UPDATE: Sony has cancelled the Christmas Day, theatrical open of "The Interview".
It can be argued that the Sony Pictures comedy, "The Interview", is the most buzzed-about and controversial movie of 2014. However, while this will probably turn-out to be the biggest movie-related scandal stars James Franco and Seth Rogen have ever been a part of, it isn't the first time each of them has been in a little hot water:
When "Knocked Up" was released in 2007, it sparked a new debate over the concept of raunchy, R-rated, romantic comedies. They've since become rather commonplace. The following year, Rogen co-starred with Elizabeth Banks in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno", though most theaters and ads called it simply "Zack and Miri". And Rogen played a much more "adult" mall cop in "Observe and Report", released just three months after Sony's own "Paul Blart" in 2009.
For Franco, it's not just the movies ("Spring Breakers", "Oz: The Great and Powerful") that have put him into some tricky situations. He's had several very opinionated online and magazine articles. And who can forget his bizarre 2011 Academy Awards hosting gig with Anne Hathaway?
Rogen and Franco previously starred together in "Pineapple Express" and "This is the End", and currently in development, they're working on an R-rated animated movie called "Sausage Party", due out in 2016. There's already mixed reaction based-on the concept.
Rogen says he has "no regrets" in making "The Interview". But I'm guessing he hasn't let-out too many of his trademark laughs since the now notorious Sony hacking incident began.
In the opening scene of this modern update of the "Annie" story, a brainiac girl is doing a class presentation. She's white, with red hair, and her name is Annie. When she finishes, the teacher asks the other Annie in the class (our young heroine, played by "Beasts of the Southern Wild" Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis) to come to the front of the room for her presentation. This not only catches the audience by surprise (and generates a few laughs), but it perfectly sums-up this 2014 version of the all-time favorite: it's out with the old and in with the new.
Just as she did in "Beasts", Wallis is delightfully charming, with an irresistible on-screen presence, as Annie, who makes it very clear that she's not a Little Orphan, but a foster kid. As the film begins she's living with four other girls in the Harlem apartment of demanding and frustrated caretaker Ms. Hannigan (played by Cameron Diaz). Annie hopes that one day her parents will come back for her, since they wrote this on the back of a restaurant receipt that she's kept, along with half of a locket. Every Friday night she waits outside that nearby restaurant in case they return.
Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is a cell phone company mogul and germaphobe who's running for Mayor of New York City. Walking down the street one day, he sees Annie fall and picks-her-up just before a van runs her over. Captured on video, and immediately posted online, the rescue goes viral, instantly helping Stacks in the polls. For the good of the campaign, he invites Annie to lunch, and during a brief conversation, the idea of Annie coming to stay with Will for awhile is brought-up. "You want me to play Daddy?" (as in Warbucks), Will asks his campaign manager (played by Bobby Cannavale). This is exactly what happens. It's going to take a lot for Will to change his negative attitude toward taking care of Annie, and she hopes that he will turn every "No" he has about life, change, and new experiences into a "Yes".
"Annie" is a fresh makeover of a story we know all too well. Director Will Gluck ("Easy A", "Friends with Benefits"), who also co-wrote the script with Aline Brosh McKenna ("Morning Glory"), nicely balances funny situations and clever dialogue (mostly remarks from Foxx) with a sweet and emotionally effective relationship between young Annie and Stacks. Wallis (who's received a Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical Golden Globe nomination for her performance) and Foxx have genuine chemistry together, even in the early scenes when they haven't yet developed their friendship on screen. And there's a well executed twist in the final half hour, which drastically changes the direction of the movie, that is both unexpected and welcome.
Joining Wallis and Foxx is Rose Byrne, perfectly cast as Will's assistant, Grace. Like Will as a father-figure, Grace is a much needed and supportive mother-figure for Annie. Cannavale is solid as the obsessed campaign manager. And Diaz delivers a Hannigan who's not nearly as wacky and over-the-top, or as prevalent in the story, as the trailers lead you to believe.
All the classic "Annie" songs are included, with modern tweaks, and most work. Gluck presents some unique takes, including with "Tomorrow", which features Wallis walking through NYC, picturing happy families all around her. And when Diaz performs "Little Girls", all five of the kids she takes care of pop-up throughout in the apartment. One of my biggest problems with "Annie" is how often the lips and the audio of the songs being performed do not match, particularly in the first half. It's unfortunate, because it's distracting.
There is an original song in "Annie", "Opportunity", that's performed by Wallis (it's also nominated for a Globe) and it's great! Several music and Hollywood heavyweights are behind the film, including singer Sia, who wrote "Opportunity". Jay-Z is a producer, as are Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. And some major entertainment stars make cameo appearances, including three during a very funny scene at a movie theater premiere.
"Annie" is rated PG for some language, several scenes of peril, a few adult references and moments where Diaz is holding a liquor bottle. This is a great choice for the entire family this holiday season. Contrary to initial speculation, this is not a warmed-over, money-grab remake, but a wholesome, good-hearted and very entertaining modern musical.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Annie" gets a B.
"A Most Violent Year" is Oscar-nominated writer/director J.C. Chandor's follow-up to last year's Robert Redford "I'm alone in the middle of the ocean and I'm barely going to talk" drama "All Is Lost". With "A Most Violent Year", Chandor has paired-up Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") and Jessica Chastain for an intriguing crime drama.
The setting is 1981 New York City. Isaac plays Abel Morales, the successful owner of the Standard Oil Heating, which services the five boroughs of NY. The company is being target by hijackers, who are beating-up drivers and stealing trucks so they can take the valuable oil and sell it. Morales is frustrated by the crimes, and is getting no help from the city. In fact, the District Attorney's office has been investigating Morales and Standard for some time, and may soon to filing charges. Morales, his wife Anna (Chastain) and their two daughters have just moved into a very new home, but they don't even feel safe there. He believes the other oil companies in the area trying to drive him out.
At the same time, Morales has a business deal in the works and 30 days to get the money he needs to close it, and not take a huge financial loss. But in order for this to happen and 1981 to not become what he calls "a bad year", he needs to smooth-out his situation with his enemies, including the D.A., so that the bank will approve his loan. But that's easier said than done, and as this narrative continues and the plot expands, the number of obstacles in Abel's way increases, and we learn more things about Morales that make us wonder if he's actually the man we think he is.
The pacing of "A Most Violent Year" starts out slow, but builds nicely, and by the second half (amidst perfect tone and atmosphere) you have been drawn into an old-fashioned thriller that, if made using current Hollywood standards, would feature shootouts, loads of blood and graphic killings. With what may one of the year's most contradictory titles, "A Most Violent Year" doesn't rely on violence to tell this tale and generate suspense. Instead, we are carried along by well written characters and situations, led by a protagonist couple trying to keep it together while under a remarkable amount of pressure during this unique place and time.
Isaac is quite believable as a minority businessman who's fought hard for his piece of the American Dream, which may soon become a nightmare. He does a nice job portraying Morales as a guy trying to stay calm, but who could explode at any minute. Chastain, though she doesn't have as much screen time, is even more of a commanding presence. In one tension-packed scene, it's Anna who takes control when the couple hits a deer with their car on the way home from a restaurant. Chastain display a silent, scary stare at one point that immediately got me thinking that she could make a great on-screen villain. And this scene comes just moments after she displays true outrage upon discovering their youngest daughter playing with a loaded gun she found on their front yard. At times her emotions are a bit over-exaggerate, but overall it's standout work.
Albert Brooks is underused but nicely cast as Abel's attorney, while David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma") gives a no-nonsense performance as the District Attorney.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "A Most Violent Year" gets a B. It falls short for consideration as one of the best films of the year, but since this is 2014's final major release, it's provides a worthy conclusion to "A Most Excellent Year" at the movies.
"A Most Violent Year" opens in Limited Release on December 31st.
In September, Chris Rock's all-star, R-rated comedy "Top Five" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Following the screening, an all-out bidding war began. Nearly every major studio (except, very likely, Disney) wanted distribution rights. Paramount emerged victorious, buying "Top Five" for $12.5 million and adding another $20 million for marketing.
Rock's been everywhere recently promoting "Top Five", from his semi-controversial hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live", to writing an Op-Ed piece for The Hollywood Reporter. Many are calling this Rock's comeback movie. Clearly he really wanted to re-charge his career, and this film (he's writer, director and star) was his only real option, since he didn't have any projects waiting for him after last year's "Grown Ups 2".
A lot of Rock's real-life is poured-into "Top Five". He plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up comedian turned actor, best known for his role as Hammy the Bear in three blockbuster action comedies (the third grossed $600 million worldwide!) But Allen is at the point where he's looking to reinvent himself by becoming a serious actor. It's opening day of his new historical drama about the Haitian Revolution, which, as he will find-out, is going-up against the premiere of Tyler Perry's newest "Madea" movie. Someone did some bad scheduling.
Throughout the day, Andre does a lot of interviews, starting with Charlie Rose, who focuses on Andre's wedding with Bravo Reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), which is two days away. Serious XM Satellite Radio hosts can't believe Allen's doing a drama and not another "Hammy" movie (a scene where Andre snaps while voicing a promo is one of the film's funniest). And New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (played by Rosario Dawson) is doing a feature story on Allen, traveling with him throughout NYC, looking to get some honest answers from the wildly popular celebrity. But will he allow her - and himself - to discover the real Andre Allen?
Let's get the lows of "Top Five" out of the way first: There's a hefty amount of vulgar humor, and several lengthy and raunchy "flashback" scenes involving both Andre and Chelsea, as they each share times in their lives they would like to forget. These are, thankfully, the only sequences when Rock tries to force us to laugh, and it shows because these scenes just don't work and hurt the flow of the story.
And the premise, for the most part, is very predictable. We know where things are going and how this day will end about 10 minutes in. However, this fact doesn't prevent us from enjoying ourselves while we're getting there. Rock is able to infuse a well thought-out, full-hearted and impressive script with sharp comments on several topics, including comedians wanting to be seen as serious actors, the shenanigans of Reality TV, promotional media campaigns, the film industry in general, and the idea of what being a celebrity really means. Could Rock have gone even further with the entertainment world jabs? Absolutely. But this element is what makes "Top Five" excel.
Rock definitely got out his Christmas card list when casting "Top Five", as the film is packed with celebrity co-stars and cameos, from JB Smoove as Andre's personal assistant, to family members and friends played by Tracy Morgan and Sherri Shepherd, who all debate about who their "Top Five" all-time favorite rappers are - lists that fluctuate daily. There are also brief appearances by Kevin Hart (only one scene), Whoopi Goldberg, Taraji P. Henson, and even Adam Sandler. Jerry Seinfeld receives the Cameo Runner-Up Award for playing a slightly crazier version of himself. But the honor goes to rapper DMX for an unforgettable jail scene that's one of the funniest of the year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Top Five" gets a B-. I didn't laugh as long or as often as I had hoped, but, overall, this is still one of the "Top Five" comedies of 2014.
"Unbroken" tells the true story of Olympian and WWII veteran Louis Zamperini, who survived a plane crash that put him and two fellow soldiers adrift at sea for 47 days, and then two years in the brutal conditions of Japanese prison camps. All of this was chronicled in author Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 best-selling book of the same name. Zamperini's story may also be familiar to people because of his death this past July as "Unbroken" was beginning to generate some buzz. A photo of director Angelina Jolie leaning on Zamperini's shoulder was widely circulated during that time.
So, much the same as with other recent films depicting well known historical figures/events, such as "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Captain Phillips", Jolie's challenge with "Unbroken" was to keep the suspense level high, allowing the audience to believe that Zamperini may not make it out of the life raft or the detention camps alive, even though we all know that he did. Or, at the very least, develop a sense of intrigue and wonder as to how and why Zamperini was able to persevere. Unfortunately, Jolie doesn't succeed at either task.
"Unbroken" begins with the best scene in the entire movie. Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell, who gives a solid performance) is part of a US bomber crew, fighting enemy planes as it attempts to make a drop on the Japanese mainland. The sequence is intense and exciting - an aerial marvel. The film then shifts back to Zamperini's childhood and we see how he became a high school track star and an Olympian, competiting in the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany.
A short time later, we're back in the air and this time the plane crashes. Only Zamperini and two others live. They manage to get into two small liferafts and have limited supplies. It seems like every year Hollywood makes at least one movie about someone lost at sea. I was not a huge fan of "Life of Pi" or "All Is Lost", both of which dragged on, with disappointing payoffs. And while Jolie only spends half an hour of the two hours and 20 minutes with Zamperini adrift in the ocean, it's still way too long considering not much happens and we all know he's going to survive. And this first act sets the tone for the rest of the film.
After a remarkable 47 days, Zamperini and another surviving soldier are "rescued" by the Japanese. The two are eventually taken to a detention camp where the leader, Watanabe (played by Miyavi) immediately makes his presence and authority known to everyone, especially Zamperini, who he singles-out and beats often and viciously.
"Unbroken" had two original screenplay writers, and then Joel and Ethan Coen were brought-in to likely try and save a leaky script. There are a few interesting swerves, including an opportunity Zamperini is given to live a better life in Japan but at a cost. And the Miyavi character does go in some surprising directions. But the film, as a whole, has no dramatic arc. It's flat-lined, and therefore lacks any compelling features.
I found myself sitting and staring at the screen, watching the situations play-out (which mostly consist of Zamperini getting beaten, punched and threatened over and over and over again), but completely unengaged. And yet, with only one-note to play, the movie is drawn-out, with every scene longer than it should be. The inspiration meter remains stuck on low due to an overall lack of excitement. And when Jolie attempts to pull-off a triumphant climactic finale, the result is, instead, kinda cheesy and confusing.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Unbroken" gets a C. Zamperini's life story is nothing short of incredible. This movie doesn't do it justice.
"Unbroken" opens December 25th.