The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review – Middle Earth, Middle Third

Director: Peter Jackson 

Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), J. R. R. Tolkien (novel)

Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom

Release date: December 13th, 2013

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Countries: New Zealand, USA

Running time: 161 minutes



Best part: The barrel sequence.

Worst part: The dodgy CGI.

Despite the obvious flaws, Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated Hobbit trilogy is an easy target. Criticised for its story-telling issues, its multitude of characters, and the 48 frames-per-second debacle, this series still hasn’t been given a fair chance. Buried under hype, directorial power, and desperate marketing ploys (looking at you, Air New Zealand!), it’s becoming increasingly difficult to judge these instalments as single entities. These movies, innocently, reach out to fan boys and average filmgoers alike. So, like this series’ lead character, why not give something grandiose and enthralling a chance to succeed? The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, though inconsistent, swiftly soars above the already enjoyable original.

Martin Freeman.

To elaborate on these points, all modern blockbusters suffer from overhype and exhaustive pre-and-post-release critical backlash. Audiences are more willing to criticise a big-budget fantasy flick than an independent romantic dramedy. With ‘perfect’ movies impossible to craft, let’s judge movies like The Desolation of Smaug for what they are. With enlightening performances, engaging action sequences, and a straight-faced facade, this fantasy-epic lives up to expectations. Despite Jackson’s overt self-indulgence and excessiveness, his adaptations stand the test of time and honour J.R.R. Tolkien’s influential legacy. However, whilst crafting this prequel trilogy’s unique identity, Jackson inadvisably stretches each instalment until breaking point. Here, the narrative picks up immediately after the events of An Unexpected Journey. With burglar and trustworthy Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) keeping watch over the horizon, his 13 Dwarf companions, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), scour the landscape for hidden passages and safe places. Despite Gandalf the Grey(Ian McKellen)’s unabashed admiration, Bilbo is unsure of his responsibilities on this all-important journey. After being rescued by Skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the group heads for Mirkwood to continue their trek toward the Lonely Mountain. With the Dwarves eager to retake their homeland from vicious and greedy dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), the group comes across the spiders and Elves inhabiting this treacherous forest. Disdained by Elf-king Thranduil (Lee Pace), Thorin must find courage before continuing this quest. Fortunately, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and Bard (Luke Evans) seek to aid this commendable band of heroes.

Ian McKellen.

Like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and The Hunger Games: Catching FireThe Desolation of Smaug, despite bridging the first and final instalments, seeks to craft a recognisable identity and several commendable moments. Fortunately, this sequel successfully links this trilogy to the Lord of the Rings saga. Around every corner, references and titbits sit proudly on display. Jackson, blinded by immense talent, is infatuated with his over-long and bombastic creations. Despite my previous statements, I’ll admit that dividing one book into three epic movies is a nonsensical and preposterous idea. This decision’s immense consequences are immanently noticeable. From the compelling prologue onward, the bloated story becomes chaotic. Here, Jackson introduces several potentially intriguing sub-plots and character arcs. Adapting the book’s middle third and appendices to fit into this sprawling middle instalment, Jackson’s toy-box-like mind goes overboard. With several weird, vicious, and engaging characters hurriedly introduced, the first third will leave series newcomers scratching their heads. Don’t get me wrong; Jackson is indeed a transformative and imaginative filmmaker. However, there’s a specific reason why the appendices are wholly separated from Tolkien’s other Middle Earth adventures. Jackson, taking control of the book series’ every intricacy, awkwardly wedges plot-strands, prophecies, and set pieces together throughout The Desolation of Smaug‘s exhaustive 2hr 45min run-time. In addition, Jackson and co. invent characters, obstacles, and plot-threads at their own volition. This method brashly dilutes the original material’s charming and engaging identity. However, despite the narrative knots, the sequel’s boisterous charm, gripping chase-movie structure, and visual splendour distract from several story inconsistencies and directorial foibles. Thanks to an action-packed first third, the original’s pacing and tempo issues are fixed. Following the LOTR trilogy and An Unexpected Journey‘s familiar structures, this repetitive sequel removes suspense and intrigue from this influential franchise.

Richard Armitage & the Dwarves.

With The Desolation of Smaug specifically served as an action-adventure flick and Boxing Day release, these movies identify themselves as LOTR prequels more so than children’s book adaptations. Looking up to the original trilogy’s influential story-telling tropes and immaculate action set pieces, this trilogy’s reach has already exceeded its grasp. Despite the first third’s exciting moments, the movie stops dead during the second act. Here, the exciting chase sequences transition into comedic hijinks, dialogue sequences, and complex exposition. After the group is smuggled into Lake-town, we are introduced to the city’s economic and political structures. Transitioning from action to drama, the political debates and hierarchal systems place pointless conflicts on top of the group’s urgent quest. Thankfully, Jackson’s visual flourishes and attention to detail elevate this convoluted fantasy-adventure. Throwing more orcs, men, and elves into the on-coming war for Middle Earth, this sequel continually ups the ante. Fixing this series’ pressing tonal shifts and pacing flaws, the action set pieces expand this wondrous and enrapturing universe. Following the bear attack, the spider sequence is a visceral and glorious thrill-ride. Jackson, known to inject disgusting creepy-crawlies into extraordinary tales (King Kong), uses zany surprises and jump-scares to push this sequence into overdrive. However, the movie’s stand out set piece is the group’s barrel escape down a dangerous river system. This enlightening sequence throws orcs, dwarves, and elves into an ingenious battle. With distinctive fighting styles defining certain characters, stakes are raised throughout this set piece. In addition, Bilbo and Smaug’s climactic battle of wits gleefully caps off this exhaustive instalment. The creature designs, thanks to visual effects company WETA Digital, are all top notch. Providing sensory thrills and gripping surprises, the spiders, orcs, bears, and wargs are breath-taking and confronting creations.

“I will not die like this, clawing for life…If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together!” (Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug).

Orlando Bloom.

Despite the endless shots of New Zealand’s mountainous scenery, the CGI vastly overshadows the practical effects. Rushing through the post-production stage, Jackson haphazardly throws several unrefined effects into his finished product. For a multi-million-dollar production, short cuts like this aren’t advisable. The original trilogy’s stirling practical effects are inexplicably replaced with green screens and Playstation-2-level digital creations. Sadly, several locations, action set pieces, and characters appear noticeably artificial. Despite these issues, the comedic hijinks lighten the sickeningly dark tone for brief moments. Slapstick gags and witty one-liners highlight the absurdities embedded in these pressing situations. Our heroes, unlike those of most modern fantasy-epics, are defined by complex and likeable personalities. Despite taking a back seat in this instalment, Bilbo is still a cheekily engaging and determined lead character. Tasked with a specific purpose, Bilbo becomes a wise and courageous individual. Here, his conflict with the ring is pushed to the forefront. Providing dry wit for this fan-favourite character, Freeman grows into this all-encompassing role. Facing off against his Sherlock co-star, Freeman provides a charismatic and idiosyncratic performance. Gleefully, Cumberbatch, as the powerful and intelligent antagonist, steals his scenes. Delivering conquering vocal and physical mannerisms for this fascinating character, he relishes in motion capture technology’s over-whelming potential. Despite Gandalf’s insufficient sub-pot, McKellen delivers another engaging performance and elevates certain scenes. Unfortunately, only two dwarves are given definitive personalities. Despite Armitage’s intriguing portrayal, his character mirrors Aragorn to a fault. However, the elf characters are charismatic. Bloom and Lilly’s screen presences boost significant plot-lines.

With love triangles, action sequences, comedic hijinks, and character arcs filling this instalment’s extensive run-time, The Desolation of Smaug is a significant improvement over the original. With Bilbo stepping aside, the other characters are given valuable room to breathe. Jackson, despite the overt infatuation with his own material, confidently delivers an exhilarating and gripping roller-coaster ride. With The Hobbit: There and Back Again linking both trilogies, a shorter instalment may hold viewer interest.

Verdict: A hearty, enjoyable yet convoluted sequel.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review – Jet Lag

Director: Ben Stiller

Writer: Steve Conrad (screenplay), James Thurber (short story)

Stars: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn

Release date: December 26th, 2013

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 114 minutes



Best part: The charming performances.

Worst part: The awkward comedic hijinks.

For short periods of time, daydreams detach us from our conscious selves to provide joy, exhilaration, and knowledge. In these intimate moments, the boundaries separating reality and fantasy are blurred. Escaping from mundane situations, people zone out to temporarily experience something else entirely. This broad description illuminates similarities between this particular humanistic action and cinema’s overall purpose. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty director/star Ben Stiller invites us to follow in his larger-than-life footsteps. However, this fantasy-adventure flick becomes as tepid and unexacting as the situations we subconsciously escape from. The movie, though peppered with exciting sequences, may be drowned out by more influential holiday releases. Also, this superficial yet exhilarating comedy-adventure won’t attract newcomers to Stiller’s zippy filmography.

Ben Stiller.

With its ingenious premise, Stiller had the perfect opportunity to make a profoundly engaging and heartening remake. However, as a perfect example of 2½-star entertainment, Walter Mitty is only a utilitarian and concise comedy-adventure. Walter Mitty, despite its commendable intentions and engaging performances, is crushed by Stiller’s immense hubris. In lesser hands, this movie would get a free pass. However, with Stiller’s immense success in front of and behind the camera, the movie never cements his noteworthy talents and courageous oeuvre. Unfortunately, this disappointing yet enlightening adventure hurts more than expected. With an intriguing premise and immaculate big-budget-film-making tools at his disposal, Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s short story becomes a saccharine and uninspired 2-hour Hallmark moment. Being the second big-screen remake after the 1947 Danny-Kaye-starring version, this version proves quality deservedly overshadows quantity. The plot, diverting from Thurber’s influential material, borrows from several genres, movements, and generic action-adventure conventions. This version kicks into gear when office drone and lonely schlub Walter Mitty (Stiller) walks into New York’s LIFE Magazine headquarters. Sadly, with the magazine transitioning from print to online, the majority of employees face the chopping block. Facing constant complaints from transition manager Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), Mitty has little time to impress cute co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig).

Kristen Wiig.

Unable to efficiently operate his E-Harmony dating profile, Mitty faces loneliness, unemployment, and a debilitatingly miserable existence. However, his fortunes change thanks to one photonegative. With negative no. 25 missing from photojournalist Sean O. Connell(Sean Penn)’s final LIFE Magazine reel, Mitty takes it upon himself to track down the all-important image. At the behest of mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine) and sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn), Mitty – normally escaping to (dreaming up) fantastical worlds and dangerous situations – embarks on a spiritually transformative journey across the world. As a family-friendly farce, the movie becomes an uninspired and inoffensive Frank Capra-esque trip down memory lane (in multiple ways). However, this version contains several outstanding moments and concepts. Stiller’s creative side occasionally rises above the conventional and manipulative material. With daydreaming a commonplace practice, the first few scenes are, despite the CGI set-pieces and outlandish scenarios, startlingly relatable. His fantasies – ranging from jumping through windows, to saving dogs from explosions, to being a seductive mountaineer crashing into LIFE Magazine headquarters – are suitably charming. However, this movie doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. These dream sequences, though enthralling, add little to the movie’s enlightening narrative. Despite the glorious imagery and sweet touches, the movie’s all-important intricacies are wholly separated from one another. Unfortunately, Walter Mitty is significantly less enthralling than Stiller thinks it is.

Adam Scott.

Underneath its alluring sheen, the story hits familiar beats and dull patches. Sadly, the movie sticks to every Stiller-comedy-movie trope. With underwhelming twists and turns, kooky characters, and unexplored subplots, the movie never reaches its full potential. Sporting major logic leaps and contrivances, the stakes are limited despite Mitty’s stupefying journey. Tonally shifting between specific plot-strands and influences, the movie is also overwhelmed by its self-consciousness and contrarian messages. Throughout this roller-coaster ride, Stiller’s perspective hurriedly switches between each overcooked and excessive idea. Its living-the-dream overtones are overtly and repeatedly touched upon. In addition, this clichéd theme clashes with Stiller’s commentary on the working class hero. Beyond this, it ignorantly dives into the modernity vs. tradition debate. Switching from underdog story to hypocritical Hollywood farce, Walter Mitty is as shaky and bizarre as the titular character’s imagination. Despite the significant flaws, Walter Mitty, dramatically and visually, alludes to several distinctive comedies and influential dramas. As a Boxing Day family-friendly smash, the movie is comparable to Life of Pi. In addition, the movie’s ambitiousness and scope are reminiscent of Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (the latter awkwardly referenced here). However, the most relevant influence is Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. This whimsical yet forgettable drama marks Stiller’s most earnest directorial effort yet. With Zoolander and Tropic Thunder being quotable and energetic big-budget comedies, Stiller has proven himself a note-worthy and engaging director.

“I just live by the ABCs: Adventurous, Brave, Creative.” (Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).

Sean Penn.

His style normally highlights each project’s most unique and outrageous aspects. However, Walter Mitty‘s visual flourishes and directorial ticks become steadily irritating. Influenced by Michel Gondry, Woody Allen, Danny Boyle, and Robert Zemeckis, Stiller develops a pale concoction of the aforementioned filmmakers’ styles. Unable to deliver the comedic timing, zany visuals, and kinetic pacing of his previous efforts, his style lacks edginess, heart, or creativity. Each trick, awkwardly plastered across the screen for convenience’ sake, decreases the movie’s overall emotional impact. Stiller – pasting words across settings, adding montages at opportune moments, and flooding sunlight into every frame – applies conventionality to his extraordinary narrative. However, Stuart Dryburgh’s immaculate cinematography delivers vertigo-inducing thrills. Iceland, Greenland, New York and, the Himalayas are gorgeous and exhilarating locations. Also, the skateboarding and mountaineering sequences elevate the second half. However, the distracting product placement damages Mitty’s comically charged adventure. Shout-outs to E-Harmony, Papa Johns, American Airlines, and LIFE Magazine contradict the story’s over-arching messages. Despite Stiller’s comedic chops, the hit-and-miss gags provide false notes. Only a handful of clever lines save this otherwise dour dramedy. Despite the cookie-cutter characters, the enlightening performances are refreshing. Stiller, though preoccupied, delivers a gleeful and multi-dimensional performance. Playing a familiar average Joe type, his earnestness fits this intriguing role. Wiig is an engaging presence as Mitty’s quick-witted love interest. Scott ably portrays yet another over-the-top antagonist. Thankfully, Penn and Patton Oswalt bring tenderness and heart to the movie’s final third.

With insurance-advertisement-level depth and Kodak-moment-level visual stimulus, Walter Mitty is an advantageous yet misguided vanity project. With self-affirming shots of Stiller’s face, CGI overload, conventional screenwriting, and engaging performances, Stiller’s latest directorial effort becomes a confusing, pandering, yet engaging fantasy-adventure aiming specifically at common audiences.

Verdict: An awe-inspiring yet underwhelming comedy-adventure. 

American Hustle Review – ABSCAM Anarchy

Director: David O. Russell 

Writers: Eric Singer, David O. Russell 

Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner

Release date: December 13th, 2013

Distributors: Columbia Pictures, Entertainment Film Distributors, Roadshow Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 138 minutes



Best part: The entertaining performances. 

Worst part: The alienating plot turns.

In one of American Hustle‘s more pivotal scenes, Christian Bale’s Character Irving Rosenfeld asks Bradley Cooper’s character Richie DiMaso the movie’s most important question: “Who’s the master? The Painter? Or the forger?”. Despite being the trailer’s most valuable moment, the query still efficiently sums up this crime-drama’s raw edginess. American Hustle, safely landing into Academy-Award-contention territory, is one of 2013’s most puzzling yet entertaining movies. Its top-flight cast, enigmatic plot, and dizzying set pieces deliver multiple rewards.

Christian Bale & Bradley Cooper.

Despite presenting itself as a “For Your Consideration…” Oscar trap, American Hustle is an honest and adept crime-drama. Today, we rarely become witness to such ground-breaking yet kinetic movies. Despite facing stiff competition in this year’s Oscar race, American Hustle wouldn’t care if it won, lost, or drew. Acclaimed director David O. Russell (The FighterSilver Linings Playbook) is obviously his own man. Given his fiery on-set temper and inspiring talent, O. Russell achieves the near impossible – delivering a stylish, convoluted, and enlightening crime drama free from pretentiousness and overblown moments. Despite my glowing recommendation of American Hustle, I understand the movie’s already-discomforting-yet-minor backlash. It’s certainly not for everyone. At least, I can try to win people over by describing the movie’s terrific yet dicey plot. Rosenfeld (Bale) is a despicable businessman running several companies within New Jersey. With his dry-cleaning and glass-installation businesses in tip-top condition, he becomes a slimy yet clever small-town hero. However, Rosenfeld’s world is rocked by seductive beauty Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). With Prosser becoming Rosenfeld’s mistress/business partner, their greatest plans kick into gear. Embezzling large funds from gullible investors, the terrible twosome expand their vast riches. Thanks to Prosser’s alter ego ‘Lady Edith Greensly’, their schemes and romance blossom into something dreadfully beautiful (or beautifully dreadful, it’s difficult to tell). However, Rosenfeld is bewitched by his bi-polar wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and adrenaline-and-cocaine-fuelled FBI agent DiMaso (Cooper). Forced into the FBI’s clutches, Rosenfeld, Prosser, and DiMaso forcefully work together to take down corrupt yet well-meaning Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

Amy Adams.

Amy Adams.

From there, allegiances, plans, and ideologies are warped, tortured, and eviscerated. It may seem diabolical, but the dramatic beats liven up this talky crime-drama. Depicting the late-70s’ ABSCAM scandal, American Hustle delves into the true story’s intricate webbing and most enigmatic elements. With its opening title card saying: “Some of this actually happened”, the movie pokes fun at Hollywood’s stranglehold over inspirational yet unbelievable true stories. After biting into ABSCAM’s saucy yet dangerous secrets, the movie sporadically delves into its own fantastical and larger-than-life adventure. I’ll admit, the convoluted plot-strands and alienating exposition become this cognitive structure’s most problematic elements. However, these inane moments hurriedly brush past the audience. Its most memorable moments are worth the admission cost. Here, ABSCAM’s most confusing aspects are insignificant titbits stuck in an increasingly formidable conflict. Before and after the scandal is brought up then brushed aside, the characters take control of the movie’s electrifying and alarming narrative. Within the first ten minutes, American Hustle takes us on a discomforting, sexually appealing, and comedic journey. Thanks to Rosenfeld and Prosser’s shared narration, these characters introduce and describe themselves. O. Russell, continually choosing controversy over convention, makes several brave choices within the first act. Beyond the schizophrenic narration, the narrative jumps from one influence to another. Despite the movie’s overt self-indulgence, O. Russell displays a glowing affection for such influential crime-drama directors as Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Sidney Lumet. The tonal shifts, ever-changing perspectives, and debilitating plot-turns are derived from Goodfellas and Casino. In fact, like those pulsating movies, American Hustle graciously explores the criminal mind’s most fascinating intricacies.

Jeremy Renner.

Despite the engaging narrative, the plot occasionally gets away from O. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer. Highlighting the true story’s most baffling parts, the movie locks onto its comical and distasteful characters. Despite this, the movie’s sickening comedic touches quickly launch into overdrive. With the wild characters embracing this pressing situation’s absurdity, the biting and ironic humour comes thick and fast. Stuck between rocks and hard places, these dim-witted heroes and villains bumble, wine, and cuss through every dangerous conflict. With lives and reputations at risk, insults fly across each swanky setting. In particular, Rosalyn’s nasty insults and abrasive attitude hit with gut-punch-like effect. Credit, obviously, belongs to O. Russell for the movie’s pitch-black humour and cynical outlook. Despite the punchy tone and zippy pacing, O. Russell’s work hurriedly descends into darkness and chaos. With his filmography covering the gulf war, mental illness, and fallen sporting heroes, his misanthropic perspective casts a detailed shadow over each unique project. American Hustle, his most violent and zany effort yet, illuminates similarities between 70s, post-Vietnam USA and post-economic-crisis Earth. O. Russell, giving fraudulent miscreants second chances whist looking down upon important government agencies, develops several truthful yet misguided opinions. Like Catch Me if You Can and The InformantAmerican Hustle‘s criminal/lawman conflict supports the anti-hero and flips-off the villainous yet untouchable government fat-cats. At least, O. Russell’s work says what we are all thinking. Beyond that, O. Russell bravely pokes fun at the American Dream. Deliberating on race, gender, and class, the movie makes middle class, suburban living seem like a torturous adventure. Setting household appliances, inventive schemes, and aspirations alight, American Hustle is not for the faint-hearted or ignorant.

“Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, *but* you had to survive?” (Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), American Hustle).

Jennifer Lawrence.

Jennifer Lawrence.

Thankfully, for less-opinionated viewers, the visuals develop a kinetic and entertaining sensory experience. Sporting elaborate costumes, hair-dos, and personalities, each character sustains exterior and interior quirks. With these characters’ schemes as outlandish as their skin-flashing outfits, the costume design lends American Hustle a pulsating and tangible sheen. In addition, each character – whether they be rich, poor, innocent or slimy – balances stupefying hair-dos atop their attractive facades. DiMaso’s perm, Rosalyn’s beehive, and Polito’s road-kill-like hairstyle are enlightening distractions. Opening with Rosenfeld pasting a bizarre toupee atop his bulbous scalp, American Hustle‘s characters are defined by styles and substance. The mis-en-scene, plastering ugly colours, swanky interior designs, and elaborate patterns across every frame, lends verisimilitude to this otherwise sketchy and kooky narrative. O. Russell, infatuated by overt 70s icons, pumps up the catchy soundtrack at opportune moments. Wings, Steely Dan, The Bee Gees, and Elton John elevate certain tension-inducing sequences. However, credit belongs to the A-list actors draped across every sizzling frame. Their determination and courageousness, tested by O. Russell’s punishing direction, pushes them through each discomforting scene. Like O. Russell’s previous efforts, the shouting matches develop each puzzle piece and flawed character. Swiftly increasing each interior setting’s temperature, the pithy dialogue and loud voices reveal each character’s ugliest qualities. Bale, carrying a belly and comb-over, transforms into a seedy, depraved, and quick-witted figure. Cooper steals his scenes as the incessant and manic agent. Adams, falling boob-first into every scene, is revelatory as the slinky yet tough mistress. Renner and Lawrence provide big laughs and immaculate performances. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro, Louis CK, Alessandro Nivola, Jack Huston, and Michael Pena contribute commendably.

With his energetic direction, elegant screenplay, and Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook alumni, O. Russell has pulled off a stunning hat-trick. Despite minor quarrels, American Hustle peels back several purposeful layers over its 2+ hour run-time. Unlike American Gangster, American Psycho, and American Pie, this crime-drama discovers that particular word’s immense ironic twang.

Verdict: A funny, scintillating, and engaging crime-drama. 

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues Review – Big News, Bigger Laughs

Director: Adam McKay

Writers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay

Stars: Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner 

Release date: December 18th, 2013 

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 119 minutes



Best part: The zany humour.

Worst part: The exhaustive run-time.

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Verdict: A hilarious, zany, and touching comedy sequel.

20 Feet from Stardom Review – Love Ballad

Director: Morgan Neville

Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill

Release date: June 13th, 2013

Distributor: RADiUS-TWC

Country: USA

Running time: 90 minutes



Best part: The interviews.

Worst part: The overt symbolism.

The best documentaries take subjects of little commercial interest and thrust them into the spotlight. With each production, these informative works may inspire or disgust. Despite cynical preconceived ideas about documentary filmmaking, movies like 20 Feet from Stardom are far more entertaining than many expansive Hollywood efforts. Peeling back layers developed by heartache and fond memories, this well-crafted and ambitious movie explores a vital strand of popular music. This documentary, thanks to its informative structure and unique interviewees, is one of 2013’s greatest surprises. I could talk all day about this movie’s glowing highlights because, honestly, positive word of mouth is needed for this year’s most ground-breaking documentaries.

Darlene Love.

As the unsung heroes of modern music, backup singers support popular groups. Despite the overwhelming talent at the front of each stage, backup singers bravely place themselves in full view. Movie and live music audiences generally focus on both art forms’ most controversial and appealing aspects. However, like character actors, backup singers provide heart, character, and consistency. This documentary, focusing on several inspirational African-American women, is an intriguing and heartfelt examination of pop culture. In the opening scenes, we are welcomed into this interesting and engaging world. Soul singer Darlene Love reunites with her backup-singer companions. Reflecting upon fond memories, Love and co. relay vital information about their connections to music, family, and spirituality. Merry Clayton, a gospel singing icon, reflects upon great musicians including The Rolling Stones. Starting out with church choirs and ceremonial performances, the interviewees deliberate on transitioning from first recitals to overwhelming stardom. The gorgeous Claudia Lennear discusses her relationship with the ‘sexiness’ of pop culture and Mick Jagger’s stardom. Lisa Fischer deliberates on her professional and personal livelihoods. Fischer’s determination and energy, encapsulated by powerful vocals, places her in the all-important spotlight. On the other side of the coin, 29-year-old Judith Hill, workaholic and optimistic soul, speaks out about the modern music industry’s wheelings and dealings. These singers, with several engaging similarities despite the generational gaps, focus on their frustrating yet engaging profession.

Our singers in action.

From the first second, 20 Feet from Stardom establishes itself as a profound and in-depth analysis of music, culture, and hope. This art form, placing a powerful stranglehold on every demographic throughout history, is depicted as a source of knowledge, happiness, and inspiration. Veteran music documentary director Morgan Neville (Johnny Cash’s America) reminds us that individuality and rebelliousness cause ripple effects. For these select few singers, their ripples hit family members, friends, fans, and music industry types. For the most part, Neville presents these interviewees as fair and honest individuals. After efficiently establishing their career highlights, the movie delves into far more sinister territory. In the opening few scenes, Neville focuses on the present. With little knowledge about influential backup singers, I found an enlightening avenue to explore. Thankfully, the movie chronicles each subject’s enviable and empathetic traits. Love, for example, is presented as an ordinary citizen with magnificent memories. Neville, optimistically, presents these subjects as humble and bright figures. They, despite their brushes with fame and fortune, view the world like everyone else. From an early age, family, religion, and artistic value influenced these subjects to pursue this career. Here, certain origin stories are compared to one another. This style, highlighting choir and gospel music’s immense value, links these influential artists. Ultimately, intertwining strands illuminate 20 Feet from Stardom‘s narrative and themes. Born from hilarious anecdotes and fond friendships, the movie examines art, culture, and equality’s historical and thematic relevance. Neville’s work also delves into personal stories and race relations. Neville, infatuated with each subject, focuses on every profound word. Taboo subjects, including Lennear’s controversial Playboy shoot, are tenderly and stylishly reflected upon. Neville, Love and co. present several opinions and anecdotes for viewers to analyse. However, despite the glowing interviewees and over-whelming musical montages, the movie isn’t perfect.

“How can you logically not have a diva have her music on? I don’t get that.” (Merry Clayton, 20 Feet from Stardom).

Merry Clayton.

The structure, despite touching upon the 20th Century’s greatest musicians, wavers throughout the final third. The movie, without delivering a satisfactory conclusion, is occasionally presented as generic PR material. Despite these gripes, the minor flaws are matched by the stellar direction and production design. Neville – presenting his subjects as saviours, sisters, queens, and warriors – douses the screen with selective visual flourishes. After the engaging opening credit sequence, the movie delves into stardom and pop culture’s most enlightening aspects. Consistently, Neville plays archival footage and classic tunes. Reflecting upon several glorious and influential moments, this style highlights Love and co.’s stranglehold upon music history. However, in the second half, the snappy visuals are replaced with confronting personal stories. These moments, though dour, deliver several necessary gut punches. Placed in a specific timeline, these scenes outline the pros and cons of this alluring profession. Unfortunately, despite each anecdote’s worthiness, Neville’s heavy handedness sticks out. With ludicrous symbolism under-cutting several points, the final third belabours the all-important messages. Fortunately, in the movie’s most subtle moments, the interviewees are engaging, enthusiastic, and likeable. Love, known for her profound artistic endeavours, is a warming presence. Defined by her distinctive chuckle, her stories – describing everything from house cleaning to Lethal Weapon supporting roles – will lift audience spirits. The same goes for Clayton’s baffling tales of stardom and rejection. With her awe-inspiring vocals, Clayton brought one of The Rolling Stones’ most popular hits to life. Playing ‘Gimme Shelter’ back to Clayton, Neville illustrates her cultural importance. The song’s standout line – “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away” – sends chills down the spine. In addition, renowned and caricature-like musicians including Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting support the documentary’s many stirling points.

With a heartfelt narrative, intriguing interviewees, and pulsating visuals, 20 Feet from Stardom is an underrated documentary delving into an obscure art form. Delving into race relations, fame, and femininity, Neville’s work pushes boundaries whilst delivering an entertaining thrill-ride. Oscar consideration is around the corner for this transcendent, tender, and enjoyable trip down memory lane.

Verdict: An inspirational and energetic music documentary.

Delivery Man Review – Vaughn’s Vindication

Director: Ken Scott

Writers: Ken Scott, Martin Petit

Stars: Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders, Andrzej Blumenfeld

Release date: November 22nd, 2013

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 104 minutes



Best part: The fun performances.

Worst part: The repetitive gags.

I let out an audible groan after I first heard about Delivery Man‘s existence. As a remake of the 2011 French-Canadian comedy Starbuck, the premise seemed entirely conventional and cynical. Soon after, I became more disdainful when comedic actor Vince Vaughn attached himself to the project. Somehow, by the powers of Grayskull and tinsel-town, this blatant re-tread turned out to be…genuinely watchable. Delivery Man is a generic yet enjoyably silly and heart-warming dramedy. In addition, Vaughn, though straining, wholeheartedly elevates the final product.

Vince Vaughn.

Despite the inconsistencies and awkward moments, Delivery Man embraces every second of its appropriate run-time. Unlike most Hollywood comedies, the movie contains enough laughs to keep audiences engaged. As seen in the trailers, the plot contains several twists, turns, and bumps. Good-for-nothing slacker David Wosniak (Vaughn) ambitiously strives to obtain a more fulfilling existence. Constantly letting people down, David’s reserve is tested by his frustrated family and friends. If that wasn’t enough, his ‘hydroponic endeavours’ have landed him in an $80 000 debt with local gangsters. On top of that, David’s world is sent spinning when his estranged girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders) reveals she is pregnant. With an oncoming child, David admits he is unprepared and outgunned for his life’s next step. Unfortunately, his past comes back to haunt him. Thanks to a whopping 693 sperm donations given during his student years, his samples have created a baffling 533 biological children. Burdened by the strange news, David becomes a wishful saviour for several of the identified children.

Vaughn & Chris Pratt.

With 124 of David’s offspring joining a class action lawsuit against the sperm bank and the persona known only as “Starbuck”, David’s dilemma becomes increasingly stressful. With the help of lawyer and life-long buddy Brett (Chris Pratt), David, known to make poor decisions in high-pressure situations, crusades against the sperm bank. Before this, however, the movie leans too much on predictability and emotional manipulation. Hurriedly laying down every plot-thread, the movie constantly deliberates on David’s ever-expanding problems. Within the first few minutes, this dramedy beats is lead character to a pulp. Thankfully, in trouble with all manner of good and bad citizens, David’s journey contains potential, heart, and relevance. Writer/director Ken Scott gives his original feature a big-budget face-lift. Starbuck, being a sleeper-hit across the globe, highlights suburbia and the first world order’s most iconic aspects. Here, family businesses, parenthood, and the American dream are treated with affection and an attention to detail. Sporting a democratic agenda, Scott’s direction present’s David’s pressing situation as a series of mild inconveniences. Certain story-lines are picked up and dropped without warning. Unfortunately, these sub-plots contain dramatic and comedic potential. The mobster plot-strand is a contrived and unnecessary distraction. However, this optimistic dramedy contains several vital messages. Scott’s perspective, discussing parenthood and responsibility, provides a ray of glorious and gleeful sunshine. Despite the pros and cons of children, relationships, and hard work, Scott still delivers a well-crafted and thoughtful farce. In multiple ways, Delivery Man borrows from other beloved big-budget dramedies. Despite its French-Canadian roots, this ode to Knocked Up and About a Boy becomes a light-hearted and impactful narrative.

“This could be the most be the beautiful thing that could ever happened to me. These kids ned someone to look out for them. They need a guardian angel.” (David Wosniak (Vince Vaughn), The Delivery Man).

Vaughn & the kids.

Here, unlike the aforementioned dramedies, the lead character starts out as a likeable and engaging presence. Unfortunately, his journey becomes increasingly ridiculous and bombastic up until its sweet denouement. David’s questionable antics turn him from a humanistic man-child to a well-meaning stalker. With each baffling twist and turn, the movie steadily loses its dry wit and quaint tone. Despite the overt cheesiness, the dramatic moments elevate this otherwise forgettable remake. Despite the bizarre situation, David’s motivations make for Delivery Man‘s most touching sequences. David, taking care of a young Down syndrome sufferer, becomes a good samaritan. These wordless scenes lend heart and intelligence to this wacky dramedy. Despite its charming sheen, the hit-and-miss humour restrains it. Vaughn’s sarcastic veneer elevates the derivative one-liners and ludicrous slapstick gags. His situation, illustrated by Vaughn’s zany facial expressions and enthusiasm, is made whole by Scott’s kinetic and enlightening comedic timing. As an improv vs. staged gag Hollywood comedy (like most nowadays), the pithy dialogue far outweighs the repetitive physical hijinks. Vaughn is, yet again, playing himself. Despite his overt charisma and rat-tat-tat delivery, he’s embodying yet another spoiled and down-trodden man-child. Learning important life lessons whilst maturing into a responsible individual, Vaughn can play this role in his sleep. Thankfully, the supporting characters save certain scenes. Pratt excels as David’s goofy and unprofessional lawyer. His magnetic screen presence, made whole via Parks and Recreation, boosts this sympathetic and engaging foil. Smulders, known for How I Met your Mother and The Avengers, provides an enjoyable performance as David’s better half.

Despite the obvious issues, Delivery Man is a well-intentioned and charming holiday hit. Vaughn – despite his poor run of comedies including The Dilemma, The Watch, and The Internship – elevates the conventional material. This remake, though unnecessary, becomes a refreshing and comforting flick out-matching most modern Hollywood comedies.

Verdict: A charming and meaningful dramedy.