The Way Back

Release: Friday, March 6, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had a future in basketball beyond high school. Probably beyond college. Once the pride of Bishop Hayes High in the 1990s, he led his team to more victories and championships in his four years than the many iterations managed in the decades since. These days, his alma mater barely manages to field a varsity team. They’re not an also-ran, they’ve been irrelevant for so long cobwebs are forming on those banners hanging from the rafters.

Now they’re without their coach, who has suffered a heart attack. Dan, an algebra teacher (Al Madrigal), pulls double-duty as an assistant but he’s no coach, at least not the one with the capital C. There are a few stand-out athletes running around the gym, but it’s all in disorganized fashion and the average player is as good at sinking three’s as Shaq was at free throws. Miraculously they still have a pep squad and a team chaplain (Jeremy Radin) and despite the dismal win record they abide by basic moral principles of competing fairly and with the understanding that the results of the game, fair or foul, do not define them as students, as young men.

Life after the game hasn’t been rosy for Jack. Working construction, living alone and drinking uncontrollably, Jack is functional but clearly in a good deal of pain. The Way Back slowly, cautiously inches its way towards an explanation as to why he has isolated himself not just from the game but from making social connections. One day he is thrown a lifeline in the form of a voicemail from Bishop Hayes’ Father Divine (John Aylward), imploring him to come and fill in as Head Coach for this struggling team. After a night of booze-soaked introspection and exhausting all possible reasons to turn down the offer, Jack of course shows up at practice and sets about coaching up. His goal is to toughen up the team, improve their fundamentals, make them eligible for the playoffs for the first time since his playing days.

Director Gavin O’Connor, most famous for Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011), presents yet another character-driven sports drama. I’ve always admired the way he marries realistic, intensely choreographed action with interesting characters going on powerful emotional journeys. The Way Back has all those ingredients and yet the flavor lacks. The drama, whether on the court or off of it, really doesn’t have any surprise plays in its playbook. To its credit basketball is not where the movie really lies; Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay de-emphasizes spectacle for the quieter emotional battles taking place away from the game.

The difference here is the bonafide movie star who delivers the emotion and nuance this patently predictable movie needs. It’s a terrific, authentic performance, not least because it’s often difficult to separate the Movie Star from the character. Affleck does just that though, in fact he succeeds to an almost profound degree, especially in the scenes in which he is forced to confront the source of his pain alongside his estranged wife Angela (the lovely Janina Gavankar). Ultimately, Affleck’s heartbreaking performance — no doubt elevated by this acute awareness of what he himself has gone through over a prolonged period — is what redeems the movie.

Recommendation: Empathetically told and impressively acted, The Way Back (not to be confused with the 2010 drama The Way Back . . . or for that matter, the 2013 indie comedy The Way Way Back) is yet more proof of the natural, amiable personality of director Gavin O’Connor. It hopefully marks a rebound for actor Ben Affleck as well. Word of caution for fans expecting on-court drama and personal tension on a Hoosiers level: don’t uh, don’t do that. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “You want to know why they’re leaving you open? It’s because they don’t think you can hit the ocean from the beach.”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Infiltrator

'The Infiltrator' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 13, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ellen Brown Furman

Directed by: Brad Furman

Brad Furman wasn’t looking to infiltrate more elite groups of directors who had earlier tackled the gritty but ever fascinating subject of the drug trafficking epidemic in America when he paired up with Bryan Cranston. That much is clear just based on the relative nonchalance with which The Infiltrator plays out. Things certainly become tense, but it’s nigh on impossible believing our beloved Walter White is ever in any real danger.

That’s probably because we’ve already watched that character endure five seasons of pure adrenaline-fueled drama. Everything we watch U.S. Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (alias ‘Bob Musella’) go through here as he gets cozy with high-ranking members within the Colombian drug cartel only to bust them in the end, is accompanied by echoes of Breaking Bad, some of which are really loud. In that way The Infiltrator does feel less threatening, and it loses even more leverage given just how strictly it adheres to formula to get the job done. Just don’t call the film uninspired because you know as well as I that Cranston would never let such a thing happen.

The actor manages to convert what ends up being by and large predictable into a fascinating study of character. Mazur enjoys his job even with the danger it brings, but he doesn’t commit to high-risk jobs as a way to escape the doldrums of his home life — he’s happily married with Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and dearly loves his daughter Andrea (Lara Decaro). He enjoys what he does for a living because he’s also very good at it. The movie, his “last assignment,” keeps the perspective limited to his own, making all the mingling and consorting and bribery a devoted family man finds himself so naturally doing all the more unsettling.

Also adept at faking the hustle is Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), a stark contrast to Mazur’s poker-faced professionalism. He’s a loose cannon who embraces the potential thrills offered by new assignments. This one could be the mother of all thrills: a take-down of high-priority Colombian drug traffickers working for the one and only Pablo Escobar, ‘El Zar de la Cocaina.’ Their target is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s main merchandise handler. Leguizamo is a nice touch as he adds a vulnerability that often veers into comedic relief but the funny is never oversold. Lest we forget, there’s little time for laughter when you’re neck-deep in people who have made careers out of making other, usually more innocent people disappear, often in horrible ways.

The story is fairly straightforward and there will be no surprises for those even moderately well-versed in crime dramas. And those who are probably know that these kinds of movies are only as good as the threat that our good guys are up against. The Infiltrator comes heavily armed with Bratt’s quietly brutal Alcaino and a whole assortment of unstable, varyingly psychotic drug-addicted personalities. Villains are more than just caricatures; the seedy side of life is depicted matter-of-factly and bloodshed isn’t shown to up the thrill count. It’s there to shock and shock it does: the “auditioning” scene is a particularly blunt and cruel microcosm of the world into which Musella has stepped.

The Infiltrator is universally well-acted. On the home front, Aubrey’s Evelyn is a fiercely strong woman who must confront the realities of her husband’s unique profession. Not knowing what kind of a person she’s going to be greeted at the door with night in and night out evolves into a narrative of great concern and Aubrey sells that anguish well. Mazur/Musella reports regularly to Special Agent Bonnie Tischler, played by a possibly never-better Amy Ryan who clearly relishes the opportunity to play the golden-gun-carrying, tough-as-nails U.S. Customs special agent who takes no bullshit from anyone. And Diane Kruger rounds out a strong ensemble playing Kathy Ertz, an agent who’s never gone undercover before and finds herself helping Mazur keep his own story straight.

Stylish, genuinely gripping and sensationally well-performed, Furman’s exploration of the American drug trafficking epidemic can’t escape familiarity but it doesn’t have to when it’s so successful proving why certain well-traveled roads are the ones to take. I loved this movie for its complete and utter lack of pretense. It never tries to be anything it’s not.

Bryan Cranston gets mean in 'The Infiltrator'

Recommendation: Fun might not be the best word to throw around when talking about the escalating drug trafficking crisis but The Infiltrator makes the experience . . . shall we say, worth the while. As if there were any doubt, the performances are what make this movie a must-see for anyone who enjoys what the former Malcolm in the Middle dad is doing with his career these days.

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

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

The Lady in the Van

'The Lady in the Van' movie poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

The Lady in the Van is really good if you like watching movies about the elderly, the homeless and the incontinent. (Spoiler alert: I don’t mind them.) Maggie Smith, who is the lady in the van, is a real piece of work in this British comedy about London playwright Alan Bennett and the homeless woman who parked her van on his driveway and stayed put there for 15 years.

Mancurian director Nicholas Hytner takes from Bennett’s book of the same name, a book that has already seen a stage production with Smith in the titular role as the housingly-challenged Miss Mary Shepherd. Hytner’s adaptation is a modest farce generally concerned with the struggle between two main characters as one fights for their right to be and the other fights for their right to be in peace.

The film was shot on location in the northern London district of Camden Town, at the very house and driveway where the squatting happened. While observing Shepherd and Bennett’s interactions, Van ruminates on a variety of personal and social issues, not least of which being the nation’s treatment of the homeless — controversy over squatter’s rights emerges as one of the more intriguing narrative cruxes. But it’s also a measuring stick for personal growth. Bennett seeks more recognition for his West End plays that aren’t doing so well. And like Bennett we would like to know what befell Shepherd to put her into such dire straits.

The film certainly feels like it’s adapted from a play. You can imagine the set. There are only so many people we keep seeing out and about and they show up in such regular intervals it seems a little too coincidental. The world feels oh-so-small and quaint and controlled as they come and go from stage left and right. It’s a piece that revolves around one unusual prop — her hideously yellow van (well, it was once a morose mixture of green and gray before she “painted” it). And there’s a brilliant narrative device that splices Jennings’ performance into two distinct manifestations: he plays Bennett, the perpetually distracted writer and Bennett the tenant, who is desperate to figure out how to get rid of the cantankerous old woman. Much of his time on screen is spent arguing with himself and Jennings really makes it amusing.

As much fun as Jennings is this is still Smith’s show. Dressed in layers of tattered rags and under makeup that gives the impression the woman has traveled many more miles and endured very hard times indeed, Smith is essentially mummified for the part. Visually its amusing (sort of) but even this wardrobe can’t conceal the gravitas of a performer with the kind of experience Dame Maggie Smith has. She teases out just enough vulnerability as a former Nun now facing life on the street, coloring a complex character with shades of empathy — if only just shades — that keeps us entranced, despite a lethargic pace.

Van isn’t anything flashy on the outside (save for that oddly out of place Monty Python-esque segment towards the end that takes place in a cemetery) but on the inside it is surprisingly cozy and well worth spending an afternoon with, unlike its titular character. She’s certainly no uptown girl.

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Recommendation: One for the Maggie Smith fans, The Lady in the Van pairs farcical comedy with heartfelt drama about life on the streets. Offers an interesting look at a transient way of life, a lifestyle that doesn’t make its way into too many films sadly (you might have to go to Sundance and other high-profile film fests to find more like it). Performances invite you in and consistently entertain, with Jennings making for a lovable put-upon and Smith a stubborn force to be reckoned with.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I am not the carer. She is there, I am here. There is no caring.”

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

The Night Before

The Night Before movie poster

Release: Friday, November 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Levine; Kyle Hunter; Ariel Shaffir; Evan Goldberg

Directed by: Jonathan Levine

I was enjoying, for the most part, the latest incarnation of the Seth Rogen and Friends Show, finding myself more than a little amused by their storming of New York City in an effort to live it up one last time this Christmas Eve; finding comfort once more in the familiarity of their crassness and the simplicity of the mission: let’s get wasted and have a blast, maybe even learn a thing or two about each other in the process. (Yes, people actually get paid millions to do this.)

Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, Jason Mantzoukas shows up, dressed as one of two drunken Santa Clauses and wipes the smile from my face. This I don’t call a Christmas miracle. This I call a threat to a movie’s enjoyability. Seriously, this guy is the worst. Is this his talent, being a buzz kill? If the name’s not familiar, you’re either lucky or you haven’t caught many episodes of The League. In which case you are also lucky. Mantzoukas doesn’t appear for long in The Night Before but apparently it’s enough to cause me to go off on a rant about how much I dislike the characters he plays.

Where’s my egg nog? Ahh, there it is. Right. Now we can actually talk about the film.

It’s no secret Seth Rogen isn’t a man of great range. A few weeks ago he managed to impress me with his dramatic turn as Steve Wozniak in Danny Boyle’s intriguing examination of the late Apple CEO and he also played it somewhat straight as Ira Wright, an up-and-coming comedian in Judd Apatow’s underrated Funny People. However, nine times out of ten you know what you are going to get in a film bearing his name prominently on the poster.

The Night Before, in which he plays Isaac, a mild-mannered (when sober) thirty-something, is the long-lost lovechild of This is the End and Knocked Up. It’s a film that knows when the party should stop and embrace important life events like childrearing, relationship-building and aggressive product placing. While it will never be as good as vintage Rogen-inspired raucousness — I refer to the likes of Pineapple Express and Superbad — this collection of Yuletide yucks offers a suitably raunchy alternative to the saccharine stories about family and togetherness we’re about to be hit with in the coming weeks.

We’re introduced to Isaac and his buddies Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) via a cringe-inducing voiceover that plays upon the titular poem, explaining how Ethan had lost both parents several Christmases ago and has since spent the holiday with his pals. Despite the support, he has found himself stuck in a rut while constantly running into obstacles in his personal and professional life. He’s no longer with his girl Diana (Lizzy Kaplan) and he works odd jobs, most recently as a miserable little elf.

The others take it upon themselves to make this Christmas the best one ever, as Chris’ NFL career is starting to take off and he finds himself with less time to spend hanging out, consumed ever more by social media and the associated vainglory. Betsy (Jillian Bell) hands her hubby (Rogen) a bag of drugs before they hit the town, reassuring him he’s earned himself a night of recklessness before properly settling down. Say no more, we know where this is all going. Mostly.

Along the way we bump lines, ingest psilocybin by the ounce, hallucinate in a manger, buy pot from Michael Shannon (can this guy do any wrong?), take relationship advice from Miley Cyrus, play some Goldeneye (yes, on N64!), promote Red Bull and even find time to reconcile past and present tensions in a subway car. All of this farce ultimately leads us to the Nutcracker party, the party anyone who’s anyone finds themselves at after midnight on Christmas Eve. That includes Ethan’s ex, which means you know the guy is bound for redemption sooner or later.

The Night Before settles on tried-and-true Rogen/Goldberg formula, simultaneously  mocking and embracing the spirit of Christmas by developing a none-too-surprisingly wholesome bromance between a never-more-stoned Rogen and his cronies. ‘Tis the season to be giggling uncontrollably, although I couldn’t call you a grinch if you wanted to take a pass on this hit.

JGL is a Wrecking Ball with Miley Cyrus in 'The Night Before'

Recommendation: The Night Before doesn’t rank amongst Rogen’s best but it’s a perfectly satisfying blend of juvenile humor and sight gags as well as heartfelt relationship building. (Interestingly it manifests as only the second time Evan Goldberg wrote a script without Rogen.) Save for a few questionable cameo appearances, this still manages to offer the quota of amusing supporting roles and it is nice to see Rogen reunited with Gordon-Levitt.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You have been such a Rock throughout this whole pregnancy. You are like my Dwayne Johnson.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.movie-torrents.net

Creep

Release: Tuesday, June 23, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Patrick Brice; Mark Duplass

Directed by: Patrick Brice

Creep is Brice’s directorial debut, pairing the writer-director with master of strange Mark Duplass of mostly independent film fame. As with his sophomore effort The Overnight the less I mumble on, the higher Creep‘s potential to surprise becomes. And if I’m not just going crazy, Brice seems to like it creepy. Both features thus far feature a substantial amount of pure, unbridled . . . weirdness. (Though The Overnight might eclipse this clearly more modestly budgeted production in that regard.)

But where The Overnight disconcerted viewers by forcing them to bear witness to a pair of thirtysomethings slowly embracing and then taking social improprieties to a whole new level, Creep has very little, if any, basis upon which one could judge socially acceptable behavior. It has this kind of detachment that sets the film distinctly away from normality. The film starts off in a car with a videographer named Aaron (Brice) headed for the rolling hills of Nowheresville, USA to interview someone for . . . something. He’s hoping his subject is a woman, since the only description of the job given is that “discretion would be appreciated.”

Using his handheld camera as the only means of connecting with us, Aaron soon seems like a saint compared to his subject, a lonely man named Josef (Duplass) who comes across as unstable from the get-go. Creep follows Aaron as he gets to know his subject over the course of a single day, and while the usual nitpicks against found footage are on display — I advise against eating while watching because the shaky cam could have an adverse effect — the device is incredibly effective. In places it’s downright chilling.

Brice may be wielding it more often than not but aside from Duplass his recording device is the real star of the film. It’s a unique conduit of information, and not simply for the obvious. The visuals put in front of us are as important as the things we cannot see — a reaction on Aaron’s part; a physical change in perspective. These help build upon Creep‘s steadily ominous and even darkly comic atmosphere. I’m more comfortable placing a stronger emphasis on the former though.

There are a few moments that reveal the inherent flaw of shooting found footage style of course, like when the camera continues rolling when the user ought to just be . . . well . . . . Let’s just say he’s got higher priorities than guiding us through a particular room at a certain point. But this is an issue easily covered up by the strong work turned in by the epitome of a tight-knit cast. It’s just Brice and Duplass in this one. Suffice it to say, Duplass will be difficult to look at the same way again after watching him take this dark turn.

So there I was at the end of the film, standing in the back of this hypothetical screening, applauding emphatically. Maybe that was me making up for my previous indiscretion for trying to leave early. But thank goodness for Brice, for showing not only his ability to make wise decisions with the style but for realizing opportunities to avoid its many pitfalls. Creep may not last long but it is enough.

Recommendation: Living up to its title spectacularly, Creep is light on runtime but dark in tone and refreshingly original. The found footage genre still has life left in it yet! Pick this one up if you’re in the mood for something chilling, and for a great performance from Mark Duplass. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

Quoted: “Tubby time.”

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

The Voices

the-voices-poster

Release: Friday, February 6, 2015

[Redbox]

Written by: Michael R. Perry

Directed by: Marjane Satrapi

I always knew cats were inherently evil.

What with their pawing and purring and hairballs and general infatuation with chasing their own tails. Is evil the right word? In this case, yes . . . yes it is; cats take on an entirely darker role in at least one human’s life.

At the center of attention in this bizarre twist on an already twisted subgenre of horror known as horror-comedy is a fairly lonely man named Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), who has just started working at a bathtub factory in a rinky-dink town we don’t know the name of. By all accounts a nice enough guy, he nevertheless shows some signs of detachment from reality and reluctance to interact with his coworkers. When he’s tasked with putting together a company barbecue and in the process meets the cute girl from accounting, a British babe named Fiona (Gemma Arterton), he is instantly smitten and asks her out.

Unable to flat-out tell him she doesn’t want to go out with him, she instead avoids him after work and goes with her friends from accounting, Lisa (Anna Kendrick) and Alison (Ella Smith), to a karaoke bar. She’s left stranded afterwards in the rain when her car can’t start up and her phone has been soaked in the downpour. Serendipitously enough, along comes Jerry who’s heartbroken to say the least having been stood up yet offers a desperate Fiona a ride home. In striking up a conversation with her on the way back Jerry can’t see the deer in the middle of the road and unfortunately creams it. Antlers and all sticking through the windshield, we’re now entering spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, The Voices quickly flips the switch and starts to pursue, with unsettling fervor, the horror aspect.

As far as the comedy is concerned, a little asterisk might need to be placed beside that word. A twisted sense of humor will help enormously in enjoying what Iranian director Marjane Satrapi has to offer here; although the brightly-colored promotional poster for the film doesn’t really make that a secret. What might be more of a surprise is the quality of Ryan Reynolds’ purely tortured performance. He is something to behold — the days of Van Wilder are long since gone, boys and girls. Not that staying in school for the better part of a decade was ever a bad idea but this is a role that represents a remarkable sense of maturity.

If Reynolds’ masterful turn as an oddly empathetic Jerry is the peanut butter to this messed-up sandwich the jelly, then, surely is Satrapi’s commentary on the truly disturbing potential of mental illness to completely consume its victim. There’s no doubt something’s off about this man and while we do surpass the point where we in any reality could forgive him for what he does (let’s get one thing straight: this isn’t an Eli Roth production, death is not played up for laughs), we are able to get to a place where we understand where his problems stem from.

Sure, in order to get to the root of the evil that pervades Jerry’s life we must try to buy into some rather ridiculous scenes that could have benefitted from stronger writing, but the surrealism, the downright perverse entertainment value wins out time and again. Talking dogs and cats? This isn’t quite like Homeward Bound. Or maybe, if Sassy had more of a psychotic agenda.

At the end of the film, one thing was certain for this reviewer: I’m still much more of a dog person.

ryan-reynolds-does-something-bad-in-the-voices

3-5Recommendation: The best recommendation I can give here is that if you’re still wondering what the animals have to do with anything (especially that darn cat — yay, another movie reference!) then you should just watch and find out for yourself. Fan of Ryan Reynolds and black comedies? This just may well be a must-see for you.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Pretty complicated inside the human mind, huh?”

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

It Follows

it-follows-poster

Release: Friday, March 13, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: David Robert Mitchell

Directed by: David Robert Mitchell

Subtly unsettling and certainly spooky the unseen, inexplicable threat at the heart of It Follows is not likely to strike you right away, but if you let it that paranoid feeling will eventually find you.

David Robert Mitchell has come up with a new way to move unsuspecting audiences. By allowing us to conjure in our own minds the worst things possible before exposing us to that which we haven’t quite thought of yet, his sophomore — not sophomoric — effort becomes one of the more inventive horror films in recent years. It may not top the list of films that purport to “scare” — a goal that seems to be becoming increasingly unrealistic — this heady mixture of atmosphere and suspense is far more concerned with making filmgoers uncomfortable. Perhaps the scariest thing about this film is how effective it is in doing just that.

The term ‘safe sex’ may never be thought of the same way again. Maika Monroe makes a more aggressive effort to be recognized by a wider (eyed) audience as 19-year-old Jay Height, a role that follows on the heels of her eminently watchable Anna Peterson from last year’s The Guest. After she and her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) share an intimate moment in the back of her car what has heretofore been a pleasant date night spirals into a harrowing and surreal nightmare that defies explanation. She is drugged by Hugh and later wakes up bound to a chair in a decrepit facility where he proceeds to try and offer some clarification as to what is going on.

Something is after Hugh and he tells her that now she’s had intercourse with him, whatever that something is — I’m not being intentionally vague, the film never allows us to know precisely what this terror actually is — will now be after her. She must sleep with someone else in order to rid herself of this apparent plague, a passing of a most disturbing baton.

It Follows manages to plumb anxiety and fear from deep within over the course of a slow burning, eerie 100 minutes. It helps that the source of this . . . yeah, we’ll just go with ‘plague’ for now, stems from a very personal yet universal experience. Coupled with the fact that every character featured is likable on some level, the indescribable nature of the events — the victim can see the pursuer but no one else can — starts to manifest as something truly horrific. We want Jay et al to overcome this, to escape her slow slide into psychosis and yet the way Mitchell constructs his story we have little choice but to accept that perhaps things just aren’t that simple.

Similarly to Adam Wingard’s adrenaline-spiking throwback to the 80’s, It Follows builds tension and carries momentum on the back of a mesmerizing soundtrack. If it’s not some of the more striking visual imagery that pops out arguably too infrequently throughout, then it’ll be the haunting presence of Disasterpeace’s slinking, sauntering electronica. There are a number of destined-to-be-classic tracks featured here. Fortunately the performances from a relatively unknown cast don’t let the music to do all the talking. And the carefully chosen settings, while nothing that screams big budget, set the tone early for creating a sense of inescapability and hopelessness. We get quaint suburbs, grotesque beach scenes, and an unforgettable stake-out in an aquatic center to name a few.

It Follows doesn’t need in-depth analysis. What it really needs is a wide audience, which it does seem to be receiving now. It needs to be seen, it needs to be felt. Is it too early to call this a future cult classic? Perhaps, but it won’t be a stretch to imagine that happening. Creativity runs amok in this highly effective slice of modern horror, a film where the term ‘thriller’ might be too liberally applied. I’d much prefer to label this one a chiller.

it-follows-opening

4-0Recommendation: David Robert Mitchell cranks up the tension from the opening shot. Patience might be tested for some as there isn’t a great deal of fast, frenetic action, and there’s certainly an absence of those “classic” jump scare tactics. That’s chiefly why It Follows has this ability to follow you out of the theater. It’s disturbing in a realistic way. For anyone wanting a refreshing change-up within the genre, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

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.imdb.com 

McFarland USA

mcfarland-usa-poster

Release: Friday, February 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Cleveland; Bettina Gilois; Grant Thompson

Directed by: Niki Caro

Is this the part where I openly admit to becoming teary-eyed watching a Disney film? Or is that just way too honest?

. . . . . hello . . . ? Guys . . . . . . ?

Ah well, whatever. Good chance I’m just talking to myself now, but nonetheless it’s nice being reminded of how many ways movies can offer surprises. Family-friendly McFarland USA is the most recent example, transcending mediocrity while still relying on shopworn techniques to construct its story, one that is as wholesome as it is sensational given its drawing upon real life events.

Kevin Costner is a disgraced high school football coach named Jim White who finds himself having to relocate his family to Nowheresville — er, excuse me, that’s McFarland, a tiny Californian town few maps have ever bothered mentioning — as he seeks another coaching job at a high school that’s predominantly Hispanic. Although hired because of his football résumé Jim suggests to the school’s principal, much to the chagrin of Assistant Coach Jenks (Chris Ellis), that McFarland High start up a cross country running team. He sees in several members of the squad some serious talent, but talent that’s more useful off the gridiron. Having no experience coaching track or cross country before Jim’s chances of finding success are pretty apparent from the get-go, but it’s not until he manages to corral seven young boys, including the unstoppable Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) that a real opportunity begins to present itself.

McFarland USA begs comparisons to the inferiorly budgeted and marketed Spare Parts, a production featuring George Lopez that shines a light upon four young Latino high school students possessing brilliant minds but lacking the financial and societal support needed for their potential to be fully realized. Trade intellect for athleticism, Arizona for California and a talk-show host for a seasoned action star and you get the latest effort from director Niki Caro. The drama at times mirrors that of the kids of Carl Hayden High, in particular a scene in which Jim White drives his rapidly rising young star athletes to the beach so they can have their first glimpse of the ocean. It should be said that this sequence is handled with much more grace and passion but it’s difficult shaking that feeling of déjà vu if you’ve sat through both films.

But where Spare Parts had the difficult task of selling audiences on the magnitude of the motivation required for these immigrant youths to compete in something as obscure as an underwater robotics competition, McFarland USA embraces its broader audience appeal by crafting a sense of warm community and fictionalizing a rallying cry behind an upstart sports team. Cross country running makes for an interesting twist on an all-too-eager-to-inspire genre. At the risk of scribbling out yet another cliché, we’ve been beaten over the head more than enough times with the pressures, heartbreaks and pitfalls of football stardom. As an avid sports fan, I say this not because my goal is to mislead anyone but because it’s simply true: football dramas are far too easy to find.

It’s also no secret Disney prefers creating cinema that values community-building rather than the destruction thereof, and McFarland USA continues in that tradition. As the Whites transition from minority status in a town where no one’s a stranger to another, to becoming the reason McFarland begins receiving recognition amongst the more affluent surrounding suburbs there is a surprising amount of satisfaction gained in experiencing the growth, both personal and communal. Jim goes from being jokingly nick-named ‘Blanco’ to being revered as Coach as a series of growing pains galvanizes the group over the fall of 1987.

Added to this, Caro’s ability to homogenize these two cultures cohabiting within the Californian border. We see Jim’s eldest daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) entering into young womanhood upon her 15th birthday during an extended vignette that serves as a highlight of the film when her father throws her a “quinceañera,” and her burgeoning romance with Thomas (arguably the best runner) furthers the notion that this family is not likely to abandon McFarland, even if Jim may have better job prospects on the horizon given his remarkable achievements. The respect between both groups is something that helps to balance out the film’s fixation on competition during the race day events.

There’s nothing truly original about McFarland USA, and yet the film excels in delivering entertainment and packaging an inspirational true story unlike many mainstream sports dramas have in recent memory. Anchored by wonderful performances from Costner and Bello in tandem and visually enhanced by a vibrant Disney color palette — this is a beautifully shot film, with particular emphasis on the landscapes during the races as well as the costume design — you might find yourself every now and then counting cliches but at the end you shouldn’t be too surprised to find yourself secretly cheering.

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3-0Recommendation: McFarland USA relies on some old-hat filmmaking techniques but that doesn’t distract from the pure enjoyment of watching this town come together. There is so much to like about this one that anything less than a solid recommendation just wouldn’t be fair. Any fan of Kevin Costner shouldn’t pass this one up, either.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not Danny Diaz. . !”

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

Cheap Thrills

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Release: Friday, March 21, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: David Chirchirillo; Trent Haaga 

Directed by: E.L. Katz

There are some things money can’t buy. As Cheap Thrills goes to show, confidence, self-respect, and social acceptance apparently aren’t among those things.

Here is a movie that invites the viewer to bare witness to something of a moral dilemma: watching a man caught between dragging his family through financial ruin and an opportunity to make money (lots of it) by physically, psychologically and emotionally ruining himself. While not a concept many of us haven’t pondered at some point — what kinds of things would I do for a quick buck? — it is one that is taken to some disturbing extremes. It’s also confidently and curiously handled by director E.L. Katz in his directorial debut.

Story tells of desperate family man Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) who wakes up one morning to find an eviction notice on his apartment door; to discover the garage he works at is now doing some convenient “downsizing;” to come to the realization he has no realistic way of solving either issue. When he meets an old friend at a dive bar he is reluctantly swept up in what begins as an innocent game of dare. . .or. . .dare. He and Vince (Ethan Embry) happen to encounter an absurdly wealthy married couple who are seemingly willing to make a game out of anything for their fleeting amusement.

This is where it gets really interesting. The couple is played by none other than Anchorman‘s very own Champ Kind David Koechner and Sara Paxton (who previously starred alongside Healy in Ti West’s modestly successful The Innkeepers) and is a complete send-up of those possessing wealth . . . or at least how those of a lesser class often view them, as Ben Franklin-frittering fools; as socially-superior success stories. Why it happens to be the vulnerable Craig and Vince that this elite couple picks (preys upon?) serves to illustrate a lottery-esque dynamic between the have’s and have-not’s. Sure, there’s a lot of randomness (not to mention shit luck) involved in the equation, but a great deal of the reason we end up where we end up in life is based upon our choices as well as the decisions to ignore other choices.

Koechner’s Colin is the elephant in the room, as it’s not often you see the man take on something that’s more clear-cut as a dramatic role. He is simultaneously darkly comedic, brutal and enigmatic. He charms while repulsing just as quickly; and Paxton as the smoking hot wife (are there any other kind in movies?) is another kind of disturbing. Yet she, too, holds the screen very well despite being utterly despicable.

As Craig, Healy comes across as more than slightly creepy — those glasses ain’t doing ya any favors, pal — but we are able to empathize from the get-go as he’s surrounded by walls that diminish his oh-so-slightly disconcerting appearance. Embry’s is perhaps the character least fleshed-out and he suffers from minor underdevelopment. But the foursome undoubtedly have solid, if kinky, chemistry and as things escalate they become more and more a party you are likely to want to have less and less to do with.

That is, of course, unless you are sinking to some new lows for attention. For cheap thrills. For to get out of a rut. Your scale of what is and isn’t acceptable as acts performed for money is likely to differ from those of the men on display here. That’s good. That’s how it should be! The real fun starts with delineating what exactly separates these trajectories from normal, acceptable human responses to big stacks of cash.

So, settle a bet. How far would you be willing to go for $4,500? For $15,000? For a quarter-million?

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3-5Recommendation: No doubt about it, one might need a little bit of a dark sense of humor to fully appreciate the goings-on within this extremely modestly-budgeted and rather poorly-marketed production. (This movie came out this year, but who has really heard of it, other than — yes — those with a cynical view of human nature?) For a movie that shows signs of becoming cliché entirely too quickly, it is remarkable how much it picks itself up and heads in a direction that’s neither predictable nor unsatisfying. Cheap Thrills is a thrill that’s rich in entertainment value.

Rated: R (for risqué) 

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “Whichever one of you fellas does this shot first, gets $50. Boom.”

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

Whiplash

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Damien Chazelle 

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

I know that Terence Fletcher wouldn’t give a rat’s you-know-what about any kind of critique of his performance or his teaching methods. So we’ll keep this between us, okay? I don’t want a chair thrown at me, thank you very much.

In this surprisingly emotional and powerful musical drama from Damien Chazzelle, Miles Teller has grand ambitions of becoming one of the world’s elite jazz drummers, and J.K. Simmons’ unforgettable Fletcher has every intention of breaking those dreams into teeny, tiny little pieces. A maestro he may be, but he’s also the kind of authoritarian who prefers breaking the spirits of his pupils (and occasionally the odd instrument or piece of equipment) as opposed to fostering an environment of nurturing. He is made all the more terrifying because there is method to his madness; he knows exactly what he is doing to anyone who dare step foot inside his practice room. Fletcher is a bully who takes pleasure in scaring his students, but he is no anarchist.

One of the great things about Whiplash is the amount of time you’ll spend trying to figure out whether or not he’s a sadist. He wants to push his students to a higher place, but of what does he know about limitations on that front? Given the amount of blood, sweat and tears his players regularly and literally lose during practice, evidently not much. Everyone’s favorite Farmer’s Insurance agent imbues this character with an intensity that almost seems to come out of left field. In addition to bulking up substantially for the role, he draws upon the cumulative strength of an entire career’s worth of emotion and energy. Never before has J. Jonah Jameson seemed like such a harmless and movable object. (R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman had better watch his back, too.)

While Simmons’ is the performance that arguably makes the movie, it’s the behavior and conceptualization of one particularly talented and ambitious student that matters more, though that’s not to downplay the younger actor’s performance. What Teller has been able to accomplish here to break from his days of Project X and the like is nothing short of thrilling. (Mostly because of the fact it means I probably won’t have to resort to reviews like these anymore.) Here he’s not exactly lovable but he is leagues more defined as an individual rather than the booty-chasing cretins he’s portrayed up until now. The fact Teller has grown up playing drums certainly lends itself to his most matured outing to date.

The driving beat of this thriller-esque drama — yeah, jazz drumming and adrenaline rushes, whodathunkit? —  picks up notably after the pair’s first encounter. The film opens with Andrew, isolated, practicing meticulously on a small kit in a room at the end of a deserted hallway. The harsh clashing of drumsticks against the toms reverberates methodically and certainly rhythmically as well, but there’s more aggression and urgency presented before we even see anyone on screen. He’s interrupted briefly by a fairly imposing-looking dude with a jet black shirt and a perfectly bald head. The man demands to see what the kid can do, and after a few seconds of appearing moderately entertained he just as abruptly exits, leaving the exhausted Andrew to wonder what that had all meant. For a fleeting moment at least, we are Andrew. We have to think this will not be the last time we see this man.

This teasing is not the subtlest way of introducing tension, but for Whiplash‘s purposes it works, since the last thing the film wants to give the impression of being is passive. Indeed, this is a film that will not submit itself to audience expectation; if anything it is the other way around, and we must submit ourselves to the whim of the terrifying and brutal jazz conductor who demands absolute perfection of his students. And we must submit ourselves to Andrew’s unwavering devotion to become more than what he currently is, even if that is a perfectly acceptable human being who may be a bit stubborn at times.

On the merits of committed performances, Whiplash earns a passing grade. Better than that, it’d easily earn (okay, maybe not easily) the approval of the world’s toughest jazz instructor. There’s no way J.K. Simmons can’t look back on what he’s laid down here as one of the proudest moments of his career. It is a little anticlimactic, then, coming to realize at the end that we could have seen this scenario play out this way from the beginning. It’s not a predictable screenplay as much as it is a walk through familiar hallways, a more emphatic way of cautioning the difference between self-improvement and self-destruction.

All the same, Whiplash‘s ability to sock the viewer in the gut with two riveting performances is more than enough to warrant a recommendation.

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4-0Recommendation: The biggest draw for this film hands down is the performances. If you have been a fan of either Mr. Simmons or Mr. Teller for some time, you have absolutely no excuse to put this one off. But if it’s music you are into, you are equally responsible for your own sense of having missed out if you don’t check this one out and pronto, as it probably won’t hang out in theaters for long. Narratively, this is not the most creative thing out there, but this is an acting showcase. And what a beautiful one at that.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”

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.imdb.com