Friday, December 27, 2013


Martin Scorsese's whoopin' and hollerin' "The Wolf of Wall Street" has a lot in common with David O. Russell's zany and freewheeling "American Hustle." They both deserved more time in the editing room, two overlong sagas that have been hotly anticipated by critics and will both be lauded by the Academy. Maybe I missed the boat. With Scorsese's "Wolf," we have a two-hour-and-fifty-nine-minute film chock full of scenes that could've been trimmed by minutes. Add those minutes up, and it's the running time audiences should've been spared. Adapted by screenwriter Terence Winter ("Boardwalk Empire," "The Sopranos,"), the story of Wall Street master swindler and money laundering expert who started his own firm at age 22 and went on to screw over millions is no sprawling epic. It's filmed as an unrelenting barrage of excess, hopped up on the cocaine and quaaludes Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes for breakfast and the rest of these guys put into their system to stay numb to their sins -- didn't I make a similar drug reference to "American Hustle"'s style? I digress.

It's a parade of debauchery. Cocaine, the outlawed prescription pill quaaludes, booze, parties, more booze, bikini-clad strippers, more quaaludes, topless hookers, bottomless hookers, Leonardo DiCaprio's sinfully gleeful Jordan Belfort banging his hot wife (Margot Robbie) on a literal bed of money. OK, OK, we get it. This guy's rich, has no regard for any of the victims piling up in the wake of his success and is choosing to completely ignore his inevitable capture and downfall, and instead he soldiers on with reckless abandon. Ninety minutes later, we're still looking at the same guy. Smart move to have the film narrated by Belfort and make it from his perspective, which turns the film into a (very dark) comedy. Otherwise we'd blow our brains out.

There's no denying that DiCaprio's performance here is the craziest he's done and arguably his going-all-out, over-the-top barbaric best. Belfort, obsessed with a reality of himself that could only possibly remain temporary, is cut from the same cloth of DiCaprio's Gatsby earlier this year. Just hopped up on coke. He drives a white Lamborghini, lives in a beautiful mansion, fuels his mind on a cocktail of drugs, commands his office like the leader of a clan and carelessly drunk-pilots his helicopter which otherwise rests perched atop his extravagant yacht.

There are a number of great scenes. The film's best is actually its quietest moment when Belfort sits face-to-face meeting the very FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) trying to take him down. Watch the conversation weave against Belfort's favor and his expression morph when he realizes it's not going his way. The polar opposite is a scene where Jonah Hill's Donnie Azoff, in a performance that's like a whacked-out version of his Oscar-nominated turn in "Moneyball," takes aged lemmon quaaludes with his co-conspirator Belfort. They slam a fistful of pills, rendering them rolling on the ground useless, slurring their speech and hardly in control of their motor skills. It's slapstick absurdity, and it's an unsettling riot.

Matthew McConaughey (still thin from "Dallas Buyers Club") drops by in two early scenes and steals the show, showing a young, eager, not yet tainted Belfort the ropes of brokering, mandating he masturbate two times a day in order to stay sharp. Later, when the seasoned Belfort shouts in a microphone to his crowded, rowdy room of sleazy brokers eager like a room full of horny frat boys, the movie is firing on all cylinders.

It's pop-pop, bang-bang, non-stop all the time in "Wolf." Keeping that momentum up drains an audience who's awaiting an outcome other than the bitterly predictable. Go out with something for us to gnaw on, mull over about the depravity and dark underbelly of the American dream, of the get rich quick mentality. The live-wire energy is there and never not boring, and it's a grandiose display of sensationalism and crass capitalism, but in the end, what's it all for?

Friday, December 20, 2013

HER Review

Upon hearing the premise of Spike Jonze's "Her" -- the story of a man who falls in love with an operating system -- one may write it off as a surrealist dystopian gimmick. Quite the opposite. The wildly talented writer/director has already finessed such absurdist premises from Charlie Kaufman into wonderful works of art from "Being John Malkovich" to "Adaptation." In his directorial debut, Jonze adapated Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" into a bold reimagining of childhood. Now in his fourth feature, he has given us a startling new way to look at the world. It's an elegiac meditation on relationships and how we live today, and it's brilliant.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a smart and kind but desperately lonely man who's still reeling from a break-up with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), a year later. He lives in the not-so-distant future in Los Angeles, a very nonsleek and tactile-looking future, an aesthetic that could only be thought up by Spike Jonze. Theodore works for a company that composes hand-written letters to loved ones, but they are written by the company's employees. So, he spends his days diving into the personal lives of others, trying his best to avoid his own. It's the first sign of the large emotional disconnect this society experiences, and it's not so far from our own reality.

Consider the citizens walking around with what look like hearing aids plugged into their ears, talking to themselves; or, rather, talking to their operating system (OS). Google Glass, anyone? In this world, a new version has just been released, OS 1, with an ever-adapting personality that suits the user's every need. Theodore gets his own and is introduced to the self-named Samantha. "Hello, I am here," she says into the darkness of Theodore's living room. And so it begins.

Samantha is, almost inevitably, voiced by Scarlett Johansson whose smoky, girl-next-door demeanor gives the disembodied voice a necessary physicality throughout the blossoming of her and Theodore's relationship. What starts off quirky and cute transforms into a romance that is totally serious and, amazingly enough, believable and true. Johansson is soulful and charming in the completely off-screen role, while Phoenix gives a performance in pure isolation that is as potent as, if not more than, the widely-acclaimed Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" and Robert Redford in "All Is Lost."

Theodore does have human connection in his life. His co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) is in a happy human relationship while his friend Amy (Amy Adams, resembling a frizzy-haired Cameron Diaz from "Being John Malkovich"), is in an unsatisfied human relationship. Theodore eventually has the confidence to announce to them that, yes, he is dating his OS. Enchanting, beautiful and deeply sad -- aided greatly by a score from Arcade Fire, featuring the last track "Supersymmetry" off their new album -- the film isn't about an OS but about what such a relationship does to the human condition.

"Her" begins to lose shape and momentum in its third act, but that's also when the film's message starts to seep in. How do we reach out to find human connection? We're left wondering about the possibility of true love and whether we are forever caught up in ourselves to honestly connect to another person. And in the end, the absence of all distraction -- our computers, technology, our highly-advanced operating systems -- might allow us to finally see what's right in front of us.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


David O. Russell has been making movies for decades, but it appears he only recently fell into his groove as a filmmaker. With "American Hustle," his third movie in just four years, it's as if he's realized this high and wanted to take absolute advantage of it, churning out three acclaimed awards contendors. He has called "The Fighter," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle" a spiritual trilogy, and in a sense, it is. All three films carry a manic, frenzied energy with oddball characters who bicker, banter and find unexpected depths. This time, Russell gathered Christian Bale and Amy Adams from one movie, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from his other movie, threw in Jeremy Renner for good measure, decided to play dress-up with them full of bodaciously bad hair and flashy lapels, and with it, he's concocted a glorious, delicious mess.

"Some of this actually happens" prefaces the story of a 1978 FBI sting operation that resulted in the conviction of six congressmen and a U.S. senator. At the story's center is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), professional scam artist with his feisty mistress and partner in crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). She's so wrapped up in the world of conning that she's developed her own Brit alter ego. Yanking Irving's chain back at home with his adopted kid is his unpredictable sexpot wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who's ready to screw him over at a moment's notice.

Bring in mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the guinea pig of the operation, and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the FBI operative who controls the setup but has to constantly check his back to make sure he's not getting conned by the con artists he's working with. It's a deliriously mad screenplay co-written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer that twists, turns and double-crosses but  more often than not hardly holds it together. And directed with Russell's eye, swooping cameras and zippy editing, the thing moves fast and talks fast, like it's hopped up on the drug-laden 70s era in which its set.

What saves it is undoubtedly the electrifying top-tier cast. The film's first image is Bale, who packed on 40 pounds for the role, orchestrating his character's elaborate facade of a combover that is the worst the world has seen. He's shlubby, disgusting and plays the part right on the edge, similar to the wild brother in "The Fighter." Adams, sporting unheard of amounts of sideboob in skimpy dresses, gives her best performance since "Junebug," playing a woman so in conflict with herself more than anybody around her, it's sad and absurd. And Cooper rocks those tight curls in his hair as the one who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, especially when sparring with a deadpan boss played by Louis C.K.

The weakest link? It pains me to say, but it's Jennifer Lawrence even with her scenery-chewing scenes, which are an absolute kick, most notably her roaring rendition of "Live and Let Die." In the smallish role, her magnetism remains, but the young actress at 23 just doesn't fit the part, and it shows. It's too bad she's the one among these dynamite performances who will most likely go on to Academy acclaim. "Silver Linings" was her shining moment; not this.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

71st Annual Golden Globe Award Nominations

Thanks to major contenders' ability to be weirdly slotted into the comedy or musical best picture category, it didn't allow any weird or random choices (a la "The Tourist," "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen") this morning during the nominees announcement for the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards.

"Nebraska" and "Her" are comedies? "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a musical? According to the HFPA, they sure are. This unfortunately, however, left out non-prestige comedies such as "This Is the End," easily the funniest, best comedy of the year, out of the running completely.

"12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle" led the field with a whopping seven nominations each, the wide spread made available thanks to the two movies getting split up by genre.

"12 Years a Slave" joined "Captain Phillips" and "Gravity" in the best drama category along with left-fielders "Philomena" and "Rush." While the HFPA picked up these latter two films, it's unlikely the Academy will repeat the honor.

The best comedy or musical category saw "American Hustle" nominated with "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Nebraska," "Her" and "Inside Llewyn Davis." Out of both best picture categories, a notable snub is the Oscar-ready "Saving Mr. Banks," whose chances are now quite damaged considering no SAG or HFPA love for best picture or ensemble. Then there's the complete absence of any nominations for "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

A notable inclusion is "Her," which should be on everyone's radar for Oscar nominations now considering its inclusion in the critics groups last week and its healthy representation in today's nominations.

Best director nominations went to Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave," Paul Greengrass for "Captain Phillips," Alfonso Cuaron for "Gravity," David O. Russell for "American Hustle" and Alexander Payne for "Nebraska." While the first four are likely to repeat in the Oscars, Payne for "Nebraska" will probably get swapped out for Scorsese's "Wolf" or the Coen brothers for "Inside Llewn Davis."

With Forest Whitaker of "The Butler" gone, this left space for Idris Elba for "Mandela" to get nominated in the best actor drama category next to Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club," Chiwetel Ejiofor for "12 Years a Slave," Robert Redford for "All Is Lost" and Tom Hanks for "Captain Phillips." Those four will repeat at the Oscars, and Bruce Dern for "Nebraska" could slip in over Whitaker.

Best actress drama saw frontrunner Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine" with Sandra Bullock for "Gravity," Judi Dench for "Philomena," Emma Thompson for "Saving Mr. Banks" and, with Meryl Streep stuffed into the best actress category for "August: Osage County," it left room for Kate Winslet for "Labor Day" to enter the race.

Joining Streep in best actress comedy or musical was Amy Adams for "American Hustle," Julie Delpy for the sole representation of "Before Midnight," and the very welcomed inclusions of Julia Louis-Dreyfus for "Enough Said" and Greta Gerwig for "Frances Ha." HFPA stands as the only awards group so far this season to recognize Gerwig's great work in the indie comedy.

Bruce Dern for "Nebraska" fell into the best actor comedy or musical category along with Christian Bale for "American Hustle," Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Wolf of Wall Street," Joaquin Phoenix for "Her" and Oscar Isaac for "Inside Llewyn Davis." The strange categorical split allows for a wider spread of worthy nominations such as this to happen.

Aside from Oprah Winfrey for "The Butler" in the best supporting actress category, these four actresses represent what we'll likely see in the category for the Oscars: June Squibb for "Nebraska," Julia Roberts for "August: Osage County," Jennifer Lawrence for "American Hustle" and Lupita Nyong'o for "12 Years a Slave." The fifth outlier? Sally Hawkins for "Blue Jasmine," a well-deserved inclusion nonetheless.

In the best supporting actor category, it appears Daniel Bruhl for "Rush" and Barkhad Abdi for "Captain Phillips" are indeed in for the Oscars, considering their double SAG and HFPA nominations. Joining them were Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club," Bradley Cooper for "American Hustle" and Michael Fassbender for "12 Years a Slave."

What can we take-away from this morning's Golden Globe nominations announcement? Nothing really. Aside from the fact that the HFPA must have weird standards for what constitutes a comedy or musical. In any case, it allowed for a wider spread of worthy films to get nominations in -- save for the bizarre "Butler" shut-out. What else? "Her" and "Nebraska" are indeed contenders for Oscar best picture and beyond. Their potential was a little quieter until now.

Check here for a full list of nominations, and tune in to the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards with the return of hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. / 5 p.m. EST.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

20th Annual SAG Award Nominations

This morning's 20th Annual SAG Award nominations announcement brought with it an early frontrunner status for "12 Years a Slave," which scored four nominations total.

Chiwetel Ejiofor landed in the best actor category next to Tom Hanks for "Captain Phillips," Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club," Forest Whitaker for "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and the nice inclusion of Bruce Dern for his career-topping performance in "Nebraska," which boosts the veteran actor's Oscar nomination chances against the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Wolf of Wall Street" and the other veteran actor in the running, Robert Redford for "All Is Lost."

Michael Fassbender represented "12 Years a Slave" in the best supporting actor category, alongside Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club," the other expected frontrunner. The rest of the category was a bit of a mixed bag, including the surprises of James Gandolfini for "Enough Said," boosting a well-deserved posthumous Oscar chance, as well as first-time actor Barkhad Abdi for "Captain Phillips," and lastly, Daniel Bruhl for "Rush," perhaps the only representation of Ron Howard's film we'll see this awards season.

In the best supporting actress category, Lupita Nyong'o received a nomination for "12 Years a Slave" with fellow frontrunner Oprah Winfrey for "Lee Daniels' The Butler," and then Jennifer Lawrence for "American Hustle" and Julia Roberts for "August: Osage County," all four of which will be repeated come Oscar nomination morning. The fifth slot appears more and more up for grabs with a nomination for June Squibb for "Nebraska" against such competition as Sally Hawkins for "Blue Jasmine."

The only category without "12 Years a Slave" was best actress, with five nominations that firm up exactly what we'll see with the Oscars. They are: Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine," Sandra Bullock for "Gravity," Judi Dench for "Philomena," Emma Thompson for "Saving Mr. Banks" and Meryl Streep for "August: Osage County."

The cast of "12 Years a Slave" faces off for best ensemble against best picture contenders "American Hustle," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and, lastly, "August: Osage County," which boosts its Oscar best picture chances in an otherwise crowded category with high prestige pictures.

What does it mean for "The Wolf of Wall Street" earning zero representation here with the SAG nominations? Probably not much at all as it's not considered an actors movie but more about craft. The best picture chances of "Blue Jasmine" would've boded well here, too, had it earned a best ensemble nomination.

Check here for a full list of nominees, and tune in to the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Saturday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. / 5 p.m. PST on TNT and TBS.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


There's an inherent problem with director John Lee Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks," and it occurs within the first few scenes and continues happening over and over again. After being introduced to the film's star, the always excellent Emma Thompson, we flash back to a young girl in the early 1900s living with her family in Australia. Thompson plays prickly author P.L. Travers who penned the series of "Mary Poppins" books upon which Disney's widely lauded 1964 film is based. The young girl in the flashback is Travers, but instead of lightly shading in this real life woman's childhood, the screenplay from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith decides to bludgeon viewers over the head with backstory.

Travers is flown in from London to the Happiest Place on Earth, where she meets the one and only Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). All she has to do is sign the contract that gives Disney the licensing rights to her Mary Poppins, but the surly, unruly author quickly proves it won't be that easy. Thompson lights up the screen, landing quips and snappy barbs with panache. She's a treat to behold and registers enough pain to give insight as to why she's making working with her so difficult.

The parallel story running with this is Travers' troubled childhood with her reckless, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). These flashbacks come at an alarming frequency and occur whenever the main storyline starts to get interesting, rendering all sense of drama completely moot. The flashbacks unnecessarily take up half the running time and don't give Thompson enough credit as an actress. She isn't given nearly enough opportunity to read into her own character's backstory without the presence of head-banging obviousness.

"Saving Mr. Banks" is at its most fun and works as mainstream entertainment in the rehearsal rooms with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and clever lyricists Robert and Richard Sherman played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwarzman, respectively. It's delightful watching the men work and tip-toe their way around dealing with Travers' demands, staying true to their own vision and keeping her happy. And of course whenever Tom Hanks appears onscreen, it's -- spit-spot! -- as good as can be.

But the sappy awards contendor also boils down to pure self-indulgence. The appeal of looking back on Disney's most valued property only goes so far, running on the fumes of its nostalgia and proving that, once and for all, perhaps the company does a bit too much sugar-coating.

Friday, December 6, 2013


1961, Greenwich Village, New York. The dawn of the early folk music scene. We meet Llewyn Davis, struggling musician. Played by Oscar Isaac (in plenty of films but never a leading solo man), he sits on a stool at a mic before a smattering of an audience inside a dingy club. "Hang me, oh hang me, and I'll be dead and gone," he croons. Performed by Isaac, the music is the first and foremost thing to notice about Joel and Ethan Coen's latest, "Inside Llewyn Davis." The second thing to notice: this is the writer-director duo's perhaps least plot-driven film but the most solemnly meditative since their Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men." It's a contemplative character study of the highest order and while a bit obtuse, the film looks deep at how a great artist can (or cannot) rise from great adversity.

Llewyn steps off the stage, enters the club's back alley and gets beaten to the ground. Why? We don't know. Just his luck, we suppose. The film is a slow burn as we watch him crash couch to couch, a wandering soul looking for himself. Here's a man not trying to make it as a successful musician but trying to make it at all. He slumps into the apartment of Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). No backstory required. We deduce that Llewyn once slept with Jean and uses her as a crutch. Brashly played up by Mulligan, she hounds on him calling him a useless asshole. If they ever once were, they are no more. With Jim, he and Jean have their own folk group that gets a better reception than when Llewyn plays. It eats at him. Embodying Llewyn, Isaac delivers a bittersweet combination of sorrow and deadpan humor.

One gig from Jim, which Llewyn decides to take for some quick cash, is a goofball song about President Kennedy and rockets, "Please Mr. Kennedy." Adam Driver of HBO's "Girls" sits in as the guy making the cartoonish "whoops!" and "zoings!" of the accompaniment. It's a bad tune that's somehow still highly enjoyable, a signifier of the kind of songwriting care that went into the script. In a rush, Llewyn decides to not sign a contract to receive royalties on the song which, inevitably, will later become a hit. Desperate for exposure and let down by his ancient manager, he hitchhikes to Chicago to put himself in person with a music producer.

Enter a most surrealist vision, a mood which permeates throughout, the film's aesthetic clouded in a dreamlike haze. Llewyn hitches a ride with the quiet, resolute Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and the mythic, rude Roland Turner (John Goodman). How these two came to be, and where are they going? We don't know. They are only a device for Llewyn to continue on his way. A Coen mainstay, Goodman arrives back to his first film for the brothers in 15 years and commands the screen for the brief, bizarre role.

There's also an orange cat. And plenty of other strange, illusive encounters. But there's the cat. The one Llewyn accidentally lets escape from one of his couch-surfing apartment stays. The one he thinks is the same one he lost but ends up being a different orange cat. But there's always the cat. The burden. We follow Llewyn for one week in his life. And at its conclusion, we find ourselves right back where we started. It's a trick the Coens play but not a bad trick; it's an existential one that illustrates an open-ended theme, one about the journey to finally make it. It's cyclical; it's all the same. It repeats and repeats until eventually you either make it -- or, in the case of Llewyn, our sad sack hero, you don't.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


In the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an old Irish woman in her 70s who kept the secret of her abducted child for 50 years, it's less about discovering the details of her son but what these discoveries mean for her. As portrayed in Stephen Frears ("Dirty Pretty Things," "The Queen") new film, it's thank goodness for Judi Dench who manages to not sentimentalize the sometimes naive and simple character always looking for the best in people. So much so that she hesitates before incriminating the very convent who stole her three-year-old son away from her when she was a teenaged girl.

The covent's nuns are quickly dubbed the "evil nuns" of Philomena's human interest story, one that British political writer and journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) begrudgingly takes on after being out of a job. He doesn't necessarily care for Philomena's personal story but is cherry-picking for what would make good journalism, "evil nuns" included. The fact is, however, they are a representation of the worst of Catholicism: shockingly cruel acts committed under a veneer of sanctity. Also touched on throughout the film: the ignorant social restrictions of the Republican party.

But all of this is contained within a film that is quaint and slight, never committing to deeper moral themes about institutional wrongs. Co-written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, the film suffers from tonal confusion but mostly maintains a light, pleasant air occasionally dipping into emotional waters via Dench's soulful performance. Coogan's Sixsmith remains a one-note curmudgeon throughout, which is darkly humorous -- as the actor's most dramatic role yet -- but it begins to tire, especially when the always well-meaning Philomena can't even break through to him. A woman who manages to forgive a horrible sin committed against her should be able to transfer a lesson on to the man, but to no avail.

"Philomena" boils down to Judi Dench, giving us a woman no stranger to sorrow but who knows how to put her best foot forward. It's both a delightfully playful and fittingly gloomy performance that deserves the accolades it'll receive come Oscar time. Although the dame deserved it just as much playing the ill-fated M from last year's "Skyfall."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


"Nebraska" is another masterwork from director Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt," "Sideways," "The Descendants"). His same appreciation for the everyday and the ordinary is on full display, showing off the best we have known from the filmmaker, a trademark commitment to both comedy and drama. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny but at its core carries a melancholy heart. Payne, coupled with a screenplay from Bob Nelson, crafts a fable of middle America that is wry, affectionate and true.

Payne packs Nebraska, both the film and the film's setting, with orneriness, humor and an absolute sense of time and place. The director scoped out the small town where the film is shot to find the local faces he wanted to fill the screen. If many of the smaller performances feel like found artifacts, that's because they are; they perfectly shade in the story of the bittered, booze-drinking father, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), at the film's center.

Much to the exhaustive dismay of his son, David (Will Forte), Woody becomes obsessed with a scam certificate he receives in the mail, declaring him the winner of $1 million. He hits the road, lumbering along wearing a heavy jacket and cold face, attempting to walk all the way from Montana to Billings, Nebraska to collect his money. He does it repeatedly, stubborn as a mule. His wife, Kate (June Squibb), is fed up with it. "I didn't even know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire," she bemoans. Also fed up, David decides to take his father on the road trip to Billings but only to stop in at Hawthorn, the town where he grew up, and learn more about his father's history than even he knew.

We settle in to the wrinkles of time, exploring a small town that seems to mostly regret the past and is irritated in the present. Nelson's writing and Payne's direction find the poignancy and absurdity in the burden of family and returning home again. And it's all canvased against textured black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael ("The Descendants," "The Ides of March"), a decision that Payne made eight years ago when he first discovered the script. It accents the film's wintry landscape.

Bruce Dern and June Squibb give the performances of their careers. Squibb, who played opposite Jack Nicholson in Payne's "About Schmidt," is uproarious with her crude, prickly exterior, always bickering about her husband. The Academy would do right in granting her a best supporting actress nomination. Dern plays Woody as a grouchy old bastard but also one of quiet mystery. Is he really not cognizant of his surroundings, or is he faking to drown out the noise? And of course there's no ignoring Will Forte's serious performance here, creating a portrait of a man who doesn't want to become his father but knows to do what's best for him.


Have no fear. "Catching Fire" is a worthy, exceptional and uncommonly smart second installment to the promising start Gary Ross' "Hunger Games" kicked off a year ago. With director Francis Lawrence taking over the helm, he and his team, including screenwriters Michael Arndt ("Toy Story 3") and Simon Beaufoy ("127 Hours"), deliver high-caliber pop culture escapism that doesn't get much better than this. It's pure entertainment spectacle with a strong beating heart in the right place. Amidst a sea of other YA crap, it's hats off to "The Hunger Games" for officially staking its claim as the next great franchise in our post-"Harry Potter" landscape.

Building on the political parable foundation of its predecessor, this second chapter delves deeper into what will become a revolution against Panem's cruel Capitol and the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Having just won the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are required to immediately embark on the soul-crushing Victory Tour, which forces them to relish in their triumphs, the ones that cost others their lives. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) all are a welcomed return, infusing warmth and humor into the proceedings. And there's of course a gleaming and hilarious Stanley Tucci as the flamboyant host Caesar.

The announcement of the Quarter Quell brings a more thematically complex component to this installment. It becomes more about fighting back than just surviving inside the games. One male and one female victor from each district is required to re-enter the games for the 75th anniversary. Instead of trying to remake a life with her mother, sister Primrose and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss is once again ripped away, forced back into the killing ring next to Peeta. This also allows for the introduction of new characters, namely the strapping Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin). In the new and improved training facility, we're introduced to the other victors, ranging from the technologically savvy (Jeffrey Wright's Beetee) to ones livid and fed up with the Capitol's manipulation (Jena Malone's Johanna).

Leaner and meaner, "Catching Fire" is decidedly darker in tone than the original and for good reason. The games are less about the games and more about the horrors they symbolize for the world of Panem. Since these are all past tributes, there's a sense of anger and hurt that creates a more robust emotional resonance. And especially with our two stars, when the feigned romance between Katniss and Peeta to appease the Captiol turns to something genuine, we can feel it.

The movie indeed carries like a middle chapter should and leaves the audience with a deliciously teased cliffhanger leaving viewers salivating for "Mockingjay Part 1." But it works in the best way a franchise should, and it feels effortless and concludes a two-and-a-half-hour showcase that's thrilling, funny and touching.

Then there's Jennifer Lawrence. The now Oscar-winning actress acts the hell out of the role, embodying Katniss' angst, strength and vulnerability; she's one of the best heroines genre films have known, but you'll not once catch her acting with a capital A. It's all organic, earned and builds naturally under her character's circumstances. Playing the girl on fire, she lights up the screen, commanding your attention and admiration. She's unstoppable.

My four-star review of "The Hunger Games"

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


You don't just watch the two characters at the center of Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue Is the Warmest Color." You live and breathe them, feel what they feel. The film is a long 179 minutes, but from beginning to end, every minute feels necessary. Once we are first introduced to Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), the film quickly settles into it's rhythm and pacing, and we too settle in, lavishing over every detail of this 18-year-old girl who's about to embark on an intimate coming-of-age saga. We are right there along with her on the journey, to the point where long after the credits role, you may find yourself wondering how she's doing, as if she is more than a fictionalization. It's a testament to both Exarchopoulos' performance and Kechiche's extraordinary film. It's an explosion of love, passion and anguish, an enthralling piece of cinema that is not to be missed.

While Lea Seydoux is the top billed, as she's an actress well known in France, this is Adele Exarchopoulos' film through and through. The luscious film lingers over Adele's lips and mouth, as well as her beautifully messy hair, which she pulls haphazardly into a nest atop her head. There's a fixation on food and appetite. Adele mentions how she's always hunger and could always eat. She has an appetite, a lust. In one of the film's cheekiest moments (there are a few), she says at the dinner table with her parents she'd like some salad, as she leans back uttering a light moan. At her high school, she starts dating the most attractive guy, mostly due to pressure from her friends. But she knows deep down it's not what she wants, and the way the film handles her frustration is eloquent and heartbreaking. It's a perfect portrayal of adolescent confusion in the face of conflicting sexuality.

Adele's gay friend takes her out one night, and we watch as she, wide-eyed as if entering Wonderland, takes in the scene of a lesbian bar. That's where she finally meets the alluring, intoxicating blue-haired Emma (Lea Seydoux). Adele had seen her in passing before this initial encounter, a fleeting moment on the street that knocks the wind right out her, a moment of seeing the one. In Adele's class, they read a passage about love at first sight. A lot of Adele's schoolwork reads into what she's experiencing and, consequently, many of the film's themes. Later discussions about art and culture suggest ideals on gender norms and female sexuality. It's in this sense "Blue" is like a richly textured novel, one that requires multiple pass-throughs to capture every nuance of meaning.

The film is split into two distinct chapters, chronicling Emma and Adele's blossoming romance. Both actresses are brave, relevatory breakthroughs in putting on display the aching desire, electric chemistry and impending torment of a first love. Blue really is the warmest color as it appears in every single shot, on clothing, paintings and of course in Emma's hair. What the color represents transforms as does what Emma and Adele's relationship means to each of them as they grow and learn. Desire and despair come in equal waves.

"Blue Is the Warmest Color" won this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes, the first ever gay film to do so, and it happened right as France legalized gay marriage. This is a gay film, but it's also a film universally about love, which is even more important in its addressing (or lack thereof) of being specifically about two lesbians. Making the most headlines has been the graphic sex scenes earning the film its NC-17 rating. This should be what is least talked about with this movie. Yes, they are lengthy almost to a fault. But the intensity of the scenes informs how we view Adele and Emma together. We experience the raw lovemaking and nakedness right with them, and it lingers in our mind just as it does theirs. And it makes the pain of it afterward, the loss and unholy emptiness, feel all the more real.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


At the start of writer/director J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost," the voice of Robert Redford is heard, composing a letter of farewell and apology, assuming to his family and loved ones. Aside from this moment, a distress call through a radio and one frustrated outburst, that's all we hear out of the actor for the film's 105-minute running time. We see a wedding ring on his finger but no photographs or memorabilia from a life back home. Labeling him "Our Man," it's purely man vs. nature in this allegorical tale that's pure Redford.

After his yacht crashes into an adrift cargo box, he is immediately responsive and resourceful to fix the damage even as water pours into the cabin. A lot of other bad things happen to him, all rendering Our Man alone on the open sea fending for himself. But he is a capable and intelligent man who perserveres against all odds, and the film is very detail-oriented in showing his survival. Redford takes a risk as does the film, keeping a 77-year-old actor, but no less a legendary one, on the screen, constantly and relentlessly. His performance is brave, full of nuance and physicality, as he acts through expression and action only, and the academy will certainly take note.

The point of J.C. Chandor's second film (after his debut "Margin Call," the chatty polar opposite) is to show a tale of survival stripped to its bare bones. It's a fascinating concept, keeping things completely figurative and full of gorgeously composed shots of the sea below, a school of fish and a swarm of sharks swirling intermittently. Or the dimming glow of a red flare landing in the water as a cargo ship, Our Man's hope for rescue, drifts away. The philosophical effort is there, but the impact is never quite achieved.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


In 1985, freewheeling electrician Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) was diagnosed as HIV-positive at a time when AIDS was a still unfamiliar virus, untreatable and associated with queers and lowlifes. Also a drug-using sex fiend, the diagnosis should've came as no surprise to the rodeo-loving Dallas cowboy. He goes from denying his condemnation of only 30 days left to live, claiming there's no way he has the same disease as "faggots," to eventual panic, and then newfound resilience to stay alive and outlast his expiration date. "Dallas Buyers Club" encapsulates the true spirit of independent film and taking a grim subject matter head on is perhaps even more fun than one would imagine.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee ("Young Victoria") and his screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack have taken a complicated true life story and have finessed it into a supremely entertaining film, infusing humor without ever undermining key moments of drama. It moves along briskly and intelligently, educating while never condescending as we learn of the blockades and loopholes of pharmaceutical companies and the FDA. Woodruff, against all odds, pioneers this uphill battle against them after well-meaning doctor, Eve (Jennifer Garner), tells him about AZT, the only drug case study restrictively available to the public.

After landing himself in a Mexican hospital where drugs combating AIDS are the norm, Woodruff gets the business idea to smuggle the drugs north and start selling to those in need. What starts off as a selfish idea for his own gain turns into a completely selfless act as Woodruff grows his Dallas Buyers Club business, offering $400 for a monthly membership which supplies unlimited access to alternative medications. The transformation from ignorant bigot to a man who experienced the frustration of being ostracized and honestly wanted to do something right is handled with such nuance and comes as no small feat from Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey shed not only more than 40 pounds for the performance, but he also shed his past persona of rom-com go-to guy, quickly becoming the new indie master with last year's "Bernie" and "Magic Mike" and this year's "Mud" and now this. He disappears in the role behind a physicality that is shocking. Likewise, 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto lost 28 pounds for his first screen performance in four years (since 2009's little-seen "Mr. Nobody"), and he's a powerhouse. As the slinky transvestite Rayon who becomes Woodruff's partner in crime, Leto steals the show.

"Dallas Buyers Club" peters off by the end of its nearly two-hour running time instead of going out with a dramatic wallop. But the entire film is buoyed by completely transformative performances from McConaughey and Leto that entertain, enlighten and will be rightfully recognized come awards time.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Be careful, you are not in Wonderland.
I've heard the strange madness long growing in your soul.
But you are fortunate in your ignorance, in your isolation.
You, who have suffered find where love hides, give, share, lose,
Lest we die unbloomed.

Played by the versatile Daniel Radcliffe, who has officially escaped the bounds of his Harry Potter history, a young Allen Ginsberg recites this poem aboard a stolen boat with fellow ignitors of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). As much as the film is about these radicals, also including William Burroughs (Ben Foster), it's also a film about the secrets and desires that fuel the need to break away from the typical, to escape rhyme and meter, the status quo. For Ginsberg, that was as much about coming into his writing as it was coming into his sexuality.

The story is as much about Ginsberg as it is about the mysterious, seductive and alluring Lucien Carr who Ginsberg becomes fixated on. Lucien would eventually break from the group and demand his name be removed from "Howl and Other Poems" to whom Ginsberg dedicated it. The plot pivots around a scandalous murder, of Lucien's mentor and predator, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) who becomes frighteningly obsessed with Lucien throughout their arrangement of schoolwork in exchange for sex. Lucien was struggling with his sexuality, teasing Ginsberg, but accustomed to men like him having to lurk in the shadows, denying their true selves. This interplay between expression, sexuality and creating a movement is where John Krokidas' debut feature is most interesting.

The editing matches the trippy, freewheeling style of the Beats but also brings the film into misshapen tonal confusion. But again, the film's saving grace is the sordid romantic entanglement between Radcliffe's Ginsberg and DeHaan's Lucien. The former's yearning for the latter is expertly conceived, and it's how "Kill Your Darlings" transcends its subject material, capturing the fledgling state of any budding creative, a freshman at a prolific college where only the world stands before him.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man living in 1841 Saratoga, New York before getting kidnapped and sold into slavery, leaving behind his wife and children. He was well-educated, played the fiddle and was respected in his community before getting tricked into a two-week music gig in Washington D.C., which led him chained up against his will in the Deep South en-route to the slave trade and stripped of all freedom he ever knew. The eloquent director Steve McQueen documents this unsentimental, unflinching journey to hell and back, and it's certainly not easy viewing. But that doesn't make it any less essential viewing, a testament to film as art. "12 Years a Slave" is a perfect movie, an instant American classic.

Solomon is given the name Platt and sold to the mild-mannered Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) by a slave trader played by a brief but dastardly appearance from Paul Giamatti. Thrust into this cruel new world, the suffocation of helplessness experienced by Solomon is palpable. Ford turns out to be the most tame of slave owners Solomon encounters; the wild, hot-tempered Tibeats (Paul Dano) is the real threat on this particular plantation, tormenting the slave until he lashes out. Solomon gets strung up on a noose forced to wait for Ford's return. He sputters, trying to keep from choking while he hangs, his feet toeing at the slippery mud beneath him, the hot unrelenting sun beating down. Plantation life continues on behind him in real time as we watch him struggle.

It's a stunning singular long shot that encapsulates the director's style, drawing bleak beauty from the ugliness of humanity. McQueen is very much an auteur. It's bold and brilliant filmmaking, aided greatly by an equal parts blistering and moving score from Hans Zimmer and cinematography from Sean Bobbitt who doesn't let audiences off the hook, creating images they soon won't shake. The film lingers on moments much longer than other directors might, including both scenes of quiet reflection and grueling torment.

Solomon's next slave owner is the incarnation of evil, Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose soul has corroded away as he justifies the abuse of his slaves through scripture. His wife (Sarah Paulson) is no better, whose violent jealousy toward slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) leads to her prolonged mistreatment. A borderline unwatchable scene has Epps lashing Patsey until her back is shredded, even making Solomon partake in the cruel act against one of his own. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is forced to carry the burden of the film's atrocities as Solomon Northup in a flat-out Oscar-worthy performance. The supporting cast all astounds, too, especially Lupita Nyong'o embodying Patsey's howling pain. And there are no words for Michael Fassbender who digs deep into himself to create a man controlled by his society's unrighteous ways.

Solomon Northup's memoir was published in 1853 and has been adapted here by John Ridley. In the simplicity of the storytelling, the screenplay commits poetry to the screen. There's a happy ending of the once free and then enslaved man returning to his wife and children after a chance encounter with Canadian abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt). But it's not the happy ending Hollywood would have; it's somber and permanently stained with the thought of those men and women Solomon leaves behind to the torment of their captors, the ones who will never know freedom to begin with. It's a chilling parable, capturing the darkest hour in our nation's history. This is the best film of the year.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


"Captain Phillips" is very much a Paul Greengrass movie, and it's very much a Tom Hanks movie. This  makes it a certified awards movie. But is it a great movie? Not so fast.

It's hard to imagine anyone else at the helm of this film, the true life story of Somali pirates hijacking an American cargo ship in 2009, the first act of its kind in two hundred years. It is real world recreation and documentation of a tragic event as was Greengrass' "United 93" in 2006. It also bears resemblance to Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," a moment in American history that defined a world in flux and one person's turmoil at the center of it.

As Captain Richard Phillips prepares to embark on the MV Maersk Alabama to travel around the potentially dangerous horn of Africa, he talks with his wife (Catherine Keener) about a changing world, a landscape his son has to grow up in. Cut to a team of Somalians whose own world is in economic ruin as they set off to plunder millions from the cargo ship. Instead of plumbing any real world complexities, Greengrass sticks to the facts taking a very businesslike approach. It's a perfectly calculated dramatization of a real life incident with clear depiction of the "what" without the intrigue of the "why." Even with all that shaky cam to get a rise out of viewers, it still strangely feels once-removed.

Making preparations on the ship, Captain Phillips is calm and regimented, careful and professional. And when an ominous, fast-approaching blip appears on his ship's radar, he keeps his cool and gently affirms to his crew they might be entering a troubling situation. And when any bemoaning arises, he knows exactly when to firm up. Watching Tom Hanks melt into the role is absorbing in the film's early stages and affirms his movie-star presence, anchoring the proceedings. When the Somali pirates make their way aboard the ship, led by the determined Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Phillips maintains his levelheadedness, reasoning and negotiating with the attackers while keeping as much understanding as he can muster.

It's when Phillips gets taken hostage into the ship's lifeboat that the film pigeon-holes itself into a pressure cooker of tension and impending violence. The camera holed up inside this cramped space creates intense claustrophobia and startling immediacy. Refusing to surrender when the Navy descends on him and his team, Barkhad Abdi gives a commanding first-time performance as Muse. Waiting for the inevitable outcome, however, goes on for nearly too long, and it becomes apparent there simply isn't enough content to justify the 134-minute running time.

It all comes back to Tom Hanks whose performance should be recognized by the academy. The last ten minutes of "Captain Phillips" is what people will leave talking about, a moment of wrenching emotional clarity. Phillips, the ordinary man who came out the other end of a tragic event as a hero is still completely human and can finally break down, evacuating all of his bottled up fear and vulnerability. It feels more than earned; it's just too bad we had to wait so long to receive such greatness.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


What more is there to say about "Gravity," director Alfonso Cuaron's diamond of a film? It is a masterpiece, boldly announcing the future of cinema and literally like nothing else we've seen before in the history of the medium. It rewrites the rules right before our eyes, managing to show us something that makes the power of filmgoing awe-inspiring all over again. It thrills us, challenges us and is hands-down one of the most visceral and stressful 90 minutes you'll ever experience.

In an age where we consume media everywhere but inside a movie theater, Cuaron's harrowing space journey demands audiences back. One of the film's greatest features is simply existing as a film that must be viewed in a large-screen format in a dark room with a full audience. The power in the filmmaking, especially the stunning cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (of Cuaron's "Children of Men" and Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"), is that it literally transports audiences into space with the characters. For once, 3D feels necessary for a film. Even better than the milestone-setting "Avatar" and then "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Life of Pi" to follow, it's undeniably suitable to the zero-gravity setting where traditional horizontal and vertical planes are rendered irrelevant creating a free-standing inky black landscape.

Speaking of "Avatar," that is the easiest comparison in terms of groundbreaking visual landmark. James Cameron was a large supporter of Cuaron during the early stages of this film, a whole seven years ago back when the technology used to make his project wasn't even invented yet. "Gravity" is also a movie about impossibility. A bleak phrase appears on the screen before the first shot begins: "Life in space is impossible." Years ago, this film was impossible. And going back further decades ago, space travel was impossible. Cuaron dares us to see what impossible can achieve.

It all starts with a gorgeous 17-minute shot that establishes medic Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in the vast expanse of space inside their suits on assignment to repair Hubble. "You can't beat the view," Kowalski says, gazing down at the blue earth. He's not kidding. That is until a storm of catastrophic debris destroys their spacecraft and sends them adrift with no easily feasible way of getting back home. Terror sets in for both them and us.

Though epic in scope, Cuaron's film is simple at its core. It's about high-powered technology going wrong, like a shipwreck movie in space. (Which is curious because Robert Redford's literal shipwreck movie "All Is Lost" comes out later this year.) Apart from the visual wonderment, the sound design in "Gravity" is equally astonishing: the contrast created from loud, overwhelming bass crescendoing into absolute, pure silence. And even the sound from the perspective of the characters where voices come through over radio and the muted thumping of all other sounds, it's like we're right inside the suit with them.

The dialogue is one thing of note. Why is Kowalski so jokey and chipper? Why is Ryan egging herself forward with motivational cliches? Because if not for their own voices, there is only stark silence. It's that terrifying thought of loss of self and affirming one own's tiny existence in the universe that establishes Cuaron's humanism. For any step into sentimentality, however, there's a constant undertone of existential dread. There's really only so much that can be said about "Gravity" because here's a film that says it all for itself. Never have the words "you have to see it to believe it" meant more. Go see it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

DON JON Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon" is not a romantic comedy, and it's not even a movie about porn addiction. And saying such is a testament to Gordon-Levitt as an emerging writer/director who has delivered a debut that is weird, funny, confident, intelligent and, most impressive, blasts onto the scene with something to say. What it is: a movie about finding human connection in a world where media has skewered our view of relationships and how we find meaning in each other. 

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the epitome of the modern day Don Juan. He's a beefed up New Jersey guy dedicated to what's most important in his life: his boys, his girls, his family, his church, his body, his ride and his pad. And then his porn. Even though he has no trouble landing a girl every time he goes out, his real sexual thrill is still at the click of a mouse. The way Jon dishes out why is a riot: the blow jobs, the positions, the money shot. It's graphic but never gratuitous, and the frenetic way porn clips are edited together shows absolute control over a highly slick and stylized production.

From the music to the camerawork, every directorial decision is apparent in Gordon-Levitt's vision, and that's without even mentioning Gordon-Levitt the actor. He's great. The film follows Jon as he goes about his days, very set in his routine. The repetition is blatant -- down to the detail of shots showing him walking to the gym and bounding up the church steps are exactly the same every time -- and a stylistic choice but also acts as a hindrance to the film's narrative which itself becomes repetitive. Even when Jon meets the bombshell Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) who he swears will change his life, he keeps up his routine, which includes rampant porn consumption.

His parents (Glenne Headly and Tony Danza) are thrilled that his boy is finally growing up, but silent sister Monica (Brie Larson) isn't convinced. Don't miss Larson in the fabulous "Short Term 12" because here she's only given the job of one line, but it's one ripe with truth and insight and drives home Jon's ultimate self-revelation. There's also an older night school classmate, Esther (Julianne Moore), breaking him out of his mold. At first she annoys him, but they gradually begin to bond. Their scenes are the movie's most naturalistic and moving and for good reason. Moore is outstanding as always but also feels slightly miscast. As "Don Jon" plugs along in its cyclical scenes of gym, church, porn, repeat, it's hard to decipher how Esther and his relationship fall into place. Just as you reach the brink of wondering what's the point, it hits you like a ton of bricks.

Friday, September 27, 2013


Nicole Holofcener's most commercial film also happens to be her best. With "Enough Said," the writer and director has crafted a perfect comedy for adults, a romantic comedy that is smart, sophisticated and never less than pleasantly engaging. It's also arguably her funniest work to date largely thanks to the magnificent Julia Louis-Dreyfus who appears in and carries every single scene. And beside her is the late, great James Gandolfini, such an unconventional casting pair you would never think up, but after seeing the film, you can't picture anyone else in these roles.

Louis-Dreyfus (two-time Emmy winner for her hilariously biting turn in HBO's "Veep") brings her signature wit and wicked tongue here but with an ounce more compassion. Gandolfini doesn't try to keep up with her but instead runs at his own pace with comic timing that is slower and complementary to the actress' barbs. The opposite of every mobster (namely Tony Soprano) we've seen him play, he's gentle, a big sweetheart looking for love, and he's a marvel in the understated role. I certainly wouldn't mind a campaign pushing for the actor to get nominated for a posthumous Oscar.

The film's initial scenes are the first dates between Louis-Dreyfus' Eva and Gandolfini's Albert getting to know each other. They are so natural together, and it's a treat to watch them play off each other and spar romantically. Eva meets Albert at a party the same night she meets Marianne (Holofcener mainstay Catherine Keener), a new client for Eva who conducts in-house massage sessions in breezy Santa Monica. Eva quickly discovers, however, that Marianne is Albert's ex-wife, and hearing her rants on Albert largely skewers Eva's otherwise clean perception of her new love interest. It's a fun, clever twist that always contributes to the movie's larger theme on trusting your instincts and having faith in love that never feels contrived or forced.

This is Holofcener's first time focusing on only two characters rather than a large ensemble, though she still enlists Toni Collette and Ben Falcone to play Eva's married friends Sarah and Will. Sarah is in a moral conundrum over firing the maid, which borders on the movie falling victim to upper-class white people problems, but the larger notion addressed lets that fall to the wayside. It's about characters fumbling their way to trying to do what's right. In the case of Eva, does continuing the friendship with Albert's ex-wife protect herself from hurt or act as self-sabotage? You be the judge. The screenplay also nicely navigates second-marriages, which are more and more becoming the norm, as well as the separation anxiety -- for adults -- that comes with sending kids off to college.

The way Holofcener crafts her films to let moral quandaries and questions of human nature unfold is uniquely her own, and it's nice to see her make something that may reach a wider audience in the process. The lead performances in "Enough Said" are certainly reason enough.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Remember "Insidious," that extremely clever (and truly terrifying) horror movie that came out of nowhere and gave audiences hope in the haunted house genre again? Well, also remember earlier this year when critics hailed that director James Wan (who's next signed on to direct "Fast & Furious 7") had delivered again with his "The Conjuring," which received rave reviews and dominated the box office?

Well, I've had the sad fate of seeing this director's other horror effort this year, shame on me. It's "Insidious: Chapter 2," everything the first chapter could've been and absolutely wasn't. This braindead, sorefully unscary follow-up is less a sequel than it is a perfect example of taking something good and dashing it to bits.

Things pick up exactly where the first one left off. Renai (Rose Byrne) and her husband, Josh (Patrick Wilson) have escaped their demon-ridled house and taken recluse at the no-less haunted estate of Josh's mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). They know it's not the house that's haunted but they flee nonetheless. Last time it was their son's out-of-body demon inflicting evil onto the Lambert family. Who is it this time, you ask? Well, the options are limited and recall for a moment who entered that undead-filled dark realm they like to refer to as The Further.

The story here, which woefully follows last outing's comic relief for the duration of the film undercutting any and all frights, is a mess from start to finish. It clings to horror movie tropes and doesn't twist them in any fun or interesting way. Although there's no denying the film is handsomely shot, the use of a shaky handheld camera exploring an old, creepy hospital is borrowing from "Paranormal Activity" more than probably intended. And then not to mention "The Shining" in the film's other key plot device.

As I mentioned earlier, Wan is hanging up his horror directorial cap to move on to an action blockbuster. Good for him to get out while he can and let somebody else take over for the inevitably clunky third installment that the ending of "Chapter 2" so unabashedly promises.

My review of "Insidious"

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

SHORT TERM 12 Review

In a summer of massive studio flops, it's been an exceptionally great summer for individual voices behind some of the year's best independent films. Here is yet another superb entry, this one from writer/director Destin Cretton who has adapted his short film from 2008 into this year's Grand Jury and Audience Award winner at SXSW, "Short Term 12." It's a heartrending powerhouse, one of the most emotionally raw films you're likely to see this year and an affirmation of Brie Larson (of "The Spectacular Now" and the upcoming "Don Jon") as a great, young actress. Look out for her.

The gorgeous and elliptical film is a snapshot of a foster care center for youth at risk. Larson plays 20-something Grace who is among the supervising staff at the center. She is joined by her shaggy, caring boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr. of "The Newsroom") and newcomer to the center, Nate (Rami Malek), who's still learning the ropes. The film begins in their intimate circle, Mason telling a story, then stretches out into the lives of these staffers and the kids they look after, and then brings us right back to where we started with a much deeper and profound understanding.

The magic of Cretton's film is the way it works as a slow burn through mini-climaxes and revelations, weaving a larger tapestry of sadness, angst and the beauty of the human condition. Never sensationalized and always naturalistic, the way scenes unfold is delicate, taking time to settle into this environment and these characters. It unassumingly burrows into our minds and hearts, so that by the end we have complete empathy.

The film focuses mostly on two foster kids, Jayden and Marcus, played respectively by Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield in a duo of fantastic performances that bring their pained, conflicted characters to life. Grace ends up identifying closely with Jayden and getting almost too involved in her situation at home with her abusive father; she sees Jayden as a younger, more fragile version of herself. You see, Grace and her boyfriend Mason are grown-ups of foster care. She, especially, is afraid of her own demons to the point where, after discovering her pregnancy, she can't decide if she has the faith to keep the baby. Meanwhile, Mason is worried his love won't ever be enough to save Grace.

Destin Cretton's "Short Term 12" doesn't take the usual routes to get into the head and heart of its audience; instead it surprises us with unexpected moments of poignancy and, even in the darkest moments, bursts of humor. And not every loose end gets tied up, nor does it deserve to be. We are peering in on messy lives, and it isn't our job to watch them get cleaned up completely.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

IN A WORLD... Review

Lake Bell. You may not know the name, but you do know her face. She's the one who plays the snarky sidekick in romantic comedies. To get the lead, she had to make the role for herself. "In A World..." was written, directed and produced by the actress, and to say this is a starmaking turn for her is putting it lightly. We may be experiencing the Lena Dunham's "Girls" movie-equivalent breakout.

Bell plays Carol who lives under the same roof as, and in the ever-present shadow of, her father, Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed of "A Serious Man"), whose sultry baritone is one of the leading voices in the voiceover industry. Carol, who aspires to break into the male-dominated world, instead spends her days vocal coaching Eva Longoria and practicing her accents. The aptly titled comedy gives us a crash course in the absurdly cut-throat industry where those epic, cliched opening three words rule. While very funny and cheeky, the film also treats the business of it with real sincerity.

When Sotto's groupie-turned-girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden) moves in, Carol gets kicked to the curb and shacks up with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her sad sack husband, Moe (Rob Corddry). While there she unwittingly becomes involved in a marital breakdown on top of the obvious problem of sleeping on her sister's couch. The couple brings an interesting dynamic to the script, which sometimes has a lot going on but is always nicely balanced. Other supporting players include Nick Offerman and Demetri Martin in the sound studio, the latter's dry, awkward humor complementing Lake's Carol perfectly. Ken Marino of "Burning Love" plays Gustav, a young hot shot voiceover actor gunning for Sotto's job.

Gustav, Sotto and Carol get in a heated three-way competition to become the next big trailer voice for an upcoming YA adaptation series -- a tongue-in-cheek joke that is so perfectly timed considering the onslaught of those adaptations we're experiencing now. This one is a playful knock on "The Hunger Games," called "The Amazon Games," a self-proclaimed quadrilogy.

"In A World..." is a blithe comedy that is far more insightful than its surface pleasantries lead on. It's a feminist story, one that takes a look at sexism in not only the voiceover industry but the entire studio industry in a real way. Geena Davis as a top producer delivers a line that brings the movie's message home without ever daring to become preachy. Lake Bell is a true original, and it'll be exciting to see what she does next in what hopes to be a long, fruitful career both behind and in front of the camera.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


This summer's last hope for a thought-provoking action blockbuster is an infuriating letdown. It boils down to becoming the same drivel we've been experiencing all summer long. And what's worse: it hails from writer/director Neill Blomkamp of the Best Picture-nominated "District 9," a stunning example of sci-fi filmmaking. Not only is his follow-up feature underwhelmingly derivative, but it's a brash squandering of creative potential. The intention here is political, but it doesn't follow through.

What could've been a cautionary tale of immigration and one percenters doesn't delve into nearly enough detail of this world and how it works to create a truly stirring real world metaphor. Instead, it devolves into a grand gloss-over opting for generic, conventional action sequences. Actors (Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley) are wasted, most notably the sorely underused Jodie Foster as a severe-looking secretary of defense to the privileged planet.

In a recent interview, Blomkamp said, "I'm not even sure I'm a director." Maybe it was the pressure of big-budget Hollywood or the obsession of franchise, but something has certainly gone awry. "Elysium" is garbage.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Apart from "The Spectacular Now" being -- dare I say it -- spectacular, it's so natural, unforced and wonderfully affecting. For a coming-of-age story of high schoolers with the usual tropes (hookups, prom and graduation), it feels nothing like your typical entry into the genre. Director James Ponsoldt's second film since his Mary Elizabeth Winstead showcase "Smashed" is a leap forward in craft and no less draws phenomenal performances from two central characters. Here it's Miles Teller of "Project X" and "Rabbit Hole" and Shailene Woodley of "The Descendants" who will both appear in the upcoming YA adaptation "Divergent." Their chemistry feels almost impossibly organic within long shots giving each scene an immediate intimacy and room for these actors to breathe. They, and this film, are a marvel.

The script comes from "(500) Days of Summer" scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who adapted from a novel by Tim Tharp. The story centers on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the most well known guy in high school whose reputation isn't exactly clean. He's fun-loving and endlessly charismatic but reckless and bordering on alcoholism. But he knows about every party and knows everyone at them. One morning Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) finds him passed out on a front lawn after yet another drunken night. He offers to help with her paper route because he needs to be driven around the neighborhood to find his car. So begins their mutually beneficial relationship, but as the film casually and soulfully moves them along, the line becomes blurred as to who's helping whom. 

Sutter believes he's doing Aimee a favor by paying her attention and inviting her to parties; he gets geometry tutoring in return. He gives her the courage to stand up to her mother and tell her she wants to go away to college; she gives him the courage to stand up to his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and ask to see his estranged father (Kyle Chandler). It's unclear whether Sutter is looking for friendship or courtship from Aimee, but she falls hard for the guy who always has a flask at hand. Sutter's ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) watches as he takes Aimee in. "Have you turned her into a lush yet?" she asks him.

Sutter is sincere but indecisive and can turn on a dime. His motto is living in the moment, soaking up the ever-present now and not worrying about the future. But at such a pivotal life moment, that ideology keeps a person coasting in neutral -- the problem is that Sutter is complacent doing just that. Aimee has hopes for the future, and her relationship with Sutter transforms into something parasitic threatening to drag her down. Their complex push and pull is the driving force of "The Spectacular Now," a film which ultimately transcends its own high school confines. It's about being caught at the edge of growing up, taking responsibility and discovering whether you're going to land on the right foot when you cross to the other side.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Without the verdict of the Zimmerman trial now etched into our nation's history, 26-year-old Ryan Coogler's debut "Fruitvale Station" would be no less powerful and resonant. But, with this film opening in the wake of that decision, there's no denying the added level of immediate relevance. An extremely well-made and well-acted film that already is timeless in its story of a young man's life cut short now becomes more timely than ever. This is essential viewing.

On New Year's Day in 2009 at 2:15 a.m. 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer at a Fruitvale station platform in Oakland, Calif. Writer/director Coogler's brisk 84-minute film traces back Oscar's final day in roughly a 24-hour period. We follow him in the course of a typical day. Waking up with his girlfriend, Sophia (Melonie Diaz), and young daughter, driving them to day care and work respectively and then preparing for a birthday party for his mother (Octavia Spencer). Along the way, we get a glimpse into his troubled past. Prior to his untimely death, Oscar is not painted as a saint; he's a multi-faceted man bridging the gap between his old ways and the new life he wants for his family.

Sophia has just caught Oscar cheating, he got fired from his job and a year ago was in jail for getting involved with drugs. A flashback takes us to Oscar's mom visiting him in the penitentiary. He's warm but rough-edged and temperamental, and their emotionally-charged exchange reveals a strained relationship. Flash forward to this day where Oscar is trying to get back on track. He's surrounded by love, and the film's naturalism in its shooting style -- knowing exactly how long to linger and when to cut away -- shows such human warmth, especially his undying love toward his daughter. On this day it looks like everything might work out, but we of course already know it doesn't.

Enter the tension-fueled scene on the Fruitvale station platform between Oscar, his group of friends and a testy police officer (Kevin Durand) -- a singular moment that seals Oscar's fate. Coogler opens his film with real footage taken from a witness' phone as the incident was circled with bystanders capturing footage. Juxtaposed to this, the scene becomes effectively jarring taking a moment of voyeurism and turning it into a pointed feeling of urgency and panic.

"Fruitvale Station" presents two major emerging talents. As a debut, Coogler's film is a powerhouse while at the same time modest and personal. And Jordan plays Oscar with an assured steady hand, balancing sincerity and ferocity. His performance should go on to awards consideration later this year next to Octavia Spencer, the movie's heart and soul. In the hospital waiting room, she calms the men's cries of injustice telling them they need to put all their energy toward Oscar's well-being. "Fruitvale" won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year's Sundance, and no wonder. There's not a dry eye in the audience when the credits roll.