Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Only Thing to Remember for Sunday's Game...

Are you

Team Russell or

Team Tom?

Seriously-when did the NFL start looking less like a series of athletes and more like a series of movie stars?

Cake (2014)

Film: Cake (2014)
Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy
Director: Daniel Barnz
Oscar History: Aniston certainly made a major splash at most of awards shows (BFCA, SAG, and the Globes), but was that random person who couldn't make it with Oscar (though was clearly sixth place)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

The Academy Awards can occasionally be deeply cruel to a movie.  That nomination morning, you might end up being a film like The Grand Budapest Hotel, overwhelmed with nine nominations, many of which you hardly expected and suddenly people will see your film (indefinitely) as a major motion picture.  Then there are films like Selma or The Dark Knight, a film that still manages to be part of the conversation, even if it isn't in all of the categories you expect.  And finally there is a movie like Cake, a film that had all of its hopes pinned on that one person making the list, and then suddenly they land in sixth or seventh place and the film becomes suddenly colored in a poor light.  "Not good enough for a nomination" despite its inclusion in other major critics awards and the Globes, it becomes a film that has a quick theater life and likely becomes the sort of movie that's on one of the subsidiary Showtime channels and that's about it.  Which is a pity, because on occasion those films and the nomination they were gunning for are totally worth the price of admission, which is the case with Cake, which houses a superb piece of work by Jennifer Aniston that I would have nominated even if Oscar wouldn't have.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie is about Claire Bennett (Aniston) a woman who has clearly given up on happiness in the wake of a car accident that killed her son and caused her to have chronic pain.  She's left her husband, and her only companions are her saintly maid (Barraza) and her support group, who is reeling from the death of the seemingly perfect Nina (Kendrick).  The film unfolds with Claire trying to find her purpose in life, first tracking down Nina's footsteps trying to decide why she killed herself (and if this is something Claire needs to consider) and what happens to you once everything in your life has been ripped away from you.

It's a heavy subject, but the film handles it pretty lightly, as you would expect from a movie named after a pastry.  The movie's plot notes are totally predictable-there is no point in the film that comes across as surprising.  We all know that Claire will continue down her trek toward self-destruction until it's clear that she's got something new to live toward (potentially returning to her husband or her new friend/theoretical love interest in Worthington), but the film doesn't cover new ground or even start a new conversation.  It's this reason, quite frankly, that I think that the critics were on the nose with the relative panning that this particular movie received.

Except, of course, for that central performance.  Jennifer Aniston has been dramatic before, most notably in The Good Girl (which is an AWFUL movie and a middling performance at best), but here she's completely on-point.  Aniston's Claire is sarcastic, a narcissist, and a pain-in-the-ass, but she knows it and she knows what her charms are.  She continues to be funny, and all of Aniston's greatest attributes as a movie star (save for her sun-kissed beauty) are on full-display here.  The razor sharp timing we saw in Rachel Green all those years keeps the film light and watachable, and that's the key in a familiar movie: how do you say something new with the same old formula?  You do that with a wonderful central performance that shows how idiotically comedy casting directors have been behaving by casting Aniston in dreck (admittedly, this also probably falls on the feet of the star and her agent as well, but as we learned with Michael Keaton and Channing Tatum earlier this year, casting directors are amply rewarded when they get creative).

Overall, then, while this is no one's idea of a great movie, it does house a great performance, which is a pity that it faltered in what is a very solid Best Actress field (though I'd quickly drop Felicity Jones in favor of Jennifer Aniston, even though pundits insist I lose Marion Cotillard instead), and if you're a fan of Aniston this is a movie that you should check out.  At least those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Do you wish that Aniston had made the Best Actress race as well?  And if so, whom would you cut?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Monday, January 26, 2015

OVP: Still Alice (2014)

Film: Still Alice (2014)
Stars: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
Director: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Actress-Julianne Moore)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Considering that Julianne Moore has won everything but the Heisman, it seems prudent to get to her latest film on the blog, since I'm expecting she's about to have a dream come true on February 22nd.  I hit her film as part of a massive trip to the movies this past weekend (which included my first triple feature of the year!), and like what many people are saying about the film, left duly impressed by Julianne Moore, but a little underwhelmed by the actual motion picture that's housing her fifth Oscar-nominated performance (and potentially her first win).

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is about Alice Howland (Moore), a woman who is living a Nancy Meyers-style lifestyle in Manhattan.  She has the swanky job at Columbia as a linguistics professor and a trio of children so beautiful their parents could only be Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore.  And she manages to be that sort of person we all aspire toward being: confident, learned, cultured, and yet somehow down-to-earth.  She's a truly remarkable woman reaping the fruits of decades of hard work.

And yet, right around her fiftieth birthday, we see that she's starting to forget things.  A woman of great intellect, she rationalizes and tests herself before finally learning that she has an extremely rare form of Alzheimer's disease, which has presented when she is still medically young.  Alice must not only cope with this loss of her mind, which is her shining star as a human being, but with the slow deterioration of the relationships she has with her husband and children.  Along the way we see the ugliness of not just disease, but also how people treat those they love who have a disease, and the way that we approach different illnesses.

There's a lot to discuss out of the film, particularly that it shows the really horrific effects of Alzheimer's because it's ravaging our mind, not our body.  There's a moment where Alice talks about how she wishes that she'd had cancer, because at least that's something that people understand how to sympathize with, and there's so much logic in that opinion, and it opens up a larger conversation about how we have a hierarchy of empathy for different diseases.  Just think of how, say, AIDS or Type-2 Diabetes are treated compared to breast cancer, or how, Alzheimer's, a disease that's a shot in the dark in terms of whether you get it, is handled with kid's gloves.  We see how people try to talk around Alice, assuming that whatever pops out of her mind is madness even when it isn't, and how even the most beloved of people become a burden when they don't jive with our own lives.

This last point may be the weakest aspect of the film, as both Kate Bosworth and Alec Baldwin play characters who are unrealistically cruel to Alice and her situation.  Baldwin clearly adores his wife at the beginning of the movie, and Bosworth is constantly communicating with her role model of a mother.  And yet by the end of the film, conveniently, it's the rebel of the family (Kristen Stewart) who ends up being the only one who can still connect with her mother.  It doesn't help with Baldwin's casting in particular that he's far too famous and far too defined of a public persona for the role; we all know that Alec Baldwin the person has a tendency to be callous and a bully, so it's easy to confuse his change in behavior with his public persona in a way that, say, Richard Jenkins or Dennis Quaid wouldn't have been so easily dismissed.

The film also keeps to a fairly predictable beat-there's nothing surprising about the eventual decline of Alice or about her family's relationships, and while the acting from Moore and Stewart is worth the price of admission, it's a pretty blank slate.  This helps while you're actually in the theater, principally because you can easily project on these fairly non-descript individuals your own fears and insecurities.  I spoke with my brother afterwards, and both of us sort of acknowledged that we are the same ages as Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish, respectively, and that our parents are roughly the same ages as Moore and Baldwin, and how that factor fed more into the tears than anything else (the "thereby the grace of God" sort of feeling).  Even if you aren't the same age as the children, you can still see yourself in Moore's or Baldwin's shoes as a spouse or a sibling or a child and seeing how that deterioration is petrifying.  This makes the film extremely effective in the moment, but as you leave the theater you realize that there's not enough to connect with these people onscreen, and not all the great acting in the world is going to make up for the fact that the script is very underwritten.

Those are my thoughts on this tough-sit of a movie that has been rocking the Best Actress prizes-what are yours?  Are you rooting for Juli on Oscar night, or do you have a Team Reese or Team Marion shirt lined up?  And what do you think of great performances lodged in lousy movies in general-do you find that with time the performance makes up for the poorness of the film, or does the lack of quality in the movie hurt your opinion of the film over time?  It's a thought worth discussing, and, in particular, sharing in the comments!

John's Top 10 Movies of 2014

Oscar has done it.  The Globes have done it.  Basically every critic on the planet has done it.  And now it's my turn!  Here are my Top 10 (listed alphabetically) films of 2014!

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

A meta experiment that examines the way we spit out celebrity, Michael Keaton's game look at a former star that eerily mirrors him in real life is the performance of a lifetime.  Special points go to Emmanuel Lubezki for a terrific camera trick of making the film seem like one long take, and to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for taking that trick and making the film effervesce.

Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

An experiment in the way we look at the movies, and the way we look at our own lives.  Few films have ever dared to embark on such a long journey (twelve years in the making), and no director can make us examine the fragility of time and the grand scope of life like Richard Linklater.  It's one of those films that has to be seen to be believed.

The Fault in Our Stars (dir. Josh Boone)

Yes, my friends, occasionally teen romances can be truly great movies, but you'd be forgiven from thinking so after the dreck we've had to endure for years.  Yet here we have a romantic drama with a compelling female lead (Shailene Woodley, and thank god for her at the movies this year) and an irresistible Ansel Elgort in a role that likely made him a star.  If you aren't in tears by its end, you have no heart.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (dir. Peter Jackson)

The final chapter in Peter Jackson's six-part look at the Kingdom of Middle Earth rarely lets up, giving epic battle after epic battle, but its power rests in the quieter moments of the movie: Thorin's battle with himself, Bilbo's final moments as he realizes his part of the adventure is over, and the quickening heartbeat of Sauron's evil growing ever stronger.  A David Lean-style finale for the most important filmic series of the past three decades.

The Lego Movie (dir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

The most fun I had at the movies all year.  Yes, it's technically a giant commercial designed to sell billions of dollars worth of the title toys, but it's also complete joy, mixing nostalgia from the audience's youth with a virtual feast of imagery and sight gags.  Plus, it's that rare comedy that actually finds a way to use the skills of all of its cast members, from bit parts by Jonah Hill and Will Forte to Star of 2014 Chris Pratt as our lead everyman.

Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)

A terrifying look into the heart of a mad man.  The film relies upon us trusting a person because he looks like a movie star, and then we realize a bit too late that he's not down-on-his-luck, but instead a true sociopath, careening through Los Angeles hell bent on the best story, regardless of what happens to those around him.  This is arguably the best serial killer film we've seen since, well, Zodiac, so clearly Gyllenhaal has found his niche.  And you'll never look at the news in the same way again.

Pride (dir. Matthew Warchus)

Perfect.  That's pretty much the only way to sum up Pride, perhaps the best ensemble piece I've seen on screens since...I can't even remember.  A cast of British veterans and newcomers make you feel for causes you may never have given a second thought, and show perhaps the most damning indictment of the government's indifference to the poor and the sick you've seen.  And somehow it's still a light and spry comedy-gay or straight, if you haven't seen it yet, you're an idiot for not rectifying that situation.

Stranger by the Lake (dir. Alain Guiraudie)

If Alfred Hitchcock and Rainer Werner Fassbinder had a baby, it would probably have come up with Stranger by the Lake, a spooky look into a French cruising beach completely out of time and space.  The movie itself poses many riddles amidst the graphic love scenes, principally "what do we want out of life" and "where is our youth best spent?"  And of course the film has arguably the best ending of any movie this year, petrifying in a way few films dare to be.

Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

In a year where ambiguity reigned supreme over the art house, no film better captured that lack of understanding more than Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's long-awaited follow-up to Birth.  The film could be a horror film masquerading as a thriller, or it could be a coming-of-age movie about a woman haunted by some recent tragedy.  Whatever it is, it's a provocative look at what's below the surface in all of us, and how art can continue to change the way we approach the world.  And Scarlett Johansson hasn't been this effective since we first learned of her eleven years ago.

Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallee)

Movie stars, despite what the media says, are not dead.  They just don't get the strong roles they used to, and so thank goodness Jean-Marc Vallee can find a way to meld a truly compelling narrative with one of our greatest stars, Reese Witherspoon.  Like Cheryl, Reese has been lost in the cinematic wilderness for years, but you couldn't tell that with the verve and life force she brings to this woman, whose story of trying to find redemption in the wilderness breaks every survival cliche you can imagine, and ends up being a journey through time that we all must endure.

And there you have it-the Top 10 films of 2014!  Any make your personal list?  Any that you haven't seen (in which case-why not?!?!)?  Sound off in the comments!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

John's 5 Worst Films of 2014

Every year I manage to avoid most of the worst films of the year, principally because I'm not a professional critic, and unless a film is about to be part of the OVP (which thankfully movies like Exodus: Gods and King and Transformers 4 were not), it's usually by sheer accident that I end up watching a truly awful flick.  Sadly, I didn't avoid it all this year, and while there were a few other films that I found underwhelming (including a good chunk of this year's Animated Feature Oscar category-that'll be a pretty blistering OVP write-up), here were the five worst (in alphabetical order).

The Giver (dir. Phillip Noyce)

For those of us who grew up with the book, it seemed like blasphemy to begin with.  But once you throw in a lead that looks like an Abercrombie model but has the personality of plywood, a plot that looks less like the original book and more like a Divergent fan fiction, and Jeff Bridges/Meryl Streep scenery-chewing to the hilt (we waited forty years and THIS is all we get from them finally being onscreen together?!?), you realize that it was less blasphemy than an abomination on the cinema.

I, Frankenstein (dir. Stuart Bettie)

Okay, so I saw it on a date.  That's my excuse for going to what, of these five films, was clearly most destined to be a truly awful experience at the movies.  But it's not my fault that the film couldn't at least see the camp value of Bill Nighy's overacting, instead making everyone around him seem like idiots for trusting a man who makes Vincent Price look trustworthy, and for making the entire movie a scene of badly choreographed visual effects and hamminess from lead Aaron Eckhart.

The Judge (dir. David Dobkin)

I'm not ranking the movies on this list, but I hated this film so much that it would almost certainly be at the top.  A wretched look at a father-son relationship, with absolutely no amount of empathy between the two so that the final courtroom scene (which you can see coming a mile away because this is a film that embraces every cliche it gets) feel like something you're begging to be over rather than a climax.  Robert Downey, Jr. has never been worse, and is starting to become Johnny Depp in terms of his onscreen laziness.

Rosewater (dir. Jon Stewart)

Just because the film deals with serious fare doesn't make it any good.  Jon Stewart's first directorial effort had pedigree and an interesting subject, but it also is insanely boring, relying on quick cliches and a completely black-and-white worldview that doesn't jive with what Stewart's been trying to accomplish on The Daily Show.  Worse yet, Stewart doesn't give us any insight to his personal views on the subject, which his show was a part of, showing a lack of guts cinematically that doesn't bode well for his future directorial endeavors.

Tammy (dir. Ben Falcone) 

It could have been funny.  Kathy Bates, Susan Sarandon, Melissa McCarthy-these are women who can act.  Unfortunately the film itself is saddled with a poor script, never knowing what to do with its main character (is she tragic or just oblivious?).  Without any sort of jokes to rely upon, we're left with McCarthy trying to accomplish all of the humor through physical comedy, and even there she's too reliant on past memories of Bridesmaids and The Heat rather than creating something new for Tammy.

And those are my five worst films of 2014-what are yours?  Anyone want to defend these films?  The comments section is yours for the taking!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Ranting On...Tom Steyer and the California Senate Race

Tom Steyer's decision this past week to not run for the Senate did not come as a very large surprise to me, and quite frankly is probably for the best for the Democrats.  Because of the way that California conducts its primaries (we discussed this a bit here), having too many candidates running for the party is a terrible idea.  At this point it appears that Attorney General Kamala Harris, a rising star in the Democratic Party who is clearly destined for higher things (think Cory Booker and Joni Ernst) just needs a stepping stone to the national stage, which a Senate seat will do.  I do hope that she's challenged by one (read: only one) Democrat, and considering the large Latino population in the state of California, it would make sense for one of the leading Democratic Latinos looking at the office (likely Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Rep. Xavier Becerra, or Rep. Loretta Sanchez) to get into the race.  Any more Democrats risks potentially handing the seat to a Republican (through vote-splitting), but Harris vs. one of the leading Latino contenders seems both practically and pragmatically the right decision.

Steyer, after all, doesn't have elected experience like these other contenders, and could risk alienating a populace that has the third-highest unemployment rate in the country, as well as is in the Top 20 in terms of the worst poverty rates in the country.  Having a hedge fund billionaire come in, likely spend $100 million of his own money on the race, and then have to face off against a Republican who will inevitably try to paint Steyer as an out-of-touch one-percenter-this seems like easy pickings, and something we don't want to have to embrace.  But this doesn't mean that Steyer wouldn't have made a good senator, particularly on the issue of climate change.

Climate change, it should be noted, is not what one would call one of the sexier political issues, particularly when people are voting.  People vote on things like guns, god, and green (money, that is, but I wanted the alliteration), but they don't vote on the environment.  This leaves a passion gap for politicians, always looking to score their next election win, over topics that are not instant winners with the public.  This isn't always an issue, as, thanks to budgeting and committee work, all senators eventually get to certain issues, but it's worth noting that issues that have a particular senator pushing them tend to become part of the forefront faster, and get more meaningful legislation.

Pet issues in the past have fueled legislation in this country.  Sen. Tom Harkin's deaf brother was the impetus for his push for the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Sen. Ted Kennedy's decades-long championship for health insurance was one of the leading reasons why Obamacare became a thing.  If gay marriage ends up being the law of the land later this year, Sen. Rob Portman's gay son Will may have more to do with it than decades worth of protests ever could.  And we wouldn't be having a national conversation about rapes in the military, the burdens of student loans, and the morality of drone strikes if it weren't for Sens. Gillibrand, Warren, and Paul right now.  The issues that stick in the bonnet of individual senators are important, principally because this is a ridiculously small body if you think about it-only 100 people vote on every single piece of legislation, and as a result they gain enormous leeway over the conversation that happens on the floor of the body, which thus influences the news and the national dialogue.

The problem is that no senator has embraced climate change as their pet issue, certainly not in the ways illustrated above, and certainly not in the way that Tom Steyer would have.  Some senators spring to mind who have gone above-and-beyond.  Barbara Boxer is arguably the biggest advocate for environmental causes, as she spearheaded the bill to block drilling in ANWR, introducing NOPA, and making climate change a leading component of her time in office.  However, she's retiring (hence this opening), and no one else has emerged.  Sens. Jeff Merkley and Brian Schatz both speak frequently on the environment, but none have the celebrity or the dynamic speaking ability that someone like Paul or Warren can accomplish.  Sen. Bernie Sanders wears the nametag of a Socialist, so his ability to bridge across the aisle and to the rest of the nation seems limited.  And someone like Elizabeth Warren or Dianne Feinstein has the name recognition to promote environmental causes (and gain instant attention for doing so) and they are strong advocates, but they have so many other issues on their radar that environmentalism seems unlikely to make it to the forefront.

So until Merkley or Schatz emerges as a national player, the Democratic movement needs a candidate that is willing to push hard for legislation around climate change that is critically important, so while Steyer dropping out is probably best from a November 2016 stand-point, I truly hope that he makes a point of endorsing a candidate who will reflect his desires on this issue.  Kamala Harris, Antonio Villagairosa, or whomever is the nominee will have the instant celebrity as a senator from the country's largest state to make a major impact immediately upon election, and my hope is that the people of the Golden State agree.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

OVP: Inherent Vice (2014)

Film: Inherent Vice (2014)
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Adapted Screenplay, Costume)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Remember being a kid and seeing certain flavors combined by your favorite candy or cereal company, and you think it'll be brilliant, and it ends up being just, well, different (like S'Mores Pop-Tarts).  Well, Inherent Vice is in fact the S'Mores Pop-Tarts of movies.  It's the sort of film that makes complete sense on-paper, and is occasionally wildly enjoyable, but it never really takes off in the way that you're hoping (here because of the acting, with the Pop-Tart probably because it always tasted a little too manufactured, even for a Pop-Tart), and will almost assuredly stay in the relatively unknown annals of Paul Thomas Anderson's greatest films, never brushing up against Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is about Doc (Phoenix), a frequently strung-out private investigator convinced by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Waterston) to undertake a case to prevent her billionaire boyfriend Mickey (Eric Roberts), from being committed by his wife and her lover.  Meanwhile, Doc is hired by other clients to investigate a similar situation related to Mickey (why get paid once when you can get paid multiple times?), and soon he finds himself immersed in the occasionally kooky world of the 1970's Los Angeles drug trade.

The film is not for the faint-of-heart or the sort of people who thought the ending of Lost was a bummer.  This is a film with some answers (it's relatively straight-forward, if you think about it), but it doesn't just go out and state the characters' motives.  There's nothing expositional about Inherent Vice, which seems odd considering that this is a movie with a wealth of dialogue.  The movie instead has people talking like they normally do-much like Wild Tales earlier this week, Inherent Vice has people repeating each other, finding new information through deduction, and occasionally running off on red herring-style tangents (in the end, it doesn't really matter, for example, that Mickey's wife is having an affair, or Benicio del Toro's character despite relatively high billing in trailers, is largely inconsequential).

The movie's at its best when it's relying on the heavy charms of Joaquin Phoenix, who was my favorite part of the film.  He's so unsure, so jonesed out of his mind, that you half expect Tommy Chong to show up with a van, but he's still very good at his job, and the character himself unfolds rather nicely as we learn he's a strong detective behind the ludicrousness, and we learn so much about the case along with him (as I believe he's in every scene of the movie).  The rest of the cast is sporadic, in my opinion.  For every performance like Reese Witherspoon's, who has razor sharp comic instincts and is a jolt throughout, there's something banal and gaudy like Martin Short's coke-snorting dentist.  The film's most noted supporting players (Waterston and Brolin) were a mixed bag for me.  Both are brilliant at times (I loved Waterston's dreamy-eyed entrance into the movie and Brolin's pancake scene is every bit as amusing as the trailer makes out), but in a film where everyone borders reality, they're the only two characters that stretch outside of it; no one is as intoxicating as Shasta or as abrasive as Brolin's Bigfoot.

The film's best friend is the script, which is aided heavily by Thomas Pynchon's penchant for spectacular monikers (my personal favorite: Japonica Fenway, which sounds like a sports car and that totally fits the character).  The lines are irresistible despite not resembling any sort of speaking pattern you would find in real life.  I also loved the way that we don't get the story dumbed-down.  All of the pieces of the film are definitely there, and you can follow everything, but the film meanders, occasionally unsuccessfully, which is likely the reason that some critics haven't embraced this film as warmly as would be expected for a PTA movie.  Still, the patter is exceptional and the comedy usually lands.  It's the sort of movie that you watch and realize that it wasn't really made for its time slot-it was made for midnight movie marathons years from now, where people will dress up in one of Mark Bridges' absurdly stylized costumes and quote lines like "he's technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi."

Those were my thoughts on this complicated, but not unpleasant film (it's grown on me with two days to mull)-what about yours?  Josh Brolin got mad plaudits for the film-anyone amongst that crowd?  Anyone think it can or should take one of those two Oscars?  Share below!