Archive for February, 2015

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Once upon a time, Will Smith could do no wrong. He’d release a movie, like clockwork, on July 4th, rake in beaucoup bucks, then turn around one year later and do it all again.

Then Seven Pounds Happened, followed by the objectively “successful” but ultimately disappointing Men In Black 3 and finally the toxic After Earth, in which Smith literally played a character with no emotion.

Two years later, Smith is back in a starring role as con man Nicky in Focus, in which he talks a big game and makes doe eyes at Margot Robbie (can you blame him?). The story finds Smith taking Robbie’s Jess under his wing, teaching her the art of the con and introducing her to the life of a gentleman thief.

Problem is, Smith still hasn’t shaken his half-asleep stone face of After Earth. Once the personification of charm, he trudges through Focus with dead eyes, tucked behind a series of lifeless expressions. As a result, his chemistry with Robbie is nonexistant, and his protagonist Nicky is off-putting and unsympathetic.

It’s a shame too, because outside of his performance Focus is a not-unpleasant flick. It takes the classic “big con” storyline and subverts it just enough to tell a fresh story without getting lost in the weeds. The film even winks at the tropes, with Smith’s character calling “the big con” a fantasy before extolling the virtues of a numbers game and settling into a plot that is more about romance than sleight of hand.

After an initiation in New Orleans, Nicky and Jess part ways. Years later, Nicky is hired to work his magic in the world of competitive racing only to find that his employer is Jess’ new beau. There’s a hint of Ocean’s 11, with Nicky forced to choose between the job and the girl, and the inevitable reveals in Act III manage to be unexpected, albeit slightly anticlimactic.

A more game Smith could have elevated the story, but even with the star’s B-game performance Focus is a satisfactory February release that offers enough tricks to pass the time.

Grade: B-

*Focus premieres nationwide on Friday, Feb. 27.

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I don’t normally make Oscar predictions because I’m terrible at it. I’ve learned that my flaw is an inability to vote with my brain over my heart. So every year I watch my more level-headed friends do the victory dance after being crowned champion of our annual Oscar ballot contest.

But the Oscars are tomorrow, and I’ve been neglecting this blog since Sundance, so I thought I’d cobble together some thoughts on the big six races (because let’s be honest, that all we really care about).

Best Supporting Actor

Ever since I saw Whiplash at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival last January, I’ve been waiting for the well-deserved furor to build around J.K. Simmons. His turn as a megalomaniacal music instructor is explosive, fascinating and terrifying and despite excellent competition from Edward Norton and Ethan Hawke, the statue is his to lose.

Will win: J.K. Simmons

Should win: J.K. Simmons

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Best Supporting Actress

I’ve written in the past about my love for Boyhood, and I’ll certainly continue to do so in the future. But while that story centers on a child, it is really the adult characters that ground and sustain the 12-year journey and particularly Patricia Arquette.

As a single mother raising her raising her children and fighting through a string of lousy boyfriends, Arquette is raw, natural and heartbreaking. The story ends with the titular boy headed off to college with the whole world and his future at his feet, but the real emotional punch is Arquette, alone in a drab apartment with the better years of her life behind her.

Laura Dern and Emma Stone are both terrific in Wild and Birdman, respectively. And any time Academy-favorite Meryl Streep is in the running it complicates things, but Arquette has swept every award show so far and I can’t imagine her streak ending at the big show.

Will win: Patricia Arquette

Should win: Patricia Arquette

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Best Actor

To me, 2014 was the year of Boyhood and Birdman, and since the lead actor in Boyhood was an untested child actor who was far from consistent over the 12-year shoot, that means 2014 was the year of Michael Keaton. He was already a good actor, but in Birdman we saw just how great he can be when handed the right material and director.

But, this is the Academy, and they can do some strange things sometimes. The Oscars love real people, like the characters played by every actor in the category BUT Keaton. They love physical transformations, like the nose Steve Carell hides behind in Foxcatcher or the ALS cocoon that slowly envelops Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. It also never hurts when a movie is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, like the gangbusters business that American Sniper is doing.

I still think Keaton has the edge, if nothing else than because he’s a veteran actor who’s never been recognized before. But if Redmayne ends up on the stage tomorrow night I’ll be disappointed but not surprised.

Will win: Michael Keaton

Could win: Eddie Redmayne

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Best Actress

A lot has been said about how there’s not enough good roles for women in Hollywood, and this year’s Best Actress crop would certainly suggest that. Try as I might, I just can’t get excited about this year’s race. Still Alice? Two Days, One Night? I would imagine most people have neither seen those films nor even heard about them.

The smart money is on Julianne Moore, but if it were me I would give the statuette to Rosamund Pike for her work in Gone Girl. It’s not easy to steal the spotlight on a David Fincher film, but Pike (who has swam just beneath the surface of fame for a decade) delivers an Amy Dunne who is aggressive and vulnerable, sexy and repulsive. She also delivers the most memorable sex scene of Hollywood’s modern era.

Will win: Julianne Moore

Should win: Rosamund Pike

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Best Director

Again, Birdman and Boyhood. Boyhood and Birdman. Either one could win either this category and/or Best Picture. But Best Director goes beyond making a great movie and what Richard Linklater accomplished with his 12-year passion project simply must be recognized. This is the category to do it in.

Will win: Richard Linklater

Should win: Richard Linklater

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Best Picture

I already picked Birdman as my choice for best film of 2014. It’s unique, inventive, daring and filled with star-caliber performances. It’s the kind of film that captures the magic of the movies and reminds you why you want to spend your time in a dark room in front of a glowing screen.

Boyhood is incredible, don’t get me wrong, but its power comes from its ability to capture the quiet simplicity of everyday life and its slow evolution over time. It’s normalcy, on the big screen, in a way that few other narrative features have displayed. But Birdman is fantasy, it’s jazz, and as I’ve said before, it’s darned fun to watch.

But that’s my heart talking. My head knows that Boyhood has so far earned more awards from the other guilds and that its somewhat rare for Director and Picture to split. I give the edge to Birdman, but that might mean another year of someone else’s victory dance.

Will win: Birdman

Should win: Birdman

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Full disclosure: I never saw the original Hot Tub Time Machine.

I suppose it’s possible that without an understanding of the mythological and character foundations of the HTTM franchise, I was ill-prepared to appreciate the comedic nuances of its sequel. I doubt it.

Time Machine 2 reunites most of the core cast from the first film, with the notable and obvious exception of John Cusack who likely thought himself too big for the sequel’s britches. Instead, the 4th-man character is assumed by Adam Scott, the son of Cusack’s character, who our three remaining heroes meet after a semi-accidental trip to 2025.

Time travel has been good to Jacob (Clark Duke), Nick (Craig Robinson) and Lou (Rob Corddry). Nick has become a musical sensation by ripping off every top 40 hit of the last 20 years and Lou is the founder of Lougle, the world’s biggest internet and technology company. Oh and Jacob is Lou’s butler, essentially.

At a party, someone tries to kill Lou, prompting the gang to take one more trip into the bubbly, chlorinated waters of their magical machine in order to save his life. But rather than end up in the past, they arrive in an alternate future where the secrets behind Lou’s attempted assassination originate.

What follows is more than an hour of lazy gags and obvious pop culture references as the men, ostensibly searching for Lou’s shooter, bounce from one ill advised scenario. The jokes are aggressively on-the-nose, and except for the occasional celebrity cameo winking at a possible future, they fall short. The film’s saving grace is Scott, who commits wholeheartedly to his role as a yuppie fool enlightened by a long night of drug-fueled debauchery.

Much like 22 Jump Street, some of the best jokes are saved for the end credit sequence. And when the film finally fades to black you’ll feel like you just spent the last 90 minutes in a hot tub: pruny, exhausted, and ready for a shower.

Grade: C+

*Hot Tub Time Machine opens nationwide on Friday, Feb. 20

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Don Verdean

In the latest film by Jared and Jerusha Hess, the minds behind Napoleon Dynamite, Sam Rockwell stars as Don Verdean, a charlatan archeologist who makes his living pawning off falsely discovered religious relics to all-too-gullible persons of faith.

Shot in Salt Lake City and St. George, the film makes for an enjoyable landmark showcase for locals (a trip to Habits got a particularly robust response from the crowd at Sundance’s Grand Theater) but unfortunately it squanders the considerable talent of its stars. Jemaine Clement appears to be the only one having any fun while Will Forte, Amy Ryan, Danny McBribe and especially Rockwell phone in their two-dimensional performances.

The plot, which sees Verdean getting in to deep on a plot to unearth the Holy Grail, has the potential for madcap hilarity. But aside from a few touches of genuine comedy the plot sputters to a defeated halt before closing out on a particularly anticlimactic ending.

Grade: C+

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The Wolfpack

In a tiny apartment in Manhattan’s lower east side, six brothers and one sister live locked away from society. They venture outside only on the rarest of occasions, and their sole connection to the outside world comes in the form of the films that they watch and recreate with impressive detail by way of homemade costumes and props.

It’s a bizarre story made all the more unsettling by the fact that ‘The Wolfpack’ is a documentary, and not a piece of narrative fiction. After one brother essentially snaps and wanders out into the street in a Michael Myers mask, the ensuing ripples turn into cracks in the family’s cloistered lifestyle. Bit by bit, the brothers venture out into the world to pursue their own lives.

Director Crystal Moselle tells their story with a respectful, but prodding, curiosity. There’s a hint of danger in the brothers’ stories, an inclination that behind the smiling faces lie a number of unnamed demons. But Moselle does not overtly demonize, even while the Wolfpack describe their father’s locked-in rules as a form of prison and speak about how the world they see on their tv screen is the only world they know.

Even by documentary standards, it’s a very unique film. It takes an abstract look at a non-traditional family and is able to paint a fascinating portrait of individuality.

Grade: B+

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