THE MESSINA COMPLEX - My Review of ALEX OF VENICE (3 Stars)
Mary… MoreTHE MESSINA COMPLEX - My Review of ALEX OF VENICE (3 Stars)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, THE THING) has such a beguiling screen presence, a natural beauty who radiates intelligence and heartbreak with equal measure. She's in a league with Laura Linney, Debra Winger, and Jodie Foster, strong female actors whose faces are sometimes enough to keep you watching almost any movie they headline. Although ALEX OF VENICE is a fairly low stakes slice of life drama, Winstead and an incredible cast make for a pleasantly entertaining film experience.
Making his feature directing debut is actor Chris Messina (THE MINDY PROJECT, ARGO), and his sun-dappled, naturalistic approach appears to pay homage to COMING HOME-era Hal Ashby. Alex is an environmental attorney whose house-husband (Messina) grows weary of their setup and leaves her with her son and ailing father (Don Johnson). Picking up the pieces, Alex must navigate an important case, family problems, and her own parental failings. Enter her loose cannon sister Lily (Katie Nehra, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jessica Goldberg and Justin Shilton) and Alex has her hands way too full.
What follows is a sweet, charming, lovely film about figuring out how to navigate through a very complicated world. At times the story defies credibility, as when Alex strikes up a relationship with a defendant (a charming Derek Luke) she's prosecuting. I found it very hard to believe neither would discuss the conflict of interest or what would happen when one of them loses the case. This type of omission seems out of character for someone like Alex, who may stumble through life but who is clearly much smarter than that.
Alex's dilemma is that she just needs to stop being so self-centered, care a bit more about her son (a terrific performance by Skylar Gaertner), and let go a little. She's your classically uptight character in a pencil skirt who's one hit of Ecstasy away from having more fun in her life. Providing said mood enhancer and winning an MVP award is Nehra. As a writer, she's given her actor self a great, scene-stealing part. The chemistry she shares with Winstead is so snappy and believable, and she's taken a stock character, the slutty sister, and given her such lovable shading, great humor, and unexpected depth. I look forward to watching Nehra blossom in her duel careers.
Another revelation is Don Johnson, who finds the ache and panic behind his eyes as a father slowly losing control of his life. As a struggling actor cast in a local production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD and who can barely function in his daily life, Johnson is stunning. This role hits the sweet spot of an aging actor who still looks great but isn't getting MIAMI VICE attention anymore. It's easy to believe he knows where this character lives, and a Johnson career revival is right up there with PULP FICTION-era John Travolta or THE WRESTLER's Mickey Rourke.
Technically, this is a beautiful film, with Doug Emmett's cinematography and Linda Sena's production design perfectly evoking Venice, CA in all its current beauty. This beach community has always felt a little trapped in the 70s, and ALEX OF VENICE harkens back to that era of small humanistic stories. Great close-ups of Winstead's face as she fights back tears, or Johnson's shifting eyes revealing his inner turmoil become the great takeaways. You may not remember what happens in this film, but you'll certainly recall how it made you feel.
Side Note: At the screening I attended, Jane Fonda, who starred in THE NEWSROOM with Messina, very generously and professionally moderated the Q&A. Not only did she look great, but she had total control of the proceedings, never once allowing it to be about her, keeping the focus rightly on Messina and his film. Proving herself fully engaged with the material and current styles of filmmaking and storytelling, Fonda should be in charge of every Q&A from here on out. Everyone else, thanks for playing, but Jane's got it covered!
LOVE ON THE ROCKS (Of Cocaine) - My Review of DANNY COLLINS ( 3 1/2… MoreLOVE ON THE ROCKS (Of Cocaine) - My Review of DANNY COLLINS ( 3 1/2 Stars)
DANNY COLLINS operates on the odd premise of an aging rock star (Al Pacino) receiving a long lost, inspirational letter from John Lennon, which sends him on a quest to discover the true value of his life. Dan Fogelman, the talented writer of CRAZY, STUPID LOVE and TANGLED, makes his directorial debut here with this fairly standard yet beautifully spirited and wonderfully acted film.
The film starts in 1971 as a magazine interviewer (Nick Offerman, whose laugh is the first of this film's many delights) sits down with a young Collins to inform him that he's about to become a superstar with the writing ability of John Lennon. This sequence is highly reminiscent of ALMOST FAMOUS, and this won't be the only Cameron Crowe reference this film has to offer. Cut to modern day, and our title character is a coked-up, washed-out shell of his former self. He's not doing SCARFACE levels of the drug, but enough to threaten his health and ensure that he's going to Hell by keeping his stash inside his Crucifix. He's about to go onstage at the Greek Theatre to an adoring crowd of elderly, swaying post-Soccer Moms. Seeing older white people dancing is enough to send anyone spiraling, no? He performs his signature hit, "Hey Baby Doll", which sounds so close to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" that a lawsuit surely must be pending! Pacino isn't believable for a second when singing and prancing awkwardly. Sure, the character is dead inside and has long ago lost his will to get up on a stage and thrill an audience, but most in his position know how to at least phone it in with some credibility. Still, it's the only stumble in some of the best work Pacino has done in years.
The first act deftly sets up Collins' extravagant life, his gorgeous house, circle of sycophants, and cheating girlfriend less than half his age. At his birthday party, there's a fantastic dolly shot past a long row of aging men ogling some sexy women frolicking in a pool. Collins' longtime manager, a hilarious Christopher Plummer, gifts him with the aforementioned letter, forcing Collins to reexamine his life and seek out the son he's never met. Bobby Cannavale, in the most soulful performance of his career, plays his son, who harbors deep resentment and faces some tough obstacles of his own as he raises his bouncing-off-the-walls daughter (a terrific Giselle Eisenberg) with his stern but supportive wife (a nicely grounded performance by Jennifer Garner). Sure, this is a redemption story as old as time, but what makes this movie sing is its wit, energy and chemistry-infused patter.
Holing up in a Jersey Hilton, Collins delights the young staff, played with sweet guilelessness by Josh Peck (THE WACKNESS) and Melissa Benoist (GLEE) while he woos Mary, the Hotel Manager, played with considerable Midwest charm by Annette Bening. Refusing to drink Collins' Kool-Aid, Mary clearly enjoys sparring with Danny but has the good sense to spurn his advances. Pacino and Bening are so good together, he with his creepy, animated come-ons and she with her Waspy rigidity offset by the most beguiling smiles she's ever attempted on film. I grew to love Mary, the buttoned-up professional, right alongside Danny, fully understanding why she is such a prize. She almost single-handedly manages to wake up a narcissist and find the genuine, hurting person underneath.
The lion's share of Danny's wake-up call, however, belongs to his interactions with his son, Tom. While most of the cast contributes to the comedy, Cannavale grounds this film with his bruised, angry, and understandably damaged character. Without Tom, Danny would be a laughable buffoon. Danny, perhaps woken up by John Lennon, or maybe he merely wants to tap into the good person deeply buried within, finds the ache in wanting to connect with his boy. The silent moments of this pair, especially when huddled close, are some of the most lovely, perfectly calibrated moments of closeness I've seen in a film so far this year. That the stunning final scene finds a reference in SAY ANYTHING only adds to its appeal. Sure, this is the type of film rarely attempted anymore, a family drama where the stakes are seemingly low, but DANNY COLLINS finds warmth and true kindness on its somewhat silly journey. It's not a feat of exceptional visual filmmaking, but it has characters you would die for, and a real beating heart. That's nothing to sniff (or snort) at, right?
PRETTY TITTY GANG BANG - My Review of FURIOUS 7 (4 Stars)
The FAST… MorePRETTY TITTY GANG BANG - My Review of FURIOUS 7 (4 Stars)
The FAST AND THE FURIOUS series is Universal Pictures' biggest franchise of all time. Its success has been a result of thrillingly over-the-top action sequences, an hilariously self-aware cheesiness to its dialogue, and a charming, perfectly calibrated ensemble who all seem to know what kind of movie they're making. By now, anybody with an internet connection is aware that Paul Walker tragically died in a horrific accident before principal photography was completed on this latest installment. Utilizing seamless CGI overlays and Walker's brothers as doubles, it's virtually impossible to tell when Walker was absent, but his loss is felt so deeply in every frame, that FURIOUS 7 takes on an unexpected emotional grandeur largely absent from prior films. I never thought I'd say this before when speaking of this series, but I defy anyone not to watch the last beautiful minutes of this film without dissolving into a puddle of tears.
James Wan (SAW, THE CONJURING) is new to the FURIOUS world, but he proves himself exceedingly adept with the non-stop barrage of action set pieces. You always know where you're at in any given sequence, which is a credit to Wan, his team of Editors ( Leigh Folsom Boyd, Dylan Highsmith, Kirk M. Morri, and Christian Wagner), and Cinematographers Mark Spicer and Stphen F. Windon). Writer Chris Morgan, who was written five of these films, fully understands the world, where certainly fatal crashes only result in minor contusions, and where no portentous line is uttered without a slow dolly in on an actor turning towards camera with the alacrity of a RuPaul's Drag Race finalist.
The storyline is superfluous. Our gang is enlisted to find a lethal Black-Ops operative (a scary Jason Statham) bent on avenging his brother's death. Trust me, that's all you need to know. Besides, we all come to these films wanting to see if they can top prior action sequences, and in that department, this movie delivers the thrills for its entire 2 hour an 20 minute running time. Whether it involves paratrooping vehicles, cars flying off mountains, a breakneck bus chase, or in the most jaw-dropping sequence, hurtling through a series of skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi, I found myself engaged, on the edge of my seat, and laughing hysterically at the sheer insanity on display. Any film in which Dwayne Johnson gets a lock and load montage where one of his steps is downing pain meds, gets a standing clap from me!
Of course, no FURIOUS film would be complete without its homoeroticism and blatant misogyny. The bro stare-downs between Vin Diesel and Walker are now the stuff of legend and assorted fan fiction, and these films love to wrap their women in skin-tight gowns just so they can risk wardrobe malfunctions during WWE-worthy hand-to-hand combat scenes. Bikinis play a central role in not one, but two scenes, one set at a desert race track and the other unbelievably taking place in a Middle Eastern country which forbids such displays of the female flesh. Now, I can honestly say I know what it must be like to live inside a Pitbull music video.
Depsite the cornball tone, the actors work up a sweet rapport, with Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris providing the most charm and humor. Diesel is an acquired taste, and by now, he seems to be doing a self-parody of the gruff, strong, silent type. Even when Bruce Willis phones it in, he still manages to seem Oscar-caliber compared to Diesel's flat non-efforts. Regardless, it works within the silly rules of this universe, especially when Diesel does his final send-off. Paul Walker wasn't a great actor, but he was a great star. He had a Kid In A Candy Store quality to his acting, always appearing to love jumping from car to whatever else was hurtling along, or looking terrified/turned-on when danger loomed. The reason everything always seems to come together in these films is because nobody ever pretended this was anything but a mega-budgeted B movie.
Ridiculousness aside, I had a great time watching this film. The sound design alone, with its revving engines and perfectly silent breaks whenever cars fly in the air, leads to a fully immersive experience. Check your brain cells at the door, sit back, put your seatbelt on, and enjoy this mindless, fun joyride.
DON'T CRY FOR ME, ANTOLOGÍA - My Review of WILD TALES (4 Stars)… MoreDON'T CRY FOR ME, ANTOLOGÍA - My Review of WILD TALES (4 Stars)
Argentina's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee for 2014 is an audacious, edgy, hilarious collection of 6 short films by writer/director Damián Szifron called WILD TALES. While none are directly linked to each other, this group of short stories seems to share similar themes of rage and revenge and of people caught during their most stressful moments. Its opening credits alone, a series of wildlife stills indicates we're about to experience behavior of the basest levels. We follow people on a plane, in a diner, on the road, at a towing facility, after an accidental hit & run, and at the world's most insane wedding reception ever and I spent a good half of the time with my hand over my mouth trying to suppress either laughter or an "Oh no they didn't!". It's almost impossible to discuss this film without mild spoilers, but I'll do my best not to reveal anything too specifically.
The film opens with its shortest tale, a group of passengers on board a plane who quickly discover something diabolical is afoot. It ends with a gasp-inducing freeze frame you won't soon forget. It deftly sets the stage for the sick and twisted stories to follow, all displaying varying degrees of anger at the world and the terrible luck so many suffer. Shot with great muscularity by cinematographer Javier Julia, and infused with a wonderful nihilistic sensibility, each segment has its own style, and I felt like I was experiencing a great Coen Brothers film at every assured turn.
In a secluded diner on a rainy night, a server finds her sole customer to be an arch enemy from her past. Goaded on by her increasingly sadistic co-worker (memorably and hilariously played by Rita Cortese), this revenge fantasy simultaneously raises the dramatic stakes while playing off our distaste for awful, entitled customers and slow-moving service people. I loved how quickly one character wanted to murder another simply based on another person's recounting of past events, a perfect encapsulation of our too-quick-to-judge, don't believe everything you read on Facebook culture.
From there we're racing along a desert road as a handsome, well-to-do driver (Leonardo Sbaraglia, who first came to my attention in the film BURNT MONEY) gets stuck behind a slow-moving and weaving vehicle. His ill-advised choice to yell at the man leads to a face-off which redefines taking things too far even by Tex Avery standards. Imagine Steven Spielberg's DUEL cranked up to mythical proportions. It's in this segment where every single shot meant something, with the camera put in just the right place, and the editing and writing ratcheting up the tension with perfect, inevitable ease. Clearly final shots mean something to Szifron, and it's in this story where his last moment adds an extra, juicy layer to the storytelling.
Next, one of Argentina's most famous actors, Ricardo Darín (THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES), expertly mines every moment of his put-upon sad sack who naively takes on the system after getting towed. What makes this segment sing is the fact that his character is set-up as a man addicted to causing drama. I found my loyalties shifting constantly from his p.o.v. to those of the bureaucrats he torments. Again, every moment counts, from the initial set-up at a construction site to its homage to TAXI DRIVER.
The film continues with an unfortunate hit-and-run accident perpetrated by the son of a wealthy man (a great slow-burn by Oscar Martínez), who keeps making one ill-advised decision after another in an attempt to make the situation go away. This story exposes the never-ending levels of corruption and greed, placing a sad, lower class patsy into the mix (a terrific Germán de Silva) to remind us how stuck the 99% often feel in their lives. Knowing full well that no good can come from this situation, Szifron ends this tale with abrupt and off-camera sounds, putting just the right capper on its hopelessness.
Finally, a wedding reception from hell ends the film on a funny yet disturbing note as a cheating groom played by Diego Gentile (clearly Argentina's answer to Bradley Cooper) faces off against his distraught bride (Erica Rivas, explosively going past any semblance of sanity). Their performances are electric, and I wasn't surprised to discover that nearly the entire cast received nominations from Argentina's version of the Oscars. The jealously and rage of our newlyweds keeps boiling over, ending (here we are again with Szifron's mastery of final shots) on an image combining sex and messiness. It's a perfect way to summarize the experience of this thoroughly entertaining, not-to-be-missed film.
THE RING GETS CHLAMYDIA - My Review of IT FOLLOWS (3 Stars)
Often… MoreTHE RING GETS CHLAMYDIA - My Review of IT FOLLOWS (3 Stars)
Often pretentious, overly metaphorical, and uneven in pace, IT FOLLOWS is still writer/director David Robert Mitchell's praiseworthy attempt to inject a little originality into the often stale horror genre. Whereas THE RING was built on the premise that a mysterious videotape would bring death to its viewers, IT FOLLOWS promises being haunted by a shape-shifting specter unless you have sex with someone to transfer the target over to them. Think of it as the consequences of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection, but with more horrific symptoms.
As allegories go, it's rich with potential, and Mitchell clearly strives to make the most out of it. He works hard with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis to achieve an endlessly fluid shooting style rife with striking, unusual framing. One unfortgettable shot of blood in a swimming pool is almost worth the price of admission alone. Add a heavy 80s-style synth score, a strange, timeless, quasi-70s/80s production design that mixes cell phones with rabbit ear televisions, old rusty cars, a zonked-out, naturalistic acting style exhibited by its young cast, and the strangest clamshell cameo Kindle device that has never existed, and you're entering John Carpenter Land by way of Terrence Malick. The Malick reference gets its due in not only the unforced, elliptical way our characters converse but in choices Mitchell makes, such as concentrating on a shot of our heroine's hand grazing grass and flowers during a particularly quiet moment right before something awful occurs.
The film opens strong, with a twirling 360 degree shot of a young girl racing out of her home dressed in bra, panties and high heels. She's being chased by something unseen and before you know it, she meets an unexpectedly grisly fate. From here, we meet our heroine, Jay (Maika Monroe), who looks like the the product of a fourgy between Kelly Clarkson, Kat Dennings, Reese Witherspoon and Chloe Sevigny, as she wades in her backyard, above ground pool. This is one laid back teen. She's so laconic, she can't even be bothered to shoo an ant crawling across her arm. It's suburban Detroit and Jay's life consists of being observed by her horny pre-teen neighbors, drinking with her friends and family, and dating an easygoing guy.
It's at this date where things go seriously and irrevocably wrong. I won't spoil the plot much further, but the aftermath of some backseat sex isn't anywhere close to what Jay imagined. In most horror films, you pay for having sex. Here, sex is the only way out. IT FOLLOWS really turns up the creep factor after this initial sexual encounter, with a shocking cut to the next scene. It seems to be Mitchell's terror equivalent to finding out your partner just intentionally infected you with an STI.
With Jay dumped back home looking like a rape victim, those closest to her rally by her side to help her escape her fate. In an almost silent performance, Monroe must convey fear and a certain guilt for the rest of the film. There are a few good scares of the "jump out of your seat when somebody goes 'Boo!' variety" and a few haunting scenes where she's being stalked. The framing of the shots truly helps these sequences flourish as you're made to look around constantly to discover the predator. Knowing the threat could be coming from anywhere is part of this movie's simmering tension. Additionally, like a diagnosis of syphilis, our main character has a tough time disclosing what's happening to her.
Unfortunately, there's not much else to the film. Our leads run and run and run, stopping sometimes to have sex until they come up with a plan to conquer this "thing". Although visually stunning, that big sequence doesn't make a lot of sense, and it feels like the rules changed slightly to justify what happens. Ultimately, it feels like the film is a little light on incident and lacks a satisfying resolution, ending up feeling like a light campfire story instead of a big, hearty meal. More haunting than scary and more metaphor than fleshed-out storytelling, IT FOLLOWS is an admiral homage.
Rich Vreeland's score is an acquired taste. It booms in almost every frame in a way that reminded me of Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT and is highly evocative of the score from HALLOWEEN. It feels intentional and will either feel like a propulsive addition to the storytelling (my feeling) or annoy the hell out of you. Same goes with the odd, can't-place-it time in which the story is set. For me, it kept me engaged in the film, with its vague, hazy memories of a time where we would have to talk with each other instead of texting. Others will find it to be a pretentious conceit. Fair enough, but love it or hate it, IT FOLLOWS has a lot on its mind and Mitchell clearly wants to establish a new, methodical voice in film storytelling.
THE F.L.U.F.F. (Funny but a Little Underwhelming Feature Film) - My… MoreTHE F.L.U.F.F. (Funny but a Little Underwhelming Feature Film) - My Review of THE DUFF (3 Stars)
Take a fun but nasty high school concept based on a bestselling novel, add a cavalcade of fresh talent, and an Academy Award-winning Director, and you should have the next classic teen movie, right? Well, kinda sorta almost. Standing for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, THE DUFF stars Mae Whitman (PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) as Bianca, who learns from her hot jock next door neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell) that her prettier, more popular friends keep her around in order to look that much better. Upon discovering this, she enlists her neighbor to give her romance lessons in exchange for help with his science grades. Whereas 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU was based on THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, and CLUELESS was based on EMMA, THE DUFF takes its cues from PYGMALION. There's no way this film won't take its place in the HEATHERS/MEAN GIRLS pantheon, right?
All of the ingredients are here for that to be true. Utilizing fun social media graphics and a delightfully uncomfortable performance by Whitman along with spirited turns by Amell, Allison Janney (as Bianca's mother), and Ken Jeong as her Journalism professor, director Ari Sandel, who won an Oscar in 2005 for his short, WEST BANK STORY, mostly keeps things grounded in reality. I felt every single moment of Bianca's humiliation and embarrassment, and the film's insistence on keeping everything genuine is what keeps it from launching into the stratosphere. The aforementioned classics often had thrilling flights of fancy, whether it's that bus hitting Regina George or Winona Ryder's head becoming a croquet ball. THE DUFF, however, is content to tell its story with very little fanfare. Perhaps I've become used to gross-out humor, but part of me wanted one big set piece or two to take this film to the next level. I can't imagine BRIDESMAIDS without the famous bathroom scene, and THE DUFF only manages a literal half-second, blink and you'll miss it vomit moment.
Sandel and screenwriter Josh Cagan have done solid work here and there's wonderful, unexpected chemistry between Whitman and Amell, but punches seem to have been pulled. Bella Thorne plays the resident bad girl, Madison, with a perfect, understated bristle, and yet it doesn't feel like enough. I was waiting for an epic meltdown or indelible lines like "F*ck me gently with a chainsaw", but the best we get from her are unmemorable, passive-aggressive asides. It's MEAN GIRLS-lite or NOT-SO-NICE GIRLS, and THE DUFF's predecessors have raised the bar to almost unattainable heights.
Almost completely eschewing camp, the filmmakers have made an understandable yet somewhat bland choice. We know where this movie is going from the moment it starts, and despite it being fun and well-observed, it's lacking those big moments such as a lively dance in the Homecoming scene, or some crazy naked hijinks in the men's locker room scene. Still, the movie is about something humane, that sometimes being yourself is the best option. That's not the worst message to put out there, but "I love my dead gay son" is unforgettable and I'll be quoting HEATHERS for decades. THE DUFF made me laugh when Allison Janney quoted THIS IS SPINAL TAP, but that's only worth a passing mention at my next cocktail party. The differences, and one can't help but compare, make ALL the difference.