Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

Dir: Adam McKay

It’s a bit like when you go for a second helping of your favourite meal, but quickly realise that it’s a bit cold now, you’re already full, and enjoyed the first helping far more.

Now in the 80’s, Ron (Will Ferrell) and Veronica (Christina Applegate) have been co-anchoring news in New York City, but when she is promoted and he is fired they separate, leaving Ron out of the news game. Eventually Ron is approached to take a slot on the first 24 hour news channel, and the news-team with Brick (Steve Carrell), Champ (David Koechner) and Brian (Paul Rudd) re-assemble to show new king of the anchormen Jack Lime (James Marsden, Robot & Frank) how it’s done!

I’m not ashamed to say, I absolutely love ‘Anchorman’. It’s one of the few films that’s great when I just want to watch something that I know I’ll enjoy, I can put it on and always chuckle despite being able to quote the entire film verbatim.

Fans of the first film were so excited to have Ron and the team return, but maybe the anticipation was too much and therefore this was always going to be somewhat disappointing. The sequel is a mixed-bag, at its best in the new fresh bits, but at worst when re-hashing old material from the first film that was funny in that but so well known now that when reused it doesn’t have the same effect. I think some of the laughs those bits get may be reminiscent, laughing not at the new film but rather remembering how it was originally done and laughing at that.

With the first film, there was so much extra material filmed but not used that there was a whole film, ‘Wake Up Ron Burgundy’, made from the cuts. If you watch it, though it’s funny in places, you can see they’re bits that aren’t up to the same level of the feature film they were cut from, there’s good reason why they didn’t make it in. There are bits here too that I feel might have been best left for the deleted scenes, specifically the bit about the shark, and half of the meal with his boss/girlfriend’s family. Sadly, I think I would have liked less of the stuff with Ron and Veronica’s son Walter too, not because it wasn’t good for the story, funnily enough I think it was needed, but because the young actor playing him (Judah Nelson) is really bad in this, he looks like he’s almost reading his lines and it completely ruins all the scenes with him in.

That being said, there are still some great bits to the film. Like the first, there’s a news-team fight with so many cameos, I won’t list them all because that would spoil much of its effect, but at least the other news teams are not the ones seen in the first film, there are some big and unexpected names turning up, and it just manages to be different enough to avoid it being a bad repeat of old material.

Without a doubt for me Brick still proves to be the best thing about Anchorman. His relationship with Chani Lastname (Kristen Wiig) is brilliant. Most of his little lines are scene-stealers, though sadly a lot of his best moments are in the trailer.

The film should also be commended for its underlying criticism of Fox News. The owner of the 24 hour news channel is a clear Rupert Murdoch-esque figure, he’s even Aussie to help force the point home. They make some good points underneath all the humour that news should be distinguishable from entertainment, and couldn’t have timed the release much more perfectly as Murdoch’s companies dealings were being called into question in the U.K.

Ultimately then I did enjoy this, I laughed plenty of times, but still kept feeling like I should just get the Blu-ray of ‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy’ off the shelf and enjoy that for the millionth time!

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Oscar Nominee: American Hustle

American Hustle (2013)

Dir: David O. Russell

“Some of this actually happened.”

That’s true, some did! Based on the ABSCAM operation of the 1970’s, the film fictionalizes the events somewhat, with con-man Irving Rosenfeld and his girlfriend Sydney Prosser, being forced to work with the FBI to get charges against themselves dropped.

This was originally a screenplay on the 2010 ‘blacklist’ that held to the real story far closer, then it was given to David O. Russell and he changed the characters from the real people, to those seen here who represent them more as caricatures rather than being exact portrayals. My thought however is that it was undercooked. It’s got the same cast as Silver Linings exactly a year later, and feels like Russell grabbed people he had available to get it made quickly in time to be eligible for the following year after Silver Linings.

Voiceovers are heavily used, which go against the film ideal of showing instead of saying, and so much ends up said and explained, rather than just putting it on screen and the audience following along. The voiceovers do feel slightly ‘of the era’ in a weird way, like they should fit in a film emulating the 70’s and 80’s, but as a reason it’s not good enough for me. It’s such a shame that it doesn’t feel polished enough, as I loved, really loved, Silver Linings, I’ve seen it 3 or more times and like it more with each viewing, but this I’m in no rush to see again until someone convinces me that I’m missing something.

Jennifer Lawrence although playing a character who is not part of the whole operation, manages to steal the show. Yes, it’s true I have a thing for her, I’ve seen nearly everything she’s been in and aim to complete that task, but her character is the most interesting and weirdly enough the most believable too. I love how Rosalind puts herself right in midst of things, and some of her dialogue is amazing, with things like the “Science oven” and her nail polish being stand out moments.

I may have to watch it again, I might have just been too tired, I wanted to love this so much and I was convinced that I would, with this cast and a director I’ve liked in the past it should have been a winner for me. However, I can’t help thinking it was a rushed production, too soon after the wonderful ‘Silver Linings’, and could’ve done with another year or two to make it as slick as a 70’s set con-caper should be!

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Oscar Nominee: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Dir:  Steve McQueen

“Your story is amazing, and in no good way.”

This is really an incredible true story, that of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York who was sold into slavery, and spent (spoiler in the title) 12 years slaving in Louisiana, while having to keep his education and bid for freedom quiet until an opportune time for fear of severe beatings or worse.

This is an incredibly powerful film, and it doesn’t hold back from depicting the horrors of slavery as they were recorded firsthand by Northup. A film that is telling a tough story about slavery really shouldn’t be easy to watch, and this really isn’t, with a number of scenes showing beatings, hangings, and other humiliating, cruel, and violent acts. Cleverly the director Steve McQueen has put many of these things in the background of the shots, so while others carry on working or doing other things, there’s a slave being whipped behind them and it’s essentially ignored, highlighting how commonplace and unquestionable these things were.

I was amazed with many of the beatings scenes, how little was actually shown, rather putting the focus on the use of sound, with a whip crack or agonized cries being loud and clear, so that even turning away to not look, the scenes were still painful and impossible to ignore. 

I could write lots about the treatment of slaves, but it’s not my area of expertise and the film really puts all that across far better than I could ever do. Things will stand out, even small aspects, such as a scene that takes place in a shop, where Solomon’s family are freely buying from the shopkeeper who treats them as close friends, and when a slave spots them and walks into the shop looking on in amazement, he is welcomed as a customer before being dragged away by his master. Other things like a scene with Paul Giamatti (‘Saving Mr Banks‘) as a slave trader, who has no signs of compassion and calls the slaves ‘beasts’, treating them as livestock.

Through all of this, the key to it working so well is the performances by the cast, most especially the lead. Chiwetel Ejiofor (‘Amistad‘, ‘Kinky Boots’) is an incredibly versatile actor, and here is perfectly cast, as he can beautifully convey the way that Solomon is both as a free man, then as he is forced into slavery, with all the emotions and struggles along the way. His performance is incredible, and completely deserving of all the praise and awards he has so far been given. He’s nominated for the Oscar tomorrow night, but sadly I feel that he won’t win it but only due to stiff competition.

The rest of the cast is superb too, Benedict Cumberbatch (‘Into Darkness‘, ‘August: Osage County‘) is the first of Solomon’s masters, William Ford, who apparently was described in the book as a good man. There’s an excellent piece in the film that points out he’s still a slave owner, and although he’s shown as compassionate to a point, he’s far from perfect, and Cumberbatch acts this part excellently. Solomon’s next master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, ‘Prometheus’) is not compassionate at all, and known for his cruelty and taking pride in ‘breaking’ his slaves, and Fassbender makes the character suitably loathsome.

The other performance that is getting a lot of attention is that of newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who plays fellow slave Patsey. She gets some of the most emotional scenes, and is mesmerizing to watch, expressing all the heartache and pain that Solomon is trying to avoid. Nyong’o is nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars, and may indeed win it.

The film is really beautifully shot, with a number of different settings and moods shown. There are many scenes that make use of darkness and shadows, then others outside where the slaves work on cotton and other plantations. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt is strangely not nominated at the Oscars for his work, but it really is excellent, better than some other Oscar nominees I have seen in the past few weeks. Where you really notice the quality of the shots and editing too is in McQueen’s use of very extended shots, that linger longer than others might. Often when showing something unpleasant or hard-hitting, such as Solomon hanging from a tree for a lynching, once the point is made, the scene doesn’t end or cut away, the shot just stays there statically watching longer than is comfortable, driving home the point.

I could go on for ages about other aspects, such as the use of music and singing, the score by Hans Zimmer, or many other things. For me it’;s the fact that there are so many aspects of this film that are done to the highest standards, that make it such a contender for ‘Best Feature Film’ at the Oscars. I’m completely divided in my thoughts as to whether it will triumph over ‘Gravity’, but if it does this would be a very worthy winner. It’s not an easy film to watch, but puts the realities of the slave trade on screen in a way that’s drastically more effective than anything I’ve ever seen before.

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Oscar Nominee: Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Dir:  John Lee Hancock

If P. L. Travers didn’t like her books being adapted, I wonder what she would have thought about this part of her life being turned into a film?

In the early 1960’s, Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was facing financial disaster, and after 20 years of being pursued by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for the rights to adapt Mary Poppins into a film, she finally conceded to discuss the idea. However, she was completely against it, and hated animation, so this film shows the battle between Travers and Walt Disney himself, while delving a little into the author’s life and why she held the character so dear that she wouldn’t sign away the rights.

The film makes frequent indications to things that may have had an influence on parts of the Mary Poppins books and film, some of these are subtle, most are very direct. Travers’ tough childhood is shown, with frequent sequences of her growing up in Australia, with particular focus on her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), who is clearly shown to be Mr Banks from the books, and why she wants things done perfectly.

Emma Thompson (‘Brave’) brilliantly gets the character right in terms of her snappy difficult nature, this is shown by a tape recording played in the end credits of the real Mrs Travers discussing the script with the writers. There are many scenes that take lots of dramatic licence when showing her alone in her hotel room and such, and these are the parts that have been most hotly discussed and debated, giving the impression that she may have been ‘won over’ by certain things. Regardless of the factual accuracy or not, Thompson is great, and manages to play the role in a way that is both likable and unlikable in near enough equal measure, which is vital in getting it right as by all accounts those involved in the production of ‘Mary Poppins’ found Travers to be infuriating and unpleasant.

Tom Hanks (‘Captain Phillips’) is also on excellent form here as Walt Disney, whose chain-smoking is only alluded to here by a smokers cough and off-screen stubbing out, as Disney now have a no smoking on screen policy. Hanks conveys all the charm expected while trying to appease ‘Pam’, but also nicely gets across the frustration and tougher side to the character when he digs his own heels in a little more. A scene between the two leads near the end actually had me welling up with tears as they share a tender moment and both actors are excellent at drawing the viewer in, listening and watching intently.

There’s a very strong supporting cast here too, with the likes of Bradley Whitford (‘Little Manhattan‘) Jason Schwartzman (‘Moonrise Kingdom’) and Paul Giamatti (‘Ides of March‘, ‘Rock of Ages‘). They all take their roles very well, especially as they’re playing real people (with the exception of Giamatti’s limo driver Ralph who was an amalgam of real drivers). I think the casting for the entire film was excellent really, and though I’m not familiar with all of the historical figures, from research, I have been impressed by the decent likenesses, and how the performances reflect what the real people said about this period in their lives.

It was nice to see in the end credits that Richard M. Sherman, played in the film by Jason Schwartzman, served as a musical consultant. Many of the original songs used in ‘Mary Poppins’ are performed, while the score also riffs on the original music quite a lot, which works nicely. Nominated for ‘Best Original Score’ at this weeks Academy Awards, I don’t think it’ll win, especially with how much it draws on the Poppins score, but still it works within the context of the film itself. Interestingly, as a co-production between Disney and BBC Films, this is one of 3 films this year produced by BBC films to be nominated at the Academy Awards, alongside ‘Philomena‘ and ‘The Invisible Woman’.

Much more poignant and emotional than expected. I think she may have actually liked this a little, especially as it wasn’t animated.

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Oscar Nominee: The Croods

The Croods (2013)

Dir:  Kirk De Micco & Chris Sanders

Earlier in the 2013 eligibility year, there were so few animated films that showed much promise for the Oscars, and for the first time in a long time, Pixar wasn’t nominated, which has allowed for other usually-overlooked animations to break through, such as Despicable Me 2, and this!

The Croods, a prehistoric cave-dwelling family, are must to relocate and adapt as the Earth is changing drastically, putting them in perilous situations and resisting progress spurred on by love-interest and ‘modern man’ Guy!

There’s a well assembled voice cast here, with Emma Stone as the rebellious teenage daughter Eep, and Ryan Reynolds as her suitor Guy, as well as the wonderful Cloris Leachman as a tough grandmother. Nicolas Cage as the father Grug is actually pretty good as just a voice, he may have found a niche he should stay in!

Originally intended as a stop-motion project by Aardman, it was co-written by John Cleese with co-director Kirk DeMicco. The other director on the film, Chris Sanders has excellent experience in animation, most notably ‘Lilo & Stitch’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon’.

The film really is nothing particularly amazing, but it is colorful and humorous, and made plenty at the box office so an inevitable sequel and also a TV show are now in the pipeline. It seems likely that Dreamworks may keep this going for a fair few films as they have with ‘Shrek’ and ‘Madagascar’ though I doubt this will have quite the same lasting appeal as those. Interestingly I would have been fascinated to see what the Aardman claymation version of this would’ve been like!

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Oscar Nominee: Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée

I love how this is being called his McConnaissance!

This film tells the story of Ron Woodruff, an American who contracted AIDS in the 1970’s and spent the rest of his life finding ways to get unapproved medications into the country and fighting to have the treatments of his choice rather than what was generally prescribed. He starts what’s known as a ‘Buyers Club’ to get around the laws prohibiting the sale of unapproved drugs, with AIDS patients buying memberships and being given treatments included in their club memberships!

I’m not sure if Woodruff was clever or just determined, personally I think it’s the latter. There has been lots of debate (as there often is over biopics or just most of the best film nominees), with many people giving different views on what Woodruff was really like. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter, the film is just one perspective of matters.

Regardless of the historical figure, the key to this film is Matthew McConaughey giving his take on Woodruff in the lead role. Nominated at the Oscars for ‘Best Actor in a leading role’, he seems to have worked very hard at getting this film made, from interviews I’ve heard with him, he was very determined to get production started after many years of delays, and used achieving the extreme weight loss to get things rolling! He makes the character very interesting, and somehow likable by the end.

There’s also a ‘Best supporting actor’ nomination for Jared Leto as Woodruff’s transvestite business partner Rayon. A win seems very likely, with Leto also losing a lot of weight, and there being a noticeable change in appearance not least due to the change in attire and makeup also.

I like how this film highlighted the issues with the FDA, which is a very interesting topic that is sometimes raised in documentaries and films. It was never really going to have a happy ending as almost everyone in the film has AIDS, but it’s an interesting, if controversial story, with some fascinating characters and some likely Oscar-winning performances!

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