Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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Category Archives: Movies

Adult Beginners (2015)

Big sisters both rule and suck at the same time.

After his tech startup ultimately fails and not only puts him, as well as the many investors he was involved with, in debt, Jake (Nick Kroll) decides that it’s time to take a break on everything for awhile and retreat to the one place he can depend on: His childhood home. However, when he walls into to surprise his sister, Justine (Rose Byrne), of his visit, he realizes that maybe he’s only complicating things a bit more. For instance, Justine is a few weeks pregnant, having issues with money, with her work, and even with her husband (Bobby Cannavale). Jake sees this, but he doesn’t really care and just needs a place to stay for a few months or so, which he does, but at a price: Watch Justine’s youngest son, Teddy, each and every day while she and her husband are off at work. Jake isn’t too happy about this, but decides to do it and finds out that having any sort of responsibility is hard and takes a whole lot of effort. Not just from his part, but everybody else’s, too.

A few days ago, I reviewed the little-seen indie Alex of Venice, and while I appreciated the cast apart of it, I felt the plot and direction to be the same old tale of “someone trying to reinvent themselves and get their lives back on-track”. While there’s nothing wrong with telling these stories in the first place, as anybody will tell you, there are many instances in real life where people need to change things up, it’s just that, sometimes, these stories can get so conventional and middling that it doesn’t feel like anything is being taught or learned in the process. Mostly, it’s just a bunch of sad people, being sad, and at the end of the day, making themselves happy in some way, or fashion.

Wonder who he's calling? Hm....

Wonder who he’s calling? Hm….

Once again, not saying that these stories don’t happen in real life, but I don’t really want to see an hour-and-a-half movie about it where I feel the wheels are turning, but that there’s no driver.

Adult Beginners is that type of movie. But instead of being a boring mess like Alex of Venice, Adult Beginners gets by because, for the most part, it’s funny, and it should be. It’s got some very funny people in it, doing and/or saying funny things, but also deals with real life, grown-up issues about maturity, gaining independence, and marriage. A lot of the same ground was covered in Venice, however here, because it’s given a slight comedic-switch to it all, the pill goes down a lot easier and isn’t as rough to swallow; in fact, there came a point where I wanted to see more of where these characters went and just how exactly they were going to get by whatever situation they were thrown into.

Director Ross Katz makes many nice decisions in not giving us, the audience, the easy answers, but it still works in giving the impression that we’re dealing with characters here. Even if a good majority of the time they spend talking, joking around, bitching, moaning and just walking around, there’s still something interesting to all of that here that worked and kept me engaged. Some of the subplots that come in and out don’t quite work, but rather than taking the movie down with their mediocrity, they just sort of feel like leftover strands that can be forgotten about.

Unlike in Venice where every subplot took away from the main story and made it feel longer than it should have been.

But another reason why this movie works as well as it does, given that it’s like so many other movies, is that it has a fine and charming cast to make the material come off a bit more weighty. Lately, we’ve seen the evolution of Rose Byrne, the charming and hilarious screen-presence that is more than willing to hang with the guys when it comes to delivering any sort of gag, and here, as Justine, there’s no exception to the rule. Byrne is funny, sweet, endearing, and challenging as Justine where she makes some bad decisions, as well as some definite good ones, but no matter what, she’s watchable beyond belief and reminded me a bit of my own big sister in the way that she carried herself from day-to-day activities and with her little bro.

Bobby C. just can't right now.

Bobby C. just can’t right now.

Speaking of her little bro, Nick Kroll gets a chance to finally show the world that he may, or may not be capable of weighty, dramatic material, and the results are, well, uhm, fine. I guess. See, the thing with Kroll is that while he’s definitely fine with all of that snarky, obnoxious humor of his, when it comes down to creating a character and becoming this Jake guy, he leaves much to be desired. It isn’t that Kroll isn’t bad, but by the end of the movie, it sort of feels like we don’t really get this character, nor do we ever understand where the transition from him being a “prick” to a “nice dude” ever occurred, or how it happened. Kroll mostly gets by though because the company he keeps.

Which is to say that, yes, Bobby Cannavale is great here, too, but in a way, I found his subplot to be the most frustrating. Early on in the movie, there’s a slight hint at the fact that Cannavale’s character may be screwing around and while Jake’s character approaches this subject as well as a brother-in-law can do, the way it’s resolved left me wondering, “What happened between point-A and point-C?” See, we get a few scenes where words are exchanged and dicks are measured, but then, that’s pretty much it. Cannavale’s character is wonderful and honest, but the situation he’s thrown into never gets explained well enough to where it makes all the sense for him, or his character.

However, you win some, and you lose some. Whatever.

Consensus: Like many others of its kind, Adult Beginners is funny, heartfelt and benefits from solid performances from a cast who are all willing to make material seem a bit deeper.

7 / 10

All convincing smileys.

All convincing smileys.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

The Water Diviner (2015)

Who ya gonna call? Russell “dude who already hates phones” Crowe!

After the presumed death of his three sons in WWI and the sudden suicide of his wife, Australian farmer Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) has nowhere to go but overseas and find his kids’ bodies. He’s not happy about it, but to abide by his late-wife’s wishes, he’ll do anything. So then, Joshua travels to Turkey where he hears stories of heroism and bravery about his two sons who were tragically killed on the battlefield, but then again, he also hears them from the man who had them killed in the first place (Yılmaz Erdoğan). Even though the two may not have much in common, the Major ends up assisting Joshua on his search for his sons and, believe it or not, there’s a rumor going around that one of them may actually be alive; the only problem is that no one knows where he’s at. Joshua, with all of his heart and pride, decides to set out on his own which, more or less, puts him into some very dangerous, scary situations. Also, let’s not forget to mention that Joshua begins to fall a bit head-over-heels for a lonely hotel-worker (Olga Kurylenko).

There’s a part of me that wants to give a lot of credit to Russell Crowe for stepping out of his comfort-zone, going big, going home and being as ambitious as humanly possible for his directorial debut. Most actors-turned-directors feel more inclined to just keep their projects short, sweet and simple-to-the-point where they don’t spend too much money, nor do they have to worry about having too much on their plate. I’m fine with these movies, but sometimes, it’s nice to see a larger scope of a movie coming from someone who may, or may not have any clue what they’re doing behind the camera.

Bonding over something cultural, I assume.

Bonding over something cultural, I assume.

However, in the Water Diviner‘s case, it’s a bit of a mess. And an uninteresting one at that.

Most of this comes down to the fact that Crowe, despite all of his best intentions, doesn’t quite have it down yet as to what makes a movie flow so well and smoothly. In terms of the pace, the movie seems to flirt with the idea of being a gritty, ugly and violent war picture, but then, at another second, will slow things up so suddenly to focus on some romance and it’s a huge, drastic change. It almost feels like Crowe wanted to make one movie, and then halfway through it, decided that he wanted to make another; which wouldn’t have been so bad had both movies actually been well worth the watch, but they’re kind of not.

The only reason any of them are worth getting invested in is because of Crowe’s performance that, like usual, shows off his skill for mixing tenderness with masculinity and doing it in a way that we don’t too often see from most actors. Sure, we all know that Crowe can kick some ass when need be, but we so rarely see the softer side to some of his characters and here, as Joshua Connor, Crowe gets a chance to act all of that out and show that this man, deep down inside, is truly hurting. Though the adventure he sets out on isn’t all that exciting or eventful, it’s at least somewhat compelling because of the fact that we care early on for Connor and hope that he gets what he wants; whether that be closure, or happiness, or whatever.

But once again, it’s hard to judge a movie based on the lead performance, especially that lead performer just so happens to be the one directing it all.

Throw on a 'stache and all of a sudden, Jai Courtney's a lot cooler.

Throw on a ‘stache and all of a sudden, Jai Courtney’s a lot cooler.

Which is a shame because Crowe is dealing with some hard-earned issues and feelings here; any movie involving a father searching for his own sons on the battlefield is touching, it’s just that it’s placed in a movie that’s pretty uneven. One second, it’s an anti-war flick explaining how the battlefield makes most humans into angry, malicious animals; another, it’s trying to be a thought-piece about foreign powers coming together and settling scores; and then, of course, there’s the ham-handed love story that we can see coming from a mile away. All of these ideas are toyed around with and while Crowe gives just about each and every one plenty of attention, they never add up to much except for just a jumble that could have easily been handled better.

What ultimately ends up happening though, is that it seems like Crowe just had too much on his plate to begin with. Had he settled down and at least focused on one portion of this story, everything probably would have been all fine and dandy. Though Olga Kurylenko is a solidly lovely and spicy presence on-screen, her character serves no purpose other than just “foreigner that Russell Crowe can shack up when all is said and done”. Having seen To the Wonder, I already know that Kurylenko is capable of much more than that and while she’s fine here, she’s in the middle of a movie that throws her around whenever it sees fit.

I can’t say much about Jai Courtney here, especially since he’s hardly ever around, but it is nice to see him showing up in pieces that don’t just call on him to be a bad-ass. It’s a solid casting-choice on the part of Crowe, but ultimately, it leads to nothing because it’s so clearly Crowe’s movie and nobody else’s. Which is, yet again, not such a terrible thing because Crowe is superb in the lead role, but there’s a feeling that maybe Crowe could have just been the lead here and allowed somebody else to take the reigns of director. Because honestly, Crowe just may not be ready yet. With time, though, he may.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Consensus: Uneven in terms of tone and messy in terms of handling of subplots, the Water Diviner finds Russell Crowe taking on duties as director and while he gives it his all, sadly, the results aren’t as up-to-par as his solid performance is.

5 / 10

Throw that hat full-force at somebody and more than likely, they'll die. I'm serious. Look at that thing!

Throw that hat full-force at somebody and more than likely, they’ll die. I’m serious. Look at that thing!

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Ex Machina (2015)

Trust humans, or trust robots. Choose one. Can’t be both.

For no reason whatsoever, young computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen to spend a week with reclusive billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac), where he remains secluded from the rest of the world in his palace in the mountains. Though Caleb isn’t sure as to why Nathan, of all people, would choose him to spend some time with and get to know, isn’t fully known; however, it’s an opportunity that Caleb will not pass-up. But when Caleb gets to Nathan’s place, he soon realizes that something is clearly up with this guy and not in a good way, either. Nathan drinks a whole heck of a lot, only to wake up the next day, work his ass off, and purge it all out of his system, only to then repeat the same pattern the next day. Not to mention that every time Nathan says something to Caleb, it ends up making the later feel incredibly uncomfortable in a manner that he doesn’t know how to discuss without offending Nathan, and possibly having him kicked-off this lovely land of paradise. And, let’s not forget to mention that Nathan has Caleb working with a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), who may or may not be able to think like most humans do.

So rarely does a sci-fi movie come out where it doesn’t feel like the same threads are constantly being traced over. While some movies definitely try to be as far-out as humanly possible to avoid these problems, they mostly end up stabbing themselves in their own feet and just being huge, insane piles of mess that can’t really be cleaned-up; they’re their for the whole world to see and not make any sense of. Sometimes, that’s how the creators behind it prefer it to be, and other times, you have Christopher Nolan, in that he wants you to understand what he’s throwing your way, but instead of doing so, you just roll with it and try to hope he takes you to the promised land.

A computer geek with no porn on his screen? Yeah, alright!

A computer geek with no porn on his screen? Yeah, alright!

Basically, what I am trying to say is that making an actual good sci-fi movie, without it seeming like all else that has come before, is a total challenge.

This is a challenge, however, that Ex Machina is more than willing to go up against, even if the themes of artificial intelligence has been practically done-to-death by now. However, writer/director Alex Garland knows and understands this, and rather than trying his hardest to break away and make some sort of everlasting message about the way technology and humans are alike, Garland keeps everything as ground-level and as simple as possible. Though the movie is definitely a sci-fi flick in nature, Garland seems more interested in the complex relationship between the characters here, and because of that, the movie’s far more than just “another flick with robots in it”.

It’s a strange oddity that truly does go wherever the hell it pleases, with absolute reckless abandon. Which definitely makes it all the more difficult to discuss without getting down to the nitty gritty of what happens, why and what Garland is trying to say. Trust me, I shall do my best in keeping the secrets hidden, but if a little something slips out, consider it not intentional; there’s just something about this movie that makes me want to reveal everything and anything about it. Yet, at the same time, I realize some people want to be treated to chock full of surprises, and it’s totally understandable.

Because honestly, surprises is what you’ll get here.

Garland keeps the movie bumping along in a way that feels like we’re leading towards something, but what that is, is never fully known. We’re told early on that Caleb is given a task that he can either complete, or not complete, but if he does go through with it, it will most likely change his life, as well as the rest of humanity’s. That said, throughout the whole duration of this movie, the weirder things appear to be, the more the reason behind Caleb’s trip begins to blur. And whereas some movies I would be ticked-off at the lack of closure, here, I just decided to roll with it and see where exactly Garland was going and whether or not any of it made sense.

To be honest, not much of it makes sense, but there’s something interesting about that. Rather than going through the motions of a story that could be literally told to anybody who hasn’t read sci-fi before and already predict the ending right away, Garland throws as many curve-balls our way as possible, without ever seeming like he’s just bored. The movie’s twist and turns come with mood; where, one second, you’ll be laughing at an extreme dance-formation, and the next second, terrified because of someone’s threatening demeanor. The movie literally goes from one end of the spectrum, to another, and Garland doesn’t seem to have a problem with not making any sense of it; he’s just having a grand time throwing us down so many different hallways.

And most of the unpredictability does come from the performances here, which are made all the more impressive by the fact that we hardly get anymore than four characters here. There’s maybe one or two side characters thrown in here at the beginning, but once Caleb gets to Nathan’s place, it’s literally just four people, all walking around the same place, talking to one another and testing each other’s limits. This in and of itself is fun, but the cast is so talented, that it goes one step further and makes these characters complex specimens.

For instance, Nathan, at the forefront, seems like the typical billionaire a-hole, until you realize he isn’t. He gets trashed all day, falls asleep, wakes up, works out, and is constantly making Caleb feel awkward by the way in how he’s trying to seem “cool” and “inviting”, but is doing just the absolute opposite. It’s pretty hard to be sly about telling a person where they can and cannot go in your house, but trust me, watching Nathan handle every conversation he has with Caleb, where they could have gone to learn more about one another and bond like most males do, will make you want to buy each and everyone of your friends a beer in hopes that the know your cool, and actually mean it.

There’s more to Nathan however, and whether or not it’s sinister, is totally left up to us to watch and see. Thankfully, as always, Oscar Isaac puts in solid work as a guy who always seems to be acting like a dick, but he just doesn’t know it. However, there’s still humanity to this guy where you can see that he may actually just be a lonely dude in need of some friend-time with anybody who is willing to partake in it. Or, he could just be a total d-bag. Either way, Oscar Isaac is mesmerizing just about every second and proves why, once again, he’s the one actor we should all be looking and paying attention to.

Caleb’s the perfect counterpart to Nathan, because he’s not just meek, mild and nervous, but because he’s a tad clueless to any sort of hostility that may, or may not be coming from Nathan’s side. Doomhnall Gleeson is great at showing this Caleb guy in a light that doesn’t make him just seem like a nerd, but a nerd that has a heart, and most importantly, has one that needs some sort of love in it. Wherever it comes from, he oh so desires it and to watch as he comes to the realization of this and still try his hand at understanding Nathan, is engaging.

It’s weird, but once again, cool to watch.

The one who truly does steal the spotlight from these two, however, is Alicia Vikander as Ava, a robot who can think and act like a human, but is still a work-in-progress. This is where I really have to hold myself back, but what I will say is this: Vikander is a revelation in this role. With only being able to use her expressive face, Vikander is able to make us feel something for this robot character, that we don’t even know is good or not; we know that she wants to be a human and to be freed, but to what extent is that? The questions here that lie, may be answered.

Then again, they may be not. Check out for yourself.

Consensus: Strange, surprising and unpredictable, Ex Machina deals with a lot of ideas, but lets them sit second-hand to the exciting performances for these well-written, complex characters, who help put the broader theme of everything into perspective.

8.5 / 10

Is it already too soon for Death Grips cover bands?

Is it already too soon for Death Grips cover bands?

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

The Age of Adaline (2015)

What a shame it would be to look like Blake Lively for the rest of eternity.

At age 29, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) was involved in a tragic car crash just off the side of the road. However, because of a strong lightning bolt strikes her, she, for one reason or another, lives. There’s only one catch: She will forever be 29. She won’t age a day, while everyone around her that she either knows or loves, will die away, while she stays the same age, with the same look, and same memories of everything has come and gone in her long, momentous life. This also makes Adaline’s life a bit of a lonely one – with the exception of the times she spends with her daughter (Ellen Burstyn). That’s why when a young, handsome dude named Ellis (Michael Huisman) clearly becomes smitten with her, she’s initially against it. She knows that nobody will be able to handle her condition, let alone even believe it. But against her free will, Adaline decides to give it a go and wouldn’t you know it? The two end up getting very serious together; so serious that Ellis introduces Adaline to his parents (Kathy Baker and Harrison Ford), one of whom, just so happens to have had a relationship with Adaline back in the 60’s.

Family drama is soon to follow.

Yet again, another movie released in the past few months where Ellen Burstyn plays a character who is literally older than the actor playing the role of their parent.

Yet again, another movie released in the past few months where Ellen Burstyn plays a character who is literally older than the actor playing the role of their parent.

Is this a dopey-as-hell premise? It sure it. But didn’t the Curious Case of Benjamin Button have one too that was relatively similar to this? And didn’t that movie actually turn out to be “alright”, in at least most people’s minds? Pretty much, yeah. So what could ever be wrong with the Age of Adaline?

Well, for starters, not much. In all honesty, it’s easy to have something against this movie already before even seeing it. It’s premise is wild; it deals with sappiness; involves a love story of two people who can’t be together; and it stars Blake Lively, who hasn’t been in much lately, because she’s so busy with writing thought-pieces about god knows what. However, somehow, through some way, it mostly all comes together, and heck, even Lively’s not all that bad.

Who woulda thunk it?

Indie director Lee Toland Krieger probably did because after making two very impressive, very low-key indie flicks in the past couple years (the Vicious Kind, Celeste and Jesse Forever; check them out now if you haven’t done so already), he decided to make this is his big, mainstream break-out and given the scope of the film, you’d think he’d mess-up an awful lot. Surprisingly though, he doesn’t and that’s because he doesn’t really have too much to handle. The movie steps away from making this a Forrest Gump-clone in which Adaline goes throughout her long, storied-life, touches certain people’s life along the way and continues to make herself feel better, while, at the same time, still coming to terms with her existence.

This is the same sort of path Benjamin Button went down and it’s familiar by now; so to play around with that formula is really something incredible. However, not to bother with that formula to begin with, is all the more interesting, especially because it makes sense when you get to think of this story and the themes it’s trying to convey. Because Adaline lives with such an extreme condition, she’s forced to practically separate herself from the rest of the world; she does this not just because she doesn’t want to freak those out around her and possibly hurt them, but because she will forever and always be chased after by the feds, where she’ll no doubt be some sort of human lab-rat that’s constantly prodded with and practiced on. It would have been nice to see more of the sorts of shenanigans that Adaline got into throughout her long life alive, rather than just learning that she’s really good at trivia and history, but that said, we don’t get overkill on the back-story. So yeah, it makes sense as to why the story doesn’t expand so much – Adaline needs solitude, and while it’s a sad existence for her to live, it’s the only one she can live with in order to feel safe, sound and happy.

Also, this does a solid job in making us feel more for Adaline, the character.

While Adaline may not be the most engagingly complex character, the life she’s been living makes her interesting enough that you want to see where her story goes. She can either fall in love, fall out of love, or just end up without any sort of love in her life – whatever it is, there’s something to be invested in. She’s simply just living; if she changes somebody’s life in the process of doing so, then so be it.

Sorry, horned-up seniors. Not a freshman.

Sorry, horned-up seniors. Not a freshman.

Another aspect as to why Adaline works as well as a character is because Lively is actually very good in this role. While watching this movie, there was a weird thought that went through my head: Why did I ever think Blake Lively was a bad actor to begin with? Truly, there’s been one performance where I’ve been impressed by her, right? Well, actually, there was one and that was in the Town, where she not only dressed herself down to absolute, grimy perfection, but made herself unlikable and sympathetic at the same time. It worked for her character and showed that Lively was a solid worker, if only for maybe a supporting role.

Now, here, as Adaline, Lively is put into the spotlight and gets a whole lot more to do. It’s a challenge for someone who hasn’t been in a movie for nearly three years (Savages was released in the summer of ’12 if my memory serves me correct), but it’s a challenge that Lively is more than willing to stand up to. There’s a sympathetic route to this character that works well because you feel bad for her, and also realize that she’s not necessarily asking for your sympathy either. She sticks up for what she wants and believes in and Lively does a solid enough job showing her strong-armed emotions in a way that isn’t obvious, nor is too subtle to ever get a sense of. It’s just the right amount of showy-but-not-so-showy either, if that makes any sense.

Basically, Blake Lively is good here and from now on, I’ll make sure to not doubt her, or her skills as an actress.

As for the rest of the cast, everybody’s fine, but the one who really surprised me the most with how far and willing he was able to dig into this character was Harrison Ford as one of Adaline’s past loves. Ford hasn’t been this good since 42, but whereas that was a showier role, this one’s more subtle and touching in a way that touches a raw nerve with anyone who has ever felt that sense of love come back into their life, full-on and with absolute brute force. The scene where he initially stumbles upon realizing that Adaline is his son’s new girlfriend is tender, sweet and emotional in a way that’s bound to make some tear up.

Not saying that I did, but whatever. I’m a softy.

Consensus: The Age of Adaline may appear as a sappy piece of romantic-drama, with a Benjamin Button-ish gimmick, but dig deeper, and there’s some genuine heart and emotion to be found, in both the material, as well as the performances.

7.5 / 10

A 100-year-old-plus cougar on the prowl. Rawr.

A 100-year-old-plus cougar on the prowl. Rawr.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Alex of Venice (2015)

#SelfDiscoveryProbelms.

After feeling like a prisoner in his own marriage, George (Chris Messina) decides to leave his wife, Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and kid, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner), alone to fend for themselves. Alex is taken aback by this at first, but eventually, realizes that some alone time is exactly what she needed. Though she’s a lawyer who is working on this big time case against a spa-opener (Derek Luke), she realizes that sometimes, you need to put work on the back-burner and just live life to its fullest. That means, yes, partying a lot more, and definitely, having sex. But problems begin to arise when her dad (Don Johnson) starts to struggle with a play he has currently been cast in and, even worse, is acting out in strange ways that she, as well as her sister (Katie Nehra) take notice of. Also, Alex runs into a bit of a problem with her son in that he’s spending too much time with his aunt and is learning certain things about life, love and all of that fun stuff, when Alex doesn’t want him to. Sooner than later, Alex realizes that maybe doing this whole life thing all by her lonesome self wasn’t all that fun to begin with.

Chris Messina’s the kind of character actor I love to see in anything. It doesn’t matter what it is that he’s showing up in, or for how long – as long as he’s in it and has something to do, then consider me pleased. That’s why it’s a huge shock to see him actually put himself on the back-burner and let the rest of the story, the actors and everything tell itself. Surely he has that control, seeing as how he’s the writer and director of Alex of Venice after all, but it does make me wonder: Would this movie have been a lot better with more Messina?

Yeah, Alex! You get 'em, girl!

Yeah, Alex! You get ’em, girl!

Should “more Messina” be an actual complaint sent-out to movies that are seriously lacking in the casting of Chris Messina-department?

Maybe. Maybe not. Basically, I’m trying to avoid having to discuss Alex of Venice and how disappointing of a film it is. This isn’t because Messina isn’t in it as much (although, there’s no harm in that, really), but because the premise calls on for what I’ve come to realize can be labeled as “later-in-life re-awakenings” sub-genre of indie dramedies. In these kinds of movies, we see an adult literally come to a crossroad in their life where they don’t know what to do, where to go, or what to make sense of; all they know is that they want to be happy and do what they want for a change, rather than appeasing those around them and giving in.

These movies are around more than one may think, and for the most part, they’re getting tired by now. Alex of Venice proves this because it shows that it doesn’t matter if you have a strong actor, a strong character, or even a strong message in the middle of it all – if you don’t find certain ways to change or dilute from the formula a bit, there’s not much to really watch or care for. Any movie that goes through the motions in a bland, rather boring manner, always bores me. However, when you’re an indie and are able to break away from the norm of what’s been set-out before one’s sight, it makes me even more upset.

The only saving grace to anything Alex of Venice has to offer is that Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as usual, is solid. She’s the kind of actress we can all depend on now to give heavy, emotionally-draining performances in small indies that may not be remembered in a few months, but are at least worth watching, if only because of the work she’s putting into it all. And as the titled-character, Alex, Winstead gets plenty to do – some good, some bad. But no matter what, we feel bad for this character and want her to reach her everlasting goal: Internal happiness.

Now, while this may be easy to feel for Alex, it’s not so easy for the rest of the characters. Which, yet again, is a bit of a shame considering the top-tier talent Messina was able to assemble here to help him fill-out these roles.

Don Johnson has a meaty role as Alex’s dad who is bordering on Alzheimer’s by the forgetful way he’s been acting, and while watching him go through the process of auditioning for a theater role, is surely unique in the way that it’s from the perspective of an older person, it still doesn’t do much for the overall message of the movie. Then, there’s Katie Nehra’s sister character, Lily, who has this look of the popular/party girl from high school who never grew up and doesn’t plan on doing so, either. Though the movie makes a hint of there being something more to this character than just that, it sort of goes nowhere once Messina realizes that he has to fill-out Alex’s story in full detail. And poor Dakota’s story-line – it’s dead before it even hits the water.

Oh wait, never mind. Sadness ensues.

Oh wait, never mind. Sadness ensues.

This is all disappointing, but it makes sense when you take into the equation that this is indeed Chris Messina’s directorial debut.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making up for the fact that Alex of Venice is messy, due to my love for Messina as an actor, but there is something to be said for someone literally making their first movie for the whole world to see. Sometimes, it works and shows that the person behind the camera was born for commanding the camera, rather than standing in front of it and acting. But other times, it shows that maybe while they shouldn’t give up on trying to commandeer the camera on another outing, to still take some time, mull things over, and realize what you want to do next, how you want to present it, and whether or not it’s going to be worthy of people’s view.

Until then, keep on doing what you do Chris Messina. Just make sure it’s in front of the camera. For now, at least.

Consensus: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is as solid as ever in the lead role, but Alex of Venice still hardly goes anywhere unexpected or even emotional, all because it’s clearly calculated from the beginning and held-down from too many subplots in such a short movie.

5.5 / 10

Who could leave a face like that? Like, come on!

Who could leave a face like that? Like, come on!

Photos Courtesy of: Joblo.com, Youtube

Beyond the Reach (2015)

Greed is good. Especially when you have a sniper-rifle at your disposal.

Young, brash and blissfully in love Ben (Jeremy Irvine) gets the offer of his lifetime when a older, rich and slightly off-kilter billionaire named Madec (Michael Douglas) comes stumbling on in wanting someone to go bighorn sheep hunting with. Ben is certified to do so and is told by his commanding-officer to take Madec out into the wide-open vastness that is the Mojave desert, and that’s what Ben does. However, Ben soon realizes that this Madec guy may not only be not who he originally says he is, but isn’t up to any good, either. Slowly but surely, Ben starts to grow more and more suspicious about Madec’s behavior, all until it finally reaches its point: When a simple hunt goes terribly, terribly wrong. Madec knows that his ass is on the line if anything is ever said about what’s transpired on this trip, so he feels that the best way to get rid of any problems whatsoever, is to remove the problem – in this case, it’s Ben. But Ben isn’t going to go down too easily and instead decides that it’s time to fight against Madec and show him what surviving is all about.

Even as he’s grown older, there’s a part of me that wants to believe that Michael Douglas still oozes that slimy-charm that’s he’s always been so famous for, but even as he gets older, there’s something about him now that seems more sympathetic. Sure, he’s not as cuddly as, I don’t know, say your own grand-parents, but having seen all that Douglas is able to do with that creepiness of his that has guided his career for so long, you can’t help but just accept his presence for all that it is. He may not be putting out as great of movies anymore, but hey, a movie with Michael Douglas in it, is better than a movie with no Michael Douglas in it, right?

"I've got Charlie Sheen, clear in my sight."

“I’ve got Shia LeBeouf, clear in my sight.”

Maybe. And if so, Beyond the Reach may be the perfect example.

Not only does Douglas make it all the better by doing what he does best here, but simply, he doesn’t let the terrible script get a hold of his honed-skills. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a lie, because while the script is incredibly goofy and silly, Douglas still finds himself getting lost in it a bit where you don’t really know if he’s in on the joke, or if there’s even a joke to begin with. For all we know, this movie could have literally featured hardly any comedy whatsoever, and everything just played out as is, unintentionally hilarious or not.

That said, Douglas tries and because of that effort on his part, the movie’s made a bit better to watch. As for Jeremy Irvine, while I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far from him, the dude’s got plenty of time to go before he’s single handedly carrying B-movie pics like this on his own shoulders. Still though, he comes ready to play in Douglas’ house, when he could have easily just been up-stagged nearly the whole time and left looking like a total, amateurish fool; instead, he goes head-to-head with Douglas and shows he’s willing to hang.

For how long that will all be, is totally up in the air. But for now, Irvine’s a solid presence on-screen.

The only problem is that he and Douglas are given absolutely nothing of substance to work with here. And sure, that may not seem like something you’d look for in a movie that literally features a character drinking brewing coffee out of his $500,000 Mercedes G-63 six-wheel truck in the middle of the Mojave desert, but it’s not nearly as fun as it should have been in order to get fully past all of the terrible, corny stuff that happens later on throughout this flick.

What happens to someone after their horse is killed........in war.

What happens to someone after their horse is killed……..in war.

For instance, the movie, early on, flirts with the idea of this being a survival thriller in the same vein of a Wolf Creek or something of a sorts, and instead, just leads to the majority of it featuring Irvine’s character constantly running, tripping and hiding from Douglas’ character’s bullets. At first, it’s slightly tense, only because you never know which one’s going to land, or even where, but eventually, it grows tiresome. It’s understandable that a movie like this may have not had a huge budget to work with like most other thrillers of its own nature, but there’s only so many times one can watch a truck run into a pile of rocks, without feeling any bit of excitement or intensity that one is normally supposed to feel.

And then, of course, the story just loses all sorts of focus that really throws in wrenches wherever they can find them. There’s some idea surrounding the fact that Douglas’ character is in some sort of do-or-die deal and it’s never made clear as to why that’s pertinent to this situation now; there’s also this other subplot concerning Irvine’s character’s girlfriend that’s ham-fisted in every way; and for some reason, there’s a cat-and-mouse game that’s less about actually being smart and tricky, but more about just trying to being out of somebody’s sight. That’s less of a game of cat-and-mouse, and more of a deadly game of tag; the one where you’re supposed to have some fun watching, but just don’t. Made all the worse is that this deadly game of tag includes Jeremy Irvine and none other than Michael Douglas, and what a weird pairing to play that game, let alone, actually hang out in the first place.

Oh, the power of movies.

Consensus: Inherently silly and preposterous to a fault, Beyond the Reach wants to be intentionally bad-it’s-so-good material, but can’t help but feel slow, boring, and a total waste of the talents of both Douglas and Irvine.

3 / 10 

These two going camping? Sure, why not.

These two going camping? Sure, why not.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Harvest (2015)

Think your kid’s sick? Think again!

After the death of her parents, young Maryann (Natasha Calis) is in desperate need of someone that she can play with. Her grandparents are there and trying to make her feel at home, but honestly, for someone as spunky and as energetic as Maryann is, there needs to be more. Initially, that’s what Maryann thinks she finds in Andy (Charlie Tahan), a boy who is around her age and has been bedridden for most of his life, for reasons unknown. Maryann and Andy do the normal things most young kids do – play baseball, play video-games, and, generally, enjoy one another’s company. That all changes, however, when Andy’s mom, Katherine (Samantha Morton), steps in and lets Maryann know that she is not welcome; Andy’s father, Richard (Michael Shannon), on the other hand, isn’t too bothered by Maryann’s presence, but clearly has no say in the matter. Maryann is shocked and upset, but being the little persistent gal that she is, she decides to see what’s fully going on with this family she lives next door to. What she discovers, not only shocks her, but may also shock Andy and may finally make sense of everything that’s going on with this family.

Somebody's literally on the verge of exploding.

Somebody’s literally on the verge of exploding.

The past few months have been pretty awesome for low-key, indie film makers looking to make a name in the horror genre. It Follows and the Babadook were, seemingly, two underground sleeper hits that showed you didn’t need to be associated with some sort of popular name-brand, or even have a gimmick that makes your material seem cooler; all you needed was to have chills, thrills and plenty of surprises for the audience to fully get invested in. Both films were not only solid pieces of work, but reminded me, a non-horror lover, that when done right, horror movies can still be as terrifying and as exciting as they were way back when in the days of the Michael Meyers’ and Freddy Krueger’s.

The Harvest may not be a full-on, full-out horror flick in the sense of the name, but it is a solid piece of work that reminds us, once again, horror movies can be fun, even without having a large budget to work with. Sometimes, all you need is enough shocks and spills to keep things moving and interesting for all to pay attention to, and you’re good. Anything else added on is just cheap, meaningless garbage that deserves to be placed in something like Paranormal Activity or Saw, where, even though they make plenty of money at the box-office from people who don’t know much better, still don’t add anything new or fun to the genre whose sandbox they’re playing in.

Once again, the Harvest is not necessarily a horror movie, but there is something inherently creepy and odd about this movie and that’s where the real strength of John McNaughton’s direction comes into frame.

For instance, the Harvest‘s tone is wild and over-the-top, but that’s kind of the point; rather than trying to explain why someone, or somebody is acting in an insane way, the movie just sort of hints at the fact that they’re might be something deeper, darker and more disturbing going on that we have to stay glued into finding out. This journey in and of itself is what keeps the Harvest unpredictable, even when it seems to just be all about having scenes where Samantha Morton acts out in outrageous manners. That’s not to say that these scenes are boring, but after awhile, you can tell that McNaughton is sort of just letting Morton get as crazy as she wants as he sits back, reels us in and allows for that final, big reveal to come and hit us all in the face.

Don’t worry, the surprise does work, however, getting there is a bit of a pain, if only because it seems like there’s not much heart or humanity to these characters, or even the situation we’re seeing them involved with. Once again, this may be the whole point to begin with, but it seems like, with these actors, more could have been done.

Like I said though, most of the movie does contain just Samantha Morton continuously getting mad, yelling, screaming, and causing harm to those around her, for reasons that don’t make sense right away. It’s interesting to see Morton take on an unlikable, sometimes maniacal character that is literally all-over-the-place in terms of mood and actual physical presence at times, because it’s so hard to see her in some movies and not fall in love with her charms. But here, she seems to be playing against all of that in a way that’s both shocking, as well as fun; she not only seems to be reveling in the fact that she doesn’t have to please anyone, but also, still seems like she’s interested in getting down to this character’s inner-core. It sort of works and sort of doesn’t, but the effort that Morton gives is credible.

Assuming they just watched Murderball.

Let’s hope they didn’t just watch Murderball.

The reason this is all the more surprising is by the fact that with Morton acting like such a whack-job here, we get to see a more dialed-down, cool, calm and collective performance from Michael Shannon as her husband. Shannon, like Morton, seems to be playing against type as the kind of guy who seems like a nice person, but also seems like he’s got something strange going on behind those dark circles underneath his eyes. Whatever it is, though, it’s cool to see Shannon at least try his hardest to find more emotion within this character, even if it sometimes goes nowhere special.

But, then again, I’ll take some effort over none.

As for the young workers here, they’re both fine in that they’re characters are written in such a way that they’re not annoying, nor are they boring – they’re just kids. Tahan and Calis share a nice chemistry that makes it clear early-on that this movie clearly isn’t going to be heading for any sort of romance anytime soon and because of that, we are spared. Instead, we get more shouting from Samantha Morton and honestly, it’s something I wish I continue to always see in movies.

Whether she’s in them or not.

Consensus: While not necessarily a horror flick, the Harvest still delivers on some disturbing, oddly-placed moments where you don’t know whether to laugh, be terrified, or a little bit of both, which makes it actually pretty exciting.

7 / 10

"Please. Stop. Yelling."

“Please. Stop. Shouting.”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Unfriended (2015)

Always use Trojan. Not that Trojan, but yeah, that’s always a safe option, too!

On the one-year anniversary of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a fellow classmates, suicide, Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) chats with her boyfriend and friends about all sorts of high school stuff that doesn’t really seem all that important. That all begins to change when Blaire’s boyfriend, Mitch Roussel (Moses Jacob Storm), gets a strange message from a online user claiming to have all sorts of dirty secrets on them. Nobody has any clue who this person is, or even what it is, and even though they try so very hard to get it away from them and their chat, it never seems to leave. Eventually though, the user gets more and more deadly, which leaves these kids spooked and having no clue what to expect next. Not to mention that this mysterious user seems to be having quite a ball in getting these kids to participate in humiliating games of “Never Have I Ever”, where their dirty laundry fully comes out in spades.

Oh, to be young again.

In a cheap knock-off the already cheap found-footage horror subgenre, Unfriended takes place solely on a laptop computer-screen. While this is absolutely a gimmick, it calls into question whether or not it’s one that deserves to exist for the sole purpose of selling the story? Or, if it’s just there to help sell tickets and make people say, “Wow. Neat.” In all honesty, it seems like a bit of both, but there’s something smart about what the movie is able to do with so little.

"Dude? Like toates three-wheeling here!"

“Dude? Like toates three-wheeling here!”

That we’re literally watching some sort of mystic virus constantly mess around with these young, seemingly stereotypical teens is actually a bit of fun. While none of them are despicable enough that we want to see them all perish in a lovely blaze of glory, there’s still something inherently enjoyable when there’s a loud-mouth teen getting his comeuppance because he picked-on somebody way back when. Though the movie mistakes this for being “important”, there’s still some fun to be had in watching how a normal night, goes drastically crazy in a matter of less than an-hour-and-a-half.

But, like I said, Unfriended is trying to say something here about technology, cyber-bullying, and how, while we may not think about it, the negative things we write about someone or something on the web, do have an effect on those we are speaking out against. There’s no problem with voicing your opinion in the first place, but there’s always a risk that you may, or may not negatively affect someone in a way you didn’t expect to do so. That’s just the way the world works and with technology being as sufficiently smart and accessible as it is, the chances are only heightened.

Then again, though, this doesn’t matter and serves no real purpose in a horror-thriller such as this. Maybe in a Lifetime, made-for-cable movie, but here, it seems like it’s trying a tad too hard.

However, a movie that’s definitely being sold to teens, and actually gives a fair shot at trying to teach those said young, impressionable teens about how their actions do have consequences, is pretty admirable. The movie mistakes itself for being a message movie than it probably should have, but rather than just making the whole story go down to just, “Ghosts are bad, yo.”, it becomes more of, “Ghosts are bad, yo. But causing someone to kill themselves because of a bad decision you made is even worse. Yo.” It’s a corny sentiment for sure, but it’s one that puts Unfriended one step above most of the horror flicks we see come out around the year.

Doesn’t make it perfect, but hey, at least it’s worth something.

Meaning that there is a lot to be scared by in this movie. Somehow, the movie’s able to make such elements like a Facebook chat, or a trip to the infamous Chat Roulette, or even a phone-call, very tense. Not because it’s smart filming, but because this story doesn’t make itself clear as to where the hell it will go and why. Sure, we know that there’s a mysterious presence spooking these kids, but just how much power does it contain? And with those powers, what is it able to do? The movie keeps these questions coming and even though not all of them add up to a reasonable answer, the ride to the end is still exciting enough that it’s not a pain in the arse whenever the movie leaves the question-marks hanging on at the end.

Hate when this happens in chat.

Hate when this happens in chat.

Which is to say that the characters in this movie, as thinly-written as they may be, still hold enough truth to the way they are portrayed with what they’re given that they’re at least believable and compelling enough to watch. Even though it’s painfully obvious that she’s well-above an 17-to-18-year-old virgin, Shelley Hennig still does a solid enough job as Blaire, where we don’t know if she’s a good person, a bad one, or simply put, just a person nonetheless. We don’t get much background on her here, as is the case for most of the other characters, but throughout this whole conversation these peeps have, we get to learn little more details that are sometimes clever, and sometimes there just to create drama for the sake of doing so.

Sounds like high school, for sure.

The only other one in this cast that’s worth talking about, and less for what he does here and more of how great he’s been in past flicks, is Jacob Wysocki as Ken Smith. Wysocki’s given the role of the comedic sidekick who comes in every so often to make a smart-ass remark, sex joke, or smoke a bowl to break the tension and while he’s fine in the role, it’s nice to see more of this guy that isn’t in roles that are just made to talk about his weight. Terri and Fat Kid Rules the World are both examples of this, and while the fact that they point out his weight isn’t a bad thing, it’s made obvious that he was chosen for those roles because of that and hardly much else. Here though, Wysocki shows us that not only does he have more material to show us he’s able to do, but it doesn’t matter what he looks like.

You keep it going, kid.

Consensus: Maybe not as important as it thinks it is, Unfriended takes its message a tad too seriously, but still delivers on the fun thrills, chills and excitement, in a way that’s heightened by the gimmick of taking place on one computer-screen, practically the whole time.

7 / 10

Everybody's always got that one friend.

Everybody’s always got that one friend.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

True Story (2015)

Got to look out for those charming serial killers; they’re the hardest ones to loathe.

After being publicly shamed and fired for fibbing about a story he did on child-slavery in Africa, ex-New York Times journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is left jobless, depressed and desperate to find any sort of work that may possibly come his way. Eventually though, work does eventually find its way to him – however, just not in the ways he had intended. After being on the run from the feds for the alleged murder of his wife and two kids, Christian Longo (James Franco) fled to Mexico, where he went under a false identity; who also just so happen to be Mike Finkel. Though Longo didn’t get away with this, the real Mike Finkel still finds plenty of interest in this and, seeing a book-deal in the horizon somewhere, decides to jump on the opportunity right away to interview Longo, get to know him better, and eventually, figure out the truth about just what the hell happened and whether or not Longo even committed the crime to begin with. Eventually though, Mike’s obsession with Longo’s life begins to grow almost too serious, which is when Mike’s fiancee (Felicity Jones) sees that it’s time to step in and check out what this Christian Longo guy is all about, if anything at all.

What we have on our hands here, folks, is the classic case where the real, true-to-life story the movie’s discussing and adapting, is way more interesting than the movie itself ever turns out to be. That’s not to say that there aren’t bits and pieces of True Story that don’t sizzle, pop and crackle, as reading this story straight from its Wikipedia page would, but there’s something to say about a movie where it’s constantly made clear that you’ll probably want to read the actual details on what really happened, rather than taking this movie’s word for it.

Pack your bags up, Jonah! You've got more movies with Marty Scorsese to do!

Pack your bags up, Jonah! You’ve got more movies with Marty Scorsese to do!

Because hey, Hollywood lies and they can’t always be trusted.

However, in True Story‘s case, there seems to be too many creative-licenses taken at times that makes this feel like a jumbled-up mess, when it sure as hell didn’t need to be. For instance, the inclusion of Felicity Jones’ character never makes sense here and, on more than a few occasions, takes away from what could have been a thoughtful, intriguing piece about the mental cat-and-mouse games we sometimes play on those who we feel are equal enough to us to play back. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Felicity Jones and considering that she’s red hot right after her Oscar-nominated performance in the Theory of Everything, I’m especially happy to see her be able to take center-stage against the likes of Franco and Hill, but when her scenes with them are supposed to bring some heartfelt emotions, they can’t help but ring false.

And most of this can be attributed to the fact that this is director Rupert Goold’s first time behind the camera, and it damn well shows. According to what I’ve read (because people do that, you know?), Goold comes from a long history of theater and directing plays, which makes total sense; some of the best parts of this film are when it’s simply just two or more people, sitting in a room, talking to one another, and seeing what shoe drops next. Most of these scenes include both Hill and Franco talking to one another, but it works so well because not only are these two actors solid here, but their characters have genuine tension together that you don’t know whether they’re going to take out weapons and start brawling, or rip-off each other’s clothes, shut the lights off, and start making some sweet, hot and sexy love.

Either turnout seems interesting and more than likely, especially considering that these two seem so incredibly comfortable with one another, that even when they aren’t supposed to be laugh-out-loud stoners making us laugh, they’re die hard thespians that try to one-up the other, in any way that they can. In some ways, it’s less of a mind game between these two characters, and more of a mind game between these two actors, who definitely make the movie all the better by showing up, ready to work.

Goes to show you that it’s not such a problem to change things up every once and awhile and get downright serious with your work.

Franco, so smug right now.

Franco, so smug right now.

But Franco and Hill, as hard as they try, aren’t fully capable of keeping this movie above the water for long enough to where the problems within aren’t noticeable. Like I mentioned before, Goold comes from a theater background, and because of this, when he gets right down to making this story about something, rather than just about two guys talking to one another and constantly lying about what may have, or may not have happened on some fateful date in their lives, he stumbles a whole heck of a lot. There’s a point here to be made about the state of modern-day journalism, and how some people are so willing to stay successful and famous for as long as they can, that no matter what, they’ll cover whatever comes their way, but even that feels oddly-placed in a movie that doesn’t know who it wants to judge, or what it wants to say about these people.

Judging from this movie, Mike Finkel isn’t the best journalist who lied about his story to get it past the editing process and hopefully make him a huge star. That didn’t happen, and because of that, we’re supposed to feel sorry for him, even if the movie makes it seem clear that what he does after losing his job, is all the more humiliating. Then, at the same time, it still can’t help but to judge him for jumping on something as odd as Longo’s case, which is where the movie got odd. Is it against Finkel as a person? As a journalist? Or, as somebody who wanted to hold onto any sort of fame he could grasp a hold of?

Whatever the point to it all may have been, it’s hard to put a finger on. Even if Hill and Franco, yes, do seem to be trying here. And, most importantly, don’t seem all that stoned.

Okay, maybe a little.

Consensus: True Story gets most of its mileage out of the solid performances from Hill and Franco, but everything else about is messy, ill-formed and almost too over-dramatic to be considered “the truth”, even if the movie loves spouting that fact many times throughout.

6 / 10

PDA?

PDA?

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Maybe Jenna Jameson truly does have an Oscar-winning performance in her somewhere.

Set in the weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential election, we are thrown into  five days in the life of Chelsea (Sasha Grey), an ultra high-end Manhattan call girl who offers more than sex to her clients, but companionship and conversation. Aka, “the girlfriend experience.”

Steven Soderbergh, god bless him, because he’s one of the last few original voices we have left in cinema who is absolutely willing to do whatever he wants, experiment as much as he can, and constantly challenge himself to even his own furthest limits. Not only does he make many jealous by the sort of skill he has, but also shows that all you really have to do when making movies, is to constantly be changing yourself up – not just to keep your fans guessing, but you as well.

However, even the lovely greats like Steven Soderbergh can sometimes fall flat on their faces with no one else to blame, but themselves.

Oh well.

Range.

Range.

The Girlfriend Experience is the exact kind of film you expect Soderbergh to create just in a way to test himself more and more. It honestly seems like he just picked up an HD camera, went out onto the streets. got some cash here and there, found some little-to-unknown actors to play roles, and started shooting a movie that he made up just in his head. This may seem like an exaggeration, but I really do think that’s exactly what Soderbergh did here and it’s pretty cool since a lot of what we see here in this film is pretty interesting, from a visual stand-point. The HD camera definitely gives New York City a certain gritty but polished, textured vibe to it, and I liked how Soderbergh didn’t feel the need to just move the camera around all that much. He just kept the camera there and let the story tell itself.

But style can only go so far when, you get right down to the brass tacks and realize that there’s hardly any story to work with. Which wouldn’t have been so bad for something that runs a lean, mean hour-and-a-half, but when you’re film hardly even comes close to 77 minutes, it feels like a waste of time; which is almost, if not worse, than an over-long, two-hour slog.

The problems mostly show in these characters, but most importantly, Chelsea. There’s a non-linear approach to the narrative that Soderbergh uses in a way that I can only imagine was on purpose so that he could distract us from the other problems lying within this story. But it also hurts Chelsea and the very few other characters here because we have very little time to actually get to know any of them, but we also have to endure seeing them in only little snippets here and there; most of which, don’t make any sense whatsoever until the final five minutes when things somehow come together. The approach is not used poorly, it just doesn’t help this story when it came to making us care for these characters and it ends up hurting the one character the most, Chelsea herself.

Actually, if there was anything in this movie that I didn’t believe in the most or even care for at all was the relationship she had with her actual boyfriend in this movie.

Even more range.

Even more range.

First and foremost, it’s downright unbelievable that a dude would actually allow his girlfriend to take a job where all she does is get treated to dinner by countless rich dudes, only to have sex with them moments later and complete the night. Maybe some dudes don’t mind this, but it seems pretty ridiculous here especially considering that this seems to be the only problem this character seems to be having with his girlfriend. He had to know what she was all about before, right? And if not, why stick with her when you finally figure out who all of those checks came from in the first place? Whatever the reasons here may have been, they didn’t make much sense to me and only allowed for the scope of this flick to seem all the more silly.

Still though, in true Soderbergh fashion, the guy does treat us to an actress who, believe it or not, for being a highly-qualified actress; I would have said she’s not widely known for “acting”, but type her name into any search database, and you’re more than likely going to find that out to be false and realize that, yes, Sasha Grey has indeed acted many times before the Girlfriend Experience. But instead, much rather than doing a lot of dirty, gratuitous sex for the sole pleasure of, well, pleasuring on-lookers, she’s actually thrown into a story, where she has to make us believe in her character, her motivations, and just exactly what kind of person we’re dealing with here. Soderbergh did the same thing with MMA fighter Gina Carano in Haywire and while that movie was definitely a bit different than this one, it’s still a trick on Soderbergh’s part that had to work, right?

Well, surprisingly, it kind of did.

That’s not to say that Grey’s amazing here; there are some small glimpses that she was heavily coached on how to emote and act for the camera, that she does fine with, but when it comes down to allowing us see any sort of subtlety in her character, her acting sort of comes undone. But considering that Grey has never been called on to do this much acting before, it’s interesting to see that she can handle this script and whatever Soderbergh calls on her to do. Sure, there’s still plenty of nudity, banging, and talking seductively – all things she’s used to doing in countless other flicks – but there’s something more to latch onto here that impressed me. Sasha Grey may not be an amazing actress just yet, but there’s still plenty of time for her to grow and believe it or not, I look forward to it.

Now, if only she can keep her clothes on.

Consensus: Though he seems to be trying his hardest to make it work in any way imaginable, the Girlfriend Experience still can’t help but feel like a misfire from Steven Soderbergh, albeit a very interesting and inspired one that at least benefits a bit from Sasha Grey’s stunt-casting.

4 / 10

Okay! Maybe she doesn't have the best range here, but she's not terrible, okay!

Okay! Maybe she doesn’t have the best range here, but she’s not terrible, okay?!?

Photos Courtesy of: League of Dead Films

Wild Things (1998)

Drunk, alone, and horny? Turn this one on and you’ll have a new best friend.

Two high-school girls (Denise Richards and Neve Campbell) accuse their teacher (Matt Dillon) of raping them on two separate occasions. The guy tries his hardest to defend himself against this terrible case, but it’s not quite as it seems as we see from detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon). Even if Duquette himself may be up to no good, either.

To be honest, the only real reason this film is as popular as it once was (and maybe still is), was all because of the infamous threesome and a rare dong-shot all being placed in a big, Hollywood production. Not that there’s necessarily anything daring about two girls and a guy engaging some hot, steamy sex, or even a slight shot of some male genitalia, but being that this was a pretty big movie, it created quite the stir. But is there more here to at least enjoy other than that threesome?

Yeah, but not too much.

Former Bond girl there, folks!

Former Bond girl there, folks!

It’s been awhile since the last time I saw a whodunit and Wild Things is a classic example of a whodunit that’s made to just keep on getting more and more ridiculous as it runs along. The script, for one, is probably not the best out there and can seem really lazy at points. You would expect a sexy little thriller like this to have some ultra-sexxed up dialogue that ladies would be quoting to dudes everywhere, but instead, it just comes off like a corny B-movie flick that goes through the motions with all of it’s dialogue. So, basically everything you’d expect from your ordinary B-movie, you get here and it’s sometimes hard to watch and enjoy because it’s so damn laughable at points. Now, there is a certain thing to be said about that and that’s how I actually found myself having fun with it but still, when everybody is serious and you are pretty much the only one laughing, you have to feel like something was missing here or that these people just weren’t in on the joke. I think I choose both.

As for the little plot twists that seem to come out of nowhere, they’re okay and actually make this story a bit interesting. Since there are so many plot twists to be had here, you can’t help but think that the film sort of loses itself with being a bit too over-exaggerated with itself, but it at least creates a tense mood to surround everything. Some of the twists took me by surprise, and some of them still took me by surprise, but after awhile I started to think about them and realize that they made absolutely no sense to the story at all and may have just been thrown in there for shits and gigs after all. Hey, I’m all down for a couple of neat plot twists here and there to spice up the story, but don’t make it overkill!

Then, there is, of course, the infamous threesome which will probably go down as the film’s biggest claim to fame and I will cut it some slack on, because it’s pretty freakin’ hot.

Usually when I watch films when some raunchy sex scenes are happening right in front of me, I don’t really feel anything since I know that they’re all fake and they aren’t really engaging in any sorts of sex with each other. But for some odd reason, with Wild Things, it all felt too real and it was just as hot and sexy as I remembered it being all those years ago around the first time I watched it. I won’t comment on the infamous dong scene but for all of the ladies out there, you got your six degrees of Bacon, alright!

"What did you say about the Following possibly getting cancelled?"

“What did you say about the Following possibly getting cancelled?”

Speaking of Kevin Bacon (and getting away from his actual Bacon!), he’s actually the best out of the whole main cast because the guy can sell any role no matter what he has to do and you can almost feel like this guy was just laughing at everybody else’s acting in the film by how laughable they can all be. Those ones I’m talking about are Matt Dillon and Denise Richards who could be placed in the “so bad, they’re good” category for the respective performances they give off here. Dillon plays up that macho, hammy bullshit dude that nobody likes and the whole film, just seems like he’s phoning it in from start-to-finish where you don’t really see this guy being an evil genius, you just see him being a total schmuck. Then, you got Denise Richards who is terrible in this role as the main high school girl who starts all of this drama and deliver every line of dialogue as if it were a self-serious soap opera, but without any slight wink to the audience. Dillon has barely any of that, but at least some, as opposed to Richards being such a dull presence to begin with, the fun sort of get sucked-out.

Though these two are pretty bad at what they do here, they don’t fully bring the ship down and leave everybody else to dry. Neve Campbell at least has some nice touches with her sympathetic character that got the best treatment out of everybody here, but still somehow seems like she gets the short end of the stick at the end. But as good as she is, she stands nowhere near to how great Bill Murray is as Dillon’s ambulance-chasing attorney that absolutely takes the film’s script, wipes his greasy hands all over it, and leaves some sort of particles that make the film a whole lot more entertaining whenever he’s up on-screen. I’ve said it many, many times before, but Bill Murray is the freakin’ man and whenever the guy isn’t out chillin’ with RZA, or playing a zombie, the guy can still take small roles like these and make them the most memorable due to that perfect comedic-timing.

Makes me wish he was in the film more, but hey, I guess that’s why we all love Bill Murray in the first place.

Consensus: While it’s hot and steamy for sure, Wild Things does get a bit too bogged-down by its own plot-twists, to make this campy-ride feel like one that’s a bit too rampant and wild for its own good.

5.5 / 10

Keep being you, Bill.

Keep being you, Bill.

Photos Courtesy of: IMDB, Premiere.Fr

Project Nim (2011)

Despite the poo-throwing, chimpanzees are still like us.

Meet Nim – he’s a little chimp that was taken from his mommy when he was just under two weeks, given to a family full of people, and all for the sake of a science-experiment, done by Herbert S. Terrace, professor of psychology at Columbia University during the 1970’s. What Terrace was trying to experiment with Nim was to figure out whether or not a chimp could figure out how to speak full sentences, by adapting and being brought up into a human world. And so far with Nim, things are good, but after awhile, they start to go South. Both literally and figuratively.

Whenever you see a little chimp on TV, the zoo, or anywhere else for that matter, you see how they interact with you, one another, and to the rest of the environment that surrounds them. It’s crazy to think that our species somehow adapted from them and became big, old, and dirty things, just like them. However, at the same time, it’s pretty simple to see why we could have adapted from them to be what we are because of how similar we are in certain ways. This movie doesn’t just show that, but it makes us wonder whether or not people should actually even go through with seeing that for themselves. Yes, no matter how tempting it may be to dress a little chimp up in your tighty-wighties, it may not be right in the long run.

Just a tad bit of food for thought.

The fact that chimps are so similar to us in many ways, is only barely touched on as director James Marsh doesn’t seem all that concerned with figuring out whether or not they are us, but more as to whether or not they can be us. You think that raising something, anything to be like you, to live by your rules and standards, with no matter how hard you try, will work, but that’s the problem: It usually doesn’t. That’s what happens here with Nim and his life, but it isn’t the way you’d expect it to all play out.

Hey, come on! It was the 70's.

I’ll just have you all know that she is not a teacher assigned to teaching Nim; she was just so stoned during the 70’s that she’s actually trying to talk to him.

Many questions are brought up in the way to make you think for yourself, rather than having Marsh and all of the subjects point to you and tell you what you should have planted in your mind about this real life situation. For instance, one of the big questions goes right back to the beginning: Was it right for Nim to be brought up as a human in the first place? Obviously the chimp was there for medical research, so maybe, yeah it was right in the name of science, but what about humanity? Well, that’s where things start to get a little fishy and complicated.

See, taking any living thing out of their element/space, will most likely not be met with positive reception. Yes, that living thing may learn how to use the bathroom, speak, and get things done the way they need to, but it surely may not be fully happy with where it is, had it been in its original spot in the first place. I sound all vague for the sole reason that I’m not just talking about Nim and what they did to him in the first place, because Nim is only the clearest, most popular example. I’m talking about everyone, everything, and hell, anything, for that matter. If you take anything outside of this world, whether it be a human or an animal, you are most likely going to run into some problems down the road with that living thing coming back to it’s original-self. Which, in the case of chimps, is a pretty scary thing because those mofo’s can do some damage.

Real damage, too.

That’s what brings me onto my next question that this movie brings up and that’s whether or not the way Nim acted in his later-years was because of the fact that he was constantly shipped from person-to-person without any sole figure to care for him long enough to leave a lasting impact? Or simply, if because the actual teaching itself was bad. Seeing Nim go from a new person, almost as each and every year goes by is heartbreaking to watch in many ways, but mainly for the fact that we know that the chimp is only going to act out a bit more and be even more confused, especially when you put him in a spot that he isn’t used to, and is trying to shake the cobwebs off the from the old place he use to stay and be accustom to. It’s sad because we know if we were Nim, we would have no clue as to what the hell to do with our lives and probably be just as confused as him, but considering it’s a chimp and he’s supposed to be watched over by “professionals”, it does make you wonder about the people involved, more than the actual experiment itself.

Like all pre-teens, Nim just wants to get behind the wheel and show all the ladies his new caddy.

Like all pre-teens, Nim just wants to get behind the wheel and show all the ladies his new Caddy.

Every person that was a ever a substantial part of Nim’s life, all get to share a bit of the spotlight here in a way I wasn’t expecting. The family that was there first for him, to the professor that monitored his whole experiment, to the people that were trying to run experiments on him by using needles filled with HIV and hepatitis – they all get a chance to tell their side of the story and it’s well-done too. As I said before, Marsh never gets in our face and tells us what we need to think about each and every person. He just hands out these people to us on a silver platter, gives them a chance to tell their story, and allows us to make up our own minds about what the hell we should think about them.

This device also allows for us to see who the people really, truly were that cared for Nim, who cared enough to just get their names in the papers and record-books, and what people just did not give a single crap at all about a sign-language speaking chimp. I won’t give away the people that you see as bastards and what people you see as latter-day saints of the animal world, but you will see just how wrong it is for some people to treat an animal, regardless of the importance behind the poor thing. Sure, it’s an animal, but that doesn’t mean that they are any lesser than us. Every person in this movie knows that simple fact, but they just don’t care too much about. They don’t care too much about Nim, they don’t care too much about the research, and they sure as hell don’t care too much about actual animals, either.

That’s why when we see Nim get all pissed-off and angry at the people that pushed and tugged at him all of his life, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the furry dude. It’s downright scary sometimes, but we know where it’s all coming from and you don’t point the finger at him, as much as you do to the fellow ding-bats that didn’t really bother too much with him. But, when Nim is happy and when things begin to look up for him, you feel a certain sense of joyfulness and pleasure in the simple things in life. Simple things like playing, hugging, kissing, eating, climbing, sharing, talking, communicating, etc. All of those things in life are as simple as you can get, and it reminds you just how beautiful the world can be, if you can look at them through innocent, little eyes like Nim’s. Sure, he was a chimp that was experimented on to see if they could get him to form full-on, grammatical sentences, but he was also a chimp that showed everybody what it was like to live the life of somebody that just wanted to be happy, to understand the world around him, and pretty much, get everything that he wanted.

Hmm.

Now, who does that sound like?

Consensus: What you think is just a simple movie about a chimp-experiment gone somewhat wrong, turns out to be a thought-provoking tale of what makes us living, who is to blame for it, and whether or not all things deserve to live life in the shoes of others, all packaged into Project Nim, one of the most heart-wrenching documentaries about animals, that you don’t need to see on the Discovery Channel.

9 / 10

Now why can't I do that and not be slapped in the face?!?!?

Now why can’t I do that without being slapped in the face?

Photo’s Credit to: Goggle Images

Lost River (2015)

Working with Nicolas Winding Refn can do quite a number on a person.

Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother who has no job, no money, and hardly even a house, decides that it’s time for her to get employed so that she can support her and her boys, before the big, bad Bully (Matt Smith) comes around and does some seriously bad things to all of them. She takes up a job in a sleazy, nightmarish night club, where people simulate murdering one another for the love and cheers of the crowd. Think stripping, but instead of a pole, you have blood-squibs. While Billy is off getting fit into her new job, her oldest son (Iain De Caestecker) is left to fend for himself and his little brother, which isn’t easy, considering where they live is practically in shambles, where every native seems to be hitting the high road as soon as humanly possible. Eventually though, he finds much solace with a local girl named Rat (Saoirse Ronan) who looks after her grandmother, but is also being sought out by Bully, and might have to stop him, using any force necessary.

A part of me that wants to think Ryan Gosling meant to make this movie. Somehow, I feel as if Gosling is so smart and charismatic that he knew he wanted to make a total mind-fuck of a movie that, while may not be perfectly accessible to the mainstream crowd who usually ushers out to see his movies, would please him and his own creative tendencies. Maybe this is the movie he’s been clamoring to make for the past couple years or so, but just didn’t have the time, nor the resources to do so. But now that he does, he’s throwing it all out on the line, seeing what sticks, what doesn’t, and not giving a single crap because, at the end of the day, he’s the one who feels creatively wasted and also, gets to go to home to this.

Wait, why is she in this?

Wait, why is she in this……?

But sadly, another part of me, feels as if Lost River is just a jumbled-up, over-the-top, Lynchian-wannabe that makes no sense, doesn’t want to make any sense and isn’t really worth bothering to see, even despite the talent it features both in front of, as well as behind the camera.

Which is to say that there’s something inherently intriguing about Lost River – it’s the kind of movie that has no real point, yet, still features something resembling a plot and a whole bunch of crazy, off-putting happenings that can hardly be explained other than with a confused-expression on one’s face. If there’s one thing you have to give Gosling credit for, above all else, is that he didn’t settle for the easy project to make for his directorial debut. Instead, the movie is challenging, unique, and chock full of all sorts of beautiful camera-work that gets by being any one thing in particular, but also, is hardly about anything to begin with.

Instead, Gosling seems more interested in just allowing for certain scenes to take us off-guard and get more and more increasingly stranger by the minute. It’s sort of like Lynch, but whereas Lynch draws on real aspects of life that most people can relate to, even if doing so is a complicated task in and of itself, Gosling seems like he’s just showing us weird stuff because, well, he can. That may help stimulate himself, as well as our eyes, but when it comes down to doing something for the story, it doesn’t work.

So, in that case, it’s obvious that this is Gosling’s first rodeo as a director. He doesn’t yet have the creative skills to make a film like this work, nor does he know how to get a point across, if there is even one to begin with. That isn’t to say that every movie made needs to have a message at the end of it, telling us all that we’re supposed to think about and leave with in our heads, but to have some reason for telling a story is better than nothing at all; if you have nothing at all to say, then what’s the point? To have some fun?

Sure. I guess. But Lost River isn’t fun.

It's like a metaphor for like loss of innocence, or something.

It’s like a metaphor for like loss of innocence, or something.

In fact, it’s actually kind of boring. Once you realize that it doesn’t really have a direction and is sort of just making itself up as it goes along, then any sort of anticipation or excitement goes away. Say what you will about Lynch, Winding Refn, or even Lars von Trier for that matter – while they aren’t everybody’s cup-of-tea and sure as hell don’t always make sense with every decision that they make, they at least try to give us a plot that keeps things speeding along at a rapid pace, even while they’re continuously messing with their audiences’ minds. This is more like a Terence Malick film in that there’s no plot, no character-development, and barely any discernible dialogue; it’s just a lot of pretty, swooping images that may be pretty to look at, don’t make a movie, well, good.

Is this to say that Ryan Gosling doesn’t have a good film to be found in his handsomely-detailed body? Absolutely not. In fact, something as unpredictable as this, only has me look forward more to what’s next on the horizon for this guy. While I do hope that he gets some more skill behind the camera and the typewriter before he decides to take up another project, I can still see Baby Goose making a good movie, hell, maybe even a great movie. When that time will come, is totally up in the air. But for now, we’ll just lean on Lost River to be our example of what R-Gos has to bring to the table in terms of being a director.

And while that may not sound promising, for someone who is able to go from this, to this, in the span of maybe a decade or so, it’s to show that nearly anything is possible.

Both good, as well as bad.

Consensus: Incomprehensible, weird, wild, and random, Lost River shows signs that Ryan Gosling may make for a smart, inspired director in the future, but for right now, that will remain to be seen.

4 / 10

I don't know. Don't ask.

I don’t know. Don’t ask.

Photos Courtesy of: IndieWire, GeekTyrant

While We’re Young (2015)

Growing up is hard to do.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a childless couple pushing forward and are at a bit of a stand-still in their lives. She’s bored and wondering if she should have a child, whereas he still has yet to complete a documentary that he got started on nearly a decade ago. They’re best friends (Adam Horowitz and Maria Dizzia) are married and have a baby, which makes both Josh and Cornelia feel all the more alienated from the people they used to hang around with and call “pals”. Now, they just rely on one another. That all changes, however, when an adoring fan of Josh’s, Jamie (Adam Driver), approaches him and wants him to help with his documentary that he himself is trying to get off the ground. Josh is fine with this because it feels like a way to connect with the younger-crowd – which is how Cornelia feels when she meets Jamie’s wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Altogether, the four connect to create a documentary, while along the way, forging a friendship that finds both couples happy and excited. Eventually though, Josh begins to wake up and realize that Jamie may not be all that he appears to be, especially when matters involved with the documentary may not be all that they appear to be.

Noah Baumbach is a very hit-or-miss director for me. While I loved the Squid and the Whale, I despised Margot at the Wedding; though I wasn’t the biggest fan of Greenberg, he still surprised me with Frances Ha. Most of what Baumbach includes in these films are challenging, sometimes detestable characters that don’t ask for your forgiveness, nor are we really willing to give it to them. Sometimes, this works in Baumbach’s favor where it seems like he really wants the audience to make up their own minds, but other times, works against him where he isn’t so much as giving the audience anything valuable, except for just a bunch of unlikable, mean-spirited people that you wouldn’t want to spend a dinner-date with, let alone a whole hour-and-a-half with.

Children! Children everywhere! Run, Naomi! And don't look back!

Babies! Babies everywhere! Run, Naomi! And don’t look back!

While We’re Young falls somewhere in between and I’m fine with that; there’s something rather pleasing and simple about that notion that makes me feel like people who don’t normally like Baumbach’s films can find something to enjoy out of this, and his die-hards won’t fall back from, either.

Basically, everyone wins here. Including you, the viewer.

Most of this has to do with the fact that While We’re Young is, for the most part, very funny. Baumbach’s movies hardly ever seem like they’re trying too hard to make people laugh, so they rarely register as “comedies” to me, but here, you can actually tell Baumbach’s trying to be funny and it works. Though the majority of this film is filled with these sad characters, who can sometimes borderline on being “types”, Baumbach finds a way to not make fun of them, as much as to just make fun of the all-too-realistic situations they all get into. For instance, when Stiller’s character gains arthritis, Baumbach isn’t make fun of Josh for being old, but more or less, making fun of the fact that Josh himself can’t believe that he really is old enough to have to worry about his body the way he never had to think about before. It’s that kind of small, narrative-choice that shows us that not only is Baumbach growing a bit more positive as even he ages, but that he’s realizing there’s more to life than people making a constant stream of bad situations.

And yet, Baumbach still strikes a raw nerve here in the way that he approaches the connection two different age groups can create. Though it’s painfully obvious and clear that Jamie and Darby are hipsters, the movie never utters this word; instead, it judges them solely on who they are. Sure, they’d prefer to watch VHS tapes then buy a Netflix account; or own a chicken and raise it, much rather than a dog or a cat; or wear fedoras around everywhere they go, rather than a standard baseball cap. That doesn’t make them bad people, it just makes them who they are and for that, Baumbach doesn’t judge them.

The only time that he does begin to judge these characters is when you can start to see the tides change in this movie, where the tone goes from playful, earnest comedy about life and love, to an angry, hate-spewing drama about learning lessons. This is where While We’re Young begins to lose its focus and become a whole other movie altogether; one that I don’t even know could have worked on its own. It seems like Baumbach has something to say to the many generations to come and while it all may hold some truth, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t work for a movie that seemed like it had an honest point, yet, still didn’t forget to draw on the comedic opportunities, either. Not to say that all comedies have to be constantly funny, no matter where it is that they go, but they can’t go from 1, to 10 on the drama-meter whenever it sees fit; there has to be some sort of cohesive change in the middle and I don’t know if that happens here.

Look out, grand-pa!

“Don’t fall, grand-pa!” – some young whippersnapper

But, no matter what happens in the later-half of this movie, there is no denying that the cast works well this material and, more often than not, finds ways to make their characters more than just what they appear to be on the surface. A perfect example of this is Adam Driver’s Jamie – he’s the type of kiss-ass, wise youngling that seems like he means well and wants to make those around him happy, but there’s something troubling about him underneath it all. We know this early-on because it’s a movie, and for there to be no conflict whatsoever, there’d hardly be a movie, if you think about it, but when everything does eventually come to a head and we realize Jamie’s true intentions, we see the true colors in this characters and it works as well as it should because Driver keeps us guessing about this character. Are his intentions to feed-off of Josh and the connections he has in the film world? Or, is he genuine in saying that he loves, praises and adores Josh, and just wants nothing more than to learn every trick of the trade there is to learn in the documentary-making world?

These are questions that are barely answered and for that, the mystery works.

Though, this isn’t to say Driver’s the only one worth mentioning here, as everybody else is solid. Stiller shows off that lovely comedic-timing of his that’s worked so well in many other pieces of his, but comes from a heartfelt place this time that makes you feel for this aging, relatively sad guy; Naomi Watts gets to be funny, too, but also show us a woman that wants to be apart of “something”, but because she doesn’t have a child to love, to hold, or to care for, she’s pushed-off to the side and seen as something of an “outsider”; Amanda Seyfried may be given a thinly-written role in the form of Darby, but she works well with it, showing that there’s more to her than just being stuck in her hubby’s shadow; Charles Grodin, for the limited amount of time we get to see him on-screen, is funny and brutally honest, and there’s a part of me that wanted more from him; and Adam Horovitz, believe it or not, is the one who ends up leaving the most lasting impression as the voice of reason. He’s the character that tells Josh and Cornelia to wake up, realize that they are indeed, old, and should stop pretending to be somebody they aren’t. He isn’t telling them to have kids, he’s just telling them to accept the fact that they’re old and to be done with it already.

Holy crap. Is Ad-Rock almost 50? Where did time go?

Consensus: Honest, smart, and surprisingly funny in spots, While We’re Young hits certain notes about growing old and accepting that fact in life in an effective manner, even if the final-half does get a tad bit preachy.

7.5 / 10 

Manic Pixie Dream kids for all generations to come.

Manic Pixie Dream kids for all generations to come.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

But if Tom Cruise can fly, how can Scientology not be magical?

Scientology has been around for as long as most people can remember and it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever go away. In the early days, when it was advertised as a “religion” by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, people flocked to find out what all of this hype was about. People’s lives were changing in ways they never quite expected and because of this, more and more people joined the church. But to ensure that they’d be let in, members would have to donate loads of money before ever setting one foot in the church, which is where most of the problems within first arose. Now, nearly 50 years after its conception, Scientology is running wild with controversy, even though it apparently has loyal followers in such celebrities as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Even despite the fact that numerous celebrities have left it and that there are reports of abuse that occurs both when you’re apart of it, and when you leave it, Scientology still has many loyal followers and only seems to be growing more and more each year. But will that ever end?

Alex Gibney is the kind of director our world needs nowadays. While he isn’t necessarily changing the world, he’s still shooting out at least two or three documentaries a year, opening our eyes to certain subjects we thought were already set-in stone and never seems to set his sights on one basic story-format that’s of interest to him. Surely, he likes controversy, but who can blame him? Especially when you have the chance to finally, once and for all, unveil what’s behind the curtain of Scientology, who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity?

Yeah, totally not the guy who Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed in the Master?

Yeah, totally not the guy who Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed in the Master?

And honestly, what else is there to be said about Scientology that hasn’t already been said? Sure, people boast on and on about its weird, cult-ish like tendencies, where people are literally brain-washed into thinking and acting certain ways, possibly all against their control, but do we really know Scientology in all its fullest-form? We can read a whole bunch about it, but does that really make everything said real, or better yet, justified?

This isn’t me trying to stand behind the Church of Scientology, this is me just bringing up a point that Gibney, unlike many directors before him, has finally been given the opportunity to pull back the covers and show us what Scientology is all about. But it isn’t just all skepticism, either – what we have here, on more than a few occasions, is first-hand accounts from people who were, at one time, Scientologists. Through them, we get to see, hear, and understand just what was going through their minds every step of the way. This helps allow for the material to give off a bit of authenticity that something like this so desperately needed to survive and compel the audience.

But while it would be easier to make fun of these people for even bothering to join such a shady religion to begin with, the movie never judges them for what they did. In fact, more often than not, it’s the people speaking who pass the most judgement on themselves, after they realize just what they were involved in and how they’re lives may forever be troubled because of the union they made. Such is the case with Jason Beghe, a solid character actor in his own right, who comes on the screen and seems like he’s not going to hide anything of what he actually feels or has to say about Scientology; he seems legitimately pissed-off and upset, and he has no one else to blame other than himself.

He knows this. He understands this. And he’s ready to move on.

As are most of the people shown here, discussing their time with Scientology and the aftermath of it all. But this is all just one aspect to the movie – an effective one, for sure, but one that doesn’t get one’s blood boiling quite as much as when Gibney starts to unravel some of the dirty, deep and dark secrets that Scientology has lying behind its huge, blue building. For instance, without saying too much, the fact that Scientology is able to get a tax-break for what it deems itself as “a religion”, is all the more despicable once you realize that the religious teachings they give, seem to hardly ever come. The only time somebody eventually figures out what Scientology is all about, is when they’ve literally been involved with the church for nearly a decade, and by then, they’re already a million dollars in-debt because of how many hand-outs the church demands you pay up-front, before any teachings are given.

This man is 25. Look at what Scientology does to you!

This man is 25. Look at what Scientology does to you!

This is especially strange, but nothing new we haven’t quite heard or read about before. Where the film really starts to turn things around is whenever it focuses on those two huge names who have been associated with Scientology since the early days of its fame: Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Travolta and Cruise, for the past few decades or so, have, essentially, become known as the poster boys of Scientology – they stand for everything Scientology has to offer and whenever somebody has something negative to say about it, they are the ones who step right up the front-lines to defend it like a bunch of desperate, but loyal soldiers. Most people are weirded-out by this, and while I’m not one to judge somebody based solely on what they hold near and dear to them as their “beliefs”, seeing what Gibney is able to uncover about their time spent with the church and what that means for those around them, puts a lot of things into perspective.

For instance, when we hear that Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman was apparently broken-up due to the fact that Scientology didn’t like how her father was this huge religious nut overseas, it seems like nothing more than People magazine hearsay. But when we actually see the people who would have actually been involved with a decision like that, saying that it happened, how it happened, and why it needed to happen, it feels all too real to dismiss. Same goes for Travolta – while his situation may be a tad more sketchy concerning that most of what he has to defend about Scientology comes down to his own escapades, there’s still something creepy about seeing him literally as a prisoner with nowhere else to go, except just continue on and on with the rouse that he has so publicly kept-up for the longest time.

Though this comes off more as me just throwing my own two cents about what happens in this movie, rather than saying how I felt about it, there’s actually kind of a point behind that. Everything that’s revealed to us is as shocking as can be, but Gibney never forgets that there are actual people involved with this religion that need to possibly wake up, smell the cauliflower, and get out while they still can. Because if they don’t, not only will they be “disconnected” from the rest of their family, but they may never get any sort of life back.

Now, what kind of legal, law-abiding religion literally makes people feel that way?

Consensus: Shocking, effective, and always compelling, Going Clear reveals certain secrets about Scientology that need to be seen and heard to be believed, and will hopefully create a change. If not now, at least sometime in the future.

8.5 / 10 

Inside those walls, are things I am almost too frightened to think about.

Inside those walls, are things I am almost too frightened to picture.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Floodmagazine.com, Rolling Stone

Furious 7 (2015)

People can be violent, but cars are nearly worse.

The gang’s all back, but this time, it’s personal! Soon after their buddy is killed by a notorious thug by the name of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) – a brother of one of their former foes – Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) realize that it’s time to get vengeance in the only way they know best. But before doing so, they get a proposition from a special agent (Kurt Russell): Help him retrieve a piece of spy software from a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) and he will more than make sure that Dom, Brian and the rest of the crew get that sweet taste of revenge that they’ve been clamoring for after all of this time has passed. However, there are other problems going on from within the group where Dom can’t seem to get Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to remember their past together for what it was, nor can Brian seem to tear himself away from the wacky, wild life of crime that’s always attracted him for so long, even if he’s know settled-down with a wife (Jordana Brewster) and kid. Will the crew stay fast? Furious? Or neither?

So yeah, already going into this installment, there’s plenty to be discussed. With the tragic passing of Paul Walker nearly a-year-and-a-half ago, everything that was initially planned for Furious 7, from the release date, to the plot, were all scrapped and made anew. Which makes total sense. Walker wasn’t some sort of bit player in this franchise that showed up every so often to utter some witty line that would get the whole crowd laughing at how likable he is; he was, literally, the heart and soul of this franchise. Without him, it probably wouldn’t have gone on for as long as it has, which is both a blessing and a curse.

And they're not beating the hell out of each other, because.......?

And they’re not beating the hell out of each other, because…….?

A curse because the movie’s are dumb, over-the-top, ridiculous, and represent everything that is wrong with American’s society of masculinity. On the flip-side, though, it’s also a blessing because these movies, at least in the case for the last three installments, are so much fun, seem to never lose sight of just how illogical they are, and hardly ever apologize for it. Fast & Furious movies aren’t supposed to be taken seriously, and that’s where the real charm lies.

Hence why Paul Walker, all of his acting talents aside, was perfectly-suited for this franchise, no matter what it threw at him, or where it threw him.

With that being said, Furious 7 is a pretty raucous time. While I may not be saying anything new that hasn’t already been uttered by millions and millions of people from around the world, there’s still something interesting to note about a franchise in which the movies seem to constantly get better and one-up the one that came before it. Fast Five started this trend of the franchise going towards more action-fare, rather than just making it all about hot cars, hot men, hot women, and hot bodies, and the sixth film absolutely went for it all and, for the most part, came out on top.

While Furious 7 may not be better than the sixth movie, it’s still pretty damn close because it never forgets what it is: A mindless piece of action-fare that audiences will pay dozens of dollars for. Though this sounds easy (because, quite frankly, Michael Bay’s been doing it for the past two decades now), looking at some films, it’s actually not. Last year’s utterly forgettable and boring Need for Speed tried so desperately to pull-off the same sort of magic that the Fast franchise has been pulling off for quite some time and it failed miserably. That movie wanted to be silly, insane and ludicrous beyond belief, whereas the Fast movies are exactly that, but they don’t ever seem to be trying.

Not to mention that they actually do feature a dude a named Ludacris.

But because Furious 7 knows what it’s all about, it doesn’t try to pretend it’s something it isn’t. Though there are a chock-full of scenes dedicated to these thinly-written, one-dimensional characters breaking down all sorts of barriers and getting dramatic with one another, these scenes are quickly dismissed as soon as they show up. Also, too, it makes sense that we need at least some sort of character-development to help make things seem fully rounded-out and not just *crash*, *bang*, *boom* all of the darn time. While this would have been fun, let’s be realistic here: No movie franchise with its seventh-installment is going to totally shelve its characters for their beyond-nuts action sequences.

Just get used to it and move on. That’s what I did and it worked well.

It worked well because, once I realized that every problem these characters had didn’t really matter much in the grander scheme of things, the action just got a whole lot better and more exciting. Though you’d think these movies would have already run-out of ideas on how to set-up action sequences and still, somehow, be able to utilize automobiles in some sort of fashion, director James Wan proves you damn wrong. With scenes depicting cars flying through the sky with parachutes and even scenes where cars go flying through three buildings, this franchise continues to give us something new and fun to feast our eyes and ears onto.

Not a Rock Bottom, but it'll do.

No Rock Bottom, but it’ll do.

And honestly, the sky is the limit from here on out. No matter how many times this movie tries to break actual science, it won’t lose any bit of respect because the rules have already been set-in place: There are no rules. Cars can literally fly through the sky; people can literally shoot their guns till the cows come home and never run out of ammunition; jets can literally glide around downtown LA without there being hardly any interference from the Army of any sort. Literally, anything can happen in these movies and because of that, they never lose an ounce of momentum; they just continue to build up and up on it some more until it feels like, you know, we may have had enough adrenaline for one day.

And really, the same rules apply to the characters, as well. Like I said before, none of these characters here are inherently interesting or well-written, but they exist in a universe that loves them all so very much, that it’s hard to look down upon them for being “types”. Like the movies they exist in, you just accept them for what they are, let them do their thing and move on.

It’s quite easy, really.

Meaning, when you accept them, you have to accept Vin Diesel’s garbled growling; Michelle Rodriguez’s resting bitch face; Dwayne Johnson to be wearing Under Amour every time he is on-screen and trying so hard not to break kayfabe; Jordana Brewster just being “there”; Ludacris and Tyrese to be the goofy sidekicks that everyone can rely on for comedy and not really anything serious to contribute to the plot; and, most of all, Paul Walker’s ability to just be the “everyman” in every scene he’s in. Because even though newcomers to this franchise like Tony Jaa, Djimon Hounsou, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ronda Rousey, Kurt Russell, and especially, a deliciously evil Jason Statham all acquit themselves perfectly into this movie, strut their stuff and show us what they’re more than able to bring to the creative table, it’s Walker who still leaves the most lasting impression. He isn’t trying to, either – he just is.

And somehow, there’s a small bit of beauty in that.

Consensus: Like every other installment of the franchise, Furious 7 is as ridiculous and nonsensical as you can get, but still a whole bunch of fun, treating fans to everything that they could ever want with one of these movies, and then some, especially with the emotional tribute to Paul Walker – the one true face of this franchise.

8 / 10

Ride on, brotha.

Ride on, brotha.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

The Score (2001)

Never trust a guy that is half your age. Especially if he has already done better movies than you.

Career-thief Nick Wells (Robert De Niro) is about to mastermind a nearly impossible theft that will require his joining forces with a clever, young accomplice named Jackie Teller (Edward Norton). The unlikely alliance, arranged by Nick’s long-time confidante Maximillian Beard (Marlon Brando), interrupts Nick’s plan to retire from crime and leads Nick to wonder whether or not this last job of his, will be the one to ruin them all.

When you got three acting powerhouses in one movie, you would expect there to be nothing else other than pure greatness. But sometimes, that doesn’t quite happen. Instead, you just get mediocrity, whether you’re willing to accept it or not. Even if the movie in question does star not just Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, but also Marlon Brando.

Seriously! Why isn’t this thing as spectacular as it sounds?

You wouldn’t think that the guy who voices Miss Piggy and Yoda would be helming a feature flick like this, but I guess Frank Oz is just chock full of surprises. Oz doesn’t do necessarily do anything new, neat, or flashy with his direction here, but did bring some well-earned moments of suspense and keeps the heist as involving as he can, without showing his cards too early-on. The heist, when it does happen, doesn’t take up the whole movie. The rest is actually dedicated to a lot of scenes with Norton and De Niro, who are butting heads and ego’s together on-screen. Which honestly, is a way better movie, because when you give two stars like these ones here free reign to just work with one another, only good can come from it.

"Now remember kid, don't try and upstage my ass."

“Now remember kid, don’t try and upstage my ass.”

However, though, it all comes back down to the plot of this movie, which services these talents, but also doesn’t do much of anything interesting either. All of the caper/heist conventions are here – guy tries to get away from his life of crime by pulling off one last job; guy doesn’t work well with others; partner isn’t all who he seems to be, etc. Basically it’s got all of the clichés that you don’t want to see in a crime thriller, especially this one, but you sadly get.

If anything, that’s what disappointed me the most here is that nothing was all that surprising with this plot and how it all eventually played out. We get a couple of tense moments where we don’t know where this film is going to go and we get a nice twist at the end that’s a bit surprising, but nothing else to really have me going, “Oh crap! You gotta see this movie with Bickle, Vineyard, and Don Corleone! Not only are do they kick-ass when it comes to the acting, but the plot is actually pretty neat-o too! Right on!”. Maybe the average movie-goer would say that, let alone, anybody else in the whole world, but the point is, this film should have offered plenty of more surprises than it actually gave.

But people, let’s not fool ourselves here, this film probably would have never gotten made and given a wide theatrical release had it not been for these three names: De Niro, Norton, and Brando. All of whom don’t disappoint, even if the movie sort of does. Robert De Niro gives a pretty solid performance here as the Nick, the old-timer just looking to get out of the “business”. De Niro doesn’t do anything special with this performance that he hasn’t already done in his long career, but it’s nice to see him actually give a commendable performance considering that seems to be very hard to come by with the crap he chooses today. Angela Bassett plays his girlyfriend, and as good as she may be, her character still comes off a bit random and unneeded, even if it does give De Niro’s character some reason for wanting to leave and star anew.

"Hey, didn't I play you once?"

“Hey, didn’t I play you once?”

Let’s face it, Bassett is black, beautiful, and rocks a sweet ‘fro whenever she wants. Why wouldn’t you want to retreat with her?

Marlon Brando isn’t in this film a whole lot, but whenever he is, he makes his presence be known. Brando plays an aging and severely over-weight crime lord that seems desperate to make sure that this last job works and it’s a role/character that seems superfluous if it wasn’t being played by anybody else. The difference here, is that it’s none other than Brando in the role and he makes it all work perfectly giving him plenty of great lines, tension, and water-drinking. This is his last film he was ever in and it’s a shame since it’s not exactly the perfect swan song that anybody with his type of career could have asked for, but at least it’s better than doing the Freshman 2.

The one who actually runs away with this flick is Edward Norton as the hormone-fueled kid that Nick is forced to work with, Jackie. Norton is always great to watch no matter who he’s playing and what I liked most about him here is that you know there’s something about this character that you can’t really trust, but you don’t know what it is because Norton is so good at playing those types of confusing characters. Norton is always a powerhouse in every film he does and could almost be considered a younger Marlon Brando himself, but in this film, he actually shows that he may be one-step ahead of the master and continue to give compelling performance after compelling performance.

Now, what about the movie?

Consensus: Though it may not offer many surprises, the Score mostly gets by on the power and strength of its leads, even if the movie itself does seem to be relying on them a tad too heavily to begin with.

7 / 10

Look out, aging actors. Eddy Norton's a comin'!

Look out, aging actors. Eddy Norton’s a comin’!

Photos Courtesy of: Movpins

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Forget about it?

New York mobster Lefty (Al Pacino) walks into his usual diner, starts talking up a storm with some guy named “Don the Jeweler” (Johnny Depp), figures out that the ring he just bought his girlfriend was a Fugazi, takes him out to find the guy, gets his money back, and badda-bing, badda-boom, the deal is done. However, Lefty doesn’t want to just say “bye” to Don and be done with him forever – he wants him to be apart of his mob, walk him through the ranks so that one day, Donnie will be the new crime boss that everybody obeys and looks up to. Donnie has those aspirations too, but the problem is that his real name is Joseph Pistone and he’s not all that he seems to be. Rather, he’s an FBI informant that’s been working the streets for about two years now, and he’s getting more and more tied into this underground life, and leaving his other life, the one with his wife (Anne Heche) and kids, on the back-burner as if it almost doesn’t exist.

I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve seen this movie. I want to say the perfect, rounded-up amount is probably ten-and-a-half times, but I can’t be too sure because it’s probably a whole lot more than what I can remember. Hell, probably a couple of drunken-views may have happened in there as well. Either way, whatever the total amount is, doesn’t matter, because each and every time I’ve watched this flick, not only have I liked it even more, but I get to see more and more about it, especially since, as a film fanatic, my eyes have been opened a bit wider to what makes a movie work, and what doesn’t.

"Ew, fugetaboutit!"

“Ew, fugetaboutit!”

However, I still have yet to call this movie a “favorite” of mine, and here’s exactly why: The problem I have with this movie is that, after all of the times I’ve seen this and plenty other movies of the same nature, I’ve come to realize that the “FBI-informant” story has all been dead by now. We get it; whenever you take a regular, FBI agent, throw him into a world where he has to have that one identity and nothing else, then most likely, that dude’s going to get thrown in there too deep. It’s what we see with every undercover-cop flick, and it doesn’t make it all the better or more original. It’s just there.

But there is that one aspect to this movie that makes that problem sort of go away: The drama involved here between the characters and the situation we have on our hands here. Everybody in this flick is essentially a cliché of what it’s like to be apart of the mob. Greased, slicked-back hair? Check. A bunch of Italian, mobster slang used that makes no sense? Double check. Paying for a coffee or a drink with a wad of cash? Way too many checks. An over-the-top scene of an act of violence to prove how much you do not want to get all tangled-up in with the mob? You got it. People getting whacked? Well now, would it be a mobster movie if it didn’t at least have one or two or more scenes that include that act?

I’ll allow for that last, hypothetical question to rest in your mind.

So, with all of that said, you see where I’m going with this? If not, follow through. The aspect behind this movie that makes it work, despite all of the obvious conventions and happenings of the usual mobster movie, is that there’s actual, real-life emotion involved with this story and the characters that inhabit it. Rather than making Joe, or “Donnie”, the type of FBI informant that’s way too in over his head, is a bit of a bastard for throwing his family to the side and focusing a little bit too much attention on the task at hand, the movie shows him off as being a troubled-soul, yet, one that knows what mission he has to complete, and to do it by any means necessary. Sure, he has to get his hands dirty a couple of times and may even have to pull off some risky moves of his own, but he knows that he has to get the job done and the movie paints him more as a regular-guy, who just so happened to stick to his guns, in more ways than one. I don’t want to call him a “hero” per se, but I do want to call him an inspiration to most people who feel like they can’t go through something because the shit’s too deep or too dangerous. And I’m not just talking about FBI informants – I’m talking about anybody, dammit!

Then, something strange with this movie begins to happen: You start to feel a bit wrapped-up in this world just as much as Joe does. Once Joe realizes that not all of these mobster-figures are as bad or as dastardly as they may seem from the outside, he begins to wonder whether or not he should fully go through with it, and if he does decide to actually say, “Yeah, arrest all their asses”, he still wonders whether or not it’s the right thing to do or if he should leave a couple people out of it. It’s a problem for us, almost as much as it is a problem for Joe, and it gets you more and more involved with the material, regardless of if you know how it all turns out. Obviously no major Hollywood production is going to fund a movie where the real-life protagonist gets killed, but you still feel like any chance the dude has to lose his cover, he will, and become a victim of it so.

Don't worry, honey. Just fugettaboutit.

Don’t worry, honey. Just fugettaboutit.

Very smart writing and directing on both sides of the camera, but in front of it all is the two stars we have on our hands here, none other than Johnny Depp and Al Pacino themselves. This was the first movie where I think Johnny Depp really broke-out of his shell, showed us that he could actually “act”, and, despite what his good looks may have you believe, make it seem like he’s a real person, with real problems, marital ones and whatnot. Depp’s character may go through the usual trip of where he gets in way too deep and can barely get out without keeping his hands clean, but it’s Depp himself who keeps his head above the water, allowing us to believe in him no matter how scary certain situations may get for him. There’s a real sense of likability and regularity to Depp here, that I wish he would just go back to, at least one more time. That is, before he gets back together with Gore Verbinski and starts acting all nutty and cuckoo again. Why Johnny?!?! Why not come back to the real world?!?!

As great as Johnny is here, though, he’s definitely not the one who walks away with the flick. Leave that recognition to Al Pacino, playing, yet again, another mob boss that has a bit of anger-issues and problems on the inside, but keeps them more bottled-in than what we’re used to seeing with this type of character, or even the way Pacino usually plays them. What’s so great about Pacino playing Lefty is that, we get that this guy is not perfect and definitely has some control issues that get in the way of his better-judgement at times, but we still feel like he’s a good guy, underneath the phis-age and all. In fact, we know it, it just rarely comes out in the most obvious, hackneyed way you’d expect from a movie such as this. Pacino yells and hollers at times, but he keeps it surprisingly subdued and quiet as well, and that’s probably some of the best parts of this movie. Actually, mainly the ones with Depp and Pacino together, because you can tell that they form a bond that’s like a father-son combo, but also one that feels like it could be best friends as well. It’s sad to see them together, but you can’t help but feel something for them both, especially Lefty, who feels like an old man who will just never, ever get it right in the world that he lives in. Poor guy.

Same can sort of be said for the rest of the rag-tag mobsters that these two hang with. Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, and James Russo all play members of their mob and all do great jobs with the roles, especially Madsen who gives us his bad-boy charm that we all know and love, but also shows a bit more sympathy underneath it all, as if he too has something to prove to the people he surrounds himself with and aspires to be in the same shoes of one day. They’re all characters you’d expect to hate right off the bat, but they surprisingly have more heart and charm to them then you’d ever want to see in a flick like this. Just like the character of Joe’s stay-at-home-wife, played to perfection by Anne Heche, who not only shows us a real hard-edged woman that isn’t taking any shit from her hubby, but is also easy to sympathize with, despite her being a bit of a nag for bothering her husband about a job that not only pays the bills and gets the kids to school, but she knew about when she married him. She should be the vain of your humanity, but she’s written very realistically and performed very well by Heche herself, an actress who doesn’t get as much credit as she should.

Consensus: Though on page, Donnie Brasco should not work and be considered as conventional and predictable as they come, it surprisingly becomes a more emotional, compelling trip about what happens when a man gets too deep, can’t quite get himself out right away, but still has the screws in tight enough to get through it all. Sounds corny, but in the hands of Depp, Pacino, and the rest of the cast and crew, it’s very far from.

8.5 / 10

"I'm serious. Just forget about it."

“I’m serious. Just forget about it.”

Photos Courtesy of: Movpins

Serena (2015)

Pretty much a remake of Silver Linings Playbook. Except not everybody’s supposed to be nuts.

In Depression-era North Carolina, timber baron George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is dealing with most problems people have to deal with when they run any sort of business. Dealing with panthers and such in the wilderness that surrounds him and his workers, George realizes that he needs to figure something out in his life to give it more meaning. Which is why when he meets the young, beautiful and wistful Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), he instantly falls head-over-heels. Soon, they have sex, get married, and decide that it’s time to start a family. Problem is, Serena starts to take her husband’s business a little too seriously and get in the way of matters that don’t concern her. However, George loves Serena and doesn’t want to upset her, so when he impregnates her, he feels like they’re going to be getting back on-track into that happy, lovely couple they once were. Once again though, troubles arise when Serena suddenly finds out that she cannot bear children, which leads to horrifying, disastrous results that finds almost everyone involved with the Pemberton clan acting out in insane ways.

Serena1

Uh oh. One bad movie and B-Coops is making someone pay!

Oh, gosh. What went wrong? Sure, I’ve heard about Serena for a long while now, from when it was completed and then put on the shelf for nearly two years, to when it premiered at some festivals last year to ultimately disastrous reviews, but man, I sure as hell didn’t expect it to be this bad.

Seriously.

And while it’s hard for me to not just start and end this review by simply stating it’s crappy, there’s something that needs to be said here about movies that seem like they’d be alright, all because of who is involved with them. When you see names like “Bradley Cooper” and “Jennifer Lawrence”, you’d automatically expect that whatever they were involved with, to be something worth checking out, regardless of what it’s about. Heck, if you put J-Law and B-Coops in a room and film them for an-hour-and-a-half, chances are, we’re all going to watch it. They’ve made smart enough choices in the past to give us the idea that they know what they’re doing with their careers, and they’re more than talented enough to remind us why they get as much material thrown their way as they do.

But somehow, Serena just is not the kind of movie where all of this seems clear. Cooper and Lawrence seem like they are trying here with what’s given to them, but what’s given to them is absolute garbage and so far from any help, that even their more than reliable skills as actors can’t save the day. Even Susanne Bier, a solid director when she’s given enough inspiration, seems like she has no idea what to make of this tale, or even seem like she gives a damn. Then again, this could be just that the material is so thin and poorly-done, that even she couldn’t help it from being something better.

Either way, Serena is a mess. There’s no two ways of getting around it. Some of that is Bier’s fault, other times, it’s Cooper, Lawrence and the rest of the cast, but overall, it’s a group effort that seemed doomed from the beginning; regardless of how much effort may have been put into it.

Or in this case, I guess none.

See, what’s odd about Cooper and Lawrence here, is that while they’re usually spectacular in all else that they do, here, they seem incredibly awkward. Even they’re chemistry together that’s blossomed so well in the past seems like an after-thought in a movie that wants to have you believe in these two as long, lost loves who, after five seconds of meeting one another and boning, instantly fall in love and get married. It feels rushed and put-on, and to be honest, neither one’s performances help matters.

Somehow, female J-Law on a white horse isn't as awesome as it sounds.

Somehow, female J-Law on a white horse isn’t as awesome as it sounds.

Cooper has some odd Southern-twang in his voice that makes everything that comes out of his mouth, indecipherable, whereas with Lawrence, I don’t even know what to say. Her character is supposed to be this enchanting, yet demanding piece of work that seems to always get her way, no matter what; and when she doesn’t, it’s literally the end of the world for her, as well as all those surrounding her. Whereas Lawrence’s high-strung charm has worked for her in the past, because this character is so poorly-written and crazy, it all comes off as over-the-top and the decisions her character makes by the tail-end of this movie, are downright laughable. It makes you feel bad enough for Lawrence, until you realize that the gal already has an Oscar to her name and probably plenty more to come.

So any bit of sadness goes away once reality strikes.

And honestly, it’s hard to really think that this movie could have been good in some universe; it’s just not that type of movie. A part of me wants to feel that, even before Silver Linings hit the big screen and made both of these acts downright superstars, that Lawrence and Cooper took it, without knowing one another, and saw what could happen next. Maybe they got some nice pay out of their ordeal, or maybe they didn’t, but either way, this will slide right by them. They’ll go on to make bigger, way better movies (probably with David O. Russell) and seem to forget that this movie ever existed and eventually, will make it a blip in their memories.

The only ones who will remember are us, the normal, everyday citizens who will still be pondering that deadly question:

Just what the hell happened here?

Consensus: Sometimes, it doesn’t matter who’s involved, if you’re project is bad, it’ll probably stay that way. And that is exactly what happens to the poorly-written, terribly-acted, and so-bad-its-hilarious piece that is Serena; a movie you’ve heard is terrible and guess what? It is!

2 / 10 

"Go back to sleep, baby. It was all just a dream. A horrendous, terrifying, and downright disturbing dream."

“Go back to sleep, baby. It was all just a dream. A horrendous, terrifying, and downright disturbing dream.”

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Woman in Gold (2015)

The Nazis just can’t help themselves when they see a lovely portrait, apparently.

Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, has stood the test of time and will forever be known as one of the art world’s finest paintings ever created. However, during the Nazis raid on Vienna before WWII, it was confiscated and hidden for many years, all until Austria decided to start showcasing it in is museums. An elderly Holocaust survivor living in Los Angeles by the name of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), notices this and is ashamed. Why? Well, because the subject of that painting was her aunt and she rightfully believes that the painting belongs to her, in the name of her family and late, great aunt. But for some reason, the Austrian government isn’t budging and doesn’t want to give it back, so this is when Maria calls into a son of one of her friends, E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who doesn’t seem all that involved with the proceedings to really give all the juice that a high-level case like this would need. However, Maria is inspired enough to try and get him to change his mind so that he will see this is not only her battle, but all of Jewish people’s.

Without the eye-brows, one can only assume she's astonished by whatever is in front of her.

Without the eye-brows, one can only assume she’s astonished by whatever is in front of her.

With last year’s the Monuments Men, we got to see the art world portrayed as it almost had never been before: On the gritty and war-torn landscapes of WWII, where people were constantly killing each other left and right, yet, to ensure that a sense of culture would stay alive and well in the years to come, a group of inspired art enthusiasts set out to retrieve pieces of art work that they believed were to be burned away by the Nazis. It was an interesting premise, for sure, and while the movie may have not done it all justice, there was still this intriguing aspect surrounding WWII that isn’t just discussing the obvious; even though everybody is acting in heinous, sadistic ways, that does not mean we have to lose sight of what makes us who we are. And somehow, art is exactly what represents that.

However, this is all just me talking and not at all what this movie discusses. Instead, it has more to do with Maria Altmann, the person, rather than the whole idea that the Nazis stole and most likely destroyed more than half of these foreign countries pieces of art. And for what? Just to prove how mean and grotesque they are? Or was it just to ensure that they would be the tale-tellers of history for generations to come, understand and listen to?

Maybe, maybe not. But hey, look how witty that Maria Altmann was!

Or, at least, that’s what I imagined was going through this movie’s mind as it seems to be more concerned with the lovely, little witticisms Altmann, the character, has to offer. Which is to say that Helen Mirren, for what it’s worth, does a solid job in this role in that she shows us the never ending sadness behind this character that hardly ever seemed to left, even when she did get a chance to escape Vienna and save herself from impending doom. But even with that brave act on her part, still comes the realization that everybody she came to know, love and spend most of her time around in her younger years, are all gone; maybe if they weren’t killed during the Nazis reign, maybe they are now. Maria Altmann is a lonely woman who is literally trying to hold on to whatever source of family or love she has left in her life.

However, this is all me looking deeper and deeper into what is, essentially, a buddy-cop dramedy with Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren; which, trust me, isn’t as fun as I may make it sound. Sure, they fight the baddies (in this case, the Austrian government), they bicker, they solve problems, and along the way, get to know more about each other through revealing conversations about their past or their feelings. All that’s missing is any bit of emotion.

Actually, that’s a lie. Because the only time that there is any emotion at all to be found, is whenever we flashback to Altmann’s life in Vienne, both before, as well as during the time where the Nazis came around and started terrorizing everything and everyone they ran into. There’s a sequence that runs for at least ten to 15 minutes where the younger-Altmann (Tatiana Maslany) and her hubby (Jack Irons) are on the run from the Gestapo, which is thrilling and exciting, even if you don’t expect it to be. Because we know that Altmann ultimately survived escaping from Vienna before the Nazis got to her first, this shouldn’t work one bit, but somehow, it totally does and felt like a solid diversion from whatever the hell Riggs and Murtagh were doing or talking about.

Presumably, after they were just involved with a high-speed car-chase with some crooks.

Presumably, after they were just involved with a high-speed car-chase with some crooks.

And I guess there is something to be said by the fact that Reynolds, like Mirren, at least tries with this character, but he isn’t given much of anything else to do except whine a lot and then, seemingly out of nowhere, gain the courage to fight against the Austrian government once and for all. Even Katie Holmes’ performance as his character’s wife, feels like she’s there just to pump him up and give him inspirational pull-quotes that will ultimately do everything for him, but nothing for us. Which is all a problem, especially when you’re begging and pleading with us to be involved with Altmann’s tale of tribulations.

Although Simon Curtis does genuinely seem to care for this story and the outcome of it all, it never seems like he’s putting absolutely all of his heart into it. Instead, he’s just sort of going through the motions of how we’re supposed to feel somewhat compelled by this type of story, until we realize that Curtis himself is using it as material to talk about the fact that there are plenty more paintings out there, either hidden or in plain-view, that were taken away from their rightful owners during the time of war. Once again, this is probably the most interesting notion that the movie seems to highlight, yet, never actually seems to care about.

Instead, he just wants us all to laugh at the cheeky woman that was Maria Altmann, who is about as funny as my alcoholic uncle on New Year’s Eve.

Consensus: Going through all of the motions you expect it to go through, the Woman in Gold seems to suffer from the lack of any sort of emotion, even if both Mirren and Reynolds seem to be digging deep and far to find any of it.

4 / 10

Why have a painting? When you can have the real thing?

Why have a painting? When you can have the real thing?

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

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