"Black or White" is inspired by true events and stars Kevin Costner as Elliot, a successful lawyer who works and lives in an affluent areas of Los Angeles. We learn in the opening scenes that his wife has just died in a car accident. The couple had custody of their young, African American granddaughter Eloise (played by Jillian Estell) because her mother, their daughter, died while giving birth to Eloise when she was only 17. The girl's father, a drug addict and criminal, was in and out of prison and not in the picture. He is also black.
The following day Elliot, who's been treating years of pain with excessive alcohol use, shares the news of the death with Eloise after school. It's a nicely executed, heartbreaking scene.
Shortly after the services, Elliot learns that Eloise's other grandmother, Rowena (played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) has decided to seek full custody of Eloise, and bring her to Compton to live with her extensive family. She feels the girl needs the love of her relatives and to be exposed to the black culture and community, which she's not getting now. Elliot won't give-up his granddaughter and Eloise wants to stay with him. So the battle for custody of this little girl is on, with race playing a major role in the strategies used by both sides.
Anthony Mackie gives a career-best performance as Rowena's brother, Jeremiah, an accomplished lawyer who will represent her side in court. He's determined to make this case all about Black vs. White, painting Elliot as a racist. Rowena reluctantly gives-in to this strategy since it may be the best way for them to win custody. And the fight for Eloise gets ugly, portrayed through a series of incidents, confrontations and courtroom scenes. And Eloise's father returns, complicating things even more.
"Black or White" deals with more tricky, hot-topic issues than it can handle, including death, child custody, substance abuse, and most of all racial tension. You'd think this would mean that it's a straightforward drama. But writer/director Mike Binder (whose last film was the 2007 Adam Sandler/Don Cheadle drama "Reign Over Me") mixes in a surprising amount of light material, including an upbeat compilation of music, a goofy girlfriend of Elliot's lawyer partner, and an over-the-top math tutor hired by Elliot to help his granddaughter. Each of these is constantly interrupting the dramatic tension and flow of the main narrative.
The result is an uneven film in both story and tone, with the positives slightly outweighing the negatives. Costner is excellent in several showcase scenes, and Spencer is solid as a proud woman with a good heart who's blinded by the love for her family. Andre Holland ("42", "Selma") dominates the screen time in the film's second half as Eloise's biological father, who says he's trying to clean up his act, but is losing that fight. This subplot gets a little too much attention.
While watching "Black or White", I was thinking back to the classic child custody film, "Kramer vs. Kramer". What made that 1979 Best Picture winner truly work was the relationship between Dustin Hoffman's Ted and his son Billy. The courtroom scenes did not dominate the film, or take away from the father-son story. It's the exact opposite in "Black or White", as the focus becomes more legal and less emotional as the film progresses.
At times, "Black or White" is quite effective, moving, and daring in dealing with its controversial topics. However, Binder just as often plays it safe, getting both heavy-handed and light in sections that just didn't need either. If handled better, this could've been a very powerful movie. Instead, it falls short of being both a gripping film and a fresh commentary on race relations.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Black or White" gets a disappointing C+.
I never thought it was possible that an awful trailer for a film could turn out to be better than the actual movie. But, as he seems to do in every film - whether as a wacky character, or in a wild costume, or just with his performance - Johnny Depp has stunned me yet again. "Mortdecai", which Depp both produced and stars in, left me mortified.
Depp has, once again, typecast himself into his unique brand of quirkiness, playing a bumbling Brit with a bloody bothersome accent named Lord Charlie Mortdecai. He is an art aficionado whose latest "masterpiece" is his own mustache. Depp reportedly had multiple versions of it on set - no wonder it looks so ridiculously fake on screen.
The plot can be described in one sentence: Mortdecai learns that a famous painting has been stolen and he goes to great lengths, with his bodyguard and loyal manservant Jock (played by Paul Bettany) to get it back. There's also a whole lot of nothing involving Charlie's wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), a British inspector (Ewan McGregor) who's had a crush on Johanna for more than two decades (somebody should tell him to move on while he still can) and a slew of others who want the rare painting for themselves. Jeff Goldblum plays one of them. He's fresh-off of another "painting heist" comedy, "The Grand Budapest Hotel". I wasn't a big fan of Wes Anderson's latest zany effort, but it's an all-time classic compared to "Mordecai".
The script was written by Eric Aronson, whose only previous credit is the 2001 film, "On the Line", which starred Joey Fatone and Lance Bass. Enough said. The story runs around in so many circles, like a dog chasing its tail, and by the time we reach the end there isn't one hint of satisfaction. Out of the 106 minute runtime there isn't moment of enjoyment or quality. EVERYTHING is wrong, from the low-level plot, to the copycat "Monty Python"/ "Pink Panther"-esque lead character, the embarrassing supporting performances, humorless stunts and gags, and clumsy camerawork and editing. I didn't laugh once, and the five other people in the theater were dead quiet as well.
As for Depp, it only took two months after his short, yet impressive performance as The Wolf in "Into the Woods", to get him on back my list of least reliable actors in Hollywood. Hard to believe he, an everyone else involved in this mess, believed they were working on something anyone would want to see.
Shockingly, "Mortdecai" is based on a novel by the late Kyril Bonfiglioli, who was an art dealer. It had a much funnier title - Don't Point That Thing at Me. But the novel was written more than 40 YEARS AGO! No wonder nothing about this version seems fresh or original. Slow, stale and so silly that it can't be taken seriously, even as a farce, "Mortdecai" is the classic example of a movie project gone wrong and buried by a studio in the month of January. However, in this case, Lionsgate didn't bury it deep enough. This not only belongs six-feet under, but with a high-rise built on top of it so there's absolutely no chance it could ever see the light of day.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mortdecai" gets an F. Even though we're only four weeks into the year, it will be a serious contender for 'Worst Film of 2015' honors.
"Cake" is quite a departure in the career of star Jennifer Aniston. First of all, it's a drama. Most of the films Aniston has done have been over-the-top, romantic comedies. And before that, of course, she became a star on the TV sitcom "Friends". Next, "Cake" deals with difficult subjects: pain, suicide and death. And finally, to be authentic in the portrayal of her character, Claire, Aniston doesn't wear any makeup. It's a bold decision and a brave performance, deserving of the Best Actress nominations she's already received from Critics Choice, SAG, and the Golden Globes.
"Cake" is one of those films in which the life of the main character is unveiled in pieces, as the story progresses, and you don't figure-out everything until the very end, and even then there are unanswered questions. Claire is living in a suburban California home, separated from her husband. She has a housekeeper Silvana (played by "Babel" Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza). And Claire takes a lot of medication to deal with the constant physical pain she's dealing with throughout her body. Claire has noticeable scars, but early on we're not sure why. And she has major psychological scars as well.
Nina, one of the women in Claire's support group, recently committed suicide by jumping off of a highway bridge, leaving behind a husband and young son. Seeing, in the opening scene, a large picture of Anna Kendrick, who plays Nina, surrounded by the other support group members, is a little startling. Over the next few days, Claire begins to question, as we do, why Nina took her life. In an attempt to get some answers she begins an unlikely friendship with Roy, Nina's widower (played by Sam Worthington).
"Cake" is not the feel-good film of the year. The tone is consistently grim and sad, with only a few brief, lighter moments, as Claire tries to make it through each day dealing with her many physical and emotional issues. She's angry, depressed, and most days it's only the addiction to pain killers that keeps her from lashing-out at everyone around her, and possibly, herself. Hope is nowhere to be found. And as the narrative unfolds, we get more details as to why. The question is: can Claire be saved?
While I admire what this script was attempting to do, there aren't as many layers to "Cake" as I was expecting. The story is surprisingly straightforward, though there is a deeper meaning to many of the elements, including the film's title. But for the entire time, thanks to Aniston's incredible work, we are with Claire as she struggles to turn her life around, haunted, not unlike Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" (not as far-off of a comparison as you might think) by the tragedies of her past, the desperation of her present life, and the fears of what's to come.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Cake" gets a solid B.
Practically a year to the day after the Ice Cube/Kevin Hart action comedy "Ride Along" opened (becoming 2014's first box office hit), Hart is back with the romantic comedy "The Wedding Ringer". He plays Jimmy, the owner of a Best Man service business in which he participates in the weddings of total strangers who don't have a real close friend to be their Best Man.
Doug (Josh Gad) is one of those guys. He's gone through his Rolodex and can't find anyone to be the Best Man at his upcoming wedding to demanding fiancee Gretchen ("The Big Bang Theory" star Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). So he hires Jimmy, who also needs to recruit seven other guys to be Doug's groomsmen. Of course, this all has to be kept secret from Gretchen, her family, and all the wedding guests. For his fake identity this time, Jimmy is a priest from North Dakota who also serves in the military named Bic Mitchum. As the story goes, he and Doug have been best friends since college.
Of course, in reality, Jimmy and Doug know nothing about each other. But that will change over the next 10 days.
"The Wedding Ringer" is a lot funnier than I expected. Hart and Gad deliver many smarter than average, laugh-out-loud lines that poke fun at relationships, their characters, and completely random material. The humor is often raunchy, but mostly positive, current and on target. The duo make for an entertaining on-screen pair well beyond the five-minute dance sequence teased in the trailer.
While the concept of the "The Wedding Ringer" is unique, the execution is predictable, though never dull. The middle act is the weakest due to extended periods of time spent at Doug's bachelor party, the ridiculous rest of the evening, and a touch football game featuring NFL Hall of Famers which was added simply to fill time.
And, unfortunately, the story gets overly sentimental at times. You expect it at the end, but too often throughout the film, Hart, Gad and Jennifer Lewis (who plays Jimmy's assistant) have scenes involving heart to heart conversations that kill the mood of what wants to be and should be simply an outrageous comedy. These auditions for dramatic roles in future films were unnecessary.
However, a refreshing effort with a satisfying number of laughs is a not a bad way to kick-off the genre in 2015, and it's a welcome alternative to all the serious Awards Season options currently in theaters. Plus, if you're a Cloris Leachman fan and thought she was ready to retire from acting, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Wedding Ringer" gets a B-.
The film that defined Clint Eastwood/Director in the 1990s was "Unforgiven". In the 2000s, "Million Dollar Baby", his excellent boxing drama co-starring Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, likewise earned Eastwood Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. Now, for this current decade, "American Sniper" could very well be the film that takes Eastwood to the pinnacle of his profession once again. This powerhouse drama is not only one of the best movies of 2014, but may be the quintessential contemporary war film.
Bradley Cooper, who's given recent standout performances in "Silver Linings Playbook", "The Place Beyond the Pines", and "American Hustle", raises the bar even higher in this true story about the life of Navy SEAL. Chris Kyle. Kyle is enjoying life as a Texas cowboy, riding bulls and hanging with his younger brother when, in August 1998, he sees TV accounts of the U.S. Embassy attacks in East Africa. He immediately decides to join the military, and signs-on for the tough SEAL program. During his training he meets and falls in love with the woman he would soon marry, Taya (played by Sienna Miller).
There have been plenty of great films depicting the nightmares of war, and a handful of films that deal with the effects of war on soldiers once they return home. What sets "American Sniper" apart (and above) is that it does both. Eastwood provides remarkable insight into the two sides of Kyle's life, working from a script based on Kyle's best-selling memoir. The majority of the action takes place in The Middle East, where Kyle served four tours, compiling so many kills as a sniper (more than 150 in all) that he becomes known as "The Legend". But it's a title he doesn't embrace, believing he's simply doing his job: protecting his fellow soldiers, his family, and his country.
But it's Kyle's interactions with Taya on the phone from Iraq and Afghanistan (as she's raising their family alone), and his time at home in between tours, which provide some of "American Sniper"'s most powerful moments. We see the challenges, the stress and the suffering that both of these people are going through. Taya struggles with the idea that Chris wants to return fighting, even though he has a loving wife and children that need a father. But Chris struggles with life when he's away from the action, and doesn't have a weapon in his hands. He's unable to focus on his family without hearing suspicious noises or looking for trouble. And in one tragically sad scene in an auto repair shop, we witness him incapable of accepting the thanks from a vet whose life he saved in battle. This is one of Cooper's shining moments.
The violence in "American Sniper" is brutal, bloody, and tragically real. It's even more authentic in look and feel than 2012's "Zero Dark Thirty" and last year's "Lone Survivor". Eastwood's first-rate directing of the action sequences is fearless, highlighted by a masterful, climactic dust storm battle. This scene is topped only by the stunning impact of the final 10 minutes, which provide the ultimate tribute to this imperfect, but honorable American hero.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "American Sniper" gets an A. It is a Modern Classic.
Several films in recent years have dealt with the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease, but none so effectively and tragically as "Still Alice". Based on the best-selling novel by Lisa Genova, "Still Alice" stars Julianne Moore plays the title character, a Columbia University professor of linguistics, who, at the age of 50, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. The shattering news has a dramatic affect on her and her family tremendously, including husband John (Alec Baldwin gives his most authentic performance in years), son Tom, and daughters Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Lydia (an excellent Kristen Stewart). Alice knows that she cannot beat the disease, but vows to enjoy the remaining time she has while most of her memories are in tact.
Over the course of the film we witness Alice as her condition dramatically worsens. There are numerous heartbreaking scenes in which she simply can't remember names or faces, misplaces things and getting lost in her own home. Scenes working with her neurologist and sharing the initial news of her condition with her children are especially powerful.
There's little suspense in the story, since the characters and the audience all know Alice's fate. And yet "Still Alice" is one of the most riveting film experiences of the year. We are continuously pounded emotionally, as this intelligent woman, so full of life, crumbles, mentally, before our eyes. The scenes become harder and harder to watch and we share in the hopelessness and despair that Alice and her loved-ones are going through. And it's Moore's incredible performance that makes it all work. Nothing her ever feels forced or phony, even when you think the script might go there.
At times "Still Alice" does get a little too heavy-handed, with a piercing piano soundtrack and too many flashback images. And there are a few minor, but noticeable continuity issues. However, this is a performance-driven film about a very important subject, and it needs to be seen.
In one of the film's best moments, Alice, already far into the disease, accepts an invitation to speak at an Alzheimer's conference. We see her highlighting each line as she reads it with "this yellow thing" (unable to remember the word "highlighter") so that she doesn't read the same line over and over. Moore has previously been nominated for four Academy Awards, but has never won. With this performance expect that number now to go to five, with a first win very likely.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Still Alice" gets a B+.
Only a few months after the original "Taken" was released in January 2009, star Liam Neeson's wife, Natasha Richardson, died following a tragic skiing accident. Since then Neeson has starred in more than 20 movies, the majority of which are intense, heart-pounding action movies. He's said that these films, such as "Clash of the Titans", "The A-Team", "Unknown", "The Grey", "Taken 2", "Non-Stop", and even as the voice of Good Cop/Bad Cop in "The LEGO Movie", have given his life purpose to continue doing what he loves.
And while not all of those 20 films were critical successes, they've grossed a combined $1.2 billion domestically, and have helped define Neeson as this decade's top action movie star. And considering he's 62, that's something Neeson should be very proud of.
It's unfortunate that "Taken 3", the latest installment in the "I will find you and I will kill you" is not nearly as good as it should be. A few days before seeing "TAK3N" (as it's written on some of the posters and TV ads), I watched the original for the first time. Not only does that film excel in the action department, but a lot of care went into developing the characters and adding an emotional element to the storyline.
Sadly, six years later, what was unique and original has become typical Hollywood exploitation. Neeson has said, in the best and funniest ways possible, that he wouldn't star in "Taken 3" if it was about someone in the family getting abducted once again, because that would simply be "insulting" to the audience. So, the writers had to dig a little deeper for a script to finish this trilogy. They didn't dig deep enough.
The initial premise works: Neeson's Bryan Mills is framed for a murder he didn't commit, and then decides to run from the LA Police, who for the remainder of the film, try to catch him. At the same time Sargent Dotzler (played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) is trying to piece this puzzle together and figure out if Bryan and his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace back again) are telling the truth in claiming Mills' innocence.
Of course, Neeson has to show who's boss by alluding the cops and taking down bad guys in the process. And at times he does it in a style similar to Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes, explaining after the fact how he pulled-off some of his tricks. But, unlike most Neeson films, there are very few entertaining moments and clever one-liners in "Taken 3". And the incredibly fast and frantic editing of the so-so car chases and shoot-outs made them difficult to watch.
On top of all of this, Neeson simply isn't given much to do this time around. There are no authentically dramatic or emotional scenes, or anything surprising or unpredictable. In fact, much of the set-up of "Taken 3" is nearly identical to the original: Bryan brings Kim a birthday present (this time a giant Panda Bear, which he talks to at one point). He then briefly hangs out with his buddies and then gets a call that Kim wants to go to lunch with him to share some news. And, there's a torture sequence later in the film, though not nearly as shocking as the electrocution scene in the original.
By far the best thing in "Taken 3" is Whitaker, whose gives a quirky, convincing performance, from his habit of playing with a rubber band to using bagels to try to solve the case. His character and performance deserve to be in a much better film.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Taken 3" gets a disappointing C. This franchise has now "taken" its toll on enough moviegoers to officially be put to rest.
David Oyelowo gives a career propelling and defiant performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in director Ava DuVernay's "Selma". From the opening scene, in which King is attempting to tie an ascot with the help of his struggling but supportive wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) prior to accepting the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, to the triumphant conclusion, having successfully led the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama March and changed civil rights in America forever, Oyelowo immerses himself into this role. Each of his many speeches, whether mourning the loss of life or rallying his followers and the nation is outstanding. But it's also in King's quieter moments where Oyelowo shines.
"Selma" presents Dr. King not as a God-like figure, but as a human being, just like the rest of us. He has flaws, makes mistakes and struggles, at times, with his cause. But above all we see him as a fighter for what he believed was right, particularly in the many scenes in which he goes toe-to-toe with President Lyndon B. Johnson. As LBJ, Tom Wilkinson also gives a nomination-worthy performance as a conflicted, passionate and often unsatisfied leader who isn't ready to follow King's "orders". In one of their confrontations, King and Johnson are standing in the Oval Office, with a portrait of George Washington on the wall directly between them. This framing beautifully symbolizes the historic and meaningful nature of the moment.
Oprah Winfrey, who returned to on-screen acting last year in "Lee Daniels' The Butler", is a producer on "Selma" and has a small role as Annie Lee Cooper. Her showcase scene is near the beginning of the film, with Cooper submitting a voter registration form and being ridiculously denied. This is the foundation scene from which DuVernay builds the entire narrative. Gaining the right to vote in Alabama and other Southern states would be the only way that black people could end segregation and the violence against them by the whites in power...once and for all.
DuVernay bravely depicts the tragedies that marred this time in American history, including the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young schoolgirls, and the numerous beatings and murders that took place during peaceful demonstrations and marches. Some of these scenes are quite violent. All are very effective. There are moments in "Selma" that will shock you, and even the use of slow-motion (a style I'm usually not fond of) works during some of these sequences, allowing the impact to take hold.
"Selma" only has a few minor problems. The second half, at times, is not as consistently powerful as the first, at least until the final 10 minutes. This may have something to do with Oyelowo not being present on screen as much during this time, as other characters are introduced into the conflict, including Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Tim Roth's performance is simply one-note. And the casting of the all-too recognizable Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen as a lawyer and judge, respectively, takes you, briefly, out of the moment.
Overall, "Selma" is one of the best films of the year, with an emotional force few 2014 movies could match. I won't be surprised if closing credits song, "Glory", performed by John Legend and Common, sweeps this category throughout Awards Season. It perfectly represents everything "Selma" stands for. While some of King's visions were achieved during his lifetime (others coming after his assassination in 1968), current events are proving that there is still work to be done. As the lyrics say: "One day, when the Glory comes, it will be ours". Hopefully that day is coming soon.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Selma" gets an A-.
"Inherent Vice" is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to 2012's overrated "The Master". The only appreciation I had for that film were the performances of stars Joaquin Phoenix and particularly the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The rest was an unfocussed and overly complicated mess. That same description can be used to describe "Inherent Vice", which is a long and flat-out ridiculous crime dramedy.
"Inherent Vice", the first big screen adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, is set in 1970 Los Angeles. Phoenix re-teams with Anderson to play Doc Sportello. He's a hippie Private Eye who is juggling several cases at once, but they all revolve around missing real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann.
However, Anderson's screenplay is so over-stuffed with goofy characters and showy dialogue that "Inherent Vice" is not only hard to follow along with the plot, after awhile you just don't care. A lot of Anderson's "style" is for effect. The atmosphere of the story is designed to reflect the atmosphere of the times in early 70s L.A.: Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll - and "Inherent Vice" is filled with all three. But none of it ever seems natural. Scenes are included, lines are delivered, characters are introduced simply to shock. The narrative is so all over the place that I suspect the female narrator used throughout was a late addition, an attempt to explain Doc's motives at least a little bit. However, her lines are so poorly written, this device just makes things worse.
Phoenix is on screen in practically every scene, and I do give him credit for staying with this role for the entire time. I realize "Inherent Vice" is set in the 70s, but constant drug use by his character goes way beyond believable. And don't expect Phoenix to get any awards attention. Josh Brolin leads the all-star supporting cast as an LAPD cop named "Bigfoot", who has a love/hate relationship with Doc. Other oddball characters are played by Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, and Martin Short, as a drugged-out/sex friend and dentist who provides the only laugh-out-loud moment in the entire film when he explodes with a series of F-bombs.
The main problem with "Inherent Vice" is that it tries way too hard to be quirky and funny. This is the latest attempt, by yet another director, to make the next "Pulp Fiction", which set the standard for it's combing elements of a crime drama with comedy, shocking violence, wacky characters, drugs, sex, over-the-top atmosphere and pop culture. Anderson proves he's no Quentin Tarantino when it comes to this unique genre. Even his signature, bold camera shots are few and far between, relying, instead, on way too many close-ups.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Inherent Vice" gets a D+. Pointless and, at 2 1/2 hours, way too long. A better title for this movie would be "Incoherent Vice".
"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.
After seeing 2014's most controversial and talked-about movie (that almost wasn't a 2014 movie), the R-rated Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy "The Interview", it's clear North Korea's concerns about the film's concept and content are justified. It's uncertain if high-ranking officials or Kim Jong-un have actually seen the film, or if their outrage was simply triggered by the "pushing the envelope too far" story, which centers on a plot to assassinate the North Korean dictator. But there's no denying that a lot of shots are fired at Kim and his country throughout "The Interview", both literally and figuratively.
But I have to admit that I laughed more than I expected. Well, at least in the first half. Much like with the previous collaboration of directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg (last year's "This is The End"), the first hour of "The Interview" is quite strong in the humor department. As highly popular but not-so intelligent entertainment talk show host Dave Skylark, Franco perfectly plays to his comedic strengths with a lot of fast and sharp one-liners. Rogen is the straight man of the pair, as Skylark's longtime producer Aaron Rapaport, but provides his share of laughs as well, particularly in a scene in which Skylark is interviewing rapper Eminem.
By now, what happens next is pretty well known: Skylark finds out that Kim Jong-un is a fan of "Skylark Tonight". So he and Rapaport pitch North Korea the idea to have the host interview Kim on his show. And North Korea actually goes for it. Before they head East, CIA Agent Lacey (played by Lizzy Caplan of "Masters of Sex") requests that the pair assassinate Kim, and preps them with a highly-organized plan, which, obviously, will not run smoothly. The set-up works, and provides plenty of highlights along the way.
But once Skylark and Rapaport arrive in North Korea and begin prepping for The Interview, "The Interview" starts to lose its edge. New characters are introduced, including Kim Jong-un himself (played by Randall Park), and unexpected relationships form. The frantic, comical pace of the first half gives way to too much dialogue and too many forced gags. I found myself shaking my head more often than laughing, whether in reaction to the obvious physical jokes, gratuitous situations, or sudden bursts of violence.
By the time the interview finally takes place, the script has long since run out of gas. We're left with an outrageously desperate control room scene and a finale that screams forced and hokey. While most great comedies invite you to join in on the laughs, the final act of "The Interview" displays a "look what we can do" superiority which turns the audience into silent observers instead of active participants.
It's possible that the build-up led me to watch "The Interview" with too much of a critical eye. The film, overall, is a solid, generally entertaining and occasionally sharp, wacky farce that just happened to take too big a chance by picking on the wrong guy at the wrong time. And those involved have paid the price for that. With some fine-tuning of the script, including the use of a fictitious world leader as its target, "The Interview" could've been one of Sony's more profitable releases of the year and one of the best comedies of 2014. But then again, without daring to go too far, it may never have gotten made.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Interview" gets a C+.
"The Gambler" is a remake of the 1974 James Caan film. 40 years later, Mark Wahlberg, who holds similar A-list status as Caan did back then, takes on the title role of literature professor by day; high-stakes gambler (and loser) by night. Whether he's starring in a quality movie (such as last year's "Lone Survivor") or a complete disaster (such as last year's "Pain & Gain"), Wahlberg is usually able to deliver a respectable performance. He does have a few good scenes in "The Gambler", but an unfocused script that relies way too much on dialogue results in "The Gambler" being one of the holiday season's weakest releases.
Wahlberg plays college professor Jim Bennett. Sound familiar? Wahlberg played John Bennett in "Ted" and will reprise the role in the upcoming "Ted 2". (Maybe they're brothers!) As the movie begins we see Bennett, who comes from a very wealthy family, being emotionally crushed at the hospital bedside of his dying grandfather. This event, we are supposed to believe, is what sets him on a wild gambling spree that gets him into deep financial trouble. He wins, sometimes big, at the blackjack tables, but just doesn't know when to quit. The same can be said for director Rupert Wyatt ("Rise of the Planet of the Apes") and his the lengthy, drawn-out scenes of Bennett lecturing his students at school. These are more painful to experience than actually being in school.
Bennett borrows money to cover his debts and continue feeding his habit, first from Korean tycoons and then the African American mafia led by Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams). And he has only seven days to get a total of $250,000 (and growing) to pay everybody off. How's he going to get the money? Will he win it at a casino, get it from his feisty mother (the underused Jessica Lange), deal with notorious loan shark Frank (images of a shirtless John Goodman will haunt me for days), or just tap out? On top of all of this "drama", Bennett starts a relationship with one of his students (played by Brie Larson).
Even though the film is called "The Gambler", there are very few scenes of actual gambling, and therefore not much suspense. Instead, Wyatt continuously shifts the tone from light to dark, gangster drama to psychological study, to family relationship study. He even tosses in a sports gambling subplot involving another of his students (the completely unrealistic and clumsily staged college basketball game in the final half hour is laughable). "The Gambler" doesn't know what it wants to be: a slick, cool thriller with a retro, 70s feel, a profile of a man battling addiction, or an inside look at the world of illegal gambling.
And there are brief scenes of Bennett in his childhood, but they're never fully developed. It seems like Wyatt concentrated more on the proper placement of his music than developing characters and a compelling story arc.
Goodman is only in four scenes, with a similarly sarcastic performance to those he gave in "Argo" and "Flight", but with a villainous twist. The role here is not as genuine as the other two, but he does bring this film some much-needed energy. The rest is provided by a quite impressive amount of running Wahlberg does late in the film. I'm sure, after seeing a screening of "The Gambler", Wahlberg wished he had run from this project a lot sooner.
Maybe the makers of "The Gambler" should've listened to Kenny Rogers when this film was in development, by folding and walking away.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Gambler" gets a C-.
If you dare go "Into the Woods'', there's a lot you will find: A star-studded ensemble cast as fairy tale characters who have been raised to rhyme. A story entangled in intrigue, hope, joy and sadness. And more than 20 high-powered, often in-your-face, full throttle, Steven Sondheim musical productions. Unfortunately, only a handful truly work. The rest are either sing-songy conversations or dragged-out, bland soliloquies.
Many of the problems with "Into the Woods" cannot be blamed on the film, but rather the Broadway musical it's based on. However, director Rob Marshall ("Chicago"), writer James Lapine and composer Sondheim should have realized that what worked on the stage wasn't an exact fit for the big screen. The elimination of a half dozen or so tunes would have given this film version (and the audience) a chance to breathe - and the members of the all-star cast a chance to act.
Meryl Streep receives top billing as The Witch. She is the story's pivotal character, and Streep is able to belt-out a trio of show-stopping songs, plus deliver several acting scenes from a multi-layered character. She gives the strongest performance in the film and is deserving of awards consideration (she's being put up for Best Supporting Actress). The Witch wasn't always mean and ugly - a spell cast upon her once upon a time turned her that way. Now she wants to "reverse the curse", and the one she placed on The Baker ("Begin Again"'s James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), which is preventing them from having a child.
The Baker and his wife must go "into the woods" and collect four items: a red cape (Little Red Riding must give up the Hood), a golden slipper (Cinderella must slip it off), a white horse (young Jack must trade it for some magic beans), and golden hair (Rapunzel must do more than just let it down), and bring them to The Witch. All of this has to happen in three days time, before the appearance of the rare Blue Moon.
And this is only half of it. Once the tasks have been completed, and you're thinking, like Taylor Swift, that we're finally "Out of the Woods", the relationship subplots take over and the fairy tales get even more fractured. Cinderella (played by an underused Anna Kendrick) isn't sure whether being a Prince's Bride is what she's always wanted (ever) after all.
The Prince (Chris Pine) makes some bold decisions of his own. He is by far the wackiest character in the cast. Pine plays everything for laughs, mocking the story with his over-the-top, goofy performance. His musical number "Agony", a duet with "The Other Prince" who's in love with Rapunzel, is the most entertaining song in "Into the Woods", though it doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the film. And that tone is pretty dark. There's suffering and death throughout "Into the Woods", much of it involving the children.
And then...there's Johnny Depp. Once again, with the help of hair, makeup and special effects, Depp transforms himself into a quirky character - putting his unique spin on The Big, Bad Wolf. Too bad it's a brief appearance: Depp only gets one song and is on screen for less than five minutes. I wish Marshall would have expanded Depp's part. He would've made a great villain - and given the script some much needed bite.
Yes, we can tell that all of the actors are talented singers. Kendrick, a theater lover her entire life, has an impressive, Broadway-calibre voice. And Streep's "Stay with Me" and "The Last Midnight" prove she's come a long way, vocally, since her "Winner Takes It All" in 2008's "Mamma Mia!". But after listening to Blunt, Corden, Tracey Ullman and the rest of the company sing about what they've already done or are about to do for nearly two hours (accompanied by a trumpet-blaring score) I'd had enough.
The strength of "Into the Woods" is its look, highlighted by the costume design of veteran Colleen Atwood, who's likely to snag plenty of honors for her work. Maybe, with some trimming of it's branches - fewer songs and relationship complications - this could have been deserving of a Best Picture Oscar nomination, something a live-action film from Disney hasn't received since "Mary Poppins" 50 years ago. Instead, Marshall tries far too hard to make us fall in love with everyone and everything. The broad appeal of this Broadway hit just doesn't cut it on screen.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Into the Woods" gets a C+.
"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.
Tim Burton's movies are typically set in fantastical worlds, with wacky characters (usually at least one is played by Johnny Depp), a unique story, and tons of makeup, costumes, and bold colors. Many are calling "Big Eyes", Burton's latest, the most "normal" movie he's ever made. And after seeing this dramedy biopic, based on a "hard-to-believe but it actually happened" true story, I'd have to agree.
In 1958, Margaret (played by Amy Adams) leaves her husband, and she and her young daughter Jane move to San Francisco to start a new life. At the time, this isn't something women, especially housewives, normally did. Margaret is a talented painter and hopes to become a big success someday, though she cares more about her customers enjoying her work than making a lot of money. But she soon meets fellow painter and salesman extraordinaire Walter Keane (played by Christoph Waltz). Margaret's paintings of children with unusually large eyes immediately catch his eyes, and they immediately become romantically involved.
In order for Margaret to avoid losing custody of Jane, she and Walter decide to get married. Walter is struggling to sell his paintings of Paris street scenes, but he thinks Margaret's paintings could be a hit. However, since no one during this time is interested in purchasing "lady art", he begins to sell Margaret's "Big Eyes" paintings under his name, telling everyone that he paints them. Margaret initially disagrees with the strategy (since she has to keep this secret hidden from everyone, including Jane). But when the money starts pouring-in, there's no way she can stop Walter and the exploding "Big Eyes" phenomenon.
Amy Adams has been nominated for five Academy Awards. She's bound to win one someday, but it's not going to be for playing Margaret Keane. And it's not because she gives a bad performance - in fact she's very good here. But this role simply isn't "showy" enough to warrant Best Actress consideration, and Adams is able to take this character only so far. Margaret is a quiet, passive woman, who keeps most of her painful emotions inside. Adams often conveys them through her own, glistening eyes. These include most of the scenes with her daughter, and a key confrontation with Walter which provides the sole twist in the movie.
Like he did in 2012's "Django Unchained", Waltz dominates the screen time even though this is a supporting performance. Walter becomes more obsessed and unhinged as "Big Eyes" progresses (the Burton influence), and handles the tricky job of being an actor who's essentially playing an actor. By the third act (which, unfortunately, isn't as strong as the first two), you really grow to hate this guy. There's a climactic trial showdown between husband and wife that takes way too long and takes this story to a ridiculous level. Maybe Burton wanted to add "courtroom drama" in his career resume.
Burton's trademark directing style is largely missing from "Big Eyes". Outside of a short sequence with Margaret in a supermarket and a few other scattered moments, it's hard to believe that Tim Burton is the man behind this film. It's as if, parallel to the plot line, he had someone else direct "Big Eyes" for him and he's getting the credit. However, even without the unique visual look we've come to expect from Burton, he's still able to deliver a compelling story that keeps us interested as it unfolds. And he provides a look into the art world at the time, and the concept of financial success vs. critical success vs. personal success. Ultimately, like in the lyrics of the title song by singer Lana Del Rey, "Big Eyes" shows how two people's big lies can turn their lives upside down.
The supporting cast is led by Krysten Ritter as Margaret's closest friend, Danny Huston as a newspaper gossip columnist, Terrence Stamp as an art critic, and Jason Schwartzman in a small role as the owner of a rival art gallery. He adds the film's few laughs, but his character also exposes a major flaw in the script which clouds an otherwise wacky but believable story.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Big Eyes" gets a B-.
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