Top That: Five Movies I Probably Shouldn’t Have Paid to See

I just can’t help myself. I’m debating whether or not to go see The Impractical Jokers Movie in theaters. It seems like this should be an easy ‘no,’ right? Especially when there are some good options out right now (The Lodge; The Photograph; The Invisible Man). Yet I’m having trouble resisting.

For those who don’t know, Impractical Jokers is a hidden-camera, prank-based show that debuted on TruTV back in 2011 and features a group of lifelong friends — Joe Gatto, James Murray, Brian Quinn and Sal Vulcano — who basically go around making fools of themselves in public. The half-hour long show is structured as a kind of game wherein the guys challenge each other to do all kinds of ridiculous things in public, often involving random strangers who happen to be nearby. It’s pass or fail. Whoever ends up with the most failed attempts at the end of the day gets put through one final round of humiliation. It’s all in the name of good, silly fun of course. How they’re going to pull this off in a full-length feature film I’m not sure. I like these guys but do I enjoy their antics enough to sit in a theater for 90 straight minutes of it? Better question: Can I not just wait until this thing comes on TV? Aren’t these shows best enjoyed from the comfort of your couch?

This has spurred me into thinking about some of the other poor decisions I have made when it comes to choosing what to see in theaters. So here is a Top That! post dedicated to this very concept. We’re going to keep this simple, limiting my “mistakes” to a top five rather than ten. Tell me — what was the dumbest thing you’ve spent money on at a theater?


Jackass: The Movie (that’s 1, 2 and 3) (2002; ’06; ’10) You’d think I would have gotten my fill after one or two, but no. I did the trifecta (and I consider these all the same movie pretty much so this all counts as one item). Sometimes I really do miss being in high school. Back then it was fun to gather a crew together and go laugh at these buffoons basically destroying themselves in the name of low-brow entertainment. Even then though I found the law of diminishing returns quickly setting in as we got to 3. I still find it amazing how out of all of this nonsense Johnny Knoxville actually emerged with his body and brain intact enough to go on to have minor success acting in actual movies, some of which really play to his “strengths” as an “actor,” others surprisingly managing to contain him. The same cannot be said for the others, though. Like, I wonder if Chris “Party Boy” Pontius is still running around in his banana hammock.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015) All I remember about this sequel to the 2004 Spongebob Squarepants Movie is that the 3D design is the stuff of nightmares. And yet they made this weird design not just a part of the experience, but pretty much the movie’s raison d’être. The story culminates, as you might have guessed, in Mr. Squarepants and friends venturing out of their comfort zone and breaching the ocean surface as they track down Antonio Banderas’ “diabolical” pirate Burger Beard, who has stolen the secret formula for Krusty the Krab’s famous Krabby Patty. A girl I used to live next door to had all kinds of Spongebob posters on her bedroom wall, so it would have made sense if we had seen this thing together. But no, I made the really bad call of tripping out to this one on my lonesome. Why would I ever do this again?

The Simpsons Movie (2007) This totally unnecessary extension of America’s longest-running sitcom apparently came out in 2007. That means I was about 20 years old when I saw this in theaters — old enough to know better. To know my extremely casual fandom of the show probably means I won’t be getting much out of the movie. The plot finds Homer doing Homer things, polluting Springfield’s water supply and causing the EPA to put the town under quarantine. The Simpsons are subsequently labeled fugitives. The only thing I remember about this utterly forgettable event is Homer riding a motorcycle up the glass dome the EPA encases the entire town in, and dropping an explosive device in the very convenient opening at the very tippy-top. Hey, I may not have really cared for the movie but it was a major success, grossing $530 million worldwide and becoming, at the time, the highest-grossing film ever based on an animated show. There’s a happy ending for ya.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) In my review of this rather flaccid romance/mystery thingy, I described it as a car wreck. Well, I described the critical response as a car wreck. This really dull movie was the car. The notoriously troubled production bore itself in the final print. The performances are as stiff as Morning Wood. Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele have zero chemistry. The drama is listless and is paced like a snail. I went to see the cinematic adaptation of the book that had gained “global phenomenon” status because . . . well, I was curious. Needless to say, I didn’t do that again. I heard the sequels were even worse.

Movie 43 (2013) Arguably the worst movie I have seen since starting this blog in 2011, and among the first handful of reviews I posted. (Check it out here, if you dare.) The intensely negative buzz surrounding its release was not enough to stop me and a buddy from checking this out. Not for nothing, but this absolute dumpster fire of an “insult comedy,” one that inexplicably attracted a massive cast, became a conversation piece. “Can you believe how terrible that movie was?” I still can’t, actually, no. I lost respect for a lot of the actors involved here. I think we all did.


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Photo credits: Distractify; Amazon; IMDb

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #7

Welcome to the seventh and final edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series that has revolved around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. All good things have to come to an end, and as spotty as the posts have been I hope you’ve enjoyed the selections I’ve chosen throughout the year.

Brief recap of the feature: the posts weren’t very consistent and overall it seems I went 7-of-12 on the year (2 action movies; 2 comedies; 3 dramatic comedies) which kind of feels under-accomplish-y and lame. At the same time that’s an average of just above 50% and considering I haven’t yet filled an entire calendar year with roles from any actor I’ve featured so far (even though that’s the whole idea . . .) maybe I should be a glass half-full kinda guy on this.

Besides, looking back on roles I coulda/shoulda/woulda gone with, I’m actually fairly confident I covered the hits. The Glass Castle (2017) and this year’s Just Mercy, both of which reunite Larson with her Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton, are two notable oversights. Most of what I haven’t gotten to though seem to be bit parts in movies I don’t remember much about or at all (i.e. she was in Trainwreck?).

Which brings us to this month, where I’ve literally saved the best for last. Lucky #7 finds Brie Larson in top form in Room, this powerful and quietly devastating drama about a mother and son held captive in a backyard shed for years. Director Lenny Abrahamson adapts his sixth feature from the highly praised 2010 novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue.

Brie Larson as Joy Newsome/”Ma” in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Drama/thriller

Premise: Held captive for 7 years in an enclosed space, a woman and her young son finally gain their freedom, allowing the boy to experience the outside world for the first time.

Accolades: Academy and Golden Globe awards — Best Actress

Character Background: Technically speaking Room is told through the perspective of seven-year-old Jack, played with incredible nuance and maturity by Jacob Tremblay in what proved a stunning break-out role for an actor yet to celebrate their tenth birthday (in fact Tremblay was about the same age as his character). His naivety undoubtedly makes Room such a powerful and heartbreaking experience, but you can’t talk about the movie without mentioning “Ma” and the role she plays in Jack’s venturing out into the big, wide world.

I can’t speak to how the character is in the book but Larson’s Joy/”Ma” is something of a wonder. She’s incredibly resolute and stoic, for years keeping her despair locked inside while providing pretty much everything for Jack a loving mother would with much more in the way of space and comfort. That is until “Ma” concocts a bold plan and Room breaks both into bigger, open spaces and into a devastating second half. You would think the part spent in captivity would be the toughest stretch to watch but it’s in the second half road-to-recovery — and all that that entails, emotionally, physically (haircuts, anyone?) and especially psychologically — where I had a hard time dealing. I attribute my discomfort to Larson’s powerful portrayal of the all-encompassing, long-lasting effects of PTSD. She’s at her very best in this movie. As she convalesces at her parents’ home she also unravels, burdened both by guilt — not helped by her own father (played by William H. Macy) refusing to acknowledge the “bastard child” — and her son’s confusion and anger. Room is a movie that shows how challenging the road to recovery can be, and yet for as unrelentingly bleak and difficult as it is to watch it also provides a beautiful tribute to a mother-son bond. This is a unique circumstance that proves the kind of storms unconditional love is built to withstand.

Marvel at this Scene: 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

Life (2015)

life-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Luke Davies

Directed by: Anton Corbijn

The spotlight shines once more upon Hollywood icon and heartthrob James Dean in the creatively titled 2015 biopic Life. Okay, so there actually is some nuance to the label. You can take it at face value but the film is more concerned with the relationship the actor had with a photographer working to produce a photo essay for Life Magazine.

It isn’t hard to see how this picture has fallen into obscurity. This is far from a flashy biopic. It’s not even purely about James Dean. Life enjoyed an extremely limited theatrical run concurrently with a straight-to-VOD release last December. Now it sits in the recesses of Netflix’s ever-deepening Lost-and-Found bin, gathering cyber dust. My finding was quite arbitrary and perhaps that is why I still feel a little underwhelmed by what it was that I had found. It almost makes me feel like I have a duty to caution those who are willfully seeking it out. Good chance this isn’t the movie you’re thinking, perhaps hoping, it’s going to be.

Anton Corbijn (The American; A Most Wanted Man) has crafted a deliberately understated account of how a genuine bond was formed between two very different individuals — one a farm boy from Indiana and the other a city slicker. Dane DeHaan, a young actor on the rise, portrays the icon while Robert Pattinson becomes Dennis Stock, a photographer for the New York-based Magnum agency who would go on to provide Life Magazine with some of the publication’s most iconic images. The year is 1955. Dean has just portrayed Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and is set to take on arguably his most noteworthy role as the rebel himself, Jim Stark, later that year. The events of the film are slotted in between these two seminal productions, following the two as they travel together from Los Angeles to New York and finally to Dean’s sleepy hometown of Fairmount, Indiana.

Corbijn’s treatment manifests as a moody, introspective examination of careers in transition, and appropriately it features a pair of performances that are more charmingly awkward than awards-baiting. DeHaan in particular enjoys mumbling his lines, an approach that won’t sit well with those who viewed Dean as a more assertive Bad Boy. Nonetheless, he is good at drawing out the pain that lived inside the young star as he grappled with the irrevocable nature of fame. DeHaan treads a fine line between being someone with an ego perhaps too inflated, suggested by his stand-offish relationship with studio execs like Jack Warner (a gleefully nasty Ben Kingsley), and someone suffering a crisis of conscience. (Interestingly, Corbijn opts not to make any sort of comment on Dean’s supposed “sexual experimentation,” likely in an effort to avoid politicizing his film.)

For much of the film Dean doesn’t come across as a rebel so much as he does a diva, but there’s a brilliant scene set at the Fairmount High School prom where we realize Dean’s discomfort in the spotlight is genuine; even in this unthreatening environment he seems totally different than his on-screen persona. Perhaps because he is directly confronted with that which he misses most: a life of simplicity and innocence. In the good old days he had no Jack Warners to worry about breathing down his neck, watching his every move. He had nothing to really worry about other than tending to the cattle, banging his bongos in solitude and absorbing the work of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. Now he must contend with shutterbugs like Stock who can never put down the camera (and thank goodness he didn’t), Red Carpet obligations and gossip columns debating which celebrity he’s bedding on which night.

Life may not dig as deep as it could have and I can almost — almost — empathize with purists who are put off by the casting but there’s no denying that the film’s heart is in the right place. This is a tribute to a Hollywood enigma who died far too young (24 at the time of the car accident). Corbijn’s exploration of an unlikely friendship is both earnest and respectful. Intimate. An air of melancholy pervades without Corbijn ever having to resort to an E! True Hollywood Story kind of ending.

dane-dehaan-and-robert-pattinson-in-life

Recommendation: Meditative film captures the iconic James Dean in his off-screen state. Life can feel a bit underwhelming in spots and there are some moments where the acting doesn’t fully convince but the film is very watchable. Another good one to turn to if you are a fan of either actor. Perhaps if you are a James Dean fan you might look elsewhere for a more definitive account. (What’s really interesting to me is how DeHaan turned the role down five times, feeling intimidated by the prospect. His wife eventually convinced him to take the part.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You think you’re giving me something that’s not already comin’ my way? I lose myself in my roles! I don’t wanna lose myself in all this other stuff. And you are this other stuff.”

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

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Taxi Tehran)

jafar-panahis-taxi-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jafar Panahi

Directed by: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker seemingly undeterred by the consequences of his actions. Those consequences have, as a matter of fact, formed the basis of some of his oeuvre, such as his acclaimed 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, wherein he captured a day in his life under house arrest. Presently the writer-director is serving a six-year sentence and is not allowed to leave his country for perceived propaganda disparaging of the Iranian Republic. Despite such restrictions, which also include a 20-year ban on filmmaking, his latest is available to stream in many countries not his own.

The dissemination of Taxi is in itself a minor miracle. The particulars of how it has come to surface in international streaming services like Netflix remain unclear but if the hula-hoops he had to jump through just to get the aforementioned 2011 piece submitted to the Cannes Film Festival is any indication — allegedly he had to stuff a thumb drive containing the film inside a cake which was snuck across international borders — you can safely assume distributing Taxi was no easier.

While Panahi’s directorial limitations are immediately evident, he gets creative by posing as a cabbie while filming via dashboard cam his interactions with ordinary Tehranis. A few recognize the man while others, such as the opinionated first passenger who goes on a rant about upholding stiffer penalties for lowlives who steal from the poor, remain oblivious. Each patron that gets in this cab offers some small window into life in a less tolerant society, and while the narrative device is a little contrived — I can’t imagine every taxi driver having such interesting interactions with all of his customers in a single shift — it certainly works, and it works incredibly well for a director who is essentially giving the middle finger to the Iranian government.

Some of the people he picks up are more forthright than others — a woman selling roses, for example, even breaks the fourth wall with her candid commentary about life in Iran as a woman and how she feels about the punishments that have been forced upon Panahi as a filmmaker. She even advises her friend on the segments of this film that he should probably get rid of because of their blunt honesty. Clearly Panahi didn’t feel the need to censor himself, which, of course, is the point.

Panahi’s niece also features prominently as an aspiring filmmaker attending arts school. Even though she’s telling her uncle all about the rules her instructors have delineated about the kinds of subject matter they can and cannot film — more often than not they regard the latter, specifically anything that would cast an unfavorable light on life under Sharia Law — she’s really informing us. An intelligent young girl becomes the conduit through which Panahi expresses his own outrage over being censored.

Taxi, a slight but intriguing documentary, leaves plenty of food for thought. Panahi’s creative abilities allow it to be something more than just a childish tantrum, it’s a quietly righteous political statement that deserves our undivided attention, one that makes this reviewer feel fortunate for all the privileges he has living in a nation where movies about porno stars, civil rights dramatizations and less flattering portraits of presidents (both past and present) not only can exist but allow us to evaluate what is going right and what is going wrong in our society.

jafar-panahi-in-taxi-tehran

Recommendation: An intriguing film that sheds light on both the state of the Iranian film industry as well as the larger culture surrounding it. There’s probably nothing in here that will surprise anyone but what might surprise you is just how effective Jafar Panahi makes a film with such limited resources (plus the fact he’s not even supposed to be filming at all adds an extra layer of tension to proceedings). It’s an important film that I believe many people need to see and it has certainly whet my appetite for more from a director who has proven he won’t be ignored. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 82 mins.

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

30-for-30: Four Falls of Buffalo

'Four Falls of Buffalo' movie poster

Release: Saturday, December 12, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Ken Rodgers

It’s easy to see why Ken Rodgers’ retrospective has been described as a love letter, not just to sports fanatics but to the city of Buffalo itself. Pro football has a certain stigma attached to it in this part of the country. The Bills are more freely associated with blown opportunities than they are with blowing out their opponents. Four Falls of Buffalo chooses to block out all that noise, focusing on the positives rather than the negatives — not an easy thing to do all things considered.

The film recounts a period in the early 1990s in which the Bills managed to make four consecutive Superbowl appearances. Unfortunately they lost every one of those games and typically in heartbreaking fashion. Influenced by nostalgia and reverence for accomplishments the rest of the nation dismissed instead as embarrassments, the tone often strikes deep chasms of melancholy and the story, much like a devoted fanbase that braves frigid winter temperatures for the sake of a good pre-game tailgate, longs for different results in the Wins/Losses columns. But as the cliché goes, if you were to ask members of the ’91-’94 squad if they would do it all again, you’d receive a resounding response in the affirmative.

After all, it’s not every season you see last year’s Superbowl “losers” return to the big stage. And then do it again, and then a third time. Four Falls of Buffalo shows how history can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and those recounting it here show impressive levels of stoicism as former players and executives alike open old wounds by reliving the moments. Rodgers works through the timeline chronologically, focusing on the unique situations that arose on each Superbowl occasion: missed field goal opportunities, mysteriously disappearing helmets, excessive trash-talking, critical missed tackles.

Along the way actor William Fichtner, a Buffalo native, steers us through the major events that shaped the era. Viewers are invited into the personal and professional lives of this rich fraternity of football talent. Here are but a few stand-outs:

  1. Jim Kelly, quarterback (1986-1996). Kelly once spurned the harsh wintry environs of northern New York for a couple of seasons to play in the United States Football League, but when the USFL folded he decided to check out what Buffalo was all about. He then spent his entire professional career with that team, his incredible athleticism and devotion to the community marking him as a fan favorite. In the comfort of his home he draws parallels between the mental battle he endured in those Superbowl defeats and his private battle with cancer. He also bravely discusses the impact the loss of his 8-year-old son Hunter had on him.
  2. Scott Norwood, kicker (1985-1991). It’s long been debated whether it was Norwood’s failed 47-yard field goal attempt — a miss so famous you can dig out the footage just by Googling ‘wide right’ — or if it was the way the game went that put the kicker into a position he never should have been in that ultimately cost the Bills their first Superbowl victory. Watching him relive the moment face-to-face with Rodgers and his camera crew is surprisingly difficult. Perhaps it was his honesty and refusal to hide from the media in the immediate aftermath that established Norwood as one of the most class acts you will ever see, not just in a professional athlete but in a person.
  3. Thurman Thomas, running back (1988-1999). Thomas became a crucial component in the “no huddle offense” inspired by Kelly’s preference for up-tempo football, a style of play that netted the team four consecutive division titles. Unfortunately he didn’t always benefit from such attention. Thomas has never been able to untangle himself from a series of misfortunes speculated to have played some part in the Bills’ losses. The first hiccup was his helmet being removed from its usual spot (on the 34-yard line) by stadium officials setting up the stage for Harry Connick Jr.’s Superbowl Halftime Show, a fit of confusion that ultimately resulted in him missing a few critical plays. The next year Thomas created a costly turnover which was converted into a pivotal Dallas Cowboys touchdown. And the fourth and final Superbowl he wasn’t able to impact the game as he would have liked thanks to an ailing body. Despite all that, fans have continued to revere him as one of the great household names.
  4. Don Beebe, wide receiver (1989-1994). As one of the fastest runners in the open field in NFL history, Beebe has been linked to one particularly stunning play — his chasing down of Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett, who was so sure he had a touchdown that he slowed down before the goal line only to have a rude awakening in the form of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Beebe. The man was clearly destined for glory and went on to join the 1996 Superbowl-winning Green Bay Packers. His justification for leaving may not sit well with everyone but, and lest we forget, at the end of the day football is a business.
  5. Bill Polian, general manager (1984-1992). It’s not often we pay much attention to the front office, but Polian seems an exception — an amiable sort with a great love for Buffalo and the game itself. He rose to league prominence with his assemblage of the four-time-Superbowl-appearing squad, even if he wouldn’t be around to manage them during their fourth run at the title. Polian is now an analyst with ESPN.

Four Falls of Buffalo develops into a powerful testament to the pride and character of a community long plagued by hardship — a not-so-great economy, bad weather, even worse football. Season in, season out Buffalo endures. Looking back, the ’90s were comparatively an oasis amidst a sea of mediocrity. No one on the current roster was even in the league the last time the Bills saw a post-season. Indeed, many dark days have followed since. And they will continue to come.

But silly little things like “losing relevance” and “credibility” in terms of how they have stacked  up against the competition ever since don’t really seem to bother Bills fans. It still hasn’t really stopped them partying in hot tubs in near-subzero temperatures before games. That’s a spirit no force of nature, not even a bullheaded NFL commissioner can extinguish.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Bills kicker Scott Norwood

Recommendation: For Buffalo Bills fans, it’s a must-watch. The tradeoff for reliving painful memories is watching a film treat your hometown/city/whatever with the respect and dignity it deserves. It also is a good one to watch to gain a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices professional athletes make. So often sports are dismissed as trivial events, and perhaps in the grand scheme of things they are, but Four Falls of Buffalo is a great story, one that has much to offer even casual fans. (Full video included below . . . with apologies in advance for the quality of the audio.)  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . . ]

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Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.cuyahogafalls.trade 

Janis: Little Girl Blue

'Janis - Little Girl Blue' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 27, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy J. Berg

Directed by: Amy J. Berg

Janis: Little Girl Blue isn’t the whole puzzle but it offers up a lot of significant pieces in its exploration of the life of iconic blues rocker Janis Joplin. The account offers a celebration of a life cut tragically short, packing in as much fascinating archived footage and interviews with famous faces as a 100-minute treatment can afford. Driven by a narrative that entwines tour/concert/backstage footage with letters she wrote to her family about her experiences, the film earns an emotional heft that also makes an otherwise broad documentary feel more intimate.

It’s a travesty that Joplin’s story feels so familiar. Her succumbing to a powerful drug addiction becomes downright surreal when you consider the company she keeps. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Alan Wilson — all gone at 27. And that was just the ’70s. You would think a sense of inevitability would actually ruin the experience, and at times the knowledge of the tragedy and that this has happened so many times before (and since) does indeed loom larger than what’s taking place in front of you. Perhaps it is better, then, to think of the overdose in the motel room not so much as a destination but as just another terrible thing that happened to her. (Lest we forget her being voted ‘Ugliest Man’ in a local college paper before Janis Joplin became Janis Joplin.) Of course, it would be callous to write off her death as a footnote. The point is that this life, as writer-director Amy J. Berg thankfully recognizes, represents much more than a statistic.

Because it doesn’t focus on her passing or use the documentary format as yet another platform for stigmatizing drug abuse (though it certainly doesn’t support it), Little Girl Blue is more often than not upbeat. The singer is larger than life both in personality and reputation, her presence exuberant and ubiquitous. People surround her, if not fellow musicians and bandmates then strangers hoping some of her rubs off on them. Whenever there’s a chance for her to mug for the camera, she does. In frame she’s alluring, a rebellious spark of energy that betrays her small-town-Texas upbringing. Out of frame of course, she’s an entirely different story. When reflected upon, she’s a character in a Shakespearian tragedy.

We start by walking through her high school days where she became a target of vicious bullying not only for her physical appearance — Joplin never was the poster child for femininity but the antithetical nature of her image is partly why the world fell in love with her in the first place — but for her advocacy for racial integration in schools as well. Interviews with younger siblings provide some color to her home life and what motivated the future industrial icon to break free of her Port Arthur roots.

From there it’s a jump into Joplin’s first experiences in San Francisco. We head to North Beach and then to the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, a hippie hot spot, where she’d hook up with many likeminded individuals who took notice of her natural inclination to hang out with the guys rather than the pretty Californian women. Her first stint on the west coast wasn’t great. She became heavily involved with drugs and ended up on a bus back to Texas where she’d vow to overhaul her life and adopt a lifestyle more befitting of her parents’ expectations. As history would have it, that wasn’t meant to be either.

More anticipated chapters unfold soon hereafter. We chat with members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, a psychedelic rock group on the rise (at least as far as the local counterculture of the mid-60s was concerned) and to whom Joplin fully committed herself having gained recognition for the power in her voice and the pain with which she expressed herself having endured a tortured and confusing adolescence. The story then tackles head-on the turbulence of the following years with grace and dignity: the post-BBHC fall-out, the press surrounding her decision to form a new back-up band (who remembers the Kozmic Blues Band?), flirtations with Dick Cavett, the Woodstock gig and fleeting female lovers. The ebb and flow of an infatuation with drugs and alcohol becomes more flow than ebb as romantic prospects similarly come and go.

Away from her personal troubles, mounting pressure within the industry generated by speculation over what Joplin should do with her career continued to drive the nail deeper. What is a girl to do when she becomes bigger than the band she is a part of? One might naturally assume cultural evolution would eventually create an atmosphere of acceptance and comfort. Someone with talent of this magnitude should never have to feel alone but time and again we are reminded of Joplin’s sense of isolation and helplessness as she, as some interviewees put it, grew into a caricature of herself. How much imitation is considered flattery? Was she trying too hard to be the next Aretha Franklin? Should she have stayed with BBHC?

If Joplin were any less interesting an individual Little Girl Blue would suffer from its cookie-cutter design. Along with her spunky personality it’s the little things that help set it apart. Contemporary American singer-songwriter Cat Power gives voice to Joplin’s telegrams. A view from the back of a train as it winds through California hills becomes a motif. And of course the interviews are (mostly) unique to this production. In truth, it just wouldn’t be a bonafide rock-and-roll documentary without a few well-worn edges. Almost obligatorily we have to explore beyond what’s captured on camera. Misery as a motivator. The irony and general strangeness of fame and popularity. Like with a great many acts, Joplin had a serious problem with the post-show comedown. Walking onstage is a totally different experience than walking off of it.

Berg’s efforts shouldn’t be taken as the definitive account of such a pioneering woman, but she has created mandatory viewing for anyone looking for a way to get to know the person behind the music a little bit better. The regular rhythms of a documentary based on the life of a famous person are always present but here they are as powerful as the subject is empowering.

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Recommendation: Documentary takes viewers on a tour of the many ups and downs of the life and career of one Janis Joplin. While doubtful there’s anything here that long standing fans of the blues/folk rock singer haven’t already been exposed to but the film will be a good crash course for anyone who doesn’t have much history of her. Highlights: loads of archived footage including concert performances and awkward talk-show appearances; great interviews. Lowlights: very little about the overarching narrative comes as a shock. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this is a retrospective, not a fluff piece. Nor is it a hagiography.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 103 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.nerdgeist.com 

Pod

'Pod' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 28, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Mickey Keating

Directed by: Mickey Keating

The tradeoff for watching a movie as pointless as Pod is it won’t be very taxing on your daily schedule. A scant hour-and-fifteen-minutes long, this half-baked story struggles to justify the full-length feature treatment and despite a few genuinely skin-crawling moments it fails to justify itself, period.

I resent sitting through something that ultimately makes me feel like I’ve wasted my time. Pod is one such film. Maybe it only seems that way because of its complete and utter disinterest in providing any depth whatsoever to any major cinematic component — characters, story, cinematography, not even the score resonates. And if you thought The Sopranos had a terrible ending, wait until you get a load of Pod. Even with the emotional stakes being considerably lower here than that of a six-season series, it speaks volumes how the concluding moments still leave you feeling like you’ve been slapped in the face with a dead fish.

Story concerns family drama amongst a trio of squabbling siblings who become victims of an alien presence that comes out of nowhere. Here’s my attempt at characterization: Ed (Dean Cates) is this douchey little psychiatrist who doesn’t have the greatest relationship with his younger sister Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter). She’s drunk all the time and hanging out with coke heads. She does this presumably as a coping mechanism to deal with the loss of both her parents. Whatever. That’s their backstory over and done with. They have another brother, Martin (stuntman-cum-actor Brian Morvant) who has a history of severe mental illness and now has shut himself in at a lakeside house, claiming he has been attacked by some extraterrestrial being and blabbering on about some kind of government conspiracy. Martin says he has the proof trapped in the basement.

After receiving a disturbing message Ed decides it is time to stage an intervention and in so doing strings Lyla along with him, hoping for some extra emotional support. When they arrive Martin is more hostile and paranoid than ever. Ed doesn’t buy his story about aliens, despite everything he sees around him. Aluminum foil covers all doors and windows to the outside. Inside, doors are boarded up and mysterious scratch marks adorn the walls. Morvant proceeds to shout his lines at us for the next 20 minutes, time enough to spell out precisely what Pod plans to do and yet still not sufficient enough to make us give a care. It’s one of the most over-acted performances this blog will ever feature.

What follows is an utterly predictable series of events in which director Mickey Keating, who also penned the script, tries to throw the audience off-guard by diverting attention to the poor performances rather than on what should have been a genuinely unsettling, otherworldly presence. Instead of creating the world we just talk about it — evidence of a very restrictive budget I suppose but the dialogue isn’t compelling or convincing. We run around for awhile, we watch people die. Too many of them. A weird guy in a hat lurks around in the vicinity. This is Big Brother. Lyla nurses her flask of liquor . . . whenever she’s not screaming. Someone farts. (That might have been me.)

There’s something to be said about Keating’s . . . erm, curious . . . directorial choices and to leave much of the mystery unexplained. There’s a palpable tension generated in a few of the movie’s better scenes but in the end, and given the way the narrative comes to a screeching halt, he takes the cheap and easy way out. Look to Pod for an example of low-budget horror done wrong.

Brian Morvant in 'Pod'

Recommendation: Plays out like a bad episode of The X-Files, although it would be an insult to The X-Files to consider Pod in the same class. There are so many things that should have happened here that never eventuate. I would advise skipping Pod unless you’re just morbidly curious about something that promises a little and then ends up delivering nothing.

Rated: R

Running Time: 76 mins.

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

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

Bølgen (The Wave)

'Bølgen' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 28, 2015 

[Redbox]

Written by: John Kåre Raake; Harald Rosenløw-Eeg

Directed by: Roar Uthaug

Norway’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards failed to garner a nomination. While I would like to say it was their loss for turning away a disaster film that puts most Hollywood efforts to shame, it’s actually more like everyone else’s loss as well. Bølgen might have made waves (sorry) if it had been given the chance to take the stage along with the other international selections.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Though Roar Uthaug’s direction largely adheres to blueprints used in natural disaster staples from the ’90s like Deep Impact and Dante’s Peak, he separates himself considerably with a dedication to creating characters that matter in a place that feels lived-in and entirely authentic. He stands to look even better thanks in no small part to Kristoffer Joner’s durable and oh-so-likable lead. The production carries a palpable sense of raw, visceral danger and the dramatic backdrop doesn’t hurt either.

Bølgen is a dramatization of a very real, Mt. Vesuvius-esque worst-case scenario facing the quaint fjordland community of Geiranger. It suggests what could happen should Åkerneset, a particularly unstable mountain looming over the town, ever collapse into the water below. He envisions an 80-meter-high tsunami that spells the end for everything standing in its way. Locals would have ten minutes to get to higher ground. Into the drama he inserts an obsessive geologist who tries to sound the alarms before it’s too late.

There’s an element of predictability and sensationalism to Uthaug’s approach but it’s not of the bombastic variety you come to expect from the likes of Roland Emmerich. You won’t find many cheesy one-liners here that smack of screenwriting-by-committee, or overly sentimental speeches designed to impress audiences with their longevity, or romances that develop out of nowhere that go through hell and back before the second date even happens. The only thing Bølgen really borrows from big budget Hollywood is visual grandeur —  vertigo-inducing aerial shots and sweeping pans that expose audiences to one of the world’s best-kept secrets. And even then, it’s the natural environment that does most of the work.

The  film plods along at a fairly even keel, deliberately skimping on major drama before emphatically revealing its hand, after which we’re left to pick up the pieces of a shattered community. The first half starts off slower than the second. Kristian (Joner) has been a dedicated geologist in Geiranger for many years. Now he’s accepted a big job with a prestigious oil company in Stavanger, a major Norwegian city that will surely offer a stark contrast to the family’s peaceful days here. His wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) seems to be on board; his son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), not so much. Daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) is too young to care.

We watch Kristian and the family preparing for their last day and saying their goodbyes. Kristian has a hard time leaving behind his fellow geologists, unable to shake the feeling that Åkerneset is about to cause problems. His former colleagues scold him for his obsession. He needs to stop acting like he still works here. Things might seem like they are moving slowly during the protracted introductory scenes in part because Uthaug dedicates a healthy chunk of the narrative to the perspective of Kristian’s former colleagues, each of whom show varying degrees of skepticism towards his claims that catastrophe is imminent. Bølgen may get a bit too science-y for some but genre geeks are going to appreciate the little things.

The film is universally well-acted with Joner leading the charge. He, along with Torp’s Idun, provide strong characters who are almost equal in their problem-solving abilities, a quality that largely lacks in many American disaster films. Watch Torp take action in getting the hotel guests out to safety, or the gut-wrenching fight she engages in with an aggressive man who’s just lost his wife, and more recently, his mind. All performances are treated with a sense of intelligence and respect that is far too lacking in movies, period.

Uthaug may not have been appreciated by a faceless committee but his somber and extraordinarily effective natural disaster thriller — the first in Norwegian cinematic history — is a force to be reckoned with and it is sure to find a spot on any genre enthusiast’s list. It’s certainly high up there on mine.

Recommendation: If you seek a disaster film that doesn’t treat you like you’re brain-dead, you might check out a little wild ride called Bølgen. (I suggest watching in Norwegian with English subtitles as it adds to the authenticity and I find that more often than not something is lost in the English overdub.) Filled with interesting developments, heartfelt performances and some impressive visual effects, this film never breaks free of genre tropes but it doesn’t have to when it handles them so well and brings more to the table besides. Highly recommended. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Trivia: Norway has about 5 million inhabitants and the film sold 801,232 tickets until the 4th Nov. 2015, therefore nearly every 6th Norwegian saw The Wave in a cinema.

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 

Anomalisa

'Anomalisa' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman; Duke Johnson

Someone please give Michael Stone a hug. I’m starting an online petition to see if we can get Michael Stone just one good hug, because he really, really, really, really, really needs one. Either him or writer-director Charlie Kaufman, I’m not sure who needs it more. Anomalisa is perhaps the slowest trek through misery and loneliness he has yet made, and that’s even keeping in mind 2008’s Synecdoche, New York.

Very much like that epic slog, Kaufman’s latest, an experiment in stop-motion that feels very much overdue considering his offbeat and peculiar sensibilities seem tailor made for the style, is almost too cold to handle let alone enjoy. But it is something to admire and admire I did; I just wish I could put my arms around the thing and connect with it on the level Kaufman clearly wanted me to. The misanthropy is one thing; I can handle misanthropic characters. I often eagerly embrace them and go on to love them. It’s the monotony that really killed my enthusiasm over this technical achievement.

Michael (David Thewlis) is a successful customer service agent whose latest book ‘How May I Help You Help Them?’ has just been published. He’s traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a motivational speech to other service agents looking to boost their careers. At the same time he’s promoting the new book and . . . searching for a way out of his current marriage and domestic life, both of which have whittled his zest for life down to the bone. He becomes smitten by a woman he meets that is somehow “different” than everyone else — meaning, she’s the only other supporting character not voiced by Tom Noonan. (He is credited simply with the responsibility of voicing Everyone Else.)

Michael’s staying at the Fregoli Hotel. It’s a swanky joint whose odd name isn’t meant to merely induce giggles (although it is a pretty funny word); ‘fregoli’ is actually a social anxiety/disorder in which the sufferer sees everyone around them as the same person, voice and all. Michael seems to be experiencing that very delusion but it’s not clear at first whether this is just how this guy views Cincinnati — after all he already scoffs at the lesser intelligence of anyone else who happens to be in the room with him — or whether he’s suffering the effects of a psychological condition that’s gone untreated far too long — something he himself ponders often.

Anomalisa confines itself almost entirely within the walls of this hotel. The limited setting is successful in inducing boredom and cabin fever. We watch as Michael shuffles around, utterly disconnected from the world and disinterested in doing much beyond finding some ice cubes to put into a glass and make a drink. That scene takes approximately ten minutes to eventuate. After this he shuffles around some more, grumbling over the introductory remarks in his speech notes. The shuffling takes us on a tour of the Fregoli and its many oddities, including, but not limited to the hotel manager himself. (Again, Tom Noonan. Tom Noonan everywhere.) He also gets obsessed with tracking down old acquaintances that either turn out to be painfully awkward, generally unpleasant episodes or wild goose chases. All this running around while annoyingly doing nothing eventually introduces us and Michael to two adoring fans, a couple of local girls who somehow find the author a very interesting man.

One girl, a chatty blonde who is more outspoken than her considerably stranger and more socially awkward friend Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is saddled with, you guessed right, a man’s voice. Leigh Lisa stands out for her unique voice and face in a sea of sameness. Her demeanor is strange but beguiling, at least it is to Michael. To us she comes across a kind of simpleton with a knack for contributing to the film’s quota of depressing introspective soliloquies. Also, her voice eventually starts breaking into that of Tom Noonan. Nothing good ever seems to last.

Aha! We have struck a nerve. Temporary constructs like one-night stands are radically misconstrued for representing the start of something new, something fresh. Poor Michael can’t figure out how to even start spelling ‘h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s’ let alone experience it. Anomalisa is an exercise in wallowing in self-pity despite its billing as a dramatic comedy; Michael’s stuck-in-a-rut attitude feels more suffocating and hopeless than The Lobster‘s persecution of single folk. It’s certainly more uncomfortable. It bears all the hallmarks of a Kaufman think-piece, one that delves far beneath the surface of the kinds of conversations a great many screenwriters offer up. There’s no denying Anomalisa is uniquely his. But the lack of interesting material feels unfamiliar.

Michael, torn between leaving his family behind for a fresh new start and a responsibility to his son . . . oh wait, yeah that’s right. He doesn’t really seem to care about that either as he can barely muster the interest to speak with him on the phone for longer than five minutes. Yeah, forget this guy man. And almost everything about this really tedious, beautiful, boring, complex, ultimately off-putting experience.

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'Anomalisa'

Recommendation: “The most human film of the year,” maybe. But the most entertaining? Hardly. Charlie Kaufman has built a reputation for being a tough filmmaker to embrace and Anomalisa is just another solid example. It’s a film for the Kaufman purists I think. Unless you are a glutton for punishment and enjoy sitting through true downers, I have to say give this one the old swerve if you’re the least bit skeptical on the filmmaker. Damn. I really wanted to like this, too. So I’m kicking it an extra slice for the technical marvel that it really is. The stop motion is incredible, truly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”

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 

A Timely Blogathon – Hell and Back (2015) – Digital Shortbread

 

Hey everyone, I thought I would re-blog my entry into A Timely Blogathon, an event that has been co-hosted by Rob of MovieRob and Anna of Film Grimoire. I apologize for the belated posting as the review actually went up a few days ago, but better late than never. Please be sure to visit their sites as they wrap up the blogathon with other great reviews from bloggers from around the globe. Thanks guys!

MovieRob

This post is the next entry in this month’s A Timely Blogathon being run by Anna of Film Grimoire and myself.  This review of Hell and Back (2015) by Tom of  Digital Shortbread

Check out his site which is filled with movie reviews, (long and short ones), actor profiles, 30 on 30 reviews and lots of other fun stuff!

Tnx for taking part Tom!

a timely blogathon 1__________________________________________________________________________

 hell-and-back-poster

Hell and Back (2015)

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…

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