30-for-30: Survive and Advance

'Survive and Advance' movie poster

Release: Sunday, March 17, 2013

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jonathan Hock

Thrown off balance by Houston’s sudden switch to the zone defense, the North Carolina State Wolfpack, “the cardiac kids,” scrapped to find a last-second shot that would once again elevate them over their opponent and into the upper echelon of improbable victories. But there were seven seconds left on the clock and Houston was frustrating almost every available option. Finally, a dangerous cross-court pass to Dereck Whittenburg at the top of the key. He was 30 feet from the basket when the ball went up.

In hindsight, of course that shot was going to go in . . . well, in a way. The shot came up short but power forward Lorenzo Charles was there for the put-back to lift the sixth-seeded NC State over #1 Houston in one of the most iconic college basketball moments of the 20th Century. In the aftermath, college hoops was gifted one of the more amusing and simultaneously heartwarming sequences of video feed: head coach Jim “Jimmy V” Valvano running around on the court, looking for someone to embrace and finally grabbing some random fan before his players finally found him in the crowd. Seriously, what does a guy have to do to get a hug?!

You couldn’t find a Hollywood script that had an ending like this. And even if you could find someone who would write this Cinderella story, good luck casting the parts — Jimmy V in particular. If it’s not the sheer unlikelihood of the Wolfpack’s nine consecutive come-back victories, seven of which they were losing in the final minute of play, then surely it’s the enigmatic, emotional and beloved head coach that makes this story one for the ages. This is the kind of thaumaturgy sports fanatics would drag their better halves to a theater for to prove sports are something worth investing your time in.

Jonathan Hock, a nine-time Emmy Award-winning sports documentarian, weaves together two distinct but inextricably linked stories in a patchwork of emotion and nostalgia for an era that has long since passed. One story, set in the present, finds the members of the 1983 squad gathering for a reunion at a small restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they share and compare stories and memories of their collegiate careers. The other constructs a profile of Jimmy V, introducing him as an enigmatic, emotional and supremely confident young coach before integrating him further into the community after he boldly announces to his players on the first day that he will win the national championship.

But this is far more than a pep talk about the vitality of team synergy, a filmic letter of encouragement to future college prospects. In the process of forming the shape of the now iconic head coach Survive and Advance, a title that dually serves practical and philosophical purposes, also traces how Valvano embraced life challenges, namely his cancer diagnosis, post-college coaching. Part of that profile building is laced with painful reminders of how fleeting the moments that define not only players and coaches but people, ordinary people, really are. Valvano’s appearances at NC State 10 years after the win and at the 1993 ESPY Awards are masterfully placed within the context of the story.

Though the facade may look and feel familiar (this is not the first time a documentary crew has become invested in a miracle team, and that’s just within the realm of this sport), Survive and Advance is nonetheless one of the best that ESPN’s long-running series has to offer, manifesting as a classic underdog story whose ability to inspire transcends college athletics and for that matter, the world of competitive sport. It’s the essence of the personnel that make it great, but also difficult to write a review without waxing lyrical about the coaching, about the circumstances or the conviction Hock has in the notion that sports teams are family units.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: This particular documentary is one of this reviewer’s favorites, as it offers one of the most emotionally satisfying and at times devastating narratives available in the series. I doubt I’m talking to anyone else here but the college hoop fans but even if you hold a general curiosity about miraculous stories, I highly recommend giving this one a shot, if for no other reason than the chance to familiarize yourself with the wonderful human being that was Jim Valvano. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “Every day, every single day, and in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things. Ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things.”

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Love

'Love' movie poster NSFW

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gaspar Noé

Directed by: Gaspar Noé

French-Argentinian Gaspar Noé has chosen to follow up his “psychedelic melodrama” Enter the Void with a graphic examination of relationships driven by lust and jealousy, and while it is a warmer film than his previous effortsLove is a far cry from feel-good and offers its own set of challenges. Owed in part to Noé’s fascination with close-ups of body parts — genitals in particular — the film finds the controversial director again exploiting extremes in his quest to understand what exactly love is and what it does to us.

The good news is that Noé gives viewers, the morbidly curious or otherwise, an easy out: the opening frame leaves little doubt as to what you have to look forward to over the next two plus hours (as if the posters don’t). While it is reductive to label Love‘s no-holds-barred depiction of sexual intimacy as pornographic — there’s much to be said about the purpose of these sex scenes versus those created in an industry that’s only interested in form and not function — offhand comments about this being a movie for fetishists I can at least understand as the number of scenes that indulge in excess is in itself excessive.

Centering around Murphy (Karl Glusman), an American ex-pat in Paris studying to become a filmmaker, Love features a brutally nonlinear narrative that intertwines his past and present relationships, making for a rather disorienting, disjointed watch that is on more than one occasion difficult to commit to. Murphy claims to aspire to making films that celebrate our baser instincts but all he really seems to ever accomplish is finding ways to have more intense sex with his nutcase girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock). This isn’t the girl we first see him with, however.

We first meet Murphy awakening in an apartment he likens to a prison cell ever since his new girlfriend Omi (Klara Kristin) moved in. This is the girl he now has a child with, but she’s not the one he ‘cares’ about. His drug-addled existence is explored in a meditative, if not meandering story that measures his loss of self-control (and by extent, happiness) by showing us the various stages of both relationships, the latter originating after a night in which Murphy and Electra’s ultimate fantasy is finally realized. Two years after their break-up, when he gets a phone call from her mother telling him Electra has disappeared, Murphy finds himself cast back into the throes of regret. Consequently we’re sucked into his mind, where we’re subjected to a maze of flashbacks intended to demonstrate the unreliability of memory.

In Noé’s neon-tinged world, sex manifests itself both thematically and in the way the narrative expands to encapsulate the life cycle of a relationship, atypical as it may be. The numerous bedroom scenes aren’t created just to rile up audiences, even if stimulation or repulsion is an inevitability. While several scenes carry more than a whiff of misogyny and are shot with a masculine power that’s hard to ignore, aggression also stems from Electra who asks her lover to go to some very dark places in order to please her. Tone plays a huge role in how we perceive the lovemaking. Turns out, both individuals are as depraved as the other. (I don’t know if ‘depraved’ shows some lack of sensitivity on my part but I tend to draw the line where I’m forced to watch people receiving fellatio from transvestites.)

On the matter of Love‘s themes: Noé relies heavily on sexuality and sexual aggression as a means of contrasting cultures — Paris is, after all, the city of love and he thrusts an American into this whirlwind of flesh and fantasy fulfillment. It’s not exactly an exhaustive approach; for as much sex as this movie contains the romance you expect to see surrounding a couple so infatuated with one another is surprisingly sparse, save for a fleeting scene that finds the couple meeting for the first time in public — Murphy playfully chastising Electra for not having seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, his favorite film, and she reciting lines from her favorite Robert Frost poem.

The word of the day certainly seems to be ‘intense,’ for Love is an intensely internalized realization. The majority of the film takes place within Murphy’s memory as he tries desperately to reconcile what he has lost with his current romantic life: “I’m so tired of this bitch.” Whatever happened to Electra? What would have happened to her if she never knew Murphy? Was this fate? Is that oh-so-coveted feeling truly sustainable, for human beings are such selfish creatures.

Unfortunately by the time the shower scene commences we’re entirely unsure of what to think. The film is a test of endurance, not simply due to the content but the glacial pacing that finds its actors shuffling between discreet underground night clubs, the S&M and all of that. Lost in a perpetual haze of lust and thrill-seeking, we’re dared to watch committed acts of unsimulated sex. But Noé isn’t that shallow. There’s more to all of this than masturbatory imagery, though I can’t put my finger on what that is specifically. Maybe that’s the point.

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Recommendation: Love finds Gaspar Noé doing a lot of soul-searching in a decidedly passionate, if muddled, examination of human relationships and what causes them to deteriorate. He is a filmmaker who doesn’t make concessions for the mainstream. Love is an extreme film and it should be approached with caution by anyone who thinks they can handle it. 

Rated: NC-17

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “If you fall in love, you’re the loser.”

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Adult Beginners

'Adult Beginners' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 24, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jeff Cox; Liz Flahive; Nick Kroll

Directed by: Ross Katz

Fans of FX’s The League, here’s a movie you’ve kind of been waiting for. Kind of. And maybe ‘waiting for’ is extreme. Regardless of my lack of enthusiasm towards star Nick Kroll, Adult Beginners finds a way to encourage a more well-rounded performance out of Ruxin by making him a nanny instead of a ninny.

Jake (Kroll) is responsible for the collapse of his upstart tech company when it immediately goes bankrupt, costing the jobs of many and subjecting him to their understandable rage. Feeling terrible, mostly for himself, he finds himself with no choice but to move in with his sister Justine (the always welcome Rose Byrne) who has settled down with her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale) in the suburbs. In their house life is hectic, what with Danny working long hours in his blue collar day job, Justine being pregnant with their second child and their son Teddy (played by twins Caleb and Matthew Paddock) proving to be quite a handful.

Ruxin . . . er, I mean Jake ingratiates himself for several months with his sister who is every bit as unsure about what his next moves are going to be as he is. Unfortunately Danny and Jake don’t exactly hit it off from the get-go. In exchange for his temporary living arrangement, Justine asks if Jake wouldn’t mind babysitting their kid — it’d really help them out. Plus, you know . . . responsibility and stuff.

I suppose this is the part where I start accusing Adult Beginners of underachieving, and to be sure this family-oriented comedy is lightweight. I should be more specific. This isn’t family friendly material but rather a spotlight on relationships and how they evolve as people grow older and take on new, larger responsibilities. (You might be wondering what any of that has to do with the swimming pool on the poster. You see, neither Jake nor Justine know how to swim and yet Justine has enrolled her son in a beginner swim class. As it becomes clear to the instructor, the adults probably could benefit from a beginner class of their own.)

Adult Beginners plays out episodically rather than as a fluid film, with few plot threads enduring the full 90-minute runtime, save for the tension between Jake and his brother-in-law, the aquaphobia and Jake’s transitioning into the life of a stay-at-home dad. But it’s perfectly serviceable, even if bordering on inconsequential; a harmless comedy that’s more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, one that speaks to the mundanities of every day life.

If nothing else it’s a showcase for the more sensitive side of Kroll who has spent much of his acting career portraying a somewhat insecure, neurotic man-child with a smoking hot wife who can’t quite satisfy him the way his obsession with fantasy football does. Here, even though he still exudes some of the foibles of that character, Kroll overcomes and matures in an organic way that neither feels manipulative nor unrealistic. Though one can’t help but feel he benefits greatly from being surrounded by a reliable, talented cast.

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Recommendation: Adult Beginners gets by on the charm of its cast and a strong sense of the family unit. It’s nothing more than minor comedy but the cast and crew have more than enough chemistry to make the whole experience worthwhile sitting through, at least just once. And there’s something comforting about watching people older than you who are still trying to get their shit together. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “You can basically take the last three years of my life and light them on fire.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

'Batman vs Superman - Dawn of Justice' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 25, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Terrio; David S. Goyer

Directed by: Zack Snyder

I see civil war erupting between the die-hards and the casual-hards (and let me quickly interrupt myself here: casual-hards are people like me who don’t really have a firm grasp on either the mythos or even all of the character trajectories in the source material, we’re just here for the spectacle, that is, the overall product not simply the CGI spectacle). Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is no mould-breaker but it does provide in its last half hour set one of the most intense assaults on the senses that cinema has ever created.

It’s overlong, it’s melodramatic, it’s preachy and more often than not it’s a child kicking its foot in the dirt with hands in pockets because it doesn’t know how to play nice with everyone else and now is forced to spend time alone. Maybe its playing out so scornfully is a function of a super-human sense that no matter what it does, some critics are just going to tear it limb from limb. Similar to how the fanbase is likely to poke holes all through its not-so-textured skin, columnists at large — probably not Lois Lane or Perry White though — are going to have, and have been having this week, a field day trying to convince the rest of the populace why it’s not something you should go and see. Hilarious. That’s like an armor-less Batman going toe-to-toe with a Kryptonian and expecting to emerge the victor.

Despite the film suffering once again from gorging on an overabundance of material, the overarching narrative remains simple and simply compelling: this is the episode where the Batman and the man of steel get into a bit of a spat. An older, wiser and ever more embittered Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) fears the powers of the metahuman known as Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) will perpetually go unchecked unless he intervenes. Meanwhile, the other guy doesn’t think much of all the vigilantism in Gotham that has only succeeded in perpetuating the “weed effect,” as a dejected Batman himself puts it — you crush one weed and pull it out only for another to grow in its place. He’s talking, of course, about criminals. The Dark Knight hasn’t done shit in the way of gardening in the last several years when we first swoop in to meet him.

Zack Snyder, putting himself in the crosshairs much like J.J. Abrams did last year, reaffirms that his gritty style challenges the senses, and that your eyes and ears in particular best come prepared in this bombastic epic that pits the stealthy deceptiveness of Batman against the brutal physicality of Superman — a being, it ought to be said, finds himself falling out of favor with much of mankind following the destructive events in Metropolis two years prior. There’s much anticipation for how a modern film could or should handle the DC Universe’s version of the Neo-Agent Smith battle (sans the whole thing about one of them being a total psycho bent on the unequivocal destruction of man), and yet, for all that’s at stake, Snyder impressively manages to contain his excitement, teasing out the relationship patiently . . . perhaps too patiently for some.

That’s why half of the film manifests as a relatively slow meditation on a number of more human concerns: things like aging, losing one’s relevance, sense of purpose and the loss of innocence are all touched, though never harped upon. Some areas could use some expansion, surely. And yes, that would mean sacrificing a bit of the pixelated action sequences later on. But it’s the steady camerawork of Larry Fong that guides us through the seedy streets of a broken Metropolis, as well as a still-despairing Gotham, an observance of how both time and people have moved on. There’s a bittersweetness to the way Affleck carries himself as a 40-ish-year-old man in a cape whom most have forgotten about by now. There’s a longing for a return to the time when Kal-El first thundered his way to earth, an aura of mystery (or is that terror?) swirling about his godly physique and impossible strength.

Dawn of Justice is most powerful when it’s sending up the deific Kal-El; there are some unforgettable shots of the man in the red cape, one in particular of him hovering above a flooded town, a mother reaching out to him from the rooftop of a submerged house recalls Regan’s possessed soul clawing for the form of Pazuzu outside her window, only in this case we’d like to think the reach is one towards heaven and not hell. Then there’s the image of Cavill’s face imploding in the vacuum of space, his body dangling in suspended animation before awakening once again. If you were asking me which figure is done the most justice (e-hem), I favor Cavill’s Superman. As an image, he’s too powerful, too ferocious, too graceful to ignore. And the Brit looks comfortable as ever in the suit.

It’s not for a lack of trying for Affleck. Unfortunately he’s in a similar position as Jared Leto, attempting to put his own spin on an icon that has been so solidified in the most recent Dark Knight trilogy that any steps taken to divorce from that image will inevitably be labeled as at best inferior and at worst unholy. Affleck doesn’t seem to mind the pressure though; he’s convincing as a surlier, lonelier billionaire with a penchant for creating lots of fancy, shiny new toys and Jeremy Irons as Alfred makes for wonderful companionship but it’s just not the same as Christian Bale and Michael Caine. It’s just not. For these most somber of circumstances though, perhaps this is the Dark Knight we deserve.

For all of its visual symbolism and the bravado with which Cavfleck (please let me be the person to coin that one) carries itself throughout, there are some questionable decisions that hold Dawn of Justice back from becoming the classic it is so close to being. I’m not referring to Jesse Eisenberg’s brilliantly unhinged performance as the evil genius Lex Luthor — his nervous, passive-aggressive and awkward countenance isn’t a natural thing to watch at first but the guy builds some serious strength as the movie plods forward and as his position in this universe becomes slightly more clear. I’m also not referring to the limited screen time afforded Gal Gadot’s ass-kicking Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (though this was an aspect that let me down considerably).

No, the concern is more of a financial nature, and how the studio seems to have mishandled the responsibility of allocating resources properly. For a film budgeted at an estimated $250 million (you can make 25 movies for that price tag), it sure doesn’t look like it. Perhaps part of the issue here is inherent in the sprawling ambition of the story. Because we are dealing with so much complexity, one of the battles Snyder and company picked was to close the physical gap between Metropolis and Gotham, such that only the Delaware River separates these two disparate worlds. When human-Krypton-Bat drama eventually reaches critical mass and the ultimate threat is revealed, so much happens in one indeterminate pile of rubble that nothing looks good.

In some ways the quasi-headache that the action set piece becomes finds us at the threshold of ridiculousness; our demand for quality superhero cinema shouldn’t rely on CGI orgies to get the job done. But that’s old news since the superhero movie fad took off (thanks Iron Man). The only way it seems possible to hit home how crazy these creations are is to go upwards, in one direction. In keeping with what Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch decrees during one of the inevitable government intervention scenes, unilateral decision making is bad for business. But that still doesn’t really answer the mystery as to why, with all of this money, the CGI renderings in particular stand-out moments look like extracts from films in the late ’90s and early 2000s. It’s bizarre.

What’s not bizarre is the critical derision Dawn of Justice is suffering. This is what happened with Man of Steel, remember? Superman stepped in and parted the red sea of fandom. Dawn of Justice is mind-blowing in some aspects and lacks restraint, thereby quality control and thereby consistency, in others. It’s huge and it’s a few trims shy of a true final cut. But it is at the basic level, entertaining and that’s all this little dude wanted out of a movie of this scale. Maybe I regret not being a fanboy?

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Recommendation: . . . do I . . . do I have to say something here? Really? Okay. Well, if you’re on the fence about this, the good news is that Ben Affleck isn’t a disaster (he’s also no Christian Bale) and that the film also makes some room for female talent and as macho as the film is, the timing of Wonder Woman is spine-tingly well-judged. She’s reason enough to go see this. So is Jeremy Irons. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 153 mins.

Quoted: “The Red Capes are coming! The Red Capes are coming!”

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The Brothers Grimsby

'The Brothers Grimsby' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen; Phil Johnston; Peter Baynham

Directed by: Louis Leterrier

There’s something about Sacha Baron Cohen that really makes you feel like a complete idiot. He’s become really good at that because here I went, blinded by my own boredom, to a screening where I was the only viewer and thinking, ‘Okay, this might be fun. At least I can laugh obnoxiously loud and not think twice when something actually funny happens.’ The joke was on me, an idiot.

The Brothers Grimsby is, to put it nicely, Cohen’s own Mortdecai; it’s the stinkiest, lamest, dumbest release so far this year and like Johnny Depp’s misguided attempt at mocking the English, it marks another point of no return. While it was naïve to think that Brüno would be the nadir of the career of one of England’s great embarrassments, that movie was pretty terrible — Brüno not Mortdecai, although yes, very much Mortdecai as well — and it set quite a low bar regarding the efforts a movie should make in entertaining or offering escapement.

But what Louis Leterrier et al don’t seem to understand is that that’s not the kind of bar you play limbo with; the goal is not to see how low you can go. Lo and behold, they deliver a revolting mess of a comedy that uses bodily fluids as both literal and figurative lubricant to make up for the script’s refusal to do any of the work. There’s one scene in particular that’s offensive and sums up almost everything that is wrong with not only this film but the entire subculture of sadistically gross-out comedy. Those poor fucking elephants (and that’s the verb, not the adjective). This exercise in visual torture is what would happen if you gave Mel Gibson free reign over the fake rhino birthing scene from Ace Ventura. The excessiveness will test the sensitivity of your gag reflex, and that’s an issue that runs all throughout.

So who are ‘the brothers Grimsby?’ And why is the American release so awkwardly titled? Well, who gives a shit about the why; let’s talk about the what. The brothers are a pair of mismatched boys who were born and raised in the poor fishing town of Grimsby, which resembles the bottom of a dumpster or a very large ash tray. Cohen plays Nobby Butcher, the yoonga bruvva of Sebastian “superspy” Butcher (Mark Strong, painfully out of place). The pair have been separated since they were six years old and Nobby longs for the day they meet again.

Similar to previous outings Cohen opts for caricature over character, hoping to inflict the maximum amount of damage upon the culture that supposedly spawned his creation. Once a Middle Eastern pervert, then a one-time gay Austrian fashion journalist, he now finds himself donning the mutton chops and packing on the beer gut as a soccer hooligan with a proclivity for thick women and thick-battered fish-and-chips. He’s like a pig writhing around in the grease and sweat of intoxicated Man United fans all crammed into the pub watching The Big Match.

The world we visit in The Brothers Grimsby isn’t a pretty one, it’s populated by the so-called ‘scum’ of English society — the derelicts and the blue collar chumps, the illiterate and the really ugly and sweaty. Fans who may have been delusional enough in the past to liken the Cohen moviegoing experience to crude culture shock can’t really say the same thing now; the only thing shocking about this film is how uncultured it truly is. Nobby has far more screen time than his older bro, and that’s disappointing because ultimately Sebastian provides our only respite from the cartoonish extremism Leterrier has fashioned here. But the real question there has to be, how clear is Strong’s calendar right now? He had time for this?

Scenes featuring the MI6 agent in action — think of James Bond only with more baggage and less hair — feel like they are ripped straight from the upcoming Hardcore Henry, what with the liberal usage of point-of-view shots designed to raise both our heart rates and awareness of Go Pro cameras. While the action sequences are a welcomed distraction, they’re still not an excuse for the sheer pointlessness of everything else. A subplot involving Sebastian’s line of work is as generic as you can get: he must stop a shady organization from releasing a virus into the atmosphere at a high-profile soccer match. They’re doing this because of the global population crisis.

This paragraph that you’re reading now is definitely an edited version of what lay before, but in consideration of my readers I’ll just say that the film’s attempt to balance action and heartfelt drama with Cohen’s insufferable presence is funnier than any of the comedic elements presented here. The Brothers Grimsby ultimately fails when it tries to convince us of their shared history. I saw the look on Strong’s face during the “suck my balls” scene. He didn’t want anything to do with this. What, was Rob Schneider busy?

Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong in 'The Brothers Grimsby'

Recommendation: Sacha Baron Cohen may still have appeal for some but after The Brothers Grimsby, a film that fails to mine comedy out of what little interesting material it presents while continuing to mistake causing its audience to actually gag for comedic gags, this reviewer has officially stepped off the bandwagon. A film that caters to the lowest common denominator and looking  really bored with itself in the process, this is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 83 mins.

Quoted: “Oh, these heated seats make you feel like you’ve pissed yourself!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.mymoviewallpapers.com

Man Up

'Man Up' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 13, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Tess Morris

Directed by: Ben Palmer

Man Up plays out like the self-help book on dating that you never knew you needed. Or wanted. It’s a romantic comedy where the romance is neither obnoxious nor saccharine and where not everyone is all LOL-ing up in your face because they’re having a jolly good time in a movie regardless of whether or not you the viewer are.

No, Man Up is actually pretty good fun and while the fates of our two star-crossed lovers aren’t anything surprising at least they make sense and can be believed. It doesn’t deal with perfect people with perfect smiles, even though stars Lake Bell and Simon Pegg are far from unattractive, and the story doesn’t aim to aggrandize anything. (Sure, be negative and call it an unambitious movie but I won’t say that, even though I technically did just say that.)

Ben Palmer directs a story written by Tess Morris about a woman in her mid-thirties, Nancy (Bell), who hasn’t had much luck in love lately and is utterly fed up with the awkward blind dates her family keeps setting her up on. When she finds herself at the right place at the right time, standing underneath the clock at the bustling Waterloo train station where Pegg’s Jack is supposed to be meeting a blind date, Nancy can’t quite bring herself to say who she really is and instead plays along as his ‘date.’

The eminently likable actors make it easy to buy in to the awkwardness of the situation. With a little bit of serendipity thrown in for good measure — Nancy is mistaken for Jessica (the would-be date) in part because she happens to be holding the same book Jack has been reading — our adventure plods onward through the streets of downtown London and into pubs. Meanwhile, it’s the night of Nancy’s parents’ 40th anniversary and she is expected to be giving a toast at the party.

The movie is titled Man Up but the farce ultimately revolves around Nancy and her inability to make decisions, good or bad. Well, she’s more naturally drawn to the bad ones, hence the irony of the title (I guess it’s ironic?). What makes it fun playing along as third wheel here is watching the actors adapt to the shift in dynamic when Nancy finally does own up to her actions. The nervousness of the initial meet-cute stage quickly gives way to bitterness, jealousy, even open hostility. Pegg nearly dissolves in the acidity of his own sarcasm as he begins to rue the moment while Bell adopts a more serious tone, simultaneously feeling bad for Jack while pitying her own hopelessness. Why can’t she just be “normal?”

After a slow start Man Up finds renewed energy following a heated exchange (not the kind you’re thinking you perv) in the men’s room at a smoky London dive. The film relies perhaps a little too much on the spontaneity of its performances as the stakes aren’t exactly high and you’d have to be blind drunk not to see how this night ends. Fortunately the characters have our sympathy as these are good-hearted people who have clearly paid the price for the mistakes they’ve made in the past, though Nancy is the more interesting character as all we get for a backstory concerning Jack is an all-too-brief cameo by Olivia Williams as his bitter ex-wife.

Man Up is lightweight fluff but it’s not forgettable fluff. Few and far between are the romantic comedies that play out quite so naturally, the ones that don’t suffer because of the strict parameters that make up the rom-com blueprint — we’re of course reminded of those limitations within the final scene, that grand gesture that just has to happen in front of as large a crowd as possible. The tears of joy. The awkward first-time introductions for maximum dramatic effect. But Man Up gets away with it, the cheeky little bugger.

Lake Bell and Simon Pegg in 'Man Up'

Recommendation: Fun, energetic and well-acted, Man Up is a modest romantic gesture that earns its laughs and even its more sappy moments. Not without its flaws, this is certainly one to watch if you’re a fan of either Bell or Pegg. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “I met a man today. For the first time in ages, I put myself out there. And I took a chance. Blah, blah, blah, the end.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.youtube.com

Hell and Back

'Hell and Back' movie poster

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Tom Gianas; Hugh Sterbakov; Zeb Wells

Directed by: Tom Gianas; Ross Shuman

Hell and Back is the result of a very goofy experiment. It manifests as Tom Gianas and Ross Shuman’s crude mash-up of Beavis and Butthead‘s juvenile sense of humor with Team America‘s suggestive (offensive?) usage of stop-motion animation.

The long and short of it? If you’re a fan of things like South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut or even just the episodes of the show where Satan plays a prominent role in the narrative, this gleefully profane trip to the bowels of the underworld is going to be right up your alley. You probably won’t even mind the fact that ultimately the farcical adventure succumbs to being just too stupid — most of the time you’ll be so caught up in the visual oddity, the spectacle of buffoonery that it really is, that you will have missed the memo about anything making sense here.

Three . . . I guess you could call them friends . . . work at a shabby theme park that is about to be foreclosed upon due to its being just a total POS. There’s the hipster/punk Remy (Nick Swardson), chubby Augie (T.J. Miller) and the conniving Curt (Rob Riggle) who is really good at bumming things without paying back. When he once again callously thieves a mint from Remy after taking a blood oath, he finds himself getting dragged down to hell via a portal that opens up in the tent of the bizarre Madame Zonar. Remy and Augie chase after him by jumping in to the same portal.

The sooner you accept this development as the catalyst for the rest of your viewing entertainment, the better, because Hell and Back is very adept at upping the ante when it comes to the bizarre. Hell is depicted as a (spoiler alert) miserable place where souls are tortured without mercy, and Satan (Bob Odenkirk) rules like a badass while trying to impress the beautiful Angel Barb (Susan Sarandon). This is a world filled with degenerates and supreme underachievers . . . and H. Jon Benjamin-voiced trees that happen to be sex offenders. On the matter of torture, it can be hard to watch: there’s the Taco Bell/Pizza Hut split restaurant where you can’t buy pizza, only Taco Bell products; neapolitan ice cream is available but only the strawberry flavor and the escalators don’t work so you have to use them like stairs.

The adventure pits Remy and Augie against hell’s aggressive demons and myriad other dangers but they also find assistance in the form of Mila Kunis’ Deema. With her the pair set off to find Orpheus (Danny McBride), a Greek legend who can remove mortals from the depths of hell. They believe he’s their only hope of finding Curt and escaping with their lives. Unfortunately when they encounter him Orpheus is loathe to help as he claims to have retired from the game of saving mortals. (More on his story if you so choose to watch this film, but I won’t ruin it here.)

Hell and Back is a patently absurd production, and the deeper we venture into it the more the guys behind this seem to revel in the weirdness. Though it lacks a lot of the really pointed criticisms of contemporary society that Trey Parker and Matt Stone infuse their work with, this collaborative script is a relentless parody of Biblical cliché where the jokes (and swear words) flow freely and the visuals complement the material disturbingly appropriately.

When it comes to the impact of said jokes this is certainly a case of quantity over quality but that’s not to the complete detriment of the film as a lot of them land and land hard. A superb range of voice talent brings a ridiculous cast of characters to life, and while the story does sag like something I can’t mention here, when all is said and done, reveling in the weirdness is just too fun.

Curt chillin with Satan

Recommendation: Fans of Beavis and Butthead, South Park and Family Guy need apply. Delightfully tacky yet unrefined (wait, whoops), Hell and Back fits the bill of a guilty pleasure for those with a more cynical sense of humor. Some pretty good fun to be had here.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “I’m so scared my shit just shit its pants.”

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Photo credits: http://www.dailydead.com; http://www.aceshowbiz.com 

Guest Editorial: 5 Questions About the New Spider-Man Reboot

Spider-Man reboot

Guest Editorial by: James Murray

If you’re a fan of superhero cinema, or really movies in general, you’ve heard the news: 2017 will bring us yet another version of Spider-Man on the big screen, after the series directed by Sam Raimi and Marc Webb ran out of steam. It’s a little bit tiresome that we’ll be getting a sixth Spider-Man film as the start of a third franchise. However, this one will be different. This time around, Marvel Studios is at the helm, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man will be brought into the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside the Avengers, rather than isolated to his own storyline in Manhattan.

There are a few things we know for sure already. We know Tom Holland will play Peter Parker, and that the focus will be on the character as a high school student (rather than a graduating young adult entering the world, as we’ve seen in the past). We also know that his first appearance will come in this spring’s Captain America: Civil War, and that his introduction to the Avengers will come through Iron Man. But for the most part, the rest is unknown! So here are five questions that remain about the latest reboot, as well as a few guesses at the answers.


Who is Michelle?


We recently learned that Sony and Marvel have cast Disney star Zendaya as a supporting character in the untitled 2017 reboot. And though Zendaya doesn’t fit the usual appearance of a Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson, most fans probably assumed she’d be playing the part of one or the other. As reported by Hollywood Life, however, Zendaya will actually be playing a character named Michelle.

So who’s Michelle? Well, according to a Marvel comics database, she’s a pretty abstract character from the Spider-Man comics. She’s the sister of an imprisoned police officer who has a brief fling with Peter Parker. It seems Michelle may simply be a convenient way for the new reboot to give Parker a love interest without rehashing Watson (played by Kiersten Dunst in the Raimi trilogy) or Stacy (played by Emma Stone in the Webb films).


Is J. Jonah Jameson on board? 


Looking back at that comic database describing Michelle (or Michele, as it’s spelled there), one interesting connection comes to light: her first appearance is as Peter Parker’s wedding date to the union of Aunt May (who’s set to be played by Marisa Tomei in the reboot) and J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson was famously played by J.K. Simmons in the Raimi trilogy, in which he became something of a fan favorite.

So could Jameson be in this film as well? We do know that fans have called for a return to the role by Simmons, and Simmons has indicated interest. However, we also recently learned that he’s been cast as Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming Justice League film by DC. It would seem that his appearing in two rival superhero franchises simultaneously is unlikely, but the Jameson character could still be involved.


Who’s the villain?


possible Spider-Man reboot villains

Perhaps the biggest mystery remaining about the reboot is who will play the villain, or who that villain will even be. The frontrunner may be the Green Goblin, given that he’s one of the most iconic Spider-Man villains and has a very strong foothold in modern pop culture. Not only was the Goblin the featured villain in past Spider-Man films, but he’s also maintained a strong presence in Spidey video games for console and mobile devices. In fact, there’s even an ‘Attack of the Green Goblin’ casino game for Spider-Man fans to play online. It’s described as a Marvel slots game with cool graphics and jaw-dropping animation, and the focus (given the name) is clearly on the Goblin.

But will a slew of video game appearances, a popular online slot title, and past film roles prop up the villain or doom him? He’s the character modern fans who may not have read the comics are most comfortable with. However, the introduction of a Michelle character may indicate a determination to stray from past projects. Mysterio, Chameleon, Doctor Octopus, Venom, and Hobgoblin come to mind as other possibilities.


Have we seen the only suit?


If you follow Marvel news closely, you may have noticed that a bombshell was dropped on March 10. A new trailer for Captain America: Civil War debuted, and at the end of it we got our first official look at the new Spider-Man, as he whizzes into action and steals Captain America’s shield (with a strand of sticky web, of course). The character then crouches, faces the camera, and says, cheekily, “Hey, everyone.”

It’s a pretty great moment for the trailer, but fans are already focused on the suit, which offers a whole new design. In short, the red is brighter, there’s a bit more black, and a bit less blue than what we’ve seen in the past two film franchises. But will this be the only suit we see? Before the trailer, there was a lot of talk of Tony Stark possibly designing the so-called “Iron Spider” armor that exists in some comics. Now that we know what Spidey will look like, we’ll all be wondering if he’ll have an alternate costume as well.


What kind of tone should we expect?


Generally speaking, the Spider-Man tone is easy to predict. There’s an intentionally cheesy factor, a strong dose of humor, and some seriousness that takes over when the stakes get high. But looking into the people behind the new reboot, it’s hard to imagine this movie falling neatly into place. Director Jon Watts’ only notable projects to date are Clown (2014) and Cop Car (2015). Both were tense thrillers, with the former employing elements of horror. Meanwhile, screenwriter John Francis Daley is best known for comedies like Horrible Bosses (2011) and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013).

That’s a pretty odd team, and it opens the possibility of Spider-Man going dark (think Daredevil or Jessica Jones), going full-on comedy (think Deadpool), or falling pretty much anywhere in between.

Marvel has its work cut out in convincing fans to go out and see Spider-Man in yet another franchise. That being said, we are talking about one of the most beloved comic superheroes of all time, and it seems that excitement is already building.

the many faces of Peter Parker


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Photo credits: http://www.munkhkhuder.deviantart.com; http://www.writeups.org; http://www.spiderman.marvelkids.com; http://www.marel.com; http://www.teen.com; http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.x95radio.com

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, March 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Carlock

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

The civilian translation of this film’s odd title applies to this strange concoction in more ways than I’m sure the filmmakers intended. I left the picture feeling more confused about American relations with the Middle East than I did entering it. Perhaps that’s the point? There’s also the pressing question of what Tina Fey is doing in a war film (oh, that’s right — this is a war comedy).

The latter is the lesser issue, as it is interesting seeing the former SNL Weekend Update star (and in this reviewer’s opinion, Amy Poehler’s better half) adapting to more serious material. Fey disciplines herself enough to seem 75% believable as Kim Barker, a TV producer (in reality she was a writer for the Chicago Tribune) who one day decides to volunteer as a war correspondent in Afghanistan in an effort to induce some excitement into her otherwise monotonous life. In New York. I’ll pause now to let you ponder the irony of that sentiment. In effect she becomes one of an elite few female embedded reporters in the region, often putting herself in harm’s way to get video footage she hopes will sell back in the States.

The 25% that does not work so well manifests as a combination of Fey’s inexperience in the genre and the film’s complete lack of focus. Schizophrenically it oscillates from championing 21st Century notions of ’embracing the suck’ and ‘living in the moment’ to somberly reminding the viewer of the devastating effects of war. A graphic scene towards the end feels like a clip from an altogether different movie as we watch a convoy fall victim to a short-range missile attack. When she’s not out in the field Fey’s still-adjusting-Barker is avoiding sexual advances from her international colleagues as well as a randy Afghan politician played for some reason by Alfred Molina. As she navigates her own personal minefield, soldiers are elsewhere in the background, maneuvering around actual ones. It’s an odd experience.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa adapt Barker’s memoir ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ In it, Barker assumed a humorous tone as she relayed the oftentimes clunky process of assimilating to a part of the world where sanitation is a major issue, women have alarmingly few rights and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) litter the arid landscape. The story is fundamentally about orienting one’s self in an entirely disorienting environment but it also contends with a variety of other issues that play upon the psyche such as the presence (or lack thereof) of female reporters in this field — Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) rounds out the numbers here — and how those who have had a lot of exposure to this kind of reality begin to view it as a normal routine, a psychological state not even Barker is immune to.

The assignment originally called for a three-month stay in Kabul. As she continues building her portfolio — candid interviews with soldiers voicing their opinion on the effectiveness of Operation Enduring Freedom; a chat with Afghan women who tampered with an American-installed water well in their village because they preferred to walk to the river as it offered them an opportunity to socialize with one another — Barker finds it increasingly more difficult to leave, to dispense with the chaos. (Plus, the parties in Kabul seem really, really fun.)

Generally speaking this is a sympathetic and optimistic portrait of the American presence in the Middle East. It offers viewers a closer look at the realities facing troops in one of the most hostile regions on earth while filtering it through the perspective of an inexperienced female reporter from Manhattan. It’s all too easy to make judgments about Barker’s presence — Billy Bob Thornton’s gruff General Hollanek immediately takes a disliking to her given her choice of brightly-colored travel luggage — but one of the advantages of the film hop-skip-and-jumping around its many themes is that we don’t spend much time focusing on the negatives.

However that’s one of the few advantages. More often than not WTF fails to settle into a comfortable rhythm, its meandering plot stringing together a series of skits without having much of a unifier to hold it all together. Fey is meant to be that element but the film spends so much time trying to address all of these societal issues she gets lost in the (Taliban) shuffle. Additionally, strange casting choices distract — the aforementioned Molina as a high-profile politician actually works fairly well once you get used to seeing the man in this setting and the Connecticut-born Christopher Abbott as Fahim, a friendly local Barker manages to bond with quickly. There are other questionable strategies that attempt to pull the focus back to Barker, though I’m unsure if forcing a potential romantic interest in the form of Martin Freeman’s Scottish reporter Iain MacKelpie was the best way to do it.

All in all, you could endure worse missions than Fey sticking out like a sore thumb in a film that has a difficult time finding its identity. There is quite a lot wrong with the production, there’s no denying it. The film has something to say but it’s such a shame it can’t express itself as clearly as it needs to.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 9.00.46 PM

Recommendation: Though Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never devolves into a SNAFU, it should still provide a more potent watch than what results given its ability to put us right there in the moment but for what it’s worth, Tina Fey makes up for a lot even though she’s out of her element here. The experience is certainly one you will remember but perhaps not always for the right reasons. Should make for a good rental if nothing else.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Oh, that sucks. That sucks for women.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

10 Cloverfield Lane

'10 Cloverfield Lane' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Josh Campbell; Matthew Stuecken; Damien Chazelle

Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg

Dan Trachtenberg’s suffocating and impossibly intense monster movie arrests viewers with a power few thrillers in recent memory have had. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an early contender for biggest surprise hit of 2016, delivering a story that’s conceptually simple, emotionally complex and psychologically perturbing.

Produced by J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane pits Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle against John Goodman’s doomsday prepper Howard, an ex-military man who claims he saved her life having rescued her from the wreckage of an accident and brought her to his underground bunker. The film is told primarily through her point of view as the cameras hover within an inch of her face, gauging her reaction as she awakens in a cold, bare room chained to a pipe. We’ll remain close to her throughout as the film brilliantly plays with that concept of perspective. Michelle believes she’s been kidnapped. Howard, despite himself, insists he is showing her hospitality. Further complicating things is the presence of a third party, someone whom Howard apparently has known for some time, a younger man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.).

The cast is undeniably one of the film’s strengths. John Goodman hasn’t been this good in years and Winstead shoulders the task of carrying the movie with such grace, while Gallagher Jr. remains a fairly warm presence, attempting to lighten the mood whenever possible. With all due respect to their work, arguably the film’s greatest asset is its cramped setting. Small rooms filled with all the resources you’d expect to see in a fall-out shelter (note the shelves filled with Fruit-by-the-Foots)? Check. Maguffin-esque technology that justifies how they are able to breathe clean air? Check. Drab colors and dim lighting? Check. A sense of sterility overriding Howard’s best efforts to make the place feel cozy? Big, big check.

The claustrophobic set essentially means the interactions between the characters will be intense and susceptible to volatility, and their actions and reactions will be scrutinized appropriately. Even without knowing specifically what it will be, we know something is going to happen that will forever alter the dynamic and shift proceedings into an entirely new and even more uncomfortable paradigm. Call it fate. I’m going to call it the product of an excellent script collaborated on by Damien Chazelle, writer/director of the sensational jazz drumming drama Whiplash.

And while all of this is taking place underground, we’re left wondering . . . where are the monsters? 10 Cloverfield Lane is an exercise in restraint in that regard, depending on how you define what a monster is and is not. The concept of perception and how it can be so easily skewed extends well beyond what we think of the characters we’re stuck in a room with. It goes beyond the reaches of the bunker and out past the cornfields that surround forebodingly; it ventures deep into the unknown. Perception is everything here until it is nothing at all; in other words we have to absolutely trust in everything that’s being presented and thanks to the craftsmanship, that’s not much of a challenge.

It might be too early to call it a genre mainstay, but suffice it to say films like this, films in which suspense is established early and at a high level and only increases exponentially as time pushes on, are somewhat of a rarity. The stress here is real and it is relentless. Perhaps part of the shock of the experience stems from the nature of its release date. We only have to wait two more weeks until Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice drops, and here in the annual post-Oscars malaise we actually have something to chew over in a period where films typically are released without any fanfare because, well, they don’t deserve it. But the spiritual successor to Cloverfield does. Oh boy, how it does.

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 4.07.12 PM

Recommendation: In the vein of a sci fi thriller classic (still too early to say for sure but I already feel pretty comfortable saying it), 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film for adrenaline junkies. When all is said and done the buzz that it leaves you with is kind of cathartic. Excellent acting, gut-wrenching reveals and a brilliant narrative structure all work toward creating a film that is doggedly determined to do what it’s label suggests: thrill. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 103 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com