Why “Spy” is a Smartest Stupidiest Comedy That You’ll See All Summer

By reteaming with her director from “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat,” McCarthy scores for the third time as a CIA agent who blossoms (with a lot of laughs) on her first field assignment with a little help from her friends and enemies.

In one of the more expected moments Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) tries to get her man but gets oh-so stuck in cement in "Spy."

In one of the more expected moments Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) tries to get her man but gets oh-so stuck in cement in “Spy.”

As someone who had to push past Hollywood’s unbelievable standards of success, much less beauty, against all odds, Melissa McCarthy has managed built a big-screen career out of characters whom others foolishly underestimate, and in her latest role of CIA agent Susan Cooper in “Spy” proves very little has changed.

“Spy,” represents McCarthy’s latest team-up with director Paul Feig (who also wrote the script), and it manages to take the actress’ particular set of skills to its broadest canvas yet, allowing her to globe-trot from the states to Paris to Rome to Budapest as an agent who surprises not just those around her but also herself with her adeptness in the field, which puts her physical prowess with her ability to adapt to any ridiculous situation on high alert.

Here’s the Backstory You’ll Need to Know, But Not Really

In the very first scene, Susan Cooper, who is a ten-year vet at the agency, has been content to languish in the rodent-infested basement at Langley, where she’s been the eyes and ears (and deep down inside swoons over) of Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a suave super-spy who Britishness comes in and out throughout every scene he’s in, as he blithely shoots and quips his way through dangerous situations, only thanks to Susan’s guidance via-the CIA’s super satellites.

When arms dealer Rayna (a delectably bitchy Rose Byrne, who literally steals ever scene she’s in) reveals she knows the identities of all the CIA’s top agents in the field, it is then left our poor Susan who apparently is the only one who is “unknown” enough who can track down the woman who’s intent on selling a rogue nuke to the nefarious crime boss DeLuca (Bobby Cannavale, who is Byrne’s real life boyfriend if anyone cares, plays the role like he’s in a Goodfellas spoof from the 90’s). But despite her skill with a headset and a computer screen, Susan still gets zero at Langley; her deadpan boss (Allison Janney, playing the tough talking straight-laced woman to the hilt here) gives her a series of frumpy undercover identities (“I look like someone’s homophobic aunt,” laments Susan), and even her cool spy gadgets are disguised to look like stool softener, toe-fungus spray and hemorrhoid wipes. Susan’s orders are to track and report at a distance, but of course she winds up a little too getting up close and personal with Rayna. (Would there be a plot the movie if she didn’t?) Their relationship consists of them taking turns being nastily dismissive of each other, and McCarthy and Byrne’s scenes together are cruelly hilarious, with the kind of no-holds-barred insult humor that makes you instinctively drop your jaw and cover your mouth at the same time laugh out loud.

McCarthy's "Agent Cooper" and Byrne's arms dealer "Rayna" are a double crossing duo that become a surprising highlight of "Spy."

McCarthy’s “Agent Cooper” and Byrne’s arms dealer “Rayna” are a double crossing duo that become a surprising highlight of “Spy.”

Credit must be given to Feig who takes the spy story just seriously enough to keep us engaged (although he could probably have put Susan onto the playing field five or ten minutes earlier in his script) while also giving McCarthy a surprisingly high number of sharp comic foils you’d never expect to be foils. Besides Byrne and Janney, she also gets to play off Jason Statham (as a fellow spy Ford who refuses to take her seriously — to Susan’s credit, she never backs down from his bullying, even at most occasions he’s doing it because he too eager to take the lead), Miranda Hart (who steals every scene she’s in by playing one of Susan’s snarky CIA coworkers in the basement who in essence becomes he eyes and ears in the same way Susan was to Law’s character), and Peter Serafinowicz (as handsy Italian agent Aldo, whom were not exactly sure if he’s really one of the good guys or it’s all just an act). These roles also make me think that we are supposed to believe that quite a number of CIA agents are apparently foreigners. “Spy” is thankfully freed from the PG-13 shackles of most straightforward spy movies, the movie actually offers up more blood and vivid violence than the genre it’s tweaking, but credit again must be given to the deft handling of that so it’s never enough violence gets in the way of the actual comedy. If anything, the occasional mayhem reminds us of the danger Susan’s putting herself in while also underscoring how ridiculously over the top many of “Spy’s” contemporary espionage dramas whose intention is to spoof have actually become.

Here’s the Bottom Line

“Spy” would be a true standout if only for its ability to keep me laughing while also keeping me from figuring out who was really double-crossing whom. Add to that this extraordinary ensemble of actors (wow, who knew Statham could be this funny while sending up the version of himself he tends to play in his other movies?), and you’ve got another memorable offering from McCarthy and Feig. Underestimate them at your peril people! I know I sure won’t in the future. As a distaff version of James Bond in “Spy,” Hollywood’s reigning empress of ha-ha McCarthy has a license not just to kill the audience with laughter but also to slay us with her acting chops. And it’s a bust-a-gut thing of beauty to watch her give a wholly satisfying lead performance with a complete dramatic arc. All you have to do is observe how her eyes dramatically moisten in reaction to her top-notch co-stars in ways that would make any silent screen movie star proud. That’s even if her lips are spewing a scathing string of inappropriate R-rated putdowns, which I actually did love most of the time.  Like when she tells a stunned Swedish henchman to cut off his own manhood and stick it on his forehead like a unicorn’s horn, or accidentally mistakes a mushroom-like hot towelette for an appetizer while dubbing her fists Cagney and Lacey. It proves how Feig and company can take the vinegar out of all the macho grandstanding and chauvinistic attitudes ingrained in the spy genre. That would also include Cooper’s observation that Ford’s tweed cap makes him look as if he is from the cast of “Newsies” (Always bringing it back to Broadway makes that my favorite line of the film!) I could have done without the stereotypical sexist come-ons by Aldo, who mainly wants to protect Cooper’s breasts. Although Hart’s Nancy does take a random detour to get to hang with rapper 50 Cent (give credit to a cameo that pays off better than one would actually think).

After her misbegotten turn last summer as a down-on-her-luck sad sack in “Tammy” left even the most fervent fans worried that the actress had lost her movie star mojo [although her supporting part in “St. Vincent” (which I personally liked but didn’t love) provided some solace], it is gratifying to see her back in the arms of her best collaborator—director Feig. The man behind her breakout in “Bridesmaids” and her blockbuster pairing with Sandra Bullock in “The Heat” also steps up his game (although his random cameo when he inexplicably walks into a hotel room door doesn’t help anything but I assume his ego). He doesn’t just shoot off a random round of in-jokes and sight gags a la “Austin Powers”-style, he also provides a decent if convoluted espionage plot—complete with tense action sequences, a surprising twist and 007-inspired opening credits—while spiked with a high percentage of gags that actually do succeed.

Most of the pleasure is derived from observing McCarthy’s sweet if insecure Susan Cooper grow from CIA analyst stuck working in a dank vermin-infested bunker to a highly skilled undercover sleuth seeking the whereabouts of a stolen nuke. She is equally at ease with posing as a Midwest cat lady or engaging in hand-to-hand battle a la Jackie Chan against a female assailant in a confined kitchen space by employing baguettes, frying pans and lettuce as lethal weaponry. I like the fact that the film actually plays up Cooper’s frumpiness (much to her constant chagrin) and inexperience in the role of a so-called spy, and I appreciate that her being thrown in the deep end as an agent was’t exactly out of left field as it potentially could have been if the film had an even more convoluted plot.

One of the more intense scenes of "Spy" features plenty of action and a lot of obvious stunt doubles. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

One of the more intense scenes of “Spy” features plenty of action and a lot of obvious stunt doubles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

All is not perfect, however. Having a male land atop a woman in an awkward position is sort of amusing once but not twice. And, as was the case with Feig’s “The Heat,” an excess of violence does get the point across that dames are as tough if not tougher than the dudes. But when the thugs begin to pile up with reckless abandon and all of a sudden Cooper barely flinches as she shoots her foes dead on the spot, it distracts from rather than enhances the overall humor at hand. But the true measure of a comedy is always how much you actually laugh. As long as the chuckles exceed the body count, all should be good. Which thankfully I found myself chuckling a lot and that is a good thing, and when it comes to its plot “Spy” makes you think from time to time and that is a very good thing. If you are in need of a simple laugh that would make all of your troubles seem like a distant memory for at least a couple hours, the may I suggest letting “Spy” take you there.

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What the in Hell is “Birdman” All About Anyway?

The bottom line is “Who Cares?” as long as we get to see Michael Keaton give the performance of his career, then who cares what this film’s message is actually supposed to be.

He's flying, high above the streets of New York and loving every minute of it in "Birdman."

He’s flying, high above the streets of New York and loving every minute of it in “Birdman.”

In the beginning I wasn’t sure what to make of it…

As the opening frame which quite frankly is the only frame of “Birdman” in it’s entirety the first time we see Michael Keaton in his tighty-whities it’s from behind. His character, a formerly huge action movie star by the name of Riggan Thompson (can I please have that name for one day?), is sitting in the lotus position in his dressing room of a historic Broadway theatre, only he’s levitating above the ground. Bathed in sunlight streaming in from an open window, he looks peaceful but i’m I’m also wondering “What the hell is going on here?” But a voice inside his head, which serves as our film narration is growling, grumbling, and literally screeching at him at times, constantly about matters both large and small as he tries to take “flight” so to speak.

The next time we see Keaton in his tighty-whities in “Birdman,” he’s dashing frantically through Times Square at night, having accidentally locked himself out of that same theatre (it was an odd circumstance that any of us can get into) in the middle of a performance of a Raymond Carver production of ““What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” that he’s starring in, writing, and directing. He’s navigating through a river of gawking tourists, iPhone video sharers, food carts and street performers. But despite that chaos that surrounds him, Riggan seems purposeful, driven and–for the first time–oddly content. Hell, you would be too if you had to get back into the damn theatre and boy does he ever, through the front door in his tighty-whities no less!

Thank God there are some filmmakers that still take chances. 

These are the extremes that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu navigates with audacious ambition and spectacular skill in “Birdman”–the full title of which is “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” (Yes, I’m not exactly sure why the movie takes on that title and at that length). He’s made a film that’s both technically astounding, thanks to that one moving shot, yet emotionally complicated with multiple layers, it’s intimate (thanks to the St. James Theatre setting) yet enormous (thanks to taking the action to the rest of New York City at times, biting yet warm, satirical yet occasionally sweet. All about the life in entertainment in all it’s ugly glory. It’s also the first time that Inarritu, the director of ponderous downers like “Babel” “and “Biutiful,” actually seems to be having some joy in his movies, maybe because it’s about the making of entertainment that so few of us get to experience.

Let’s make that a ton of joy, with equal parts resentment and anxiety. “Birdman” represents a complete off the wall blast from start to finish, no matter how odd and off-putting that finish is. The gimmick here–and it’s a real doozy, and it works beautifully–is that Inarritu has created the sensation that you are watching a two-hour film shot all in one take. Working with the brilliant and inventive cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar® last year for shooting “Gravity” and is the favorite to win his second in a row again), Inarritu has constructed the most delicate and dazzling high-wire act. And apparently, before shooting began, the director sent his cast a photo of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers as inspiration to what they were attempting to do. (That event is also being turned into a movie, because Hollywood can’t stop walking tightropes both metaphorically and in actuality)

Inarritu takes chances with "Birdman" and it's not only the actors who are lucky enough to experience that here.

Inarritu takes chances with “Birdman” and it’s not only the actors who are lucky enough to experience that here.

Through the impossibly long, intricately choreographed camera tracking shots on both dollys and hand-held, the camera swoops through narrow corridors, up and down tight stairways of the St. James and into crowded New York City streets. Shots vary from close ups for quiet one-on-one conversations in dressing rooms to huge panning shots which soar between skyscrapers for a moment of magical-realism flights of fancy when the title character “Birdman” really comes out and spreads its wings so to speak. In 2002, I made sure to see a small foreign language film called “Russian Ark” that took place in The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia which was imagined as one long tracking shot. That film had the benefit of a large museum to play in, “Birdman” does not, and takes advantage of their small intimate space.

A percussive and propulsive score from Antonio Sanchez (which was criminally rejected by the Academy and disqualified from consideration for the Oscar®), relies heavily on drums and cymbals, maintains a jazzy, edgy city-esque urban vibe throughout the entire film which allows it to plat a secondary character. This gimmick has been sold as one long continuous shot with no edits, but there are some edits there for sure. Sure, you can play it back on your DVR and look closely to find where the cuts probably happened (I have my suspicions), but debating where they happen takes much of the enjoyment out of it and takes away from the work of the film’s editors (again criminally unacknowledged by Oscar®).

Here’s to not being overlooked come Oscar® Sunday.

Beyond the actual moviemaking of this film comes the commanding performance from Michael Keaton in the role of a lifetime as Riggan Thompson, the washed-up actor he plays trying to regain his former glory he achieved as the fictitious winged action hero Birdman. The film follows the fraught early going of his Broadway debut which he believes is his last shot at greatness–although his on-screen alter ego doesn’t help much by voicing his fears and making him doubt himself incessantly. Yes, it’s knowingly amusing that Keaton, who peaked 20-plus years ago as the now legendary superhero “Batman,” is playing an actor who peaked 20-plus years ago as a superhero. Reality and clearly fantasy meet. Although I belive that it is Keaton’s Batman made by Tim Burton all the way back in 1989 should be considered is the definitive performance of that iconic superhero–but that’s neither here nor there. (God who would have thought that Keaton would have been able to pull that off from what we all know now from that franchise’s history)

The Golden Globe Award® winning script from Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo is cleverly meta without being too cutesy and self-satisfied. They allow for Keaton to toy with his persona a bit–as well as acknowledge how comparatively quiet his career has been in recent years–but seeing him in seasoned form provides its own joy. He’s still hyper-verbal and playful and he can still be amusing and lacerating in his delivery, but there’s a wry wistfulness and even a desperation in the mix now that’s achingly poignant.

True Ensembles Make for Truly Unique Storytelling. 

Also confronting his real-life reputation and stealing the movie is Edward Norton (Best Supporting Oscar® nominee) as Mike Shiner, the brilliant but infamously egotistical actor who steps in as Riggan’s younger co-star just as previews are about to begin on his labor-of-love production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” (Why Thompson chose to adapt this work of all things is never quite fully explained) Norton, who’s come with the baggage of being difficult and demanding over the years (again with the meta-ness with real life meeting fantasy), manages to find a distinctive balance between arrogance and sincerity with Shiner.

The "meta-ness" turns into reality with both Keaton and Norton playing fictionalized versions of themselves in "Birdman."

The “meta-ness” turns into reality with both Keaton and Norton playing fictionalized versions of themselves in “Birdman.”

Besides, they need each other, as they find in the days leading up to opening night. Everyone in this cast needs each other. Inarritu has amassed such a tremendous (and quite star studded) supporting cast and made ridiculous technical demands of them, (apparently they yet managed to film the movie in less than two months including rehearsals, and they filmed almost fifteen pages of dialog a day so they can continue the theme of a continuous shot throughout the entire movie) they all rise to the occasion and relished the chance to shine in this intimate tale.

Zack Galifianakis plays strongly against type as Riggan’s manager and the rare voice of reason in the middle of all this madness. Emma Stone (Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nominee) is adorable as Riggan’s world-weary, wise-ass daughter who also serves as his assistant. (She and Norton have crackling chemistry in a couple of crucial scenes.) Amy Ryan manages to make a splash with her very brief screen time as Riggan’s ex-wife; her character allows him to flesh out in fuller form and allows us to see both the selfish and the good in him. And Naomi Watts, who starred in Inarritu’s wrenching “21 Grams” (and got a well-deserved Oscar® nomination out of that role) gets to play both light and heavy moments as a neurotic fellow cast member (and girlfriend to Shiner). It’s powerfully clear that they all worked their asses of to make this complicated thrill ride look effortless. The result is one of the best times you’ll have at the movies this year–which might even be the best movie this year.

Is Riggan Thompson just as confused as we are watching 'Birdman?" God I hope not!

Is Riggan Thompson just as confused as we are watching ‘Birdman?” He’s definitely more tortured as his tormentor is a man in a freaking bird suit, feathers and all!

But What Is Birdman All About Anyway?

Like I said in the beginning of my review, Who Cares? Is it about redemption, individual-wise or career-wise? Is it about putting on a show? Is it about coming to terms with who you really are? There are so many questions to ponder here. To really enjoy the power of movies, then we should all be so bold to recognize interesting film-making when we see it. The story has some holes and the almost out of left-field ending doesn’t help the films case. But I l am telling you this film deserves praise for being so audacious in its production and performances. Where they meet is where you want to experience. This film won’t be liked by everyone, but should still be seen by everyone. It’s so out there that by taking chances on filmmaking, Inarritu allows the viewer to be taken on a wild ride of a production of a play (and a career hanging in the balance) along for a ride of a lifetime.

“Whiplash” May Just Give You That After Watching It

This Intensely Spellbinding Movie Will Hit Close to Home For Anyone Who Has Both Idolized and Feared Your Mentor or Idol. 

As a promising young drummer (Miles Teller) enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor (J.K. Simmons) who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.

Miles Teller is pushed to the limit by his sadistic teacher as played by Oscar® favorite for Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons.

Miles Teller plays a drumming prodigy who won’t stop until he gets pushed to the limit by his overbearing music teacher as played by Oscar® favorite J.K. Simmons.

Let’s face it, we’ve all had that one teacher that has instilled both equal parts fear and inspiration in you. These are the people, for better or for worse, that have such a profound impact on you as they affect how you will eventually turn out from the decisions you make to your eventual career path. You never forget them, you love their hate, you hate their love, because they get to you in that inimitable way. For an Oscar® nominated film like “Whiplash,” which focuses on a music progeny who gets wrapped up in the watchful eye of a masochistic instructor who yells screams not just swear words, but misogynistic and homophobic slurs that would make even Archie Bunker blush, it sticks with you for a long time after watching it because you empathize with everyone involved, strident student and horrible instructor alike.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job.’ “

If you are an aspiring artist, musician, athlete or honor student then you will probably bristle at those words (so too will your parents). But those never been truer words as recited by a young drummer’s tyrannical teacher who drives his students to excellence, or more likely despair, with his constant belittling of them, their talent, even their sexuality and parentage.

Miles Teller plays 19-year-old Andrew Neiman. As an actual trained drummer, you can tell Teller is in his comfort zone. He plays Andrew as a borderline obnoxious savant, with a jumble of half-hidden feelings and overbearing insecurities. But the movie’s black heart and soul belongs to that of J.K. Simmons as the Machiavellian legendary jazz teacher Terence Fletcher, a verbally, physically abusive authoritarian. He turns questions of tempo and rhythm into matters of life and death. He’s a manipulative enigma, encouraging one second saying “the key is to just relax,” which he purrs in Andrew’s ear before one rehearsal, and then becomes Satan the next scene demanding perfection from all of his drummers competing for the one slot by making them perform during rehearsal over and over again until everyone collapses.

But let’s start from the beginning…

In the movie’s first shot, you see Andrew as he practices alone one night at his New York music school, with the menacing beat at play the camera rolls in slowly down a dark hallway. (Thank you to the cinematographer and lighting director who provide so much to the world we get to see and experience here.) Just from these few minutes along you can tell Andrew is someone with remarkable talent and willing to work at improving at it. After watching and hearing him for a spell, Fletcher eventually invites Andrew to join the studio band. We get the sense of Success is here! Then he’s humiliated by Fletcher, slapped around, literally, busted down to alternate. Now we’re back down to Failure. (Oh great!) Fletcher practically goads this new guy into quitting, but how does Andrew respond? He fights back and begins marginalizing everyone around him and everything in his life for the sake of his new found career that has taken hold of him. He is now bleeding for his art.

A new burgeoning relationship with a fellow college student (Melissa Benoist) gets sidelined because Andrew tells her that he can’t accommodate love and empathy. Andrew’s sweet, ineffectual father (Paul Reiser) represents one side of a coin of a father figure, while Andrew clearly looks at Fletcher as the flip side. Recently an intriguing article from USA Today posted an intriguing discussion on how get a point across when it comes to pupils or disciples. It is as if Andrew cannot resist the abuse from Fletcher because he refuses to quit.

J.K. Simmons acts like a real ass. Thankfully he is going to be rewarded come Oscar® time for his performance as the sadistic Terence Fletcher.

J.K. Simmons acts like a real ass. Thankfully he is going to be rewarded for such close to the bone realism come Oscar® time for his performance as the sadistic Terence Fletcher.

But where is Whiplash headed?

As “Whiplash” builds, demonically so, to a crescendo of panting grandiosity, you start thinking about the mixed-up, fascinating implications of what you’ve just seen. Can Andrew ever integrate the pieces of his fractured life? He can’t live with his devil known as Fletcher, but he apparently can’t live without him either. In the end, we are left with ambiguity as to whether of not Andrew managed to one up Fletcher at his own game. But that’s the brilliance of Whiplash in the end, it doesn’t give you answers to the questions you long desire. It cuts straight to black when all of a sudden you want more. Sure there are some questionable moments in the film where Andrew is put into a position where you think there is no way he can continue performing under any circumstance, but somehow he does, leading to disastrous consequences, proving what doesn’t kill us makes us somehow stronger.

“Whiplash” lives up to its name. It throws you around with exacting control, yet the film’s director Damien Chazelle manages to exert tight, exacting control over his increasingly feverish and often off-putting comedic melodrama. (There was a similar intensity Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar® winning ballet melodrama, “Black Swan.”) By combining a number of various genres from comedy to drama to thriller to horror, “Whiplash” turns into a new take of “a-star-is-born saga” in its final climatic scene, set at a concert in Carnegie Hall. I’m not sure the climax works as well the story line that precedes it — yet Chazelle’s technique is so fabulously effective even when his story telling instincts wobble just a bit. The movie hums with provocations and its own youthful yet maturely realized vision of artistic torment and release, and it’s a cinema highlight for 2014 for sure.

After all that's said and done, Andrew's father Jim (as played by Paul Reiser)  comes across as the voice of reason in "Whiplash."

After all that’s said and done, Andrew’s father Jim (as played by Paul Reiser) comes across as the voice of reason in “Whiplash.”

Bottom Line

Although “Whiplash” is no longer in theatres, you should do everything in your power to see this film on a wide screen television with surround sound. The pacing, the intensity, even the rash uncontrollable dialog that allow you to be taken along Andrew’s journey with him as he makes questionable decisions makes it all worth it. The performances, especially out of leads Teller and Simmons is first rate. They’re bold and raw, as they attempt to match mano y mano. This is perhaps the best acting duo of year out of any other films being considered the best of the year. Considering director Damien Chazelle based this film on a short film he filmed in 2012 (to prove this story was worth telling), he was able to have the temerity to expand his vision into a full-length feature, I cannot wait for his next project.

I hope ‘Whiplash” rewarded with at least the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar® on February the 22nd. The film poses a lot of questions on what you would do with such a tyrannical leader in your midst. Would you stay and fight on? Or would you fight from afar from the sidelines? In the end, Andrew continues to fight on stage and we only hope he exacts his revenge on Fletcher with the yearning for success that got him to that music academy to begin with. And in that respect, you should be lucky to catch “Whiplash” on the big screen so you can feast your eyes on what passion realized is supposed to feel like and witness what a first rate film is really supposed to look and sound like.

Why the new movie “Wild” is One Meta “Wild” Ride

Self-discovery and one life’s journey can go in any which direction. Thankfully with skilled direction, nuanced writing and heartfelt acting, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed best-selling autobiography doesn’t seem to veer too far off track by not turning it into a maudlin experience.

Reese Witherspoon gets down and dirty in the adaptation of the best-seller "Wild."

Reese Witherspoon gets down and dirty in the adaptation of the best-seller “Wild.”

Having not read Cheryl Strayed‘s best-selling book “Wild,” I was impressed how the movie made hiking actually seem interesting and even enthralling thanks to the remarkable real-life story of author Cheryl Strayed’s life story following the death of her mother Bobbi.

First off, my expectations were very high for this one. I remember when the book first came out with all of these glowing reviews of a simple white book with a single brown hiking boot on the cover. With descriptions of how Strayed was inspired to become a better person through hiking on her own the Pacific Coast Trail out west following the unexpected death of her mother. Then I find out that it’s been optioned for a movie by none other than Academy Award® winning actress Reese Witherspoon. I thought there is no way they can screw this up as the book’s story line of heartache and redemption clearly lends itself to be perfectly showcased on film.

I have to admit it the entire team behind Wild pulled Strayed’s complex and sentimental story off with great aplomb! I just hope more people go out and see it. After a quick spurt of a release Wild is currently in limited release playing a few theaters here and there. After receiving two major Academy Award® nominations for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, I can only hope that a re-release or major push on Blu-ray/DVD is warranted, because this story has the potential to be considered one’s exploration of life’s journey a biopic for the ages. I’m that serious.

Here’s How Reese (or Cheryl) Climbed Every Mountain

“Wild” is the real-life story of author Cheryl Strayed’s journey to find herself, as she looks back on her often troubled upbringing from childhood all they way to adulthood, and reflects on how her mother’s death so deeply affected her life thereafter. Her decisions and actions affect everyone around her from her brother to her husband, no one is spared. After seemingly having her life in order, Strayed is dealt with the worst possible news, her rock and support system, otherwise known as her mother Bobbi, brilliantly played by Laura Dern, is suddenly diagnosed with bone cancer and is told she has only months to live. Even that’s not long enough, as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi abruptly dies after diagnosis and Strayed’s world is thrown into chaos, much of it self-inflicted.

Laura Dern who plays Cheryl's mother Bobbi won a much deserved Oscar nomination as well.

Laura Dern who plays Cheryl’s mother Bobbi won a much deserved Oscar nomination as well.

Reese is a angelic beauty and of course every guy wants to sleep with Cheryl (not matter how unkept she clearly is) But is this reality?

Despite acting like a complete mess following the death of her mother, Cheryl manages to get it on with every guy she meets. This despite still being married to her loyal husband Paul (nicely played by Thomas Sadoski), Cheryl becomes engrossed heavily into alcohol, drugs, and extra martial affairs, not knowing where her life is headed. It takes her husband Paul to physically save her after one too many illicit experiences that leads Cheryl close to her own death.

She also lucks out like no other! The movie made me think that I should sit down and read Cheryl’s book because her journey was filled with so many twists and turns both physical and emotional, which is just enough to make this movie adaptation fly by, that you can’t believe what a remarkable life she has lead already.

Credit screenwriter (and successful novelist himself) Nick Hornsby for telling what could have been a linear and borderline lifeless story into a brilliant and nonlinear journey that travels through a human being’s troubled soul. Trust me, this journey will all make sense in the end. In addition to director Jean-Marc Vallee‘s decision to de-glamorize Miss Witherspoon as a person or the not really showcase the scenic locales she is visiting with long sweeping vista shots is a right one. This is a story told with heart and humanity.

Makes me think it helps to be the producer of the movie you star in, doesn’t it? You get to handle all of the decisions of what you want to focus on.

What Would You Do In Cheryl’s Boots?

I certainly would never hike my way through the dessert and mountains if i had a tragedy before me. It seems like such a drastic decision and who knows if you are seriously trained to actually live on your own in the great outdoors? Not to mention you have to walk until your body aches.

Cheryl Strayed’s life is so tumultuous and she becomes so impetuous that she has that “a-ha moment” when she and her friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman) have to shovel snow in one scene. Cheryl with her life an impossible mess, sees a hiking book on the Pacific Crest Trail. Then all of a sudden it dawns on her: she has to hike in order to become to woman that her mother wanted her to become! That singular line that Witherspoon says in the movie, stood out to me. I thought okay…this moment comes across as a wee bit contrived, but hey if this a plot point that sets us out on our journey, then who am I to question how she got there?

Cheryl explaining her legal last name change to “Strayed” in a flashback (get it she Strayed?) is another off the mark moment that only makes sense when you get to the end and think back on what you just saw. Speaking of the end, it just ends abruptly, which is my only big problem with the movie. No post script to acknowledgment of journey completed, just Reese looking into the rainy Oregon sky and the film fades to a white light so to speak.

As you can see author of "Wild," Cheryl Strayed and the movie's producer/ lead actress Reese Witherspoon look so much alike!

As you can see author of “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed and the movie’s producer/ lead actress Reese Witherspoon look so much alike!

It may look like its a Reeseisance but where is Reese’s career headed now?

She managed to produce a potential Best Picture nominee and box office smash in Gone Girl, now she’s starring in a movie that did bag her a second nomination for acting. I can now see why David Fincher suggested someone else namely Rosemund Pike instead of herself in the role of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, she’s a wickedly great find who can pull off cold and calculating. Whereas Reese well she’s still just as cute as she was as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. It’s that perky personality and smaller stature I think will be a hindrance for Reese in finding a project as great as Wild was.

But now that she is producing more movies she is clearly taking control of her career and she is striving to pick strong projects that will enhance her skills as a performer. Think about it, she could be doing more rom-com projects and no one would be the wiser that her career is quite frankly stuck in neutral. But she’s choosing not to, she’s choosing to wipe off the makeup and give her fans and the movie going public energetic thought-provoking mature characters. I’m glad she’s clearly reading best-selling books, someone has to and why not her? The next book that comes along that features a strong willed woman I will picture Reese Witherspoon in the role and think it’s because of this role of Cheryl Strayed in Wild that I now think she can stretch herself. For fans of movies, we should all be thankful that someone is taking the time to be thoughtful about her career.

Why Dumb and Dumber To Proves You Can’t Go Home Again

No amount of wailing can keep this sequel afloat. After watching Dumb and Dumber 2, I felt how Daniels looks in this picture.

No amount of wailing can keep this sequel afloat. After watching Dumb and Dumber 2, I felt how Daniels looks in this picture.

In the unbelievably strange world of Hollywood, sequels to box hits have now become automatic. Granted with the proliferation of comic book action movies this has become a no brainer. But with every summer blockbuster getting the automatic sequel or even a movie series treatment, it comes at no surprise that successful comedies are treated the same way. Look at what happened with The Hangover, they filmed not one but two dreadful follow-ups, but some movies actually get better with the sequels, or look at the Austin Powers franchise, okay the second one was good the third one not so much.  The minute a film makes a profit you can tell the studios are plotting their next move. The case of 1994’s Dumb and Dumber is a unique one, the film took off when Jim Carrey’s career was just taking off itself. Considering the fact that same year Ace Ventura and The Mask both came out earlier that year. There was no reason to think that Dumb and Dumber would not be a huge box office hit, which of course it was. What makes this case unique is why did it take more than twenty years for the brother duo behind the film Bobby and Peter Farrelly to conjure up the sequel in the first place? As uninspired in both name and concept Dumb and Dumber To was not the sequel fans should have expected or deserved.

Why Do It In The First Place?

Let’s face it, Dumb and Dumber and it’s newly released sequel Dumb and Dumber To was not going to receive a ton of critical acclaim. But what made it on screen actually makes me question the overall motives of everyone involved to actual produce and film this picture. Dumb and Dumber To is one of the most unimaginative, unfunny, and most poorly thought out scripts to make it to the big screen in long time. And that’s saying something. Which is not to say the original film’s most loyal fans will eat it up. They will, as judging by the film’s first weekend receipts, they clearly did. But what does it say about Hollywood when the people involved are clearly producing a film just to cash their pay check because that’s the only explanation I can think of that would explain why the Farrelly brothers, and Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels and Kathleen Turner would ever agree to doing this picture especially after reading the script. Some things in Hollywood never surprise me, they disappointment, but never surprise.

So What Happened?

Where to begin? If you saw the first one then you know you’re not gong to get a witty farce in the realm of Noel Coward. But give the credit to the Farrelly brothers for having had some of the most unique and funniest concepts make to the big screen. What other duo can come up with the concepts behind There’s Something About Mary and Shallow Hal? Okay they’re clearly not the Coen brothers, but hey they provide deliberate, crude and slightly ironic laughs with an audience yearning for a little self-indulgent fun, and who’s to stop them. But clearly the brothers Farrelly have lost their mojo for quite sometime, I mean after duds like this, not to mention their interpretation of The Three Stooges, you have to wonder what going on with them recently. This recent attempt had very little to do with ironic comedy, at my screening I think I heard real laughter from the audience perhaps only twice throughout the entire film. You could tell the audience wasn’t feeling their so-called fresh take on the lives of Harry Dunne (Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Carrey) and what they were up to now that they are in their mid-fifties now, yet somehow they’re still not grown up.

Here’s the Story…

In this incarnation, as we begin, Lloyd still at with the practical jokes, thinks he’s pulled the biggest practical joke on Harry when he announces that he’s been faking the whole time while committed to a mental institution. After the audience barely smirks after this revelation, the hijinks continue with Lloyd announcing he needed a kidney transplant and they find out he has a long lost daughter out there who just might be give hers to him. Long story short, and it is a long story indeed, Harry and Lloyd set out to find his suspected daughter Penny (Rachel Melvin) her biological mother who Harry thinks he may have slept with (Turner) and eventually wind up with Travis (Rob Riggle) who through a totally contrived plot point winds up with our dastardly duo on the road attmpting to kill them as they try to get to El Paso to meet up with young Penny at the KEN Conference. Get it? The laughs just keep coming a mile a minute!

Bottom Line 

Dumb and Dumber To is so pointless, so thoughtless and so utterly lacking in laughs both deliberate and ironic that I was left scratching my head on why anyone would want to be involved in this mess. It seems that everyone who’s involved with this sequel career is at a different point in their lives. It’s preety obvious on why the film’s star Jim Carrey chose to do this movie after years of saying he disliked doing sequels. He is not the star he used to be that ‘s obvious. One point Carrey was getting paid 20-25 million per picture, now after a string of flops, much of which was supposed to jump start his career and launch, ironically enough, more franchises like Lemony Snickett or Mr. Popper’s Penguins, now his career is stuck in neutral. I could see why he wanted to do a sequel because it seems so familiar and the film is a guaranteed winner.

As for Jeff Daniels, well his career has had a nice comeback thanks to his Emmy® award winning role in HBO’s The Newsroom, but apparently he too thought his career could use a nice pick me up especially when it came to being noticed on the silver screen. Then there are the founders of this entire concept, the directors and co-writers of the film, Bobby and Peter Farrelly, I feel they have the talent to rival another brother duo in the Coens in the creatively avante garde realm of Hollywood, yet for years they’ve been disappointing fans with worthless projects that have them going nowhere, Movie 43? The Three Stooges? Yeesh. The fact it took six, yes SIX total writers, including the Farrelly brothers to come up with this junk of a movie is worrisome for everyone involved.

Kathleen Turner why are you wasting your time in this hot mess?

Kathleen Turner why are you wasting your time in this hot mess?

There’s a lot of disappointment and blame to go around when it comes to this pointless sequel to the actors to the directors to the writers. I was most disappointed with Oscar® nominee Kathleen Turner playing the pivotal role of Fraida Flecher who may or may not have screwed around with Harry and Lloyd when they were young. Why an actress as talented a Turner would take on a thankless and quite frankly offensive role where she is the recipient of nothing but crude jokes and put downs is beyond me.  Why any of the actors would agree to do this movie after reading the script is beyond me. Skip this sequel, to what many people feel is a landmark, yes I said landmark film of the mid 90’s, go out and VOD the original or hell watch a far superior film of that era called There’s Something About Mary that’s also from the Farrelly’s. Trust me they’ll thank you for remembering their good work.

 

 

 

Whoa…Why “Gone Girl” Is a Sordid & Complex Tale That Hits Most Of The Right Notes

Don't trust her Ben! You are ready to set yourself up for a major fall in Gone Girl.

Don’t trust her Ben! You are ready to set yourself up for a major fall in Gone Girl.

I still can’t sleep…after I just saw David Fincher’s new movie “Gone Girl” and there’s too much on my mind to conjure up a coherent thought. I’m thinking, “damn what the hell did I just witness?” Now, I have to admit I didn’t read the book and had no intention of doing so, even when I saw the movie because I knew what the book was mainly about without knowing any of the book’s plot twists along the way. And I’m still thinking this movie perfectly exudes what is both right and wrong with strict novel adaptations. After talking with friends who did read the book, they claimed that author and screen writer Gillian Flynn adapted her own novel as close to source material as possible, by taking out the plot detours. I first thought that this was the safe route for first time screenwriter to go, but after I thought about it some more, I now wish she attempted to mix things up a bit, and even change that controversial ending that had readers abuzz before there was any talk of a movie. After seeing Gone Girl, I was actually more convinced that I wish she had the conviction to do what many fans wanted her to do and alter the ending of her screenplay. Gone Girl clearly loses steam as the movie concludes, I felt  there were at least two false endings where I thought movie was going to fade to black, yet somehow it kept going…and going. Still the movie sets up a fascinating dichotomy of why noted best selling authors aren’t allowed by the studios to adapt their own novels. Entertainment Weekly posted a fascinating article recently on why many authors are shunned in Hollywood despite desiring to adapt their own work. Ego and plotting get in the way on most occasions, and I can see where at least plotting and pacing seemed to be issues for Flynn here. Flynn herself has an interesting career trajectory, she was laid off from her job as a critic from ironically Entertainment Weekly, and suddenly her desire to become a novelist kicked in and viola(!) success and fame has suddenly arrived at her doorstep! I appreciate a rags to riches story like Flynn’s and hope that we all can learn and appreciate it.

What I am most thankful for is the “oh so peculiar life lessons” this film managed to teach me whenever I just happen to be conjuring up my own mystery or happen to be stuck in a maddening situation beyond my control, I now know what to do…as opposed to our main protagonist Nick Dunne, as played as perfect cad by that perfect cad Ben Affleck.

Spoiler Alert (oh please, how can you not with this film?) From the storyline to the overall message there was certainly a lot to learn, among them:

Trust no one especially your own spouse. This movie sets up a tried and true crime story ripped straight from the headlines in this case something very similar to the Scott and Laci Peterson trial in which a philandering husband is the prime suspect in the disappearance of his wife, who as the film evolves, may or may not be hiding more than you know. There are so many unique twists and turns in the plot that you and the viewer find out clues as they are happening, like a true mystery yarn in the sense of Alfred Hitchcock. Which leads us to…

Plot is key and yes pay attention to everything. I knew I had to keep up when we were being told a non-linear story that shoots back to its origins and flashes forward at the end. When you think this story is resolved it’s just getting started. The pace sets this film apart some parts making more sense that others, every so often we are updated on how many days weeks have passed by since Amy has been our “Gone Girl.” But literally the time and space continuum means nothing here when it comes to our climax.

Characterization is something that also sets the film apart from other mysteries. As our leading lady, Amy Dunne (as played by Rosemund Pike) is one cold and calculating sociopath you cannot trust anyone in this movie especially her. The way she plots everything out including her own “demise” and “rebirth” both planned and well unplanned is well remarkable. But the movie made me panic when after everything was all said and done I wasn’t sure she was done with her mayhem. She’s a woman scored but she’s “suddenly” decided that she’s going to handle the playing of the game. But wait! Amy gets sloppy and has to improvise and the audience gets both shocked and scared and then ultimately pleased with her ingenuity. Take note of the laughter from the audience where sometimes there are jokes where it’s warranted and they were clearly laughing at the absurdness of our “heroine’s” madness and desperate she got to get out of the ordeal that she created.

Actions speak louder than words. The pacing of Gone Girl also makes me question the motives and actions of our two leads, I was thinking should they be doing something about the situation since all this time has passed? Nick evolved from our morally ambiguous cad who should be and will always be under suspicion to our hero who solves the crime faster than anyone else, it becomes apparent that he and our lead detective (as played by Kim Dickens) are the smartest two people in the room. In fact they become the only two people with a brain for most of the film. Speaking of which when, Amy is found and tells her horrible story of how she survived by being kidnapped by Neil Patrick Harris’ character Desi Collings, there were cameras everywhere, so clearly her story wouldn’t be corroborated on what we actually saw versus what really happened on footage left by the cameras, right? Also, there are so many holes in Amy’s story that she gets sloppy, there were a couple of misdirections in the film where I thought someone was going to easily recognize her while she was incognito on the “lam,” yet no one she comes into contact with recognizes her? Those desperate measures that Amy takes lead to another twist where turns the tables in the situation. I have to admit have the fun is watching Amy become more resourceful the more desperate she gets. Amy Dunne: Apparently she really is a masochist with a cunning manipulative brain that is constantly churning plotting her next move.

Ben's character finally gets it about midway through Gone Girl. Although some parts were so obvious I'm shocked no one got it at the end.

Ben’s character finally gets it about midway through Gone Girl. Although some parts were so obvious I’m shocked no one got it at the end.

Bottom Line

This film is not without its faults. What film doesn’t possess at least some inherent flaw? I liked the performances, the complex directing and nuanced if somewhat far fetched script. Movies are supposed to make you think, and Gone Girl accomplishes that. Although the holes in the plot can be considered maddening to most movie buffs who deserve a complex suspense tale with some realism involved we are at least given a hybrid of a dark comedy mixed with a who-done-it mystery. Viewers are allowed to fill in their own blanks to see how the film arrived at its conclusion. I believe viewers want to add up the math in their head and follow the clues that we are being lead on. Brava performances as our title character by somewhat new arrival Rosemund Pike and Ben Affleck (who for the first time did not annoy me to no ends), not to mention a shout out to Carrie Coon who plays Affleck’s supportive yet unabashedly honest twin sister Margo who speaks as the voice of reason in film clearly in place of the audience. I applaud all the efforts of a crew of people that took a seemingly unadaptable novel and turned it into a tour-de-force of a movie. Granted the level of believability is negligible here but with the great performances, plotting and performance I think that this can be overlooked somewhat. I say go see Gone Girl, if you haven’t already and much of you clearly already have. Is this film a landmark classic? Hardly…but it’s a noteworthy first achievement for a first time author and reinvigorates my opinion of what a mystery suspense film has the potential to be, and for that all film buffs should all be thankful.

Why It’s Okay to be Impressed But Not Drawn to “Boyhood”

Through the years: get ready to grow up with newcomer Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood.

Through the years: get ready to grow up with newcomer Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood.

 

A Ground-Breaking Movie Falls Flat Thanks to Uninspiring Characters 

Now that we are gearing up for the fall movies to come out and the Oscar race has unofficially begun with all of the film festivals coming out in Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York for film studios both big and small to trot out the contenders they’ve either financed from the start of production or have acquired through these festivals and decided to put them out before film critics to see which films have enough buzz to warrant an actual Oscar® campaign. But before we head into this year’s fall campaign, and discuss all of the movies that may be hearing their name called when nominations are read come the first of the year, we have to discuss a movie that was the talk of the industry at the first important film festival of the year Sundance, and that was Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking docudrama “Boyhood.” “Boyhood” was filmed with the same cast over a twelve year period. The film focuses on young Mason (as played by unknown Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up with his single mom (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) as they movie from town to town throughout Texas, as their mom attempts to get her masters degree and goes through failed marriage after failed marriage and the kid’s neer-do-well father (Ethan Hawke) pops in and out of their lives over the course of nine years. What makes Boyhood so remarkable is that Linklater filmed his crew over the span of twelve years, each over a short period of time so he could capture on film the small idiosyncrasies of young man growing up with life’s challenges and disappointments surrounding him. The film intends to serve as a nostalgic time capsule that attempts to capture the joys and obstacles of both parenting and growing up. Life indeed passes us by, as proven with Boyhood, Mason deals with life’s challenges in both school and home with aplomb and at the end we are wondering where the time has gone as we see our young man that we’ve focused on during the three hour long movie all grown up and on his own in college.

Impressed with the Filmmaking not with the Overall Film

I can only imagine the undertaking of this film in order to not only get financing but to also get it off of the ground scheduling wise. I have to give all of the actors credit for taking somewhat routine characters going through the motions of life evolving and turning those mundane lives into something fully lived and actualized. Much of the credit goes to director Linklater who took two non actors, one of which was his own daughter and no doubt nurtured them and carefully directed them in their scenes which clearly were filmed on the fly. There are doubts if this dramatic undertaking could be accomplished in today’s social media world. So what’s the problem? My problem with the film lies in the overall story of the movie, or the screen if you will. So often with life, there was a running theme in young Mason’s life, as if everyone around him, especially his mother (as played by Patricia Arquette) was failing at life and therefore indirectly failing our main character of Mason. The lesson I got from this movie is that life is hard, but parenting children by yourself is even harder. So our mother character marries two of the biggest losers on the planet and it’s so obvious that these relationships aren’t going to work out that the viewer can see them as bad news a mile away. The father character (as played by Ethan Hawke) is no better, coming in and out of Mason and Samantha’s life. Both parents were never going to win mother or father of the year, but my problem is that lack of awareness of their own children’s emotions rang both cold and hollow for me.

So Why Aren’t I In Love With This Movie Like Every Critic in the World?

Everyone and I mean everyone loved this movie. It’s being treated the second coming of autuer filmmaking. Why is it wrong that I only thought that Boyhood was just okay? I felt some of the performances, especially from the adults, fell flat and when they weren’t chewing scenery with the overemotional yelling moments they were playing it too paint by numbers during the more subtle scenes. No one seems to learn from their mistakes and this learning curve is clearly being passed onto their offspring. The biggest problem I have with the movie is it’s stereotypical portrayal of women, from the mother who comes across as the most passive aggressive individual you’ve ever met especially when it concerns the men in her life, to the one of the mother’s friends, who at the end of the movie starts flirting when she becomes attracted to a more mature Mason. The movie comes across as a tumultuous storyline that forces our young hero to experience dire personal conflict to just somehow find a conclusion in life. Part of me thinks that critics are just amazed with how Linklater filmed the movie for a few days ever year for over twelve years more than they are enthralled with the storyline. If this were the case, more of the critics would be giving out props to the arch of the storyline.

They grow up so fast...as you see not too much changes, for a while at least, into Boyhood.

They grow up so fast…as you see not too much changes, for a while at least, into Boyhood.

Bottom Line

For many film lovers Boyhood was the ultimate visceral treat on how to move a storyline along by filming the same actors as they grow up on camera year after year without having to change actors. The main problem I had was with the overall storyline which I felt added up to very little, and the dialogue enabled the female characters to come across as broad stereotypes. Ellar Coltrane is the real find here, so nuanced yet so natural as the audience is made to feel like we are living out his life story with him. My advice is to see this film to at least get what all of the hubbub is about. My feeling is before you do see it don’t raise your expectations so high that you’re expecting this epic movie and you’re only getting an above average coming of age tale told in what can be considered a unique way with the same actors aging in real time. If that’s the only unique qualifier for Boyhood to get serious award consideration then we need to have a true discussion on what a great film means to everyone.

Why Re-Envisioning the Fairy Tale of Maleficent Was the Wrong Way To Go…

Angelina Jolie was perfectly cast, perhaps too perfectly, for the title role of the memorable Disney villainess. She was born to play this right?

Angelina Jolie was perfectly cast, perhaps too perfectly, for the title role of the memorable Disney villainess. She was born to play this right?

I was among the many fans who could not wait to see how Disney chose to re-imagine the backstory of one of their most dastardly villains of all time in the update of  “Sleeping Beauty” in their latest film Maleficent. With much trepidation, I am not afraid to admit I was woefully disappointed by this latest retcon of a classic fairy tale. Of course Disney has done this before to a lesser degree with live action adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Oz: Great and Powerful. But with this one, I was expecting more and what I got was somewhat less. Don’t get me wrong, Angelina Jolie was made for this role. With her dark and mysterious look and coloring not to mention the energy and aura she constantly gives off, I could not imagine anyone else taking on this challenging role. But the storyline and characterization did not sit right with me who has been a fan of this fairy tale for years. So why didn’t it deliver?

The Storyline

Spoiler Alert! Without giving too much away…unlike Sleeping Beauty…Maleficent focuses on (surprise!) our apparently not-as-evil-as-we-thought title character and her origins and the tale of how she came to shape young Sleeping Beauty’s (aka Princess Aurora’s) life. The movie is set up as it is something that takes place in the middle of J.R.R. Tolkien’s middle earth where we have warring kingdoms and fairies and goblins and huge tree creatures that somehow communicate with Maleficent, who try to defend their territory.

From this we get a backdrop of Romeo and Juliet, where Sleeping Beauty’s father King Stefan, as a boy, comes from the other kingdom but he is a poor orphan who as a child befriends Maleficent, who represents sort of larger scale fairy/sorceress with huge wings and horns manages to fall in love with this mere mortal. The kids grow up, and grow apart, wars continue to happen until Stefan’s predecessor insists that whomever kill the adult Maleficent (now played by Jolie) they will inherit his throne. Stefan (now played by a unbelievably miscast Sharlto Copley of District 9 fame) decides he wants the crown for himself and will kill his former true love himself in order to get to the throne. Instead of killing Maleficent, Stefan drugs her and cuts off her wings (in one of the most alarming scenes based on a fairy tale, trust me you will be hearing Jolie voice shrieking in your nightmares long after seeing this film) and returns, claiming to have killed her.

Long story short, Stefan becomes King, gets married, has a child named Princess Aurora. Eventually, driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect “the moors” kingdom over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the Stefan’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love (she comes across thinking it’s all some dream) and the human kingdom that holds her legacy (but of course she doesn’t know this). It is at this point where the movie gets even more choppier if it hasn’t already, Maleficent not only interacts with Aurora, throughout the rest of the film, she sort of become obsessed with the young girl. This is because we are lead to believe, Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and decides to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.

Eventually more fighting occurs, including an unbelievable fight sequence with Maleficent and Stefan, and it all culminates with the most absurd rewrite of history of who really wakes up poor Sleeping Aurora.  Everyone winds up happy (well, sort of) in the end, but with a lot of burning questions still unanswered, but the screenwriters leave us to think who cares as long as we get a “happily ever after.”

Maleficent has got her smoke and special effects ready to roll. Jolie was ready to play ball but in the end the script writers were too pandering with their story. I ask, why does there have to be a happily ever after?

Maleficent has got her smoke and special effects ready to roll. Jolie was ready to play ball but in the end the script writers were too pandering with their story. I ask, why does there have to be a happily ever after?

But where is this story going?

Both of my problems with Maleficent clearly have to do with the film pandering to the intended audience, mainly young women and fantasy fans, instead of galvanizing the modern fairy tale by turning the concept on its head, the screenwriters John Lee Hancock and Linda Woolverton, gave us a young female empowerment tale with no purpose or center.

First, let’s start with the setup of warring factions between the mortals and the creatures in the night, which is ripped right out of a traditional fantasy playbook. My main issue with this storyline is that it shades it’s characters in too broadly painted strokes. Maleficent is portrayed as all knowing and kind, that is until she gets jilted by her misunderstood lover Stefan, who himself goes from rags to riches once he becomes an adult, and he decides to turn on Maleficent in order to get what he wants.

When this happens, Maleficent becomes the apparent victim and uses that victim card to become a villain herself, making sure she gets revenge on everyone who scorned her namely King Stefan. My question is why did we have to demonize Stefan in order to make Maleficent our hero? Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to show different shades of characters and find out what motivates them to do the things that they do? Perhaps I’m reading too much into this fantasy, but when you have a story as legendary as Sleeping Beauty you have to deliver.

My second problem is with Maleficent’s apparent obsession with young Aurora from birth to when she grows into a teenager. She’s around her all of the time, and eventually becomes more of an advisory figure and best friend to young Aurora. Granted as Aurora, Elle Fanning wanders around like an woodland imp not realizing who she is as a person or the motives of others around her. I wanted her to get some sort of clue.

But for me the motives of our lead Maleficnet had the oddest and most abrupt change of characterization throughout the entire movie. First, Maleficent is hell bent on getting revenge, then later she’s mentally fallen in love with this young girl who supposed to represent everything she hates. Did she just grow a heart again all of a sudden? This climaxes with the pivotal moment of how young Aurora is awakened with the most ludicrous scene I have seen in some time. But I realized after everything that has previously happened in the movie’s storyline, it was actually quite predictable.

The sets and costumes were spot on. Too bad the dialogue and storyline couldn't keep up with them.

The sets and costumes were spot on. Too bad the dialogue and storyline couldn’t keep up with them.

The Bottom Line

Maleficent is director Robert Stromberg’s first feature film as a director. He actually delivers on the fast-paced action scenes and with his background as production designer on such films as Alice in Wonderland and Oz: Great and Powerful you can tell by the details he put into his film he was focused on creating a sumptuous display of sets, costumes, and makeup. Where Maleficent is involved, there is no higher peer on how this movie comes across visually. Obviously I had major issues with the storyline and the follow through.

Then again, if you and your family want to be entertained by a less-than-deep fairy tale told in a way that suits certain factions better than others then go out and see it. I personally take my fairy takes with a grain of salt and when they are “updated,” I still hold out hope they aren’t reaching too far in order to satisfy certain parties over others. This is where I think fairy tales are supposed to deliver, but Maleficent sadly does not.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Worth Seeing a Second Time

 

The production value alone are worth a trip to visit the Grand Budapest Hotel.

The production value alone are worth a trip to visit the Grand Budapest Hotel.

What I’m Watching

I love filmmaker Wes Anderson. Not because I always confuse him with Paul Thomas Anderson who has done some fine work directing indie dramas like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. Nor is it because I confuse his with Paul W.S. Anderson director of the action horror franchise known as Resident Evil.  (You know I’m not the only one who confuses them all together) No, I enjoy Wes Anderson’s movies like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom because of the rich storytelling combined with the abundance of flavor and color in every one of his movies. They all tend to follow a certain path, quirky characters living in an outlandish world, experiencing a story that can only be told in narration form because it’s too impossible to believe if only it wasn’t somehow happening on film. What I also love about Anderson’s world of wonder is he clearly pays attention to style in addition to the substance. The substance is in the writing and the performances he brings out of his actors, the style is in the ornate location shoots, production design, the costumes, the makeup, the cinematography, even the musical score are so effective they play such integral parts in the movie they are almost seen as characters.

The Cast of Characters

The Grand Budapest Hotel is no different. Namely because the movie is named after where most of the action takes place “The Hotel” plays such a vital role in the movie that it becomes an essential character in the lives of our storytellers. Hotel is told through a series of flashbacks through two different narrations. It begins with the narration of the “author” as played in current form by Tom Wilkinson and his younger self known as “young writer” as played by Jude Law. The author regales a story of visiting a crumbling but still open for business hotel by the name of The Grand Budapest Hotel while traveling through an Alpine nation in Eastern Europe know as Zubrowka. There our storyteller meets and listens to the remarkable story of the hotel’s owner Zero Moustafa as played by F. Murray Abraham on how he came to own this Grand Hotel. Zero’s younger self, as played by newcomer Tony Revolori, begins as the hotel’s lobby boy in 1932 starts an apprenticeship under Gustave H. the hotel’s legendary concierge. He proceeds to learn from Gustave everything he needs to know about the hotel business including loyalty, duty, and love especially when it comes to the duties in the details of the job.

Spoiler Alert

From there we encounter a wacky story of love and loss which revolves around Gustav getting accused of murdering one of the hotel older patron’s Madame D. (as played by Tilda Swinton) who upon her death turns leaves Gustav a priceless painting, and eventually we learn her entire fortune. But Gustav gets imprisoned for allegedly murdering Madame D. and the tale turns into both a who-dun-it mystery but a wild escape-from-jail caper as well. In between there are supporting roles from many a star, some of whom have worked with Anderson before, among them Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson. Some play key roles, other have a blink and you missed it cameo role. They’re all fun and the plotting of the entire film with all of these characters helps makes the movie role merrily along.

Who isn't in this movie? Ralph Fiennes headlines an all star cast most of whom you won't recognize behind all of the costumes and makeup.

Who isn’t in this movie? Ralph Fiennes headlines an all star cast most of whom you won’t recognize behind all of the costumes and makeup.

My Take

The reason why you need to watch this movie for the second time is not about the plot. That’s not hard to ascertain. It’s a quick witted and rather simply plotted film for such a elaborate caper that straddling many genres from dark comedy to adventure to borderline suspense with a hint of emotional nostalgia thanks to the overall storytelling aspect of the movie. Strong performances by all around especially our leads Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori. Fiennes who I feel hasn’t been allowed to shine in a well made movie for so long finally gets his chance to dig his teeth into something meaty here with a touch a charisma, fun and sass. And Tony Revolori, whom I have never seen on screen before, is a total natural here playing it up against actors more seasoned and well known than he is. I do have some exception with the relationship between Revolori’s Zero character and his love interest Agatha (played by Saoirse Ronan), as they display very little chemistry and her role seems to be more of a setup character who barely aides Gustav and Zero in their quest to bring justice to light. And then there’s Adrien Brody who has another thankless role in which he plays the villain but has no deep storyline impact. The bigger scene stealer is the character of J.D. Jpoling (Willem Dafoe) as the heavy who personally goes after Gustave and Zero. Hijinks are to be had for sure with Gustav getting help breaking of prison to J.D. hunting down Gustav and Zero by taking down anything and anyone in his way.

This is black comedy for sure, with a surprising heavy dose of violence for a Wes Anderson movie. But what really grabbed me was the witty dialogue and ridiculous storyline that captures the essence of a Wes Anderson movie. This is a fun, mindless farce that means nothing in the long run but gets away with everything in the short term. I insist everyone go see it to see this movie that is filmed in a fictitious world where the ridiculous comes across as clever through brilliantly constructed dialog, with sharply executed timing, and unexpected plot changes. Especially take note when the action is taken outside, the camera shots come across as little art pieces very similar to the few of you who may have seen Moonrise Kingdom, they are beautifully constructed with edits that simply ad to the timing.  Also, go see it for the many well played performances, which enhances the one minute absurd the next minute poignant storyline which takes you through the lives to two remarkable gentlemen and how they deal with love and loss. You’re gonna want to watch a second time to make sure you got all of the plot points and cleaver dialog the first time alone.

In the end, I expect at least two Oscar® nominations come this time year for the script and the production design. Although it only in March and the Academy rarely recognizes films this early the script and locales are too mythical and urbane to forget this time next year. For that reason alone you should see The Grand Budapest Hotel twice!

I Watched “Non-Stop” So You Don’t Have To

 

Liam Neeson is ready to party in his latest thriller Non-Stop.

Liam Neeson is ready to party in his latest thriller Non-Stop.

I have to admit there are two things I love when it comes to guilty pleasures and the movies. One is Liam Neeson and the other is anything involving somehow getting stuck on an airplane. I’ve always admired Liam Neeson’s acting even before he went through this career renaissance, starting with the movie Taken, as an action film star who manages to make sense of one of the amazingly complex missions while still managing to somehow save the day. Almost every film he’s been in since has followed the same path: his character is established with having issues, such as estranged from the family or dealing with separation or loss or both; he’s been given insurmountable odds in the predicament he’s in; in order to get out of said predicament he manages to get more creative in a twenty-four hour span than you would manage to make sense of in a lifetime; and the end climax results in a knock-em sock-em explosion of events that no human being can survive expect that of a character played Mr. Liam Neeson himself. In his latest movie Non-Stop, Liam Neeson’s character of Bill Marks goes through all of the aforementioned challenges and then some. I also happen to love airplane movies because of their intimate spaces con provide relatable conditions in which we hope we won’t have to deal with in our worst travel nightmares. So why not be entertained for two hours by a situation that I would never want to be in versus a situation so realistic on the ground that may hit a little too close to home? Who cares if it’s Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57 or Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2, I know I’m gong to be entertained on how our antagonist is going to get out plight thirty-thousand feet in the air. Hell, I even watch the 1970’s classic film Airport whenever it’s on TMC knowing full well Dean Martin’s gonna get that bomb damaged plane down safely. And so I thought Liam Neeson’s saving the day on a plane, now they’ve piqued my interest.


Stop Reading
if you don’t want to know the film’s plot…
Non-Stop was an action paced white-knuckle thrill ride that takes aboard a flight from New York to London, where Neesom’s character Bill Marks, who serves as the plane’s air marshal suffers from both alcoholism and a deceased child. But isn’t that the besides the point, as with every Liam Neeson movie of late, we don’t care about his personal issues. It serves no real plot purpose, except for a grandstanding speech in which Neesom declares beyond shadow of a doubt he’s going to save the day no matter his personal issues. We watch because we only care about how he’s going to get out of this mess he’s gotten us into to. And this time around it’s a doozy. As Bill Marks boards the plane you meet a host of potentially nefarious characters from Jenn (played by Julianne Moore) the inquisitive but sensitive lady who manages to finagle a seat next to Marks while they’re both in business class to the loud mouthed passenger in coach (Corey Stoll). When they get to cruising altitude Marks starts to get texts (on perhaps the world’s most dated cell phone in 2014) that a passenger on the plane is going to die every 20 minutes unless 150 million dollars is deposited into a specific bank account. Within the next few minutes the action takes off from there. Without giving too much away, people do in fact start to die until the money is finally deposited. The problem is more suspicion (and convolution) is raised when Marks is suspected of being said terrorist wanting the money in addition to being the one threatening to take down the entire plane.

Lady Mary better not be apart of this sinister plan so help me god!

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) better not be apart of this sinister plan so help me god!

My Take
As the action packed sequences passes by, Marks suspects everyone from Moore’s character to Michelle Dockery’s chief flight attendant Nancy is suspected of being the terrorist. I think I would have lost it if Lady Mary was guilty in the end. (Spoiler: she’s not, and neither is Oscar® winner Lupita Nyong’o who serves in an all too brief cameo, I sure hope this is not where her career is headed after winning said Oscar®) But that’s what sets this film apart from many other Liam Neeson movie’s of year’s past is that you honestly you don’t know who you can trust. Everyone should be considered guilty until the credits roll! Granted this plotline of “everyone’s a suspect until we find out the truth” exactly mirrors that of the movie Flight Plan with Jodie Foster. But for some reason this plotting came off as fresh and intense, which is surprising considering the fact that every person introduced in the movie and plot point felt like a potential red herring. As I watched I got increasingly anxious, you start asking yourself gee I wonder if he’s should be considered a suspect, should so and so’s action be considered suspicious, are said suspects working together, is the terrorist even on board the plane? Because the movie keeps you guessing, this allows you to suspend disbelief in the movie’s eventual climax, in which a bomb literally goes off onboard, all while Marks manages to still take care of business and of course save the day!

Bottom Line
Non-Stop was a solid action-paced movie that has more twists and turns that borderline incredulity. But film’s preposterousness can be ignored solely for the edge of your seat sequences. The only character I truly cared for was (here’s a big surprise) Liam Neeson’s Bill Marks. Although, he eventually annoyed me in the end as well. I mean no human being can be that lucky and right all the time? I was clearly more invested in the actors playing the characters versus the characters themselves. I was definitely surprised by the ending but in end I was still rolling my eyes. Non-Stop’s storylines don’t provide for appointment movie watching, you could miss this movie and not miss anything. It’s a solid date night that’s geared towards the guys more than the female interest. But it’s still a fun action ride that’s perfect for Netflix or Amazon rental and definitely worth a watch on FX or TBS while you’re ironing or folding laundry. And trust me this one will be on just like Neesom’s other movies such as Taken, Taken 2 and Unknown always seem to be on. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s always a good time waster, just make sure you don’t see it while on your next long distance flight. I couldn’t imagine would it would be like to watch this movie on an actual airplane!