcoming scenes and the next day what we would shoot would be different from the script.” She noted that Aldrich was not a director who tolerated actors straying from the script, and as a young actress she felt compelled to go to Aldrich and apologize after he called them out for the improvising. But the great director assured Landon he was aware that Falk was the culprit in the dialogue alterations.
Other actresses in attendance at Day of the Scream Queens included Trina Parks (Diamonds are Forever” and “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery”), Helene Udy (1313: Frankenqueen” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), Lisa London (the upcoming “”666: Devilish Charm”), Kristine DeBell (“Meatballs,” “1313: Night of the Widow” and the TV movie “A Halloween Puppy”), Donna Wilkes (“Jaws 2″), Lynn Lowry (“Cat People,” “The Crazies”), Jessica Morris (“Venom” and the upcoming “666: Devilish Charm”), Jean Louise O’Sullivan (“Alien Inhabitant” and “Puppetmaster X: Axis Rising”), Carolyn Purdy-Gordon and Darcy DeMoss (“Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI”), who had a hockey-masked Jason standing by for photo ops.
In all armed conflicts, things can go horribly wrong, either via bad planning, wrong decisions or just plain bad luck — leading to tragic consequences. But even amid these deadly mishaps there are incidences of courage and beating incredibly overwhelming odds against survival — all deserving of recognition.
Writer-director Peter Berg has for years worked on bringing to the screen “Lone Survivor,” the story of a Navy SEALS recon mission in Afghanistan that turned out to be a disaster. The movie is an adaptation of the book written by Marcus Luttrell, the SEAL who barely lived through this horrible incident.
The mission took place in June 2005 and was called Operation Red Wing, with its objective being to capture or kill a Taliban leader named Ahmed Shah. The plan was to drop four Navy SEALS into the rugged terrain of Afghanistan who would do a reconnaissance of the base where Shah was believed to be operating, and if possible take the guy out, or if the base was too well-guarded, to call in more firepower.
The four men chosen for the task were Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt “Axe: Axelson (Ben Foster).
Berg opens the movie with real footage of the rigorous training program for SEALS, showing that many wash out. Then there are the usual pre-mission scenes that set up the characters, their relationships and the camaraderie of these selected, elite few. The mission itself is then laid out by Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), using a map and models of the helicopters being used.
As usual, these men engage in the usual fooling around but are all-business when the mission commences.
Things go well at first. The SEALS are dropped several miles from their destination and have to hoof it up rocky terrain. When they arrive at the recon area, they discover that Shah has nearly an army of soldiers around him. In addition, the SEALS are unable to establish communications with their base. The decision is made to lay low until dark, then retreat to higher ground and contact the base with an update on the mission.
Unfortunately, an unforeseen event happens. Three goat herders come up to the area where the SEALS are hunkering down, and one has a mobile phone, indicating a possible link to the Taliban. The SEALS have three choices. They can kill the three goat herders and continue with the mission. They can tie up the herders and retreat, risking that the three may freeze or starve to death before being found. They can set the herders free and hope they do not go to the Taliban encampment and report what happened until the SEALS can return to their extraction zone. Since one of the herders clearly is hostile toward them, the SEALS are pretty sure their presence will be revealed once the herders are set free.
Luttrell argues for releasing the herders, noting the restrictions on rules of engagement employed by the U.S. military and the consequences of bringing harm to unarmed citizens. But it is Murphy who has to make the call, and he orders that the herders be freed and the SEALS pack up and go home.
With communications still down, the SEALS still need to get to a location from where they can send a signal. This slows their retreat and soon they find themselves facing an army of Taliban, and for all their training and sophisticated weaponry they simply cannot fight off these overwhelming numbers without support.
A vicious battle ensues and although the SEALS do kill several Taliban, they take their own beatings with gunshot wounds and explosion shrapnel, and are really messed up when they have to twice tumble down steep, rock-infested terrain.
The movie’s title already reveals the fate of Murphy, Dietz and Axelson, so it is difficult to see these outstanding men die. The message that Berg and Luttrell wanted to convey is yet another reiteration of the code of soldiers — that they fight for each other. Even if the objective is not achieved, if all the men come back alive, the mission to them is a success.
There was an additional tragedy. Murphy sacrifices himself so he can get to a peak point and use a cell phone to call for help. But the two choppers flying in for the extraction do not have support from armed Apache helicopters, which have been summoned to another hot spot, and when one of the choppers is brought down by a portable missile, the other is forced to flee.
People who have read Luttrell’s book have criticized the altered ending. Although Luttrell was rescued by members of the Pashtun tribe, which has a code that they protect any person from an enemy, the chaotic and bloody battle between the Pashtun tribe and Taliban trying to get to Luttrell actually was only just a standoff until Luttrell was rescued by U.S. forces. This was seen as a manufactured gung-ho and emotional ending to this story — apparently done with Luttrell’s blessing.
That aside, the objective of Berg and Luttrell was to give a detailed account of what happened and to recognize and pay tribute to the men who died on that mountain. This is a violent and explicit retelling of this incident, and while it does pull the emotional strings, it also in rich detail shows how these men are willing to give their lives to honor the code of watching out for each other.
For the actors, the physical aspects of the roles had to be more challenging, as there was not much time for deep emotional expository. Most of their dialogue, once the mission starts, is pure military jargon anyway. Still, the four stars present tough, dedicated men. You know these guys are tough.
Let’s face it: The entity that harassed poor Katie (Katie Featherston) in “Paranormal Activity” and turned her into sleep-walking killer who murdered her boyfriend, sister and brother-in-law and abducted her toddler nephew is one heck of a jerk. It started messing with the minds of Katie and sister Kristi when they were little girls and just could not get enough. Thus, “Paranormal Activity” has become almost a perennial event, usually an October movie release in time for Halloween.
Part five, titled “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” takes a break from the increasingly terrifying Katie saga and with it the creepy and nerve-wracking anticipation that came with the point-of-view footage, just waiting for something to happen.
Christopher Landon, who has taken up the reins in this franchise fron Oren Peli, writer and director of the original, delivers his fourth screenplay in this series, with “The Marked Ones” being the first he has directed.
This story centers around Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and his friend Hector (Jorge Diaz), two teens who have just graduated from high school in 2012. Unlike the previous “PA” movies, these two do not live in two-story homes with security cameras and devices. They reside in cramped apartments, presumably in Los Angeles. Jesse uses some of his graduation gift money to buy a camcorder, thus allowing for the point-of-view footage that is the staple of this series.
The result is 80-plus minutes of shaky scenes. There are no breaks from the choppiness of hand-held devices that were offered in the previous movies via views from security cameras and PC cyberlink programs. People prone to motion sickness may find this a queasy experience.
The early part of the movie, like the others, is calm, centering on the youthful shenanigans of Jesse and Hector, along with Jesse’s sister Evette (Noemi Gonzales) and friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh).
Residing in an apartment downstairs from Jesse’s family is a creepy older woman, Anna (Gloria Sandoval). She is unfriendly, and weird noises emanate from her unit at night. When the teens use the camcorder to do some voyeuristic peeping in Anna’s place, they witness an exciting but ominous ritual. Adding to the mystery, Oscar (Carlos Pratts), who was valedictorian of Jesse’s and Hector’s graduating class, is seen leaving Anna’s apartment, looking agitated.
One day Jesse wakes up with a mysterious injury on his forearm, and when Anna is murdered in her apartment, Jesse and Hector, drawn by morbid curiosity, break into the apartment to look around, and find all sorts of puzzling things. Jesse starts experiencing changes that at first seem cool and amusing but grow more terrifying. Meanwhile strange things begin to occur and before long, Hector and Marisol are forced to investigate further and take more chances in an effort to save Jesse.
As in “PA” entries 2 through 4, the final moments really escalate in terror and Landon’s story takes us to a place that is sure to spark many discussions as to how this all ties in with Katie and Kristi. And it guarantees yet another “Paranormal Activity” will be forthcoming.
All the young actors in “The Marked Ones” are very convincing, and it is a marvel how filmmakers are able to blend in the special effects into the comcorder point-of-view format. “The Marked Ones” has a different tone than its previous stories. The scares are more of the jump-on-your-seat types than the kind that send chills up the spine. But either way, “Paranormal Activity,” even with its miscues in earlier movies, has the goods to get under your skin.
The year-end movie rush arrived with a vengeance as holiday feel-good and epic adventures hit the theaters along with the awards contenders squeezing in during the final weeks to gain eligibility.
While “The Hobbit” and “Frozen” were packing houses over the holiday weeks, Ben Stiller’s modern-day telling of James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has been charming sizable audiences of its own.
Stiller has made a career for himself playing lovable, unassuming guys who are easy to root for simple because they are so easy to identify with, and certainly Walter Mitty is an icon of such characters. Thus Stiller was smart to direct and cast himself in the title role as Walter Mitty.
This updated story of a common man who daydreams vividly of heroics and romance was penned by Steve Conrad, who wrote the screenplay for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” featuring Will Smith. This 21st century Mitty is an unremarkable person who has labored for 16 years within the bowels of Life magazine, handling the vast inventory of photograph negatives.
But Life, like many publications, is under new ownership and forging ahead with a transition to digital, putting the employment of many at risk. For the final print publication, the cover photo is to be one by the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), one of the few holdovers still using film. This creates a problem when the film roll he sends to Life is missing the one photo that is to be used for the cover.
Mitty enlists the services of a co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a woman to whom he is enamored and is trying to hook up via online relationship matching, in helping him get that missing photo. Amid the threats of layoffs and Mitty’s own fantasy indulgences, Walter and Cheryl try to track down the world-hopping photographer. With the print deadline approaching, Walter grows more desperate to the point he takes off for Greenland, the last known location of Sean O’Connell.
“Walter Mitty” is a familiar story of a person who when pushed to the limit summons surprising resolve and courage to meet challenges. The natural charms of Stiller and Wiig lift this story that has its share of surprises. Shirley MacLaine as Walter’s mother and Penn have only a few moments of screen time but they are indelible.
“Walter Mitty” is a bittersweet feel-good story. In the end, Walter and Cheryl have new obstacles to face but you know they will somehow come through.
* * *
Writer-director Alexander Payne has made a name for himself by putting on screen comedic dramas that are insightful character studies, such as “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendents.” In his latest outing, “Nebraska,” he serves as director only, using a script by Bob Nelson. Despite being 57 years old, Nelson has only two other writing credits, with “Nebraska” being his first full-length movie.
“Nebraska” is the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an addled man in his 70s from Billings, Montana, who is convinced he has won a $1 million prize from a publishing clearing house and is determined to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect the money. Worn by years of excessive drinking and a mind that is growing more fuzzy, he believes he can just take off on foot — he no longer can drive — and trudge the hundreds of miles to Nebraska.
His stubborn actions exasperate his long-suffering wife, Kate (June Squibb in an Oscar-worthy performance) and youngest son David (Will Forte) to the point David agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska to prove that the letter he received claiming he is a winner is really just a scam.
This story is just a simple backdrop to what are the gems in the movie — marvelous interactions between the characters that are real, funny, poignant and tragic.
Dern’s Woody is a man of few words, but everything he says depicts a man who simply was not caught up in life’s complications — mostly he let his alcoholic indulgences smooth out the edges of his existence. When asked by David if he ever was in love with Kate, he shrugs it off and says the reason he married Kate was because that’s what she wanted. When asked if he planned on having two sons, he dismisses the question with the explanation, well he wanted to have sex with Kate so he figured a kid or two would be the inevitable result.
As Kate, Quibb almost steals the movie. She is brutally honest, homey, vile and yet the wise backbone of the family. In a memorable scene that is both touching and humorous, Kate, Woody and David visit a cemetery in their native town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Kate recalls these departed family members with fondness but also with stinging indictments. Her candid recollections of intimate times leave David mortified.
Nelson shows a keen eye for family relationships, especially those that were filled more with tolerance than love. Woody’s many siblings are not the kind to hug it up. To them, warm moments occur when they talk about their old cars or how many hours it takes to drive from one place to another. Woody is the quintessence of a family that just moseys along in life, never wanting to analyze anything.
For David, the trip to Nebraska is a revelation, discovering the father he never knew, and while David gains a new appreciation for who his father is, flaws and all, he has to learn to accept that Woody is never going to reciprocate with any “I’m proud of you son” praises.
Wisely, Payne and Nelson do not opt for any rosy finishes. That just would not be the Grant way of doing things.
With seven Golden Globe nominations in the bag, “American Hustle” is yet more proof that writer-director David O. Russell is a proven talent. Fresh off his stellar work in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” where in these two films he guided Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo to Academy Award-winning performances, Russell has again presented memorable characters fleshed out by actors whose work will be contenders for Oscar nominations.
“American Hustle” focuses on people who are not evil but are willing to bend and break the rules to achieve their goals. Russell reunites with two of his most recent successful collaborations with Bale (“The Fighter”) and Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) in this story of schemes and corruption in the late 1970s.
Sporting a paunch and and an “elaborate comb-over” to hide a receding hairline, Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a man raised in New Jersey whose most powerful influence in life is seeing his hard-working father victimized by corrupt people in control. Although he owns a chain of legitimate dry cleaning outlets, Irving veers off to do some conning, selling fake art and setting up a loan agency that is a rip-off scheme. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who like Irving is prepared to do whatever is necessary to get ahead. The two are drawn together by a passion for Duke Ellington and a drive to gain the good life. Soon they are lovers and partners in a successful alliance of cons in which Sydney claims to have ties to a London bank and can secure loans.
This idyllic, if dishonorable, arrangement has a complication in that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Lawrence) and has adopted Rosalyn’s son from a previous relationship. The sparks have long gone out between the two but Irving is a dedicated father and Rosalyn is hesitant to file for divorce.
Then, Irving and Sydney find themselves in trouble when an ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), nails them in an undercover operation. DiMaso considers Irving and Sydney as small-timers and thus forces them to work with him in taking down some bigger prospects. One of DiMaso’s targets is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a passionate and ambitious mayor trying to revive Atlantic City and revitalize the state’s economy. But lacking the funding, Polito is desperate, making him vulnerable to using corruption in his quest.
“American Hustle” becomes a study in relationships as the plot unfolds. Irving has his hands full with Sydney, who is smart and manipulative, and Rosalyn, a strong-willed woman who is not as dumb as Irving might assume. Irving becomes the front man in luring Polito into DiMaso’s undercover operation and finds himself in unfamiliar territory — a genuine friendship with the political figure.
Trying to pull the strings is DiMaso, a volatile character whose ambition runs into roadblocks via his supervisor and his growing passion for Sydney.
All of these characters have good and bad points and are given shining moments to perform. Adams as Sydney can be vulnerable and conniving, playing both Irving and Richie. Rosalyn is the unknown variable. Not really sure what Irving is up to but forced to go along as she and Irving masquerade as a happy couple, she has the potential to unravel everything.
DiMaso is supposed to be the good guy, but he becomes blind in his overzealous pursuits of powerful people, making him easy prey to have the tables turned on him. Renner comes the closest to being a sympathetic character — a man with strong family values and legitimate goals in making life better for his constituents only to find himself pulled into shady dealings.
And at the core is Irving, a man accustomed to being in control but finding himself pulled in different directions, factoring in loyalty, love and just trying to survive. Just when it looks like he is down and out, he makes a nice recovery.
“American Hustle”, co-written with Russell by Eric Warren Singer, is smart and funny and draws upon the challenges in life when the lines are gray rather than black or white. Who do you root for? Aside from great performances, that is what makes it a rewarding movie experience.