REVIEW: Bad Moms

5 09 2016

We’re at a cultural moment where parents are more stressed and confused than ever as they try to prepare children for a newly competitive world while also imparting the requisite cultural norms necessary for survival. (Never mind having any time for their own personal happiness and satisfaction.) It’s the perfect time for a movie like Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s “Bad Moms” to come along and assure audiences that there is still value in just being a good, decent person. If only it were a little bit funnier, the film would be a cultural touchstone for generations to come.

Lucas and Moore’s background writing “The Hangover” shows as the film’s key trio bears a striking resemblance to the Wolfpack. Mila Kunis’ Amy has her act most together but struggles to find satisfaction amidst the demands placed on her by a louse of a husband (think Bradley Cooper’s Phil Wenneck). Kristen Bell’s Kiki is a meek, sexually naive mother of four who mistakes her ignorance for happiness (see Ed Helms’ Stu Price). Kathryn Hahn’s single swinger Carla proves a wild card in any scenario (sounds like Zach Galifianakis’ Alan Garner).

As they fight back against societal pressures to maintain the image of perfection, enthusiasm and optimism, these moms’ antics are more likely to spark discussion groups in sociology seminars than set social media ablaze with a killer line. Their candid conversations, easily more memorable than their Top 40-scored romps of bad behavior, are notable for the way the women speak to each other. They speak less as characters or friends and more as field workers looking for answers to research questions about modern motherhood.

Never fear, humor-seekers: Lucas and Moore always provide a joke line as a response. But “Bad Moms” doesn’t need a sequel so much as it needs a sitcom. In that format, the creators might really be able to delve into the issues that so clearly concern them without succumbing to the pressure for a giant comedic set piece on such a consistent basis. B-2stars

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REVIEW: Oz the Great and Powerful

11 03 2015

Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” is home to a number of very pleasant elements.  James Franco’s Oscar receives accompaniment a heartwarming and adorable CGI china doll with a broken leg voiced by Joey King as well as a flying monkey hilariously played by Zach Braff.  The conclusion (no spoilers) also pays a wonderful tribute to the magic and power of cinema.

And … that’s pretty much it that I can remember.

“Oz” mostly strands a talented cast of actors against recycled graphics from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.”  Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Rabbit Hole,” mind you) have to tiptoe around the iconography of “The Wizard of Oz” since Disney does not own the 1939 classic film, which means they cannot gush about its timeless qualities or rejuvenate the brand.  So the whole thing just feels rather awkward in principle, and then the film itself does nothing to alleviate that sensation.

James Franco is a great actor, but he is unfortunately miscast as Oscar.  His moral ambiguity in the role means nothing without the kind of earnestness and goodness that make up the bedrock of a Disney protagonist.  The part just seems too simple for him, as strange as that sounds.

Meanwhile, among the witches in the Land of Oz, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz appear to be having some kind of competition to see who can overact the most and bring the movie down more.  Shockingly, it’s the Oscar-winner Weisz who might tank “Oz” to a greater extent.

And then there’s also Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch.  She’s very pleasant, too, I’m now remembering.  Williams brings the airy, gentle grace she endowed her Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn,” and it does make the film more bearable when she appears on screen.  That is hardly enough to salvage the whole movie, though, or make it fun and entertaining. C2stars





REVIEW: Blood Ties

22 06 2014

Blood TiesCannes Film Festival – Out of Competition, 2013

It’s clear from the beginning of “Blood Ties” that Guillaume Canet’s English-language feature debut is a Scorsese-lite New York ensemble drama.  Still, to so successfully channel a modern master right out of the gate is pretty impressive.  While Canet’s direction is hardly novel, he always keeps the film fun and compelling.

His ’70s saga follows the exploits of the two Pierzynski brothers squaring off on opposite sides of the law, Chris (Clive Owen) the criminal and Frank (Billy Crudup) the cop.  If the premise sounds familiar, well, it is.  In fact, the film is co-written by Canet with the help of James Gray, who himself wrote/directed a very similar tale of fraternal opposition called “We Own the Night” back in 2007.

Yet even though it felt like I knew these characters from other movies, they still thrilled me.  Gray, a consummate crafter of familial tension, completely nails the tricky dynamics between Chris and Frank.  They have always been pitted against each other, so a natural rivalry has been fostered between them.  Yet underneath it all, there’s the undeniable pull of – wait for it – blood ties that every so often overpowers all else.

Clive Owen is once again dastardly convincing in a brutish role, recalling his gripping performance in “Inside Man.”  However, it’s Billy Crudup who really carries the movie with a quiet strength.  He never really got a role to showcase all the talent he showed in “Almost Famous,” and now, 14 years later, Crudup arrives again with a bang. Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Ted

4 08 2012

For better or for worse, “Ted” is a product of Seth MacFarlane through and through.  In other words, the film plays out like one of those five-part “Family Guy” story arcs.  It also doesn’t help that the comedic pairing of semi-serious Mark Wahlberg and a wildly inappropriate talking teddy bear, aptly named Ted, are essentially performing the same functions as straight-shooting dog Brian and the indecent infant Stevie.

And since “Ted” bears such an uncanny resemblance to the comedic stylings of “Family Guy,” the optimal way to consume it is the same: as a set of stand-alone YouTube clips that make you roar with laughter and cut out the story that connects the jokes.  MacFarlane, absurd metaphor-spawner that he is, has never quite figured out how to tell a story that compels anywhere near as much as his cut-away humor does.

Granted, his borrowed, trite plot is merely there to string together the laughs.  Yet it also winds up depreciating the value of the entire film because eventually you forget all the jokes.  But the story is something that sticks in your head.  For instance, I could recite one or two funny lines from “Ted” off the top of my head, but that creepy and unnecessary subplot involving Giovanni Ribisi as a sexually disturbed adult willing to kidnap a talking teddy bear will always haunt my memory.

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REVIEW: Friends with Benefits

22 07 2011

It’s time for a movie to come along that changes the romantic comedy genre for better and for always (or at least reverses the way it’s heading at the present moment). A movie willing to avoid the sappiness and the cliched, predictable genre tropes. A movie willing to be a little bit sneaky and subversive in its delivery of what the audience wants from the genre. A movie that gets to the heart of what the genre is supposed to be – truthful, believable romance with some observations on the tricky thing that is love with some humor sprinkled on top.

Friends with Benefits” is not that movie, although it desperately wants to be. It gets some points for trying, though. It takes some good pot shots at the genre through the very clever usage of a fake romantic comedy starring Rashida Jones and Jason Segel inside the movie, and levels some very accurate criticism of them that will no doubt have audiences nodding along with Timberlake and Kunis’ sex pals.

But like so many of the recent onslaught of meta movies, it winds up devolving into the very thing it scorns. It wants all the benefits of self-awareness but none of the responsibilities, which here would include being creative and providing an alternative to the laughable aspects of the genre that it constantly lampoons. To use a sports metaphor, it has the swing but not the followthrough. It boldly goes where few romantic comedies will go and then backs away when honesty and ingenuity is asked of it.

However, it’s nice (for once) to see the movies giving us some indication they realize how RIDICULOUS the romantic comedy has become. Even though “Friends with Benefits” eventually subscribes to the formulaic rules of the genre straight from the textbook, I’ll take a movie with squandered potential over one with no potential any day. Not that it makes it any less disappointing, but the movie sort of gives us a wink and a nudge when it crosses over to the dark side. It’s almost as if director Will Gluck (last year’s excellent “Easy A“) is so apologetic for selling out that he all but superimposes the text “I’M SORRY” over the closing scene.

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Know Your Nominees: “Black Swan”

29 01 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, the logical starting place is “Black Swan.”

For all the acclaim “Black Swan” is receiving now, it seems silly that anyone WOULDN’T want to pour money into making the movie.  Yet according to director Darren Aronfosky, the movie was a surprisingly hard sell to production companies even with Natalie Portman and the rest of the cast all lined up.  When financing finally lined up, Aronofsky was forced to make the movie on $15 million, which was $10 million less than what he had hoped to have.  This meant a streamlined shooting schedule; for example, each act of the “Swan Lake” ballet shown at the end of the movie was shot in one day.

Maybe you’ve heard the mutterings that “Black Swan” was once the same movie as “The Wrestler.”  They are true. Director Darren Aronofsky brought it up once, and ever since, he’s been carefully clarifying exactly what he meant by that.  The movies originated out of the same idea: two performers whose craft drives them to physical and emotional extremes.  The end results are entirely different, but the two work together nicely as companion pieces.

A lot has been made of Nina’s sanity in the movie.  Is she ever sane?  When does she lose her mind?  Darren Aronofsky, in an interview with Cinema Blend said that “the only time she’s normal is right at the beginning of the film when she’s dancing before the demon shows up. That very first shot, she’s clear.”

We’ve all heard about Natalie Portman’s year of training to get ready for the role of Nina Sayers.  You’ve probably heard that she worked five hours a day doing swimming and ballet for eleven months and then a shocking eight hours a day in the final month.  She lost over 20 pounds practically starving herself to slim down.  But ballerinas have a long, lanky physique that’s hard to simply tone into.  So how did Portman overcome this challenge?  She had people pull on her arms and legs every day to stretch her out!

There was more to Natalie Portman’s physical commitment to “Black Swan” than her training.  While filming the movie, Portman broke a rib during a lift.  The film’s tight budget meant no on-screen doctor to help her, and the tight filming schedule didn’t exactly allow for much recovery time.  So how did they work around it?  They simply readjusted the lift.

And there’s even more commitment on Natalie Portman’s part than just physically embodying a ballerina.  She has been attached to “Black Swan” since 2000 when she met Darren Aronofsky in Times Square and said she wanted in on the project.   She claims Aronofsky had most of the movie laid out then.  Many other members of the crew have been committed to the movie for multiple years as well.

Did you see Winona Ryder in “Black Swan” and go “Woah, haven’t seen her in a while!”  According to Darren Aronofsky, Ryder was cast in the role of Beth because it echoes her career.  The “metacasting,” as he calls it, was crucial because the audience would likely feel more impacted by Beth if someone largely at the same point in their artistic life was playing her.

The movie could have been impossible to make as the acting qualifications were just as vital to the movie as the ability to dance ballet were.  Luckily, Natalie Portman took ballet from age 4 to 13, ultimately stopping to pursue only her acting career.  Thus, when she was needed to tap back into her ballet skills to prepare for “Black Swan,” the groundwork was already laid.

What was the hardest part of the movie to get right?  According to the choreographer, it was Natalie Portman’s undulating arms at the end of the movie that gave them such a hard time.

In case you haven’t heard, Portman is pregnant and engaged to Benjamin Millepied.  He was the film’s choreographer, and the two met on set.  Millepied also had a role in the film as pretty much the only male other than Vincent Cassel to speak in the movie – the lead dancer that drops Portman on opening night.  Portman referenced an ironic line he’s asked in the movie – “Would you f*** that girl?”

Check back on February 1 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “The Fighter.”





REVIEW: Black Swan

27 11 2010

At 18, I’m probably a little young to be using the phrase “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” but I can’t help but have it come to mind when talking about “Black Swan.”  Simply put, Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant directorial artistry has culminated in a stunning masterpiece that is unmatched in vision or ambition by anything that cinema has churned out in a long time.

It’s so bold and daring that to call it wowing simply doesn’t do the experience justice.  Aronofsky weaves together the beauty of ballet with the terror of psychological meltdown with such nimble grace that it leaves you reeling long after leaving the theater.

There’s really no one else but Aronofsky who could pull off a big, brassy movie like this.  He’s simply the best visual filmmaker out there.  As if his first two movies, “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” weren’t powerful enough, “Black Swan” is Aronofsky in full bloom, showing absolute command of all cinematic vocabulary.  There is no boundary too sacred or stiff for him to toy with, and he doesn’t so much push them as he does eradicate them.  Thus, “Black Swan” isn’t just a victory for Aronofsky and the rest of the crew; it’s a victory for the craft of filmmaking as we know it.

The film is chalked full of imagery, symbolism, and visual motifs that jump off the frame and into your lap.  It’s so clear that Aronofsky is intimately involved in sculpting every frame and every moment down to the colors of the room.  His presence is terrifyingly arresting, and it feels like he himself is reaching out to grab your heart and pump it at a million beats per minute.  The racing begins in the first scene and doesn’t let up even when the credits roll.

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