Reel Opinions


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The 9th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

As the final hours of 2014 tick down to the new year, it's time for a little tradition I have here at Reel Opinions.  It's time to take one last look back at the films that stole my time, and the time of anyone else unfortunate enough to watch them.  It's time to list the worst films of the past year, as well as the dishonorable mentions, and the individual awards I give every year to "honor" what I feel were the worst pieces of cinema that I forced myself to sit through.

I saw 134 movies in the past year, and while there were some pretty big stinkers, the good outweighed the bad.  As always, the top awards given out in this article are the films that I either absolutely despised, or left me scratching my head wondering what the filmmakers were thinking.

As always, my "best of" list is still in the works.  There are still some major movies stuck in limited release, and will expand throughout January, so I'm holding off on it for just a little while.

So, with that all said, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys, and hope that everyone involved with them gets to do a good movie in 2015.


THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2014:

10. TRANSCENDENCE - Here is a movie full of big ideas, but it lacks the focus to really concentrate on them, or the heart to make us care about them.  This is an oddly impersonal movie, filled with talented actors giving off key performances, particularly Johnny Depp, who gives a strangely mute and indifferent performance here as a computer genius who, when he is near death, has his consciousness uploaded to an advanced super computer so his mind can live on after his body expires.  The real test of any Science Fiction film is does it allow the audience to completely follow its technology and premise, far-fetched as they may seem?  For a while, I was intrigued, and wanted the movie to tell me more about this process.  Unfortunately, once Will is hooked into the computer, the movie takes a predictable turn into thriller territory. The performances are stilted and wooden, the characters are idiotic, and while Transcendence has aspirations of being an intelligent Sci-Fi thriller, it lets itself down by being too dumb and underwritten to be compelling.

09. I, FRANKENSTEIN - It's been a long time since I've seen a movie as ugly, loud, and inept as I, Frankenstein.  Don't let the film's title trick you into thinking that it's an in-depth look into the mind of the famous mad scientist, or some kind of new spin on the classic tale by Mary Shelly.  Rather, this is the story about his Monster, played by Aaron Eckhart (usually a reliable actor, but here he gives a performance destined to be remembered at next year's Razzie Awards), and how he got sucked into a battle between gargoyles and demons.  This attempt to reinvent Frankenstein's Monster into some sort of modern day superhero who protects a city from demons is unintentionally laughable at just about every angle.  Not even the special effects look right, as the monsters he fight look inexplicably like actors wearing rubber masks over their heads.  There's a sense of gloom that hangs over this production, and not all of it is intentional.  It's the kind of gloom you sense when talented actors know they're trapped in a turkey.

08. SEX TAPE -  It's never nice to laugh at people less fortunate than you, and that's probably the main reason I never laughed once while watching Sex Tape.  The people in this movie are dumber than dirt.  The film stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, who can both be effortlessly charming with the right material, but here come across as blithering morons as they play a married couple who film a sex tape of themselves on their iPad, forget to delete it, and then it accidentally gets sent out to all their friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, etc.  The two spend the rest of the movie acting like idiots as they race around, trying to steal everyone's mobile device, so they can't watch the tape.  This is the kind of movie that makes you ask if the filmmakers even know how technology works.  Not only is it not funny at any time, but it also pulls off the miracle of not even being that racy or sexy, which is what the ad campaign sold itself on.  Sex Tape is a bafflingly idiotic movie, with characters who are too stupid to live.

07. LABOR DAY - The once-reliable filmmaker, Jason Reitman (best known for films like Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air), had a very rough 2014, which kicked off with this unintentionally hilarious and just plain ludicrous romantic melodrama.  The film follows a reclusive woman (Kate Winslet) and her son who seldom leave their home ever since the woman's husband walked out on them.  The one rare occasion they do go out to get some groceries, they run into an escaped convict (Josh Brolin), who takes them hostage, but then winds up falling in love with the woman.  He spends the entire time there fixing up the house, teaching the kid to play baseball, and having one of the most hilariously absurd "sensual" moments ever caught on film, as he and the mother get freaky with each other while making fruit pie filling.  Labor Day was originally intended to be an Oscar contender for the studio, but when it was laughed at by audiences at film festivals last year, its award aspirations were dashed, and the studio dumped it in theaters with little fanfare, where it quickly died at the box office with hardly anyone noticing.  This is romantic melodrama at its worst.

06. NO GOOD DEED - Was there no one on the set of No Good Deed to tell Taraji P. Henson and Idris Elba that they were too good for this?  No one to sit them down and ask what they were doing starring in this exploitive, nasty thriller that is far below their talents?  This is a film that is built around repeated scenes of women being beaten, maimed, tortured and murdered.  Henson plays a woman alone in her house one night who lets a stranger (Elba) in when he says his car has broken down.  Of course, before he shows up at her door, we have seen the man murder a pair of prison guards, then make his way to his ex-girlfriend's house, where he breaks in, waits for her to come home and then strangles her to death with his bare hands and smashes her head with a lamp.  He later bludgeons another woman to death with a shovel, frequently beats and torments the female lead character, and holds a cute little five year old girl and her baby brother hostage at gun point.  It's made even more vile by the fact that the film has been sanitized just enough so that it can receive a "family friendly" PG-13.  No Good Deed is offensive dreck, but it doesn't even have the courtesy to be interesting offensive dreck.  It's slow, boring and fails to generate any tension.  All it does manage to create is a sense of disgust, and a sense of pity that talented actors like Henson and Elba are forced to endure it.

05. GOD'S NOT DEAD - A surprise hit at the box office with Christian moviegoers, God's Not Dead is a movie that starts with an intriguing premise, then does as little as possible with it, choosing instead to distract us with characters who barely reach two dimensions, plenty of dumb subplots, and pointless cameos by two of the stars of TV's Duck Dynasty, and the Christian Rock group, Newsboys.  The film's main plot centers on a young college student who is challenged by his philosophy professor (former Hercules TV star, Kevin Sorbo) to prove the existence of God, after the professor proclaims that God is dead, and the student objects to the statement.  The movie is obviously intended to create debate, but it's so one-sided on the kid's side, it barely touches on the other view.  It doesn't help that the professor is seen as a monster, who threatens the kid in the hall, and frequently ridicules his Christian girlfriend.  The film seems to be emulating the style of Magnolia or Crash, movies that took multiple storylines and characters, and wove them together into one narrative.  God's Not Dead bungles this ambition early on, with thin characters and storytelling so sloppy, some of the plots don't even get any real resolution or closure.  The characters who inhabit these stories are either stereotypes, or comically underwritten.  This is a movie that not only preaches to a preexisting audience, but it doesn't even seem to know a lot about the argument it's trying to make in the first place.

04. AS ABOVE/SO BELOW - 2014 had plenty of examples of bad 'found footage" horror films, but As Above/So Below was easily the worst of the lot.  This was a confusing and muddled film that barely had a plot, or characters we could give a damn about.  To the best of my knowledge, the film is about a bunch of explorers who are searching for the Philosopher's Stone, which is believed to have supernatural powers, and they think is located in the catacombs underneath Paris.  The deeper they explore, the individual members of the team are haunted by hallucinations of their inner demons.  There are also ghosts, I think, and some satanic worshipers roaming around down there.  As Above/So Below is not really concerned with explaining itself.  I think the basic idea is that these characters are supposed to be descending into Hell the deeper they go into the caverns, but it's never quite clear.  What is apparent is that the movie is not intense or terrifying at any point or time.  I don't know how you film an entire movie in a decrepit and dank cavern, and not create a sense of claustrophobia, but somehow the filmmakers have done just that.  If you want to recreate the experience of this movie at home, turn off the lights, grab a camera, and fumble around blindly.  Have a friend or neighbor waiting in the dark somewhere to throw an object at your camera at random, while you shake the camera violently, screaming "Oh my God, what is that??".  Not only will you have saved yourself the price of a ticket, but you'll probably be having more fun than you would watching this.

03. THE OTHER WOMAN - Cameron Diaz makes her second appearance on this list with this idiotic and witless comedy targeting women.  The Other Woman follows three women (played by Diaz, Leslie Mann and swimsuit model Kate Upton) who find out that the man they think they're in love with individually has been seeing all 3 of them at the same time.  They get revenge, and hilarity is supposed to ensue, but the only thing we get is another one of those disposable movies that depicts supposedly successful middle aged women as shrieking and obnoxious morons who can't walk without tripping over themselves, or falling into something as a result of some tired pratfall.  The humor plays at the lowest possible level.  It starts at dog poop jokes, and works its way up to a scene where a guy violates a toilet with a fury of the brown stuff, as extremely loud and exaggerated fart and poop sound effects blast on the theater speakers.  Crude, simple-minded and containing some of the worst comedic performances of the year, this movie ended up being an endurance test like few films this year.

02. TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION - This is coming from someone who used to cherish his Transformer toys as a child, and views the 1986 animated Transformers movie as a nostalgic memory - Michael Bay's live action Transformers series has to be some of the worst summer blockbusters ever made.  I can think of very few films that come close to this series' ineptitude.  Age of Extinction is quite possibly the worst of the lot.  This is an aggressive movie in so many ways.  It's aggressively bad, and seems to have been written in such a way that the characters do intentionally stupid things in order for there to even be a plot.  It's aggressively long, with a torturous running time of almost three hours.  It's aggressively loud, with endless and mindless action sequences emphasizing noise over comprehension.  Finally, it's aggressively ugly.  The Transformers themselves still look like towering piles of junk, and are about the most unappealing CG creations in memory.  Michael Bay returns to the director's chair, and hasn't seemed to have learned much from the past films.  Why should he, with each movie breaking box office records?  He says that these movies are for the kid in all of us.  As long as that child has the attention span of a gnat, and holds absolutely no desire other than to see things blow up and CG junk run across the screen, then yes, I agree.

01. A HAUNTED HOUSE 2 - A rushed out sequel to last year's surprise hit horror spoof, A Haunted House 2 was the single worst experience I had at the movies this year.  The movie surpasses being merely bad, and achieves a certain level of cinematic torture that I hope never to have to sit through again.  Am I exaggerating?  Well, let me tell you, that's all I could think to myself during the scene when Marlon Wayans spots a creepy doll named Abigail (a spoof of the Annabelle doll from The Conjuring) sitting on his bed, and he immediately throws off his clothes, and starts having wild sex with it for a good three minutes straight.  And then, later on, we get to see him do it to the doll again.  By the third time the movie was forcing me to watch him violate the damn doll, I was willing to pay someone good money as long as they would promise me I'd never have to look at Marlon Wayans' naked rear end ever again.  Look, I've long resigned myself to the fact that parody movies no longer actually parody elements of films, but rather just borrow famous scenes from them, and then add jokes about oral sex and bodily fluids.  But this movie doesn't even seem to be trying in any way.  There are no rules to the game that this movie wants to play.  It's just a series of scenes based on other movies, and the filmmakers hope we will laugh out of recognition, and then laugh even more when Marlon Wayans starts having nasty sex with something or someone.  We don't laugh, but the movie just keeps on trying, almost as if it thinks we're missing the point.  This kind of repetition is fatal to a comedy, and doubly so for a spoof.  Imagine if Mel Brooks just kept on doing the same jokes over and over in his movies.  Do you think Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein would be remembered as classics today?  Those movies were smart, and knew what satirical targets they were aiming for.  This movie doesn't even know what it's trying to do most of the time.


Well, that covers the Top 10, but I am far from finished.  It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to break into the top spots.  Don't let that fool you into thinking these movies are somehow better than what's come before, however.  You should avoid any and all movies that appear on this list.  With that said, let's roll out the next batch of stinkers!


DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

The Legend of Hercules, Devil's Due, Ride Along, 300: Rise of an Empire, Sabotage, Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, Blended, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Earth to Echo, Deliver Us From Evil, The Expendables 3, The Giver, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Dracula Untold, The Best of Me, Ouija, Horrible Bosses 2, Annie, Unbroken


INDIVIDUAL REEL STINKERS AWARDS:

WORST SEQUEL:
A Haunted House 2

MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:
Horrible Bosses 2

WORST REMAKE:
Annie

WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN A-LIST ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Johnny Depp in Transcendence

WORST OVERALL PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Marlon Wayans in A Haunted House 2

WORST IDEA FOR A MOVIE THAT NEVER COULD HAVE WORKED:
I , Frankenstein

REPEAT OFFENDERS (ACTORS WHO WERE INVOLVED IN MORE THAN ONE STINKER IN 2014):
Kelsey Grammer in Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Expendables 3
Cameron Diaz in The Other Woman, Sex Tape and Annie
Joel McHale in Blended and Deliver Us From Evil
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sabotage and The Expendables 3

WORST ON SCREEN TEAM:
Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis in Horrible Bosses 2

WORST CELEBRITY STUNT CASTING:
God's Not Dead, for its pointless cameos of the Duck Dynasty guys

STUDIO THAT BROUGHT US THE MOST STINKERS IN 2014:
 Universal Studios, who brought us As Above/So Below, Ride Along, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Dracula Untold, Ouija and Unbroken.

Well, that's the worst of 2014 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2015, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!

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Monday, December 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything

I imagine there will be a certain audience who will be disappointed with The Theory of Everything.  Those will be the people who are expecting a film about the work and career of Stephen Hawking, the most famous theoretical physicist of our time.  The movie is not so much about the man's work, as it is the story of how he fell in and eventually out of love with his first wife, Jane.  This is just as much her story as it is his.

This is to be expected, since the film uses Jane's book "Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen" as its inspiration.  The film ends up being a respectable bio picture about the couple that has some heartbreakingly wonderful moments throughout, and two fantastic lead performances.  Of course, everyone's attention is on Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen.  It is indeed sensational how he goes through the different stages of Stephen's life and disease that will render him immobile, and it deserves all the praise and gold statuettes it's bound to attract.  But Felicity Jones as Jane deserves just as much attention, even if she has the less attention grabbing role.  Both actors give their all as they explore the joy, sorrow and frustration of these two lovers who are put to the test as Stephen slowly begins to succumb to ALS, is given only two years to live, and yet rises above to have a long and storied career in his field.

The film kicks off at the University of Cambridge in the early 1960s, when Stephen and Jane first meet each other at a party.  The friend accompanying Jane to the party takes one look at Hawking, and dubs him "strange", and that they shouldn't waste their time.  But there is an obvious connection, and Jane ends up talking with Stephen the rest of the night.  Part of the beauty of Redmayne's performance as Stephen is how he captures the awkward and shy quality of the man in his younger years, while at the same time coming across as being completely charismatic and charming, so that we understand why Jane is drawn to him.  His hair is a mess, and his large glasses are frequently askew, but we can see that he is truly fascinated in this woman.  The sweet early scenes he shares with Jane are crosscut with the scenes in his classes, particularly a professor played by David Thewlis, who eventually becomes Hawking's mentor, and encourages him to pursue his theories about the universe.

Just as Stephen's career seems to be heading in the right direction, it starts to go dangerously wrong.  We have seen signs of him having trouble walking of clutching a piece of chalk as he writes out a math formula.  But one day, as he's walking across the campus, he suddenly loses all balance and footing, and falls to the pavement.  The doctors diagnosis him with "motor neuron disease", and tell him the disease will quickly spread through his whole body, causing his muscles to decay.  Despite the warnings of both of their individual families, Stephen and Jane decide to wed.  They have children, and we follow Stephen's eventual decline in health, from walking on crutches, to being bound to a wheelchair, to completely losing the ability to speak and having to rely on a computer to communicate. 

It's at this point that Jane becomes more the focus of The Theory of Everything.  The movie looks at her struggles of raising the children and having to care for her husband.  In the film's funniest moment, Jane's mother suggests that her daughter get out of the house more, and maybe join a church choir for fun.  Jane's response?  "I think that's the most English thing anyone has ever said".  She follows her mom's advice, and meets up with the choir director, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), who recently lost his wife, and offers to help Jane out around the home.  There is an instant attraction between the two, and we can understand why she is drawn to him, while still being in love with her husband.  Other people around her notice it too, and when she becomes pregnant with another child, they secretly ask if the baby belongs to Stephen or Jonathan. 

The remainder of the film deals with the two slowly being pulled apart, as it seems that Stephen himself is developing feelings for Elaine (Eileen Davies), the specialist who is hired to work with him.  Both can see what is happening, and how they both come to terms with this seems honest and quiet, not melodramatic.  We don't get a soap opera-like scene where Jane blows up at somebody.  She stays calm and collected, wanting to hold back her feelings, but finding it increasingly hard.  The relationship between the two main characters, and the performances, just feels right.  The screenplay and the performances don't play up the drama of the deteriorating relationship.  There are no big scenes, no swelling music, and no big confrontation.  Their final moments together are a whisper, not a scream.  And that's the way it usually is.  This movie is smart enough to understand that.

There is a certain calculated nature to The Theory of Everything which may turn off certain people.  It's clearly been designed as a feel-good crowd pleaser that goes on to win a lot of awards.  And yet, there's enough truthfulness behind the movie that I did not mind so much.  The performances are superb, and the writing and dialogue is good enough that I never felt like I was being completely manipulated.  I'm sure that some of the uglier truths of the real story have been sanded off in order to make this dramatization more pleasant and PG-13.  But it never reaches the point that it feels like it is talking down to the audience.  That's what separates this movie from the films that fall into the trap of total sappiness.  This one knows just how far to go with its manipulations, and when to pull back. 

Much like Wild, I think this will be a film that is remembered more for its performances than its narrative.  But, this is still one of the better bio-pictures I have seen during the end of the year movie season so far.  This may not be as smart of a movie as we could have gotten about Stephen Hawking, but it's very emotional and uplifting.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Wild

Watching Wild, I found myself constantly thinking back on the 2007 film, Into the Wild, which told the story of a disillusioned young man named Chris McCandless, who gave up on modern society so that he could live in the untamed wilderness of Alaska.  Here, we get the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who makes a somewhat similar, though far less dangerous, journey when it feels like her life is falling apart and she has lost everything.

This is nowhere near as great of a movie as Into the Wild, but it is quite good, and it features a strong performance by Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl.  She is determined to make the hike along a trail that goes from the California/Mexico border, all the way up to Canada.  She runs into some colorful characters along the way, and her body and feet obviously get pretty banged up during the long journey.  But, truth be told, not a whole lot happens to her during the course of the journey itself.  The only time she comes close to being in danger in the film is when she has a run-in with a pair of creepy male hikers who ask her for some water, but won't leave her alone after she gives them some.  Witherspoon does a great job of conveying the physical and emotional exhaustion her character is going through, and director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) really captures the beauty of the scenery.  But there's little tension during the journey she endures.

Oddly enough, the more dramatically compelling material occurs during the flashbacks, which tell us the story as to why Cheryl is on this journey in the first place.  The flashbacks are scattered and kind of out of place, as real memories often are.  They are triggered by the tiniest things during Cheryl's adventure.  We witness her as a child, with an abusive father, and a loving mother (Laura Dern) who manages to smile all through the hardest of times.  Her mother eventually moves out on her own, goes back to school, and tries to build a new life for herself.  But then, tragedy strikes when her mother is diagnosed with a terminal illness, which she quickly succumbs to.  This sent Cheryl spiraling into a drug and sex-fueled depression, which costs her relationship with her husband Paul (Thomas Sadowski).  This journey she is embarking on is therapeutic, and a chance to confront her own personal demons during the three months or so it takes her to walk the full trail.

The scenes between Witherspoon and Dern are wonderful, with both actresses giving layered and thoughtful performances here.  They create a realistic mother-daughter relationship, with Dern trying her best to be optimistic, and Witherspoon being loving, but not quite understanding how her mother can be so optimistic when the family has so little to live on.  Their performances are almost reason enough to see Wild, especially Witherspoon, who throws herself so much into her portrayal of the real life Cheryl Strayed that it's almost certain to earn her a nomination come Oscar time, and possibly a win.  Her performance is so dedicated here that it really can be considered one of the finest female performances of 2014. 

This is not a heavily narrative-driven film.  The entire success of the movie rises and falls on its lead performance, so that's why Witherspoon is so crucial here.  Much like the director's last film, Dallas Buyer's Club, this is more an acting showcase than it is a moving and compelling drama.  Yes, there are some very effective moments here, but as I mentioned, they are pretty much contained entirely in the flashbacks, not in the "present day" (1995) material.  This is a well made and well-acted movie, but it never quite rose to that extra level to become a truly great movie.  Still, it can be considered a very good one.  The nature scenery alone deserves to be seen on the big screen at least once.

At the very least, Wild has inspired me to look more into the story of Cheryl Strayed, and learn more about the details that the movie sort of glosses over.  Anytime a movie makes me want to look more into its subject, it cannot be labeled a failure.  Fortunately, this is actually a pretty good movie.  Just not a great one.

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Top Five

You get the sense that Chris Rock (who stars, wrote and directed the film) was expelling a lot of fears and personal demons while making Top Five.  The movie feels somewhat auto-biographical, as it definitely has a large current of truth about the world of comedians and the price of fame.  Most importantly, the film is very sharp and funny.  You have to admire Rock for making a film built around a question that all comics who have hit it big fear, but are inevitably asked at some point - Why aren't you funny anymore?

Rock plays Andre Allen, who is one of the biggest comic stars in the world.  He was once known for being one of the edgiest and funniest men in the stand up comedy circuit, and that eventually led to a thriving film career.  His most famous film?  A series of movies called Hammy the Bear, where Andre dresses up in a bear suit, and plays a bear who somehow wound up working on the police force.  The Hammy movies have been successful, but Andre doesn't want to be funny anymore.  He wants to do more serious projects, and as the film opens, his drama Uprize! has just been released.  In that film, he plays a Haitian slave who becomes the leader of a slave rebellion, which ends up resulting in the death of 50,000 white people by the end of the film.  However, no one is interested in the movie, not even the people who are interviewing him about it.  Everyone wants to see Hammy on the big screen again.  When he goes to a local theater to see how many people are showing up for his drama, he sees a huge line...Waiting for the new Tyler Perry Madea movie.

In his personal life, Andre is only a couple days away from being married to reality TV show star, Erica Long (Gabrielle Union).  The wedding is set to be the media event of the year, with the Bravo channel filming every detail of the preparation, as well as the big event itself.  We also learn that he has been through more than his share of alcohol-fueled meltdowns and police run-ins, has gone through the AA system, and is now sober and trying to turn his life around.  That's why he doesn't want to do comedy anymore.  He's afraid he can't be funny unless he is under the influence of drugs and booze.  He's already on edge because his new movie is tracking poorly with critics and audiences.  The temptation to fall back into his old habits makes him even more on edge.

Enter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a reporter for the New York Times who is assigned to spend a day with Andre, and interview him.  She is the one who asks him the blunt question, "why aren't you funny anymore?".  She saw his stand up routine once when she was a college student, and knows he's better than he usually portrays himself up on the screen.  Andre distrusts Chelsea almost right from the start, as the film critic for the Times has always been scathing toward his films, and he thinks she's preparing for another attack piece on his career.  As she follows him around for the day, she gets to see him play for the cameras as he does some shopping for the soon-to-be-televised wedding and bachelor party.  She also gets to see his private side, as when he brings her to the home he grew up in in the projects to meet his family.

There is a lot of truth in Top Five, and you get the sense that Rock has gone through some of the experiences or feelings that his character has.  Every time Andre steps out onto the streets, we hear people shout out "Hammy!" at him, or they want him to do one of his routines from the films for them.  Rock also features a lot of his fellow comic friends in cameos, and you get the sense that they are venting just a little, while also parodying their image.  Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg and Adam Sandler sit down with Andre at his bachelor party, and get some big laughs during their conversation with him.  Kevin Hart shows up as Andre's manager.  And his trip back home to visit his family is basically a who's who of talent, with Michael Che, Jay Pharaoh, Leslie King, Tracy Morgan and Ben Vereen playing the people he grew up around.

This is a movie that is quite often funny, and always sharp and smart.  But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have a few flaws here and there.  The subplot surrounding Andre's wedding to the reality show star doesn't really go anywhere and feels underwritten.  Likewise, a last minute plot twist surrounding the Chelsea Brown character is kind of hard to swallow.  However, the movie largely works, because of the chemistry between Rock and Dawson, and also because of the truth that Rock frequently sneaks into the screenplay.  The movie does fall into crass humor at times, but this is just Rock's style, and it never overpowers the tone.  This is ultimately a sweet and honest look at a man looking at his life and career, and where it has led him.

Top Five is obviously a very personal film for the comedic actor, but more importantly, it is filled with high energy and very entertaining.  This movie shows that Rock is comfortable enough in his career that he can make a film like this, and let audiences into his world just a little bit.  It also shows him as a confident filmmaker, and one who knows how to get just as much emotion as laughs from his audience.

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Gambler

The first sounds we hear in The Gambler is a spinning roulette wheel and the ticking of a clock.  We'll hear both sounds many times during the course of the film, as its lead character, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) doesn't know when to stop gambling.  He's the sort of guy who gets in trouble with loan sharks, and when somebody gives him money to bail him out, he bets all that money and loses it all.

This is an odd movie to release at Christmas time.  It's a remake of a 1974 film that starred James Caan in the lead role, and while this is not quite the film that was, it's not a terrible movie.  Just a somewhat unnecessary one.  Jim owes a lot of money to two different men.  One of them is Frank (John Goodman), who recognizes Jim's problem, and tries to help him realize it, while also insisting he gets paid.  The other is Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams), who is not afraid to have his goons rough up Jim.  He is running out of places to turn.  There's his mother (Jessica Lange), but she has had it with his behavior.  In one of the film's best moments, she withdraws over $200,000 to help pay off her son's debts.  When she hands him the money, there are tears in her eyes.  She does not trust her son, and she knows what's going to happen.  Indeed, he turns right around, and gambles away the whole amount instead of paying off his debts.

The Gambler could have been a provocative look at a person who does not know when to stop or quit when he is ahead.  It's a problem that affects many people, and a hard-nosed film looking at the problem would have been fascinating.  Unfortunately, the movie chooses to keep us at a distance from the characters.  Not as bad as Unbroken, mind you, but still enough to notice a lot of missed potential.  We know that Jim clearly has a problem, but it's never quite explored.  Likewise, he has a job as a literature professor at a local college, and strikes up a relationship with a pretty young student (Brie Larson).  Again, while the performances by Wahlberg and Larson are fine, they don't get a lot of scenes together, and we're constantly kept at a distance from the characters.

This hurts the film dramatically.  We know that Jim could have a better life with this woman if he could just realize what is in front of him and stop throwing every cent he earns away, but because of the somewhat emotionally cold screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed), it doesn't hit home as strong as it should.  The movie comes across simply as a story of a man who never learns from his mistakes, nothing more.  There are some great moments throughout that hint at a much better film.  Aside from the scene I mentioned earlier with Lange, Goodman stands out whenever he is on camera.  The gambling scenes also manage to be really intense, especially when Jim just keeps on playing, and we know it's only a matter of time until he loses it all.

The Gambler is not exactly a failure, and I'm not sorry I saw it.  But, I can't exactly call it a full success, either.  You can see a lot of potential throughout, but the movie keeps on selling itself short by never going as deep into its subject matter as it should.  It's a fairly minor release that's bound to get swallowed up at the box office this holiday.  It's just as well.  This is the kind of movie that will probably play better on TV.

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Unbroken

Here is a surprisingly stiff bio-picture about heroism that manages to go nowhere fast.  Unbroken tells us the story of Louie Zamperini, a World War II fighter pilot who crashed in the middle of the Pacific, and drifted on a life raft for 47 days, before he was captured and sent to a Japanese POW camp, where he was beaten and tortured endlessly.  I can see how the filmmakers thought that this could be an uplifting movie about how the human spirit can rise above the worst circumstances, but director Angelina Jolie and the film's screenplay (credited to the Coen Brothers, of all people) miss the point completely.

Rather than uplifting, the movie plays out as an endless series of suffering done to a lead character that we have little to no personal investment with.  That's because the movie forgets to tell us anything about Louie Zamperini (played here by Jack O'Connell).  There's little character development, and really no time for us to feel anything for him, because the movie is so completely focused on what he went through, and not on what he did to endure it.  You know how people accuse some horror movies of being "torture porn"?  Well, this is a torture porn of a different sort, one that's been made with good intentions and dreams of winning award recognition.  To be fair, Jolie handles the early aircraft battle scenes quite well.  It's the smaller and personal moments of the film where she fumbles.

Zamperini is portrayed as a hero with an unbreakable spirit and conviction.  But how did he get this way?  The movie offers us some flashbacks to his youth, but they don't really provide any answers.  As a child, he was viewed as a thug in his community, causing trouble and starting fights.  A police officer catches up to him, and tells him "If it weren't for the fact that your family is so respected in this town, you'd be in Juvenile Hall by now!".  Again, why is his family respected?  We learn absolutely nothing about them.  Louie seems destined for a life of trouble, until his older brother (John D'Leo) gives him a rousing pep talk that is built out of the corniest of cliches. (Again, the Coen Brothers had a hand in this script?) The talk is enough to turn Louie's life around, and he joins the school's track team.  He starts breaking records, and pretty soon it looks like he has a shot at competing in the Olympics.  But, for reasons that the movie doesn't even bother to tell us, he decides to quit his career as an athlete and become a bomber pilot when World War II breaks out.

I probably wouldn't mind the fact that the movie tells us so little about the guy if Louie came across as an interesting individual, but he doesn't.  He's portrayed as a stoic whitewashed hero figure who can do no wrong once he gets on the right path, and the performance by O'Connell offers nothing that we can grasp onto in terms of character traits.  After Zamperini's plane crashes, he spends those long 47 days at sea with a pair of surviving teammates (Finn Wittrock from American Horror Story and Domhnall Gleeson).  This sequence at sea comes across as an endurance test for both the characters and the audience, as the whole movie grinds to a halt to the point that it feels like it lasts just as long as it did in real time.  The only thing interesting in these scenes is the fact that Louie's facial hair grows into a specifically trimmed beard during his long days at sea.

Once Unbroken hits the Japanese prison camp, the narrative becomes even more plodding.  The lead Commandant of the camp (Takamasa Ishihara) takes a personal interest in making Louie's life a living hell, putting him through grueling tortures, such as forcing him to be punched in the face by each of his fellow prisoners, or having to lift a heavy board over his head and keep it there, or else he will be shot.  Again, we learn nothing about these men, so the scenes have absolutely no impact whatsoever.  We know nothing about Louie, about his fellow prisoners, or the men who are torturing them.  This makes the movie unintentionally hollow and empty.  I wanted to be rooting for this guy to survive, but the way the film has been written, I found that I could care less.  It kind of made me feel bad that I didn't care about this guy or what was happening, but I simply can't excuse this bad screenplay.

The film's final moments inform us that Louie spent his later years of life seeking out the men who tortured him in the camp, and forgiving them for what they did.  There was a movie from earlier this year called The Railway Man which covered a very similar topic, and did it very well.  That movie came across as an emotional experience, both in what the main character went through in the prison camp, and his efforts to track down his former torturer.  Unbroken could have learned a lot of lessons from it.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Into the Woods

Ever since the stage musical Into the Woods premiered on Broadway back in 1987, it seemed like a natural candidate for a film adaptation, with its crisscrossing storylines, fairy tale characters, elements of magic and human drama, as well as a wonderful music score by the legendary Stephen Sondheim.  Indeed, Hollywood has been trying to get a film adaptation off the ground for around 20 years or so.  One film that almost got made in the early 90s was to star Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in lead roles.  However, for one reason or another, film projects would always fall apart.

In a way, I would not want to wish the task on anyone of adapting the musical to the screen.  The stage version is deeply loved by its fans (myself included), and any attempt to bring it to film would always be met with scrutiny and hesitation.  After all, Into the Woods is ultimately a complex work, mixing childhood wonder and magic, a smart sense of humor, a growing sense of dread that only gets deeper as the story goes on, and even some tragedy.  When it was announced that the Disney Studio would be producing the film, there were fears that some of the show's darker and more adult elements would be whitewashed over.  Furthermore, when it was announced that Rob Marshall would be directing the film, fans became even more divided.  Yes, his adaptation of the musical Chicago won Best Picture at the Oscars back in 2002, but opinions by fans are widely mixed.  Then there was his failed attempt to bring the musical Nine to the screen, which is fresher in the minds of most theater fans, and the less said about that the better.

With all that out of the way, what is the film we have been given?  In the mind of this fan, at least, Rob Marshall has given us a largely successful attempt of translating the musical beyond its usual audience.  There has been a little sanding off of some of the show's darker edges, but not as much as initially feared.  The story's complexity has remained in tact, and most importantly, the songs have survived the transition thanks to a fantastic cast.  The film has also been successfully opened up beyond the confines of the stage play, creating a dark and whimsical fairly tale world that never quite looks real, but is imaginative enough in its set design that we fall under its spell and don't care that half the time, it looks like the actors are walking around an outdoor set.   The heart and ultimate message of the show, that there is no such thing as "happily ever after", is still there.  Whether it will be accepted by the usual Disney family audience looking for holiday entertainment is another question.

Just as on the stage, Into the Woods is a mixture of childhood myths and fables turned on its head, and then expanded into darker regions during the second half.  In the film's opening scene and musical number, we are introduced to our protagonists.  We find Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) dreaming of going to the 3-night ball being held by the Prince (Chris Pine, hilarious here), while being kept under the thumb of her stepmother (Christine Baranski).  A "carefree boy" named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is told by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to go into the village to sell their cow, neither one knowing that this simple journey will ultimately result in magic beans and beanstalks leading up the kingdom of the giants.   And a young girl in a red cape and hood (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to her grandmother's house, only to have an encounter with a devious Wolf (Johnny Depp).

Added to this cast of recognizable characters are two new creations - a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who wish to have a child, but have no idea that they are under a curse placed on them by the Witch (Meryl Streep) who just happens to live next door to them.  The Witch enters their shop to tell them how they can reverse the spell that was placed on their family years ago when the Baker's father stole some magic beans from the Witch's garden.  As the Baker and his Wife journey into the nearby enchanted woods to complete this mission before the next Blue Moon in just three days, they have run-ins with the various famous characters who are also in the woods for their own specific reasons.  The first half of the film is a very witty fairy tale mash up, as these two new characters often find themselves unwilling occupants in other famous stories. For example, we learn that it is the Baker who gives Jack the famous magic beans. 

This part of the film I have no problem picturing audiences accepting.  It's what screenwriter James Lapine (who wrote the original play with Sondheim) does around the 80 minute mark that might throw off those in the audience expecting another holiday Disney romp in the vein of Frozen.  We get what at first appears to be your typical happily ever after, but then something happens which I will not spoil for those not familiar with the material.  All I will say is that the characters are called back into the woods a second time, this time for a much more pressing matter than just getting their wish.  Also, not everyone will return from the woods.  This section of the story has long divided audiences, and I have a feeling the fact that this film is being released under the Disney banner and being marketed as a holiday film event, it will divide audiences even more than it did on the stage.  But it is this part of the story that holds the real heart, and the point that the writers are trying to take home to their audience. 

To be fair, one major element that was a key to this darker element of the story has been tarnished, in that a character who died in the stage play has their fate changed in the film.  This kind of lessens the impact of another character's motivation in the second half.  And yes, I apologize for being vague.  Such is the duty of a critic, to try not to reveal too much in advance.  That being said, those familiar with the source material will be glad to know that little has been changed outside of the aspect above.  The cast is up to the challenge, both in the performances, and in the songs which come equipped with those devilishly tricky lyrics that Sondheim is famous for.  That the film manages to be as funny, heartfelt, sad and beautiful as the original is no small feat, and should in fact be celebrated.

A musical making it to the big screen completely in tact is a rare thing, and while Into the Woods has gone through some damage in the process, it has lost none of its power or emotion.  While the idea of turning fairly tale characters and their stories upside down for comedic and dramatic effect is a lot more commonplace now than it was when the stage musical debuted 27 years ago, it has lost none of its effectiveness.  This is an enchanting film that is certain to create a lot of discussion during the drive home, especially for those experiencing it for the first time.  And hey, if it introduces some kids to the music of Sondheim, all the better.

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