Today, a little over three hundred drive-in movie theaters remain sprinkled throughout the United States. This means that many Americans are not lucky enough to have a drive-in movie theater close by their home. In the drive-in’s heyday, small production companies would release B-movies tailor-made for the drive-in audience. There was everything from angry extraterrestrials to hip-shaking teenage beach parties, all of which are now enjoyed for their campy special effects and corny performances. Today, many of these films are available on DVD, Blu-ray, or Netflix, and can be enjoyed from the comfort of your couch. If you’re someone without the luxury of a drive-in theater nearby, you can create your own drive-in movie night right at home. Just grab any one of these out-of-this-world flicks, pop some pop corn, cook up a few hot dogs on the grill, grab a date or the kids, throw open the living room windows, and enjoy some light-hearted entertainment from yesteryear. For those looking for some more adult-oriented entertainment, there are also a few horror flicks that made the drive-in rounds. Just make sure to put little Johnny or Susie to bed before showtime.
- The Blob (1958)
Director Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob was released late in the summer of 1958, but this cosmic freak-out still thrilled fresh-faced moviegoers with its
shapeless monster that consumed everything in its path. Starring a young Steve McQueen, this teenage monster movie will delight adults and children alike with its catchy theme song, playful action, and exciting climax that finds the alien menace oozing out of an indoor movie theater. Maybe Yeaworth was letting audiences know that the blob wasn’t meant for indoor viewing?
- Jaws (1975)
Released in the summer of 1975, when drive-ins were embracing harder-edged entertainment, director Steven Spielberg petrified audiences with Jaws, the ultimate summer movie. (Sorry Star Wars) Ripe with quotable one-liners and perfect viewing while peepers belt out their summer songs into the night air, Jaws is an essential experience for the young and the old. This movie just screams drive-in! You can just picture a young couple gripping onto each other as Brody tells Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat…”
- Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)
Originally intended as a serious slice of sci-fi entertainment, director Edward Cahn’s cosmic comedy boasts some of the cutest extraterrestrials to ever scamper across the big screen. Released by American International Pictures (AIP) in a double bill with I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Invasion of the Saucer Men runs just over an hour, making it a light and brief ride for younger viewers with short attention spans. Don’t worry about things getting too spooky, as kids are sure to adore the pint-sized aliens with their oversized heads. It also features a beer-drinking bull intruding on a make-out session. You just have to love ‘50s science fiction!
- The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965)
Beach party movies quickly became a favorite among drive-in audiences, as they blared hip surf rock from tiny transistor speakers and featured beautiful bods doing the twist in the California sun. While many of these films focused on young lovers dashing around on sandy beaches, a few dared to venture into spookier territory. Directed by Jon Hall, The Beach Girls and the Monster tries its darndest to pass itself off as a legitimate monster movie, but it delivers more unintentional comedy and is a bit more concerned with partying than it is with telling a gripping story. A sure hit with older teens who are sure to get a kick out of the campy monster who preys on bikini clad babes.
- I Drink Your Blood/I Eat Your Skin (1970)
As the drive-in theater rusted away and audiences got seedier, the entertainment got harder and nastier. One of the most famous double bills from the drive-in’s darker days is I Drink Your Blood/I Eat Your Skin, which was released by drive-in kingpin Jerry Gross. Horror and exploitation fans are guaranteed to love I Drink Your Blood’s copious amounts of gore and bad taste as tainted meat pies turn satanic hippies into wild-eyed zombies, and there is plenty of hilarious charisma dripping off of I Eat Your Skin’s black-and-white jungle-voodoo mayhem. I Eat Your Skin isn’t nearly as disgusting as its title suggests, but one thing is for sure, make sure you put this double feature on after the kiddies hit the hay.
- Them! (1954)
Released in the summer of 1954, this giant bug movie was released by Warner Bros. and packs some respectable tension. Telling the tale of a group of military personnel and scientists racing to stop a colony of giant ants, Them! is a hypnotic chiller from the Atomic Age that is more suitable for teenage viewers who will be surprised to discover just how eerie giant ants can be. Made with more money than some drive-in fare, Them!’s ants hold up incredibly well and the performances—specifically from James Arness and Edmund Gwenn—are A-list quality. A masterpiece genre film that ranks as a must-see classic.
- Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
Just hearing the title Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is enough to sell anyone on this drive-in romp. Barely clocking in at an hour and designed for those more interested in making out, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a Frankenstein monster of a film. It’s part giant monster movie and part alien B-movie. It’s also brimming with hilarious special effects, massive papier mache hands, and some of wildest performances you might ever see in a B-movie. View it as a comedy, pair it up with The Beach Girls and the Monster, and you are sure to have a great time with it.
- Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956)
In 1954, Japan’s Toho Films released the pitch-black Gojira, a bleak reflection on the horrors of the atomic bombs that ended WWII. Gojira was a massive hit, and America took notice of the enthusiasm this monster movie received. Picked up by an American distributor who added actor Raymond Burr to the chaos, Godzilla was projected under the stars for American teens more interested in city smashing than underlying meaning. While Gojira may be too dark for children, Godzilla: King of the Monsters will have younger viewers glued to the screen with its non-stop action.
- Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
Absolutely nothing says “drive-in” like American International Pictures and Beach Blanket Bingo. One that is sure to please your mother, director William Asher’s toe-tapping Technicolor musical is brimming with surfing, skydiving, and summer romance. Colorful and accessible, Beach Blanket Bingo is a sunny little number that will offer a welcome escape from the long list of monster movies that dominated drive-in double bills. As if it needs any more drive-in credibility, the film can be glimpsed showing during the drive-in scene in 1981’s The Outsiders.
- Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Film fans may remember Roger Corman as the king of the B-movie, but nobody did schlock better than Edward D. Wood, Jr. Remembered more by cult movie fans than by mainstream filmgoers, Ed Wood is celebrated for making what many consider to be the worst film ever made—Plan 9 from Outer Space. Part gothic horror movie, part alien invasion thriller, Plan 9 from Outer Space is so bad, it’s hilariously awesome for those who love camp. Made on the cheap and chock full of goofs, Wood’s enthusiasm is contagious and his mistake are easily forgiven, even while one actor reads from a script hidden in his lap! Featuring a final performance from Bela Lugosi, who died shortly before production officially began, Plan 9 from Outer Space is one the whole family can laugh at.
What are some of your favorite drive-in movies? Sound off in the comments section!
by Steve Habrat
Last summer, Seth Rogen made his directorial debut with the uproariously hilarious This Is the End, a star-studded apocalyptic comedy that revealed Rogen and fellow director Evan Goldberg’s affection for horror movies. In addition to writing and directing, Rogen also starred alongside fellow funnymen like James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel, all who brought their comedy A-game to the demonic shenanigans. This Is the End turned out to be one of the funniest and smartest comedies of recent memory—a film that left you wondering if the comedians involved could ever top some of the profanity-laced nuggets that were bursting forth from their sneering lips. Less than a year later, Rogen has shifted gears from fire-and-brimstone horror-comedies to frat-boy college romps with Neighbors, a routinely raunchy effort from the one of the reigning kings of comedy. Directed by Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Nicholas Stoller and produced by Rogen and Goldberg, Neighbors finds Rogen and his cast mates—Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and Rose Byrne—firing crusty condoms, dildos, stale beer, marijuana smoke, and alcohol-laced breast milk at the audience with demented precision. While there are more than a few good belly laughs to be had in Neighbors, some of the shock jokes lack the punch that Rogen and the filmmakers are hoping and praying that they have, leaving the audience feeling slightly underwhelmed and disappointed as they exit the theater.
Neighbors introduces us to Mac (played by Seth Rogen) and Kelly (played by Rose Byrne) Radner, a fun-loving married couple who are slowly trying to adjust to adulthood. In between marijuana breaks and pleading invites from their friends to come out to the bar, Mac and Kelly are also trying to raise their newborn daughter, Stella, in a quiet and stable environment. One day, Mac and Kelly learn that their new neighbors are members of Delta Psi Beta, a rowdy fraternity led by president Teddy (played by Zac Effron) and vice-president Pete (played by Dave Franco). Mac and Kelly politely welcome the fraternity to the neighborhood, and they make the simple request that that the boys keep the noise to a minimum. Teddy and Pete agree to the request, asking in return that the Radners don’t break up their parties by calling the police. The relationship between the Radners and the Delta Psi brothers gets off to a fine start, but after Teddy ignores the Radner’s request to quiet down one evening, Mac is forced to call the police to break up the party. Shocked that the Radners broke their promise, Teddy and the rest of the Delta Psi brothers declare war on the quiet couple next door. Refusing to be terrorized by the frat, Mac, Kelly, and their two friends, Jimmy (played by Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (played by Carla Gallo), begin plotting various ways to get the frat disbanded.
Before the obnoxious frat boys lug their snagged couches, neon beer signs, and marijuana leaf posters into the vacant house next door, Mac and Kelly are a couple reluctant to leave their hard-partying days behind. At work, Mac is coaxed by Jimmy to take a weed breaks behind their office building, and Kelly withers and shakes at an invite from Paula to come to the bar and go crazy. When Kelly and Mac finally agree to make the trip to the bar, they gather up a sleepy Stella, a myriad of baby essentials, and frantically try to rush out the door to get their drink on. Unfortunately, fatigue sets in and they collapse before they can even make it to the car. Mac and Kelly’s urges to jump back into the party scene are tempted even more when Teddy leads his fist-pumping frat brothers into their party mecca, where they quickly get to work planning an epic blow-out that will make them Delta Psi legends. It’s here that Mac and Kelly see their opening, even if that opening does come with a request to keep the noise down. One of the funniest moments of Neighbors comes when Mac and Kelly are invited over to join the insanity. With a baby monitor clipped to their pajama pants, Mac shovels mushrooms into his mouth while Kelly drunkenly swaps stories with a handful of sorority sisters about how she met Mac at college. In typical Rogen fashion, there is a lot of heart in these drunken bonds, as Teddy and Mac debate over who is the best Batman is (Keaton vs. Bale) and Kelly giggles as her stoned husband urinates with his new friend in a fountain.
Of course you already know that the relationship between the brothers of Delta Psi and the Radners heads south rather quickly. While there was plenty of raunchy material found in the quieter opening moments, this squabble gives way to sporadically jaw-dropping behavior. The beef begins small with slight little jabs from both ends, but Mac and Kelly take things to a new level when they flood the frat’s basement, giving the boy’s the idea to make homemade sex toys in an effort to rise money to pump the dirty water from their grimy basement. From there, it’s not holds barred, culminating in a breast-pumping debacle that ranks as the film’s most outrageous moment. From here, Rogen, Stoller, and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien can’t really devise a way to top themselves. There’s the hope that Seth Rogen’s hairy back, a dildo fistfight, an attempt at hot boxing an entire house, and a gruesome leg injury followed by urination can all push the envelope, but none of it really seems to get the laughs that everyone involved was hoping for. This isn’t to say that Neighbors looses it’s heart, wit, or entertainment value, but considering what audiences have been exposed to in the past, this all seems a little insipid.
While some of the gross-out gags may fizzle right before our eyes, the performances remain incredibly spirited throughout the runtime. Rogen is his usual gruff self as the scruffy Mac, a husky stoner who desperately wants to look cool in front of the toned fraternity brothers. The Austrian Byrne lets her wild side roar as Kelly, a ferocious momma bear who is incredibly skilled in turning Teddy and his gang against each other. She’s especially hilarious when she puts on her “cool” act in front of the gawking eyes of the Delta Psi gang. The most shocking turn among the cast is Zac Efron, who plays to his pretty boy image as Teddy, a sculpted bro who never misses a chance to shed his shirt and strut around like a Greek god. James Franco’s younger brother, Dave, continues to show off his comedic talents as Pete, the frat’s smirking vice president who layers on golf shirts during a black light party. As far as the supporting roles go, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is wasted in the small role of Scoonie, Barinholtz comes on a little too strong as Jimmy, and Gallo is a hot mess as the boozy Paula. Also, keep an eye out for the scene-stealing Lisa Kudrow as Carol Gladstone, the college dean who has a fascination for newspaper headlines. Overall, Neighbors may not be quite as wild and wooly as many were hoping it would be, but it still manages to be a clever and sweet little comedy about growing up and embracing adulthood. It’s also bound to leave many hard-partying audience members plotting a Robert DeNiro party this summer.
by Steve Habrat
By this point, you know if you’re a proud member of the Wes Anderson fan club. After films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, you know if you’ve developed a taste for his meticulously organized frames, quirky casts of characters, dry sense of humor, and surprisingly touching dramatics. If you’re one that hasn’t been tickled by Anderson’s cinematic efforts, don’t expect anything to change with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which finds the auteur indulging his whimsical artistry like a kid in a candy store. With all of the usual traits in place, Anderson sends the audience spiraling through a small slice of history—one fashioned from the winking cartoonish touches that Anderson has become noted and celebrated for. While this zany murder mystery is contagiously colorful and cute even in its raunchier moments, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fuzzy tribute to storytelling, and a sugary tribute to classic slapstick comedy of years past presented to the viewer in 1.33 aspect ratio, common in silent cinema, which appears to be a major influence here. And then there is his cast, a list bursting at the seams with fresh and familiar faces ready to take a big bite out of the oddball creations that Anderson has scribbled up for them.
The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of Monsieur Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes), the beloved concierge of the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel, nestled in the snowy mountains of the Republic of Zubrowka. The tale picks up in 1932, with young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (played by Tony Revolori) arriving at The Grand Budapest Hotel and having his first encounters with Gustave H. It turns out that Gustave H was carrying on an affair with a wealthy elderly woman named Madame D (played by Tilda Swinton), who, while visit Gustave H, reveals that she has a premonition that something bad is going to happen. Despite Madame D’s concerns, Gustave H laughs off her premonition, but a few weeks later, Madame D turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. Together, Gustave H and Zero travel to Madame D’s home, where her will is read to a house full of grieving friends and family members. Much to the horror of the guests, Madame D’s will states that she is leaving him a coveted painting called “Boy with Apple,” something that enraged her son, Dmitri (played by Adrien Brody), who vows to come after Gustave H. After making off with “Boy with Apple” and returning to the hotel, things get worse for Gustave H when authorities led by Inspector Henckels (played by Edward Norton) arrive to arrest him for the death of Madame D. Stuck behind bars and with Zubrowka on the brink of war, Gustave H races to escape from prison and prove his innocence with the help of Zero and some unlikely inmates. Meanwhile, a shadowy assassin called J.P. Jopling (played by Willem Dafoe) closes in on Gustave H and those closest to him.
There isn’t a shot in The Grand Budapest Hotel that isn’t littered with Anderson’s cinematic fingerprints. Nearly each and every frame is neatly arranged down to the fussy tilts of a pencil or the messy stack of legal documents. It’s unmistakably Anderson to the point where if you scrubbed his name from the credits, it wouldn’t take the audience long to figure out that it sprouted from his distinct imagination. There are the tracking shots that explore the inside of The Grand Budapest Hotel as if someone sliced it down the center and peered into it like a dollhouse. There are also the glaringly artificial miniatures, which Anderson presents with his expected winks and grins. Though what sets The Grand Budapest Hotel apart from other Anderson fare is the nods to classic cinema, particularly silent slapstick comedies. The Grand Budapest Hotel could be muted and converted to black and white, have intertitles placed strategically throughout, and the film would work marvelously as a silent comedy. There are also a number of chase sequences throughout the film, the most outstanding—and vaguely Hitchcockian/German Expressionist—is a shadowy game of cat-and-mouse through a museum between Dafoe’s vampiric thug J.P. Jopling and Jeff Goldblum’s lawyer, Deputy Vilmos Kovacs. It’s the highlight of the picture, followed closely by a snowy ski chase that keeps you doubled over in laughter over how preposterous the action is.
As usual, Anderson enlists the help of an ensemble cast, many of which will be familiar to Anderson aficionados. The newcomer here is Fiennes, who takes great pleasure in applying his gentlemanly demeanor to Gustave H, the flamboyant concierge who sleeps with elderly woman, gags at the thought of drinking cheap wine, and is bound-and-determined not to become the “candyass” in prison. Fiennes is exquisite, but hot on his coattails is Dafoe, who excels in the role of the stocky assassin J.P. Jopling, a brick of a man who sports skull rings on each one of his fingers and mercilessly tosses cats out of windows. Other standouts include Norton’s dweebie Inspector Henckles, the barely-recognizable Swinton as the elderly Madame D (she’s basically an extended cameo that acts more as a visual chuckle), and Revolori’s Zero, Gustave H’s young sidekick who inks on his pencil-thin mustache and essential acts as our guide through the halls of the hotel. There are a number of other cameos from faces you’d expect to see, although, the most severely underused is Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha, Zero’s birth marked love interest who isn’t give much to do yet acts as a huge emotional weight. Overall, though The Grand Budapest Hotel may not rank as my favorite Wes Anderson picture, and it may not be as funny or tender as some of his previous work, it’s still an enchanting ode to the art of storytelling (it concludes with a nod to Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig), and to the eternal joys of silent cinema.
With the boring movie months of January, February, and March slowly inching by, it’s time that we start getting excited about the big movies that have been receiving the hype treatment over the past year. In 2014, audiences will be getting talking raccoons, a brand new Christopher Nolan epic, a Captain America follow-up, and a remake of arguably the greatest monster movie ever made. So, without further ado, here are the ten movies I just can’t wait to see in 2014.
10.) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
It’s been nearly ten years since Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller ushered us into the noir world of Sin City, and we’ve been salivating for more ever since. With an A-list cast that includes veterans Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Jessica Alba, and newcomers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Josh Brolin, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, and Stacy Keach, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’s trailer indicates that we are in for another heaping, black and white dose of steamy lap dances, sexy femme fatales, and back-alley tough guys who walk on the wild side. Bring on the gruesome mayhem!
9.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t expecting much out of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, director Rupert Wyatt surprised both mainstream audiences and critics with his white-knuckle prequel about the ape uprising. Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which promises to up the apocalyptic scope and chaotic action to chilling highs. This time around, James Franco is out, but the always-reliable Gary Oldman is in, as well as newcomers Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Keri Russell. And we can’t forget the excellent Andy Serkis, who returns to raise hell as the ape kingpin, Caesar. Under the direction of Matt Reeves and taking place several years after the events of Rise, Dawn appears to be a worthy follow-up to the superb original.
8.) The Sacrament
Ti West has twice proved he is a filmmaker to watch within the horror genre. His 2009 breakout The House of the Devil was a retro nightmare, and his 2011 follow-up, The Innkeepers, was one of the spookiest horror films of recent memory. For his third act, The Sacrament, he uses the devastating actions of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple as the framework for this “found footage” freak-out. While the “found footage” subgenre has certainly worn out its welcome (*ahem* Paranormal Activity, I’m looking at you!), if there is anyone out there who could really give it its bite back, it would be West, who hinted that he had a handle on it with his unforgettable segment in 2012’s V/H/S.
If you haven’t seen the raucous trailer for Seth Rogen’s new suburban comedy about a bunch of frat bros who move in next door to a mild-mannered couple with a newborn baby, you need to fix that right this instant. Though it wasn’t written or directed by Rogen, I’m crossing my fingers that the scruffy funnyman is still riding the highs of last year’s comedic gem, This Is the End, which had critics and audiences everywhere doubled over in laughter. Based on the footage that has been revealed, it could prove to be a raunchy follow-up to that fireball of a comedy, even if it doesn’t quite pack the star power or the gimmick of actors playing “themselves.” If nothing good comes from Neighbors, it sparked the brilliant and hilarious idea to throw a Robert DeNiro party.
6.) X-Men: Days of Future Past
The X-Men series has been severely hit or miss. Director Bryan Singer’s first two installments in the franchise were solidly made superhero films. The third film, which was taken over by Brett Ratner, left a lot to be desired. In 2011, director Matthew Vaughn got the franchise back on track with X-Men: First Class, effectively meshing Cold War history with a whip-smart origin story. With Singer back in the director’s chair, and a time-jumping plot line that promises to mix the old cast with the new, X-Men: Days of Future Past is poised to be a comic book movie to keep your eye on this summer.
5.) Guardians of the Galaxy
With their cinematic universe fully formed and humming along nicely, Marvel dares to expand with this August’s Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps the most bonkers release yet. While director James Gunn’s space adventure is certainly a gamble, the trailer—which gives very nice introductions to the five main characters—suggests that this sci-fi adventure will have a stronger comedic tone to it. With plenty of rollicking space action on display, Guardians of the Galaxy seems to have plenty of potential, even with a talking raccoon that wields a machine gun and hocks loogies. Hopefully, it will be a welcome departure from the Iron Man and Thor movies.
4.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The last time Spidey swung across movie screens, his reboot was somewhat of a bore, mostly because new director Marc Webb rehashed a bunch of stuff we already knew about Peter Parker. With all the origin mumbo jumbo out of the way, it seems like Webb and his cast are really letting loose for an epic showdown between good and evil. Boasting not one, not two, but THREE superbaddies to face off against Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could very well be this summer’s The Avengers. It looks to have the pulpy action to rival it, and like all good comic book sequels, it doesn’t seem to be shying away from a darker tone and heavier dramatics. Is it May yet?!
Not much is known about Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi epic Interstellar, but does that even matter? Christopher freakin’ Nolan is directing it and that is literally all we need to know! Shrouded in Nolan’s expected secrecy, Interstellar is said to be about a group of explorers who discover a wormhole and use it to push the limits of human space travel. The IMDB cast list is bursting with A-listers (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, and more), and the stock-footage heavy trailer hints at larger-than-life filmmaking. What is even more exciting about Interstellar is the fact that Warner Bros. has chosen to release it in the thick of awards season.
2.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Of all the solo Avengers films that Marvel has produced since 2008’s Iron Man, my favorite has been the WWII period piece Captain America: The First Avenger. With it’s pulpy aesthetic and rollicking action, Captain America seemed alive with the spirit of classic blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved it. With Captain America: The Winter Solider, the stakes are higher and the destruction is nastier than ever. Did I mention that it looks to be much more interesting than Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World combined? While Marvel’s reluctance to release it this summer has slightly concerned me, Captain America: The Winter Solider seems like it will be a fierce comic book movie, and the gloomiest chapter in Marvel’s Avengers series yet. Bring it on.
There has been talk for years of another Godzilla reboot—one to scrub away all the horrid memories of that 1998 remake that should have been called Jurassic Park: New York City. With Puff Daddy and Matthew Broderick out and Bryan Cranston and director Gareth Edwards in, Godzilla 2014 is shaping up to be the mack daddy of summer movies. Seriously, have your seen the damn trailer?! It looks incredible, with some of the most savage city-smashing ever put on celluloid. What’s even better is that the filmmakers are re-establishing the idea that Godzilla is a walking A-bomb—a radioactive creation of the Atomic Age that continues to stomp on through the cinema history books. And here is the best yet: the movie actually looks pretty freaky! Oh, and did I mention that it appears that Rodan and Gigan will be joining in on the worldwide destruction? Yeah, let’s just get in line now.
by Steve Habrat
Almost any movie buff can tell you that January and February are far from the most exciting movie months of the year. Outside of a few Oscar nominees finally receiving the wide release treatment, audiences are stuck with—and astonishingly flock to—clichéd comedies, cable-channel action movies, vapid romantic comedies, and stiff horror movies that should have remained in their coffins. It’s extremely difficult to find a diamond in the rough, but every so often, one shimmering winner shines brightly through the piles of garbage. This year’s diamond in the rough is The Lego Movie, a rainbow explosion of sugary visuals and Adult Swim humor tailored for those far too young to know what Adult Swim is. Refreshingly weird, fast paced, and quick witted, The Lego Movie is an animated jewel that almost demands to be seen twice just so audience members young and old can appreciate the clever script from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It’s also a hallucinogenic tribute to soaring superheroes, pop culture icons, and cinematic classics that audiences have all come to know and adore over the years. Did I mention that it boasts an A-list cast enthusiastically lending their voices to these little plastic wonders, and that it also sends a wonderful message to children about the power of imagination?
The Lego Movie introduces us to everyman Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a happy-go-lucky construction worker who always follows his instruction manual for conforming to the world around him. Despite Emmet’s best attempts to fit in with the rest of the citizens of his Lego world, the bouncy little guy always seems like the odd man out. One evening, while leaving work, Emmet spots a mysterious girl called Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) snooping around the construction site. As Emmet goes to approach Wyldstyle, he slips down a hole in the ground, and comes face to face with a glowing red brick called the Piece of Resistance. Entranced by it’s beauty, Emmet attempts to touch the Piece of Resistance, but when he does, he passes out and wakes up in the clutches of Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is the muscle for Lord Business (voiced by Will Farrell), the sinister president of the Lego world. While being interrogated by Bad Cop, Emmet learns that the Piece of Resistance has attached itself to his back, and that Lord Business possesses a weapon called the Kragle, which is capable of freezing the entire Lego universe. Emmet is soon rescued by Wyldstyle, who takes him to meet the Master Builders—a group of heroes capable of building anything they can dream of. Among the Master Builders are a wizard called Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), the pirate Iron Beard (voiced by Nick Offerman), the overly positive Princess Uni-Kitty (voiced by Alison Brie), and ‘80s spaceman Benny (voiced by Charlie Day). It is with the Master Builders that Emmett learns that he is the “Special,” the one who can save every man, woman, and creature from Lord Business’ evil plot.
The Lego Movie’s hyperactive style and rapid-fire jokes will mostly certainly turn off viewers who aren’t open to this sort of thing. But for those willing to open their imagination to what Lord and Miller have thrown up on the screen, the rewards will stretch far beyond the film’s runtime. It’s almost a given that children will be powerless against its 200-mile-per-hour pacing and the barrage of characters both old and new zipping across the screen, but the filmmakers don’t forget about the parents or those (possibly inebriated) audience members looking for a hearty dose of artistic vision. Adult DC Comics fans are sure to have just as much fun as the kids as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern flash across the screen and cleverly poke fun at themselves, while Star Wars fans will certainly have a chuckle at one joke that flickers with Family Guy’s sense of humor. For those who spend their evenings in a marijuana cloud watching Adult Swim, the film’s bloodshot psychedelics and self-aware jabs will have them doubled over in their seats as trippy graphics and sly pop culture references leap out in 3D and call upon the spirit of Seth Green’s dementedly anarchic Robot Chicken. This strange brew may sound like an acquired taste, but rest assured when I tell you that there is a brilliant last act twist that helps this dizzying concoction of caffeinated inspiration go down smoothly.
When it comes to discussing the The Lego Movie’s wide array of characters, there is a long line of A-list actors lending their vocal chords to these little marvels. Chris Pratt brings his man-child charms to Emmet, our everyman hero who proudly stands behind his idea for a double decker couch. Will Arnett lends his gruff voice to Batman, growling the expected “I’m Batman” line with an extra sprinkling of cheese. He’s easily the most fun character of the bunch, mostly because he’s so overly confident even when he’s botching his batarang throws. Elizabeth Banks makes Wyldstyle an instant plastic sweetheart with a rough and tough side. Little girls in the audience are sure to adore her as she flips, spins, punches, and kicks her way through an army of robotic bad guys. Charlie Day screeches his way through the role of Benny, the ‘80s space man who desperately wants to build the crew a retro rocket ship. Alison Brie’s coo and unpredictable mood swings make Princess Uni-Kitty downright hilarious, as she is in constant turmoil with her excessive positivity. Morgan Freeman offers his trademark vocal talents to Vitruvius, a wise but slightly spaced-out wizard with eyesight complications. Will Farrell brings his maniacal cackle to Lord Business, snarling playful threats to our heroes and his endless supply of henchmen. Liam Neeson rounds out the main cast as Bad Cop, the hushed muscle of Lord Business who will suddenly unleash his peppy side.
While The Lego Movie’s razor-sharp sense of humor makes it an instant winner, the real refresher here is the amazing animation that offers a nice change of pace from the computerized creations from Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks. Though the characters and the world around them are brought to life with CGI magic, the film never truly looks like it was brought to life with a computer program. It looks like we are watching a stop motion miracle—a toy store Lego display that has suddenly leapt to crude life and started interacting with us. The filmmakers don’t forget to smartly call attention to the Lego figurine’s flexibility limits, most memorably with Emmet’s hysterical jumping jacks that he starts his day out with. The constant swirl of colors, characters, and action is all brought home with a thumping title track called “Everything is AWESOME!!” from Tegan and Sara, an indie rock duo who provide a electronic dance track that is sure to be an instant favorite in your family. Overall, with so many animated features struggling to win the hearts of both adults and children, The Lego Movie stands tall as a shining example of how to appeal to all ages. It dares to get a little weird, a little wild, and a little satirical, but it does it with plenty of heart and intelligence, sending an enduring message about the power and importance of imagination.
by Steve Habrat
When assessing this year’s long list of Academy Award nominees, a good majority of the films that have landed nominations are mainstream pictures. Perhaps the most obscure (I use “obscure” rather loosely here) nominee would have to be Philomena, the newest dramadey from director Stephen Frears, the man who also gave us High Fidelity and The Queen. Based upon the extraordinary true story of Philomena Lee and her 50-year quest to find her son, Philomena finds Frears crafting a charming odd couple story that never forgets to press all the weepy emotional buttons that Academy members just can’t resist. With the script, penned by co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, swinging smoothly between comedic and poignant, Frears can let his stars, funnyman Coogan and Judi Dench, really make the sparks fly. The drastic differences in their personalities comprise most of the chuckles, and watching a naïve woman of God butt heads with an atheist political journalist makes the hour and a half runtime fly by at the speed of light, leaving you wonder where the time just went. It’s chemistry at its very finest.
Philomena introduces us to Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), an aging Irish nurse who has been desperately searching for her missing son for fifty long years. It turns out that in 1951, Philomena got pregnant at a fair, and as punishment was sent to Sean Ross Abby, an isolated convent in the Irish countryside. While working at the convent, Philomena is allowed to see her son, Anthony, for only an hour a day. One day, Philomena is horrified to learn that a wealthy American couple has adopted Anthony and moved the boy to the U.S. Over the years, Philomena’s grief over her loss has gotten worse. Meanwhile, Martin Sixsmith has just been fired from his job as a political advisor for the Labour Party. Distraught over his recent termination, Martin contemplates writing a book on Russian history, but his plans change after he meets Philomena’s daughter and he hears her mother’s amazing story. Reluctantly to write a human interest story, Martin is slowly won over after meeting with Philomena and traveling to the convent for answers. With very little information made available to them in Ireland, Martin and Philomena decide to travel to the U.S., where they learn of Anthony’s extraordinary life.
Early into their journey, Martin and Philomena learn a devastating twist in Anthony’s life, a twist that leaves the viewer wondering just where Frears and his screenwriters will take the story next. It’s here that a wealth of discovery gushes forth and picks up the film’s tempo to the point where it feels like the story was told in the blink of an eye. The secrets of Anthony’s life are certainly absorbing, this the viewer cannot deny, but his background takes second place to the exploration of faith versus atheism. It’s truly incredible to watch Philomena hold on to her faith, even when her faith had turned on her and ripped her life apart. On the flipside there is Martin, an atheist who is constantly biting his lip and looking for an opportunity to attack those who have wronged the poor, sweet Philomena. While a majority of this plays to the sensitive side of the film, there is also plenty of humor to be milked from it. It’s hard not find Philomena’s naïve wonder to be funny, especially when she is in awe over things like chocolates on her pillow in her hotel room and her fascination with a foreign chef cooking up her breakfast. Naturally, this all gets on Martin’s last nerve, tempting him mutter veiled sarcastic remarks to the beaming Philomena. Despite his efforts to keep a bit of distance between himself and Philomena, Martin isn’t immune to this woman’s misty-eyed grief or twinkling charms, and it is increasingly heartwarming to watch him stand up for her.
When discussing the central performances of Philomena, funnyman Steve Coogan expertly adapts his comedic wit to fit with the more dramatic tone of the picture and it truly does show off his wealth of talent. The earlier scenes of the film find Coogan sneaking in his dry sense of humor, but when the drama rises, Coogan displays impressive confidence, leaving you hoping that he explores more dramatic turns in the near future. And then there is Judi Dench, who really earns her Oscar nomination as the impossibly sweet Philomena Lee. You instantly fall for this little old lady who clutches to breezy romance novels and an eagerness to forgive even when she is being ridiculed by a handful of glowering nuns. Overall, Philomena is a film that seems to have come from the hearts of the filmmakers and headlining stars. It’s moving, comical, smart, and down-to-earth, completely lacking the sensationalized touches that Hollywood usually insists on for these true-story crowd-pleasers. This is a must-see buddy movie that you won’t be able to pull away from.
by Steve Habrat
What a spectacular year 2013 was at the movies! The early months were slow—something that was to be expected—but when we finally hit the summer movie season, things took off with a bang. There were out-of-this-world science fiction thrillers, city-shredding superhero epics, and plenty of blood curdling horror to give you a chill during those sweltering months. As the summer days faded and we entered awards season, things really got good. There were wolves from Wall Street, moody folk singers, HIV-positive outlaws, cranky old sweepstakes winners, and 70s conmen all ready to keep our minds off the snowy weather outside. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s picks for the best and worst films of 2013.
10.) The Wolf of Wall Street
Legendary director Martin Scorsese’s newest cinematic outing is a three-hour trek through a land dominated by sex, drugs, and sleaze. Our tour guide through this non-stop party is Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives one of the most daring performances of his acting career as Jordan Belfort, a slimy stockbroker who had more money than he knew what to do with. Wickedly hilarious and about as raunchy as R-rated movies can get, Scorsese gives us an up-close-and-personal look at the underbelly of wealth and greed, presenting it all as a runaway train destined to horribly crash and burn. While it’s been accused of being overly excessive and revolting, that’s the whole point—we’re meant to recoil in disbelief at what we are seeing. It just so happens that Scorsese injects each and every second with irresistible charisma, even as it lobs dwarves at the audience, throws champagne in our face, and leaves the audiences coughing up a cocaine cloud.
9.) Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s latest film about a wealthy New York City socialite who lost her riches when her husband gets caught up in a nasty financial scandal finds the neurotic filmmaker embracing a punishing reality that leaves a sting that just doesn’t seem to fade. Early on, Blue Jasmine is laced with Allen’s dry wit, but the lightweight appeal is soon engulfed by dark storm clouds of swirling madness. They close in on the brilliant Cate Blanchett, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Jasmine, our bitter heroine who flat-out refuses to accept her crippling fall from the designer-brand arms of grace. Complimenting Blanchett’s outstanding performance is the equally wonderful Sally Hawkins, who is here as Ginger, Jasmine’s modest and impossibly sweet sister who allows the scoffing Jasmine to shack up in her tiny little California apartment. With it’s polished story in place, and a number of charming performances from a colorful cast consistently impressing, Allen perfectly positions us for the lightning bolt climax that will leave you paralyzed in your seat. Bravo, Mr. Allen!
Last year, I saw several hair-raising horror films at the local Regal Cinemas, but none left me as shaken up as director Denis Villeneuve’s ripped-from-the-headlines thriller Prisoners. Like a cross between The Silence of the Lambs and Death Wish, Prisoners tells the terrifying story of two little girls who suddenly go missing on a rainy Thanksgiving Day and their father’s who grimly set out to track them down by any means necessary. With stomach-churning torture sequences, a dreary Seven-like atmosphere, and emotionally draining performances from an A-list cast (good luck getting Hugh Jackman’s seething determination out of your head), Prisoners is a white-knuckle masterpiece that is given even more power due to the recent news of Areil Castro and the three girls who were missing in Cleveland, Ohio. Believe me when I tell you there is no way to leave Prisoners unaffected. It will disturb you on levels you never thought possible.
7.) Captain Phillips
Bringing the unflinching realism that he brought to the Bourne series and United 93, director Paul Greengrass returns with Captain Phillips, which tells the breathtaking true story of the 2009 pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama. Told in a chilling, fly-on-the-wall style, Captain Phillips is an exercise in pure tension and raw authenticity. It also finds star Tom Hanks at his absolutely best as Captain Richard Phillips, the man who was taken hostage by four terrifying Somali pirates in a confined lifeboat. While Hanks furiously reminds us of his seasoned acting abilities, Captain Phillips ultimately belongs to breakout actor Barkhad Abdi, who gives a menacing performance as Abduwali Muse, the lead pirate who refused to give up. Bursting at the seams with heart-pounding suspense, Greengrass finds momentum in the confines of the lifeboat, where Phillips pleads with the pirates to give themselves up and avoid a devastating showdown. It’s in these moments where Greengrass humanizes the monsters, and makes a piercing comment on the lengths some men will go to make a living.
If you were one of the five people out there that didn’t see Gravity in 3D on the big screen, you really missed out on an extraordinary experience. While it may not have the most robust storyline, Gravity was pure, how-did-they-do-that?! entertainment that left audiences with the weightless sensation that they truly were drifting around among the stars with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. While director Alfonso Cuarón handles the stunning visuals with overwhelming confidence, it’s Bullock, who gives a show-stopping performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, a grieving astronaut floating through a shattered existence, who cradles Gravity’s shimmering heart and soul. With performances and special effects working in perfect harmony, Gravity weaves a poetic tale of rebirth that culminates in an emotional blast that allows the film to rocket near the top of the best science fiction films ever made. A starry-eyed crowd pleaser of the highest order.
5.) American Hustle
In mid-December, director David O. Russell’s 70s-set caper about a handful of quirky con men and FBI agents took the box office by storm. Featuring the best ensemble cast of the year (Christian Bale! Amy Adams! Bradley Cooper! Jennifer Lawrence! Jeremy Renner!), American Hustle is a cartoonish deconstruction of the American dream and what it takes to make a name for yourself in the good old U.S.A. With plenty of leisure-suit style to burn and a sexy strut that is impossible to resist, American Hustle is a dryly hilarious and entrancing slice of gold-platted entertainment that is carried off into classic territory by Christian Bale, who has never been better as Irving Rosenfeld, the pudgy con artist with the loudest comb over to ever hit the big screen. With its popularity growing by the day, Russell’s work is quickly becoming a new American classic, one that will surely be revisited for it’s layered script, retro swagger, impeccable costume work and set design, and laid-back sense of humor. This is one cool movie!
After diving into some weighty territory with 2011’s Hawaii-set dramedy The Descendants, director Alexander Payne trades the palm trees for a John Deere tractor with Nebraska. Set against the barren landscape and the small, boarded-up Americana towns of the Midwest, Nebraska is a sweet and soft-spoken little road movie carefully navigated by legendary thespian Bruce Dern and former SNL funnyman Will Forte. Following a senile old man on a quest to claim one million dollars that he believes he won and his patient son that accompanies him on his journey, Payne’s newest effort is a touching trip down memory lane, one that visits rundown farmhouses, old watering holes, and shady backstreets of year’s past. It’s all marvelously atmospheric and nostalgic, given a razor-sharp comedic edge through Dern’s cranky performance as the frizzy-haired sweepstakes winner Woody Grant. When Dern isn’t busy hogging the frame, actress June Squibb keeps you doubled over in laughter as Woody’s unfiltered wife, Kate. Though it may be in black and white, Nebraska is given plenty of color through its unforgettable cast of characters and it’s genuine warmth that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.
3.) Dallas Buyers Club
Who knew that Matthew McConaughey had this performance in him?! After proving himself to be a talent to be reckoned with in Mud, the drawling actor best known for his work in romantic comedies took critics and audiences by surprise with his turn as HIV-positive cowboy Ron Woodroof in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Boasting the strongest performances of the year from a lead actor and a supporting actor, Dallas Buyers Club, which is based on an extraordinary true story, is a powerful look at the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the lengths that one man went to bring proper treatment to both himself and countless others suffering from the disease. Serving up unflinching looks at the terrible symptoms of AIDS, Vallée’s film never spends too much time remaining downbeat. It’s got an optimistic mindset and hope shining brightly in its eyes. And then there’s McConaughey, who undergoes a shocking physical transformation as a hard-living, homophobic outlaw who reluctantly joins forces with a breathy transgender woman. His performance is a revelation, complimented by a delicate turn from Jared Leto as the transgender Rayon. The Academy may as well hand them their Oscars now.
2.) Inside Llewyn Davis
After shooting their way across the Wild West with their 2011 remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen return to movie screens with Inside Llewyn Davis, a Polaroid glimpse of the rise of folk music in Greenwich Village. Set in 1961, this character-driven period piece about a homeless folk singer with a bad attitude found the Coen’s relishing their return to the realm of dark comedy. Blustery and frigid, Inside Llewyn Davis is made even chillier through star Oscar Isaac’s breakout turn as Llewyn, a grieving and starving artist who shacks up on the couches of friends and family members, reluctantly takes care of an orange tabby cat, and only bears his soul through the gorgeous acoustic songs he strums out for packed night clubs. While its open-ended climax may leave some viewers fuming, Inside Llewyn Davis is an elegant character study, one that examines those who risk it all to make it big. As an added bonus, the film features a number of toe-tapping folk numbers that range from swelling and emotional to inescapably cute and catchy. Good luck getting “Please Mr. Kennedy” out of your head!
1.) 12 Years a Slave
Towering over all the other releases this awards season was director Steve McQueen’s sobering 12 Years a Slave. Daring to shine a light into the darkest corners of American history, McQueen’s powerhouse film pummels the viewer with the horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and tossed into the brutal jaws of the American slave trade. Unblinking with its sequences of abuse and torture, 12 Years a Slave is a film that is overwhelming and crucial, one we desperately want to recoil away from, but one that demands to be seen, heard, and felt for the remainder of our days. Though it is deeply disturbing, 12 Years a Slave ranks as the most handsomely filmed and detailed period piece of the year, and the work from stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o has to be seen to be believed. A film that was long overdue, 12 Years a Slave is a motion picture that dares to confront and challenge with a realism that most American films shy away from, and in the process, it becomes an instant cinematic classic that will stand as a constant reminder of our blemished past.
And now, the best of the rest:
– The Conjuring and You’re Next both brought the horror genre back with a deafening “BOO!”
– Pacific Rim was a candy-colored blockbuster sugar rush, and Elysium was the smartest sci-fi epic of the summer.
– Spring Breakers was a demented, day-glo fantasy about living the fast life in a constant paradise.
– Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was a poetic tribute to Terrance Malick’s classic Badlands.
– Out of the Furnace was a formulaic but unnerving and rusted out backwoods revenge thriller
– This Is the End was a raunchily rambunctious and gut-busting apocalyptic comedy from the minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
– Saving Mr. Banks was a feisty, family friendly look at Walt Disney’s rocky quest to make Mary Poppins.
And now, the worst of 2013:
3.) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
This dreadful follow-up to the severely overrated 2004 original recycles the same jokes that were used the first time around and the results are absolutely disastrous. The glaring lack of effort from Will Ferrell and company leaves you feeling like you were robbed blind.
2.) Insidious: Chapter 2
After delivering two impressive back-to-back scarefests, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell found it necessary to further the events of the first Insidious with this confused follow-up that tasted like moldy, month-old leftovers. Pray that these demonic forces have been banished for good.
1.) The Hangover Part III
The Wolfpack returns for a third and final time in this bizarre climax that never even once tries to be funny. The gross-outs and shocks are all there, but director Todd Phillips and his crew are clearly disinterested and in it strictly for the paycheck. This was the biggest turd of the summer and the most excruciating cinematic experience I had all year.
by Steve Habrat
The last time audiences spent time with director Alexander Payne, it was in 2011’s The Descendants, the heart-wrenching, Hawaii-set dramedy about a family facing the sudden and devastating loss of a family member. With The Descendants, Payne bluntly pointed out that even those who live in a constant sunny paradise and sport floral print shirts are not immune to the harsh blows that life can unexpectedly dish out. Two years later, Payne returns with Nebraska, another frank dramedy with a heavy lean on location. Shot in nostalgic black and white and set in the small, boarded-up Americana towns of the Midwest, Nebraska is a simplistic road movie about an elderly father and his patient son on their way to collect a million dollars that may or may not be real. Along their journey they drop into the father’s hometown, a bare strip of farm country that is aging right along with the born-and-raised citizens that still make up its population. With veteran actor Bruce Dern at the helm and comedian Will Forte riding shotgun, this soft-spoken little movie is unexpectedly hilarious and overwhelming sweet. It’s a snapshot of a meat-and-potatoes family brought together through one man’s senile belief and staunch determination. It’s also about digging up the past, taking a leisurely stroll down memory lane and fondly looking back at year’s past.
Nebraska introduces us to Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern), an elderly man who receives a letter in the mail stating that he has won a million dollars. Bound and determined to collect his winnings, Woody begins walking from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. After being stopped on the side of the road by a police officer, Woody’s son, David (played by Will Forte), picks him up from the police station where he discovers that the million dollars that Woody believes he has won is actually just a scam to sell magazines. After David realizes that Woody isn’t going to give up trying to collect his prize money, David decides to drive him to the sweepstakes center in Lincoln so that he will understand that it is all a scam. This plan outrages David’s mother, Kate (played by June Squibb), and his brother, Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk), who strongly believe that David shouldn’t encourage his father’s hopes. Ignoring the protests, the two set out on a road trip that leads them back to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. Upon their arrival, David and Woody begin reconnecting with old friends and family members, but after word gets out about Woody’s sudden new fortune, they all quickly have their hands out for money.
For a good chunk of Nebraska, the story lingers around the peeling buildings and desolate stretches of Hawthorne, a place that appears to be slowly fading from the map. It’s a town that seen some excitement back in the good old days, but now, the memories that haunt the abandoned farmhouses and boarded-up businesses are all that are left. Our characters chat about distant friendships that faded, family members that have passed on, or old American cars that have been hauled off to the junkyard, the chatter stopping when talk shifts into the present. Now the wrinkly inhabitants flock to the local buffet where the main form of entertainment is bad karaoke sung out in flat tones. The big news for the day is Woody’s return and the rumored million dollars that he has won, no one really knowing for sure if it’s true. Still, that doesn’t stop the citizens from beaming, gossiping, and proclaiming that it’s the biggest thing to happen to Hawthorne in quite some time. Even the Hawthorne newspaper jumps at the chance of doing a piece on old Woody. When David tries to explain that his father hasn’t really won anything to one eager newspaper employee, they simply shrug their shoulders and say that they’ll just do a piece on the prodigal son’s triumphant return. This grasp on the past that the citizens of Hawthorne hold so dear is complimented by the black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael, who provides haunting shots of rusted out Americana, photographed with misty eyed nostalgia and twinkling memories known only to the character’s themselves.
And then we have veteran actor Bruce Dern, who gives an irritable and touching performance as prizewinner Woody Grant. With his shock of mad scientist hair and his drunken shuffle, Woody is a man on a mission, pausing only to have a few bottles of beer here and there. It’s clear that he is starting to slip mentally, although it’s implied that he has been a simple and gullible man his entire life. His delight over the winnings is truly lovable, even if we the audience know that there is no million dollar prize waiting for him in Lincoln. It also grows extremely difficult to watch old friends and family members try to milk money out of the poor man. It’s even worse because he has absolutely no idea they are trying to do it. While he is definitely overshadowed by Dern, former SNL comedian Will Forte does a fantastic job as David, Woody’s sweet and easy-going son who decides to let his father have his moment in the sun. June Squibb will have you doubled over in laughter as Kate, Woody’s gabbing wife who never misses an opportunity to rip him up one side and down the other. Always a woman to speak her mind, Squibb is a feisty blast, especially when she is visiting the graves of several friends and family members at a Hawthorne graveyard. Bob Odenkirk takes a minor role as Ross, David’s older brother who is fed up with Woody’s behavior and believes that they should be considering a home. Also on hand is Stacy Keach, another veteran actor who turns up as Ed Pegram, Woody’s old buddy who may not be as friendly as he first appears.
While Nebraska certainly has its fair share of leisurely moments, Payne turns up the hilarity level to high when he wants to. In the early scenes, the glimpses of Woody marching by the side of the road towards Lincoln will nab a chuckle and the constant verbal beatings that Woody is subjected to from Kate will have you doubled over. When the Grant’s make it to Hawthorne, the comedy really kicks into high gear as David mingles with his deadbeat cousins, Bart and Cole, and the rest of the family tries to awkwardly reconnect. In between the hearty laughs, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson delicately fill us in on Woody’s past. We learn he was a man of few words and that he had an ugly experience in the Korean War, but we learn that he would do everything he could for those he cared about, making him all the more lovable. Overall, Nebraska is a sparse and atmospheric story told with timeless care and comedic warmth. It puts up a defense with a dry sense of humor, but Payne isn’t afraid to reveal a vulnerable side, especially at the bittersweet climax. Though it may be shot in black and white, the film is given plenty of color from its quirky cast of characters, especially Dern’s career high turn as Woody. Nebraska is one of the finest films that 2013 has to offer.
by Steve Habrat
Ever since his surreal 2009 children’s fantasy Where the Wild Things Are, indie director Spike Jonze has remained relatively low-key. In the years following that wildly popular screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved tale, Jonze has filled his time with a few acting gigs, a skateboarding video or two, a handful of music videos, and some writing/producing duties. After four long years, Jonze finally returns as director for Her, the celebrated futuristic love story that has been gaining quite a bit of momentum this awards season. Also written by Jonze, Her is a film that is alive with vision and originality, a resonant love-story for a world that has developed an alarming addiction to the glow of their smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers. While certainly a beautiful film with a truly fascinating premise, Her, like Jonze’s last feature film, begins to drone on the viewer. The initial “wow” factor only carries it so far before it begins to grow repetitious, never really knowing where it should cut itself off. Luckily, your growing loss of electronic enchantment will be rescued by star Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an outstanding performance as the heartbroken writer who falls head over heels for his brand new operating system.
Her picks up in futuristic Los Angeles and introduces us to Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man nursing a broken heart over the recent separation from his wife, Catherine (played by Rooney Mara). By day, Theodore works as a writer for a company that composes personal letters for those who don’t quite know what to say, and by night, he sulks home to play video games or fidget around restlessly in his bed. One day, Theodore decides to purchase a new artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that is capable of interacting just like a regular human being. Impressed by the operating system’s abilities, Theodore strikes up a casual friendship with the new AI, sharing tidbits of information regarding his messy separation from Catherine. After a botched blind date with a beautiful woman (played by Olivia Wilde), Theodore finds himself romantically drawn to the operating system, which also appears to have developed romantic feelings for him. With his newfound love and the help of his close friend Amy (played by Amy Adams), Theodore begins pulling himself out of his slump, but the challenges of dating an operating system arise and put the relationship to the test.
If you’ve ever imagined what it might be like if Apple started making live action movies, Her gives you a pretty good indication of what the computer company’s type of movie might be like. Jonze fills the screen with soft pastel colors and sleek views of a futuristic Los Angeles—a squeaky clean metropolis where everyone shuffles about with tiny white earpieces stuffed in their ears and the glow of a smartphone screen reflecting off their down pointing faces. The overhead shots of the city are so crisp and clear that they would be perfect as the screensaver on your MacBook Pro with retina display. It’s all absolutely gorgeous to take in, even if it is glaringly obvious at times that this futuristic American city is actually just a shimmering Shanghai. On its own, the visual lyricism of Her consistently keeps your eyes wide—it’s a digital dream world that would have made Steve Jobs drool and storm off to his Apple boardroom to demand that his staff get to work on updating Siri. While Jonze keeps a firm grip here, his story, which I should reiterate is extremely original and inspired, is so thorough in the way it explores a relationship that it nearly ceases to fill us with wonder and instead begins to mildly drone on the viewer. It’s perfectly fine that he wanted to tell this digital romance in a convincing and personal manner, but the ups and downs of Theo and Samantha’s relationship begin to grow repetitive and exhausting, numbing us slightly to the couple’s conclusion.
Though you may drift out a bit, star Joaquin Phoenix gives Her a strong emotional pull that yanks you back into the picture. Phoenix is a raw nerve as Theo, our sensitive and aching hero who is adrift in this digital world. He sulks from the office with his frown hidden under a mustache, seeking escape from his pain in an encompassing video game he obsesses over. When Samantha asks if he wants a pair of emails regarding his divorce read to him, he gives a quivery objection and fights back tears. When Samantha begins to pull him out of his hole of sadness, you’ll smile over his newfound delight as he dances through a bustling fair. Phoenix gives Theo such tenderness and vulnerability that you can’t help but root for this unusual romance to really make it, even if there are points where it makes you squirm from its awkwardness. Guiding Theo out of this rut is Johansson’s husky voice, which she lends so wonderfully to Samantha, the operating system that has won Theo’s heart. While we never see her, Johansson is able to convey so much emotion that you’d swear she was ready to manifest right next to our hero. As far as the supporting cast goes, Amy Adams gives another spectacular performance as Amy, Theo’s understanding best friend who is also facing heartbreak. Rooney Mara is prickly as Catherine, Theo’s childhood sweetheart who has shattered his heart into a million little pieces. Olivia Wilde rounds out the cast in a brief role as a sexy blind date who quickly sours to the sadsack Theo.
While the stunning cinematography and the candid performances are truly special, the real beauty of Her lies within the plausibility of its script. With the way that technology has been rapidly advancing over the past several years, it isn’t that far-fetched to think that operating systems could be this advanced ten to twenty years down the line. The smartphones now come equipped with personal assistants that can look up internet trivia, tell jokes, send text messages, bring up emails, and make phone calls all at your request. This story also speaks to the creativity that lies within Jonze, who wrote the script and just nabbed a Golden Globe for his work. It truly is remarkable that Hollywood gave the script a chance considering that most romantic dramas have evolved only to the point of having unhappy endings where boy doesn’t necessarily end up with girl. Overall, while the imagination, vision, and performances are all magnificent, Her could have done with a software update to clear out a few bugs. I understand that Jonze wanted to really sink his teeth into this peculiar romance and envision it from every angle possible, but there are stretches of dead space that allow the magic to seep out.
by Steve Habrat
The last time audiences saw Joel and Ethan Coen, the directing duo was coming off a lengthy directing streak with 2010’s True Grit, a stunning remake of a John Wayne western that earned several Oscar nominations and almost universal acclaim from critics. After taking a small break and penning the screenplay for director Michael Hoffman’s 2012 film Gambit, the Coen’s return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which easily ranks as some of their best and moodiest work since No Country for Old Men. Comprised of washed-out cinematography, crackling dialogue, immaculate performances, and the Coen’s distinct brand of humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterful period dramedy—one that explores the burning drive and stinging disappointment that many starving artists face on a daily basis. Though rich with eye-grabbing early 1960s set design and frigid atmospherics, Inside Llewyn Davis is first and foremost a complex character study. It allows us to voyeuristically glimpse inside the chilly world of a self-absorbed jerk as he sulks through New York City’s Greenwich Village in search of his big break and a couch to lay his weary head upon. The fact that we actually mildly root for Mr. Davis to make it as a folk singer is a testament to Oscar Isaac, who gives an extraordinary performance that is ripe with frustration, heartbreak, sarcasm, and exhaustion.
Inside Llewyn Davis picks up in 1961, with small-time Greenwich Village folk singer Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) homeless and broke. In between gigs at the Gaslight Café, Llewyn still nurses wounds from his break-up with his singing partner, Mike, who recently committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. Frustrated that his new solo album isn’t selling, Llewyn is forced to shack up on the couches of close friends, some of which have rocky relationships with the bitter musician. One of these close friends is Jean Berkey (played by Carey Mulligan), the wife of Llewyn’s friend and fellow-musician Jim (played by Justin Timberlake), who turns out to be pregnant after a one-night stand with Llewyn. In one final attempt to make it big, Llewyn decides to travel to Chicago with rebel beat-poet Johnny Five (played by Garrett Hedlund) and cranky jazz musician Roland Turner (played by John Goodman) in the hopes of auditioning for famed producer Bud Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham). Along the way, Llewyn is forced to take care of an orange tabby cat that managed to get loose from an apartment that Llewyn was staying at. To make things worse, Llewyn learns another devastating secret about a past lover who moved to Akron.
While the Coen’s lighten the mood with doses of their eccentric humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a morose work of art that lingers on Llewyn’s testy attitude and self-inflicted turmoil. He scurries around New York City in the middle of winter, bundled up in a corduroy blazer and scarf, seeking out friends and family members in the hopes that they may lend him some money or give him shelter from the blustery cold. He is constantly taking verbal beatings from Jean, who absolutely detests him, but he does nothing to soften her blows. She calls him a loser and demands that he arranges for an abortion, and he retorts by calling her a conformist and rolling his eyes. When he isn’t busy pushing his friends away or refusing a winter coat from his manager, Llewyn is busy being combative with his sister and refusing to visit his sickly father. Despite the fact that he basically invites many of his problems, Isaac still manages to convey a deep-rooted pain that is visible in both Llewyn’s sleepy eyes and the aching folk songs that he cathartically belts out. You consistently get the impression that if Llewyn could just have one good thing happen, it might ease some of the tension that he carries with him. This is why you can overlook his long list of flaws and actually root for the guy.
Complimenting Isaac’s ornery and nomadic turn as Llewyn are equally complex performances from Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and even Garrett Hedlund. Mulligan is a snippy ball of fury as Jean, who never misses an opportunity to call Llewyn an “asshole” for getting her pregnant. Watching the two butt heads is hilarious and exasperating, especially since Llewyn keeps lighting her short fuse. Justin Timberlake gives another surprising turn as Jim, Jean’s eager-to-help husband who does everything he can for Llewyn. Timberlake’s shining moment comes when he sings a song with Isaac and co-star Adam Driver called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a cutesy novelty track that will be stuck in your head for days after seeing the movie. Coen regular John Goodman is a scene-stealer as the baritone jazz musician Roland Turner, who scoffs at the music Llewyn makes and the cat that he carries around with him. There is a particularly disturbing scene that reveals that the rotund Roland has some fierce demons of his own. Garrett Hedlund is a man of mystery as Johnny Five, a greaser-like beat-poet who answers in grunts, growls, and one-word responses. Watching Llewyn attempt to make small talk with him is spectacularly awkward, especially when he denies Llewyn a cigarette by claiming he is out, only to light one up in front of the broke folk singer just moments later.
In true Coen fashion, Inside Llewyn Davis comes equipped with a must-hear folk rock soundtrack that warms the film’s zero-degree chill considerably. Isaac, Timberlake, Mulligan, and several other colorful characters lend their musical talents to the soundtrack; delivering heart-on-the-sleeve numbers that can really make a room hush up and take notice. The darling of the film is undoubtedly the charming novelty track “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an upbeat tune that will certainly be included in the Best Song category at the Oscar’s. Other standouts include Isaac’s rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” which he strums out for an unimpressed Bud Grossman, Isaac’s heart-and-soul final performance of “Fare Thee Well,” and a sweet little number by Stark Sands called “The Last Thing on My Mind.” In addition to the emotional folk soundtrack, the film is photographed in a dreamy, washed out manner that makes this week-in-the-life tale resemble a collection of forgotten polaroids that have been hiding in your attic since 1961. Overall, Inside Llewyn Davis is a soulful tune that won’t tickle everyone’s eardrums, but if you’re a fan of folk music or if you just can’t resist a morose Coen comedy, then you need to high tail it to the local theater and take a walk with this shaggy folk singer. It’s an American masterpiece that is downright impossible to forget.