Niagara Gazette

December 26, 2013

CALLERI: Are you going to the movies this holiday season? Here are six new choices

By Michael Calleri
Night & Day

Night & Day — If you think Santa carries a mixed bag of treats, wait until you visit your local movie theater and take a look at the variety of films available, including the new Christmas holiday pictures that run the gamut from goofy comedy to serious biography to something I’m calling a pastel fantasy.

Nestled amidst the offerings are a sure-fire Academy Award contender and that old Hollywood standby, brutal gunplay. And if your idea of a good time is seeing two actors who made their mark with boxing movies slug it out again, this time against each other, someone made the decision to make you very happy.

The movies are “Grudge Match,” “Nebraska,” “Anchorman 2,” “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom,” “Her,” and “Lone Survivor.”

Sylvester Stallone (of “Rocky” fame and a nominee for a best actor Oscar) and “Robert De Niro (winner of a best actor Oscar for “Raging Bull”) come together for a real throwback to old-fashioned moviemaking in “Grudge Match,” a film during which I laughed out loud, and not in a derisive way. This could be the surprise hit movie of the Christmas season.

The story is right out of those 1930s boxing films starring Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien. Two retired fighters with a history between them, Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp (Stallone) and Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen (De Niro), have been holding a grudge for decades. As expected, their animosity to each other also includes their fragmented relationship with the same woman (Kim Basinger). Henry has become a recluse who makes small metal sculptures. Billy is now a huge success as a restaurant and car dealership owner. He’s as outgoing as Henry is introverted.

Enter a young guy with a dream. Dante Slate (comedian Kevin Hart) is a streetwise promoter, a fellow who can smell money but doesn’t have any of his own. Through sheer determination, he manages to get a video game project off the ground that will digitally reunite ‘Razor’ and ‘The Kid’ in a re-creation of their famous big match. The two don’t have to be in the studio together to record any punches, but one thing leads to another and before you can say Rocky Balboa and Jake La Motta, an actual arena rematch is planned that will pit Sharp and McDonnen against each other in the ring, winner take all.

There are the requisite extended training sessions, some geared to getting laughs. Even the famous boxing movie meat locker makes a return visit. Razor will be trained by an old geezer played by Alan Arkin, who has many of the film’s best comic lines. ‘The Kid’ will be trained by his own estranged son (Jon Bernthal), who, cue the heartstrings, has a son of his own. Whether or not the little boy will be able to call ‘The Kid’ grandpa is one of the emotional turns in this very satisfying movie.

“Grudge Match,” which is directed by Peter Segal and written by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman, works because the people behind it are honest about their goals. They want to entertain you, hoping you’ll leave the theater in good spirits. They succeed. You may even have a tear in your eye. The acting by all is straightforward and the main boxing match is a realistic as it needs to be. The fighters are determined to show their mettle.

As an added bonus, there’s a Buffalo Bills joke early in the film that brought down the house at the screening I attended.

Another movie about single-minded determination is “Nebraska.” The story is simple. A crusty curmudgeon named Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) thinks he has won a million-dollar sweepstakes. To claim his prize he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska from his Billings, Montana home. His family is aghast. They accept that he’s a drunken old coot, a stubborn mule in his seventies, but they can’t believe he’ll actually walk to Nebraska just to prove a point. He and his wife have been married for so long that they spend their days talking past each other, when they actually do speak.

Woody’s grown son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him. He thinks it will give him the opportunity to talk to his father in a way he’s never been able, and also to learn some things. Men from Woody’s generation didn’t discuss their feelings. He has no regrets and few recriminations. The nearly thousand-mile drive is filled with silences and not many revelations.

“Nebraska” is about family and the responsibilities that come with being part of one. It’s a road picture that establishes a strong and believable mood and stays with it. The beautiful black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael offers wonderful vistas. Dern gives a superb performance as the cantankerous Woody. He deserves a best actor Oscar nomination. But the Academy should also look at Forte. He’s his father’s sounding board. Forte’s acting is all about reacting, which is not an easy thing to do.

The movie is directed by Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson. It’s a character study, but in Woody Grant, we have quite a character.

“Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy” was a comedy hit. The spoof of pompous television anchors has a mixed bag of dialogue. Some jokes are groaners and some became part of movie lore.

The team that comprised the bulk of the earlier film’s story is back in “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” Unfortunately, as with too many sequels, the legend is tarnished. In the first movie, if a gag failed, you didn’t have to wait long for its replacement. In the new offering, gags do fail, but the wait for the next joke is longer. And when those fail, the film slides off the rails.

Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy is still the same obnoxious, albeit popular, oaf he always was, but time often makes the popular oaf less welcome. His former news team of Brian Fontana, Champ Kind, and Brick Tamland has dispersed. Burgundy is still anchoring but he loses his job. The silver lining is that he’s active at the start of the 1980s, and 24-hour cable news is about to arrive.

Burgundy gets the call to join the Global News Network and decides that he wants to bring his merry band of news, sports, and weather brothers back together. Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Steve Carell return, but it all seems less jovial and more akin to “we’re making a sequel, so let’s finish it.” There are jokes that score and many jokes that don’t. At times the camaraderie comes across as forced. Actors getting older will do that to a youthful concept.

“Anchorman 2” is directed by Adam McKay and written by him and Ferrell. They wallow in some of the previous material, and the new stuff lacks sincerity. You watch their movie feeling more resigned than happy. A lot of anchormen are bona fide phonies, but should a movie about them also be fake? Watching it is like taking a pop quiz. What do you remember, and why were you supposed to care?

Nelson Mandela died just as the new biographical film about him was opening. This fact will certainly affect how audiences react to it. As a teller of history, “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” ends in triumph. The man who fought South Africa’s brutal and oppressive system of apartheid will become the president of the nation that jailed him for decades. But because of Mandela’s death, the movie feels incomplete.

The problem is actually less about the great liberator dying and more about the film being too generic. It tells its story calmly from point A to point B, but it never gives us a sense of the man. I am sure the filmmakers were passionate, but their presentation lacks power. Justin Chadwick directs from William Nicholson’ screenplay, which is based on Mandela’s autobiography. Idris Elba plays Mandela with conviction, but his impersonation of the man doesn’t take us inside his mind. We get historical facts without the much-needed interpretation.

“Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” is well-made and sincere. But it tells you little that you may not already know.

While watching the unusual fantasy called “Her,” I was thinking a lot about the colors seen on the screen. The movie follows a computer guy (Joaquin Phoenix) who works for a whose employees write personal letters for subscribers to its website and send these good tidings to the subscribers’ friends.

While watching the film, I noticed a specific color palette. The movie is definitely shot with a very faint pink lens. The clothes, sets, faces, even everyone’s hair all seem caressed with pink, tan, beige, rose, tangerine and salmon tones.

One day, a new computer operating system is installed. Phoenix’s character, Theodore, is a quiet, nerdy type who, over the course of the film, makes his operating system’s voice his “girlfriend.” Because he’s shy by nature, being in love with a “voice” suits his current unpleasant emotional and fluctuating romantic needs.

But because Theodore is also, by nature, bland and boring, the combination of dull personality and being smitten by a “vocal idea” eventually makes for a bland and boring movie. Written-director Spike Jonze delivers too much that’s superficial and nothing that you would call erotic.

The movie is set in Los Angeles, but most of it was actually filmed in a city in China, which is expected to pass for L.A. but looks absolutely nothing like it. The city has horrible air pollution and you notice it. There are too many modern skyscrapers and no classic Los Angeles views.

Overall, “Her” is a series of disjointed conversations, most of them spoken very softly. Not much of what the dull characters say is all that interesting. Scarlett Johansson’s operating system voice is not as alluring as it should be. The only flash of energy comes from Theodore’s ex-wife who wants him to sign divorce papers. His boss seems to be a human automaton.

“Her” runs two hours, but I didn’t think there was enough story for that length. I was bored after an hour. The film never really soars. It just sort of exists, floating as it does in some fantastical vortex that’s part dreamscape and part absurdist invention.

There are moments when Jonze seemed to have forgotten that he was working in a visual medium. In one instance, the image fades to black for more than half a minute. We’re supposed to be eavesdropping on a sex scene between Theodore and the OS “voice.” The gimmick fails to enlighten us or enrich the unsatisfying movie.

Former Calvin Klein model and white rapper Mark Wahlberg considers himself an action star. More power to him, but if “Lone Survivor” is his idea of action, then it may be time for a new career move.

His latest attempt to out-macho so many other movie males is about a real-life failed mission in Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of 19 American servicemen in 2005. Drawn from a book by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson, the film compresses time and details to the detriment of what really happened. Luttrell was on the raid against enemy fighters that went tragically wrong, and he was the only survivor.

The result is a blood-soaked, furiously fast motion picture that never gives the audience time to empathize with the Navy SEALS that were killed. Writer-director Peter Berg trades depth for violence. Wahlberg is one of an astonishing 29 producers, co-producers, or executive producers, and he’s given himself all the good material. He plays Luttrell, but he doesn’t have the ability needed to make his acting believable. In addition to Wahlberg, you’ll also see Eric Bana, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Jerry Ferrara, and Taylor Kitsch.

Because his dialogue is less than inviting or invigorating, Berg focuses on one firefight that portends doom for the SEALS. Bodies are ripped to shreds by bullets and from rolling down jagged hills. Blood and gore and grotesque sound effects are more important to Berg than telling a story about men under pressure. He also invents things that are ludicrous, and he panders to any bloodlust that might be reverberating throughout the theater.

“Lone Survivor” is about the horrors of battle, but these horrors are elevated to the point where you become distanced from what you’re watching. You want to be told a gripping story, but instead, you’re compelled to watch a missed opportunity.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at