August 31, 2014


Nicholas Stoller, 2014
Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are excited to move into a quaint residential neighborhood with their baby girl. But everything soon changes when a fraternity, led by Teddy Sanders (Zac Effron) moves into the house next to theirs and they realize that they are going to be living next to a party-house.

Somewhere between Animal House, Dennis the Menace and 1981's Neighbors (a forgotten comedy featuring John Belushi and Dan Akroyd) lies 2014's Neighbors, written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien (Funny People, 40 Year Old Virgin) and directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Seth Rogen brings his typical stoner humor to his Mac role but this time throws a baby girl in his arms almost as if Ben Stone (Knocked Up) moved away, ditched Katherine Heigl and picked up the lovely (and let's face it, significantly more tolerable) Rose Byrne. Not a bad swap. Byrne provides a good dynamic with the Mac character, two people who are desperately trying to hold onto some elements of their early twenties without completely submitting to inevitably boring parenthood. When they discover that there is a fraternity moving next door, their first impulse is to somehow relate to them in some way which they soon discover is virtually impossible. A reminder that those days are over, and sometimes you don't realize how distant they are until they are literally right in front of you as if you are staring at a reflection of your former self. What follows is a slapsticky battle of the neighbors that for the most part is funny, although there is surely some fat that could be trimmed. But the highlights: the many simultaneously talking DeNiro's, the airbag deployments, the many insecurities/panicking involving their baby outnumber the not-so-funny moments. Rose Byrne is actually proving to be one of the better comedic actresses working today, almost like a reincarnated version of Cameron Diaz from the Something about Mary days.

With so many garbage comedies being churned out these days the bar has been lowered greatly. Typically you sit through overused premises, bad acting, momentary laughs. Neighbors manages to tap into some unused veins in the comedy genre.

August 29, 2014

Broken Flowers

Jim Jarmusch, 2005
Bill Murray delivers one of his more subdued performances, similar in a sense to his character in Lost in Translation. But while his Bob Harris character in Lost in Translation had a more cynical sense of humor with a certain degree of energy to pursue some level of enjoyment, his Don Johnston character here is more gloomy and forsaken. He has a sheer deadpan quality to him. In the first few minutes of the film you see his weary girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walking out on him, giving you the feeling that it's one of many over the years. He goes on to sit frozen on the couch like a reclusive ghost with the lights off, like he is in a heartbroken purgatory. He would continue to do this indefinitely if it weren't for his intrusive friend / wannabe private investigator Winston (Jeffrey Wright) pressing him on details and really causing him to get up and get moving. Winston is living the opposite life as Don, with a loving wife and active children running around. When Winston gets knowledge of the letter he pushes Don to probe the possibilities. This leads Don on a wild goose chase, desperately hoping to find out which one of his several exes have given birth to his son.

You get the feeling that Don feels like he's getting a last chance for something. Perhaps be present in SOME kind of relationship. He may not have any faith in pursuing a new relationship with a woman, but who knows, maybe his oddball personality can mesh well with a young child. You don't really get any sense that he wants to change for the most part. So you continue to watch Don drag himself through his past. He is served with some smiles, some frowns. It's quite obvious that some relationships had ended much more poorly. The differences between the women are quite dramatic, it seems as if Don continued to try to connect with varying personalities without much success.

Jarmusch really creates an interesting picture here. It certainly isn't fast-paced. It moves along at Don's pace. He has grown into a tired crawl in his life. But it's a picture that doesn't bore. Bill Murray has that ability to keep you engaged with his character, no matter how detached he may be. His pursuit pulls you in and keeps you wondering to the bitter end. 

August 27, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Josh Boone, 2014

Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is a cynical teenage girl who has struggled with cancer for most of her young life. But her perspective changes when she meets rebel boy and fellow cancer survivor Gus (Ansel Elgort) who stirs everything up in her life.

Boone's adaptation of John Green's tweener novel is a bold one, challenging the cancer genre by examining the nuances that come with the illness in a relationship/family dynamic instead of just showing two young kids withering away from the disease. We have all seen someone struggle and perish from some form of cancer, but typically not someone sub-30 years old. There is something particularly unfair and difficult to handle about watching someone that young suffer. But this film doesn't just drown itself in melodrama. It doesn't shout "why me? why me?" at the universe. It features characters who have a more off the cuff, unrestrained voice. After all, they've been living with it for so long. But like any other teen they fall victim to their hearts, the most unfortunate aspect of it being that they cant get lost in the "We are going to be together forever and ever" delusion. They realize that there is an early expiration date. Woodley is the perfect fit for the Hazel character. She brings the same vulnerability and sensitivity that she brought in last year's The Spectacular Now. She is certainly one of the best gifts to the world of cinema in the last few years. Hazel doesn't simply play the victim, although it's certainly warranted. She's been kicked in the gut for basically her entire young life. Forced to lug around an oxygen tank to assist her in something we all take for granted, BREATHING - she has long faced the reality that her days are likely numbered and she won't outlive her devoted parents. Her parents, played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, really help to show the perspective of the parents who have also been screwed by the universe with their ill daughter. They've basically dedicated all of their adult lives to taking care of her. But once again, the film challenges that dynamic as well. Hazel is frustrated by her parents efforts. She wants them to have a life together, even if she may not be in it with them. They've lost a lot of sleep over the years. They've been at the breaking point more than once. It raises the notion that while the physical cancer is inside of Hazel's body, it really does spread into many of the peripheral lives. The film is probably considered Ansel Elgort's coming out party. At first glance his Gus character is conflicting because of the irritating cockiness that he exudes. There's also that unrealistic unlit cigarette thing. But you're stuck with him for a while, and there is a turning point in the film where his character really comes around and Elgort displays some true talent. The scene where Gus wants to experience his funeral as a living person and hear the eulogies is so unique and beautifully dark, certainly one of those moments likely to stick with you.

The Fault is not a positive piece to put on with hopes of having some smiles and good laugh. It asks a lot of questions and fails to have much of a filter asking them. It's painful and raw, genuine. But not every film is supposed to be a feel-good story. You (should) go to a film to examine the full spectrum of the human experience, and this is certainly on one end of it. 

August 26, 2014

Top Five School Dance Scenes

For most of us, school dances were a memorable part of our young existence. Everything about the entire experience was quite uncomfortable. A room filled with mid-pubescent teens who weren't comfortable in their own skin, dancing to a lingering 80's hit or attempting to make out during Stairway before you got in your friends parents car and went home. The awkward school dance scenes are a constantly used theme in Hollywood. A lot of these scenes would carry some weight, with a lot riding on it. Maybe it was the moment where the guy finally got the girl. Maybe it was when someone finally got their big moment in the spotlight. For some it was the peak of their lifetime, the happiest moment they've ever experienced. Just like in real life, the moments pass by quickly but leave some lasting memories.

5. Caveman dance - Encino Man (1992)
The memorable choreographed caveman dance scene is so 90's it hurts. In a good way.

4. Johnny B. Goode - Back to the Future (1985)
The iconic scene where their minds couldn't even handle Johnny B. Goode yet.

3. Strange Magic / Come Sail Away- The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Such a beautiful blend of music and visual elements. A really pivotal point in an underrated film.

2. Dance competition - Grease (1978)
Even if you aren't a fan of this film, or musicals for that matter, it's a high school dance scene that is undeniably impressive. So many moving parts. So much going on.

1. The bloody prank - Carrie (1976)
The unforgettable scene where all of the pretty paper flowers become incinerated in a matter of minutes.

August 23, 2014

The World's End

Edgar Wright, 2013
Gary King (Simon Pegg) rounds up a group of his old mates and returns to their hometown in an attempt to complete a pub crawl that they failed to accomplish when they were much younger. But they only manage to get a couple of pints down when they realize that the residents of their old town don't appear to be the same as they remembered.

Wright and Pegg team up once again in this quirky take on the alien invasion genre. Instead of the Pegg / Frost duo fighting off zombies, they find themselves dodging blue-blooded robotic aliens with shape-shifting abilities who are trying to perform a covert takeover of the rural town person by person. Gary's priorities are skewed. He seems to be more inclined to make sure that they all complete the crawl this time around instead of worrying about his friends and family's well-being. This is very much frustrating to the rest of the group, who reluctantly joined him on this mission which pulled them away from their long-standing responsibilities. They have all grown older, found a significant other, found a nice career. Gary is stuck in the past, suddenly resurfacing as the friend who wants to pull them back into their old habits. Gary clearly has his own issues that he hasn't dealt with properly, mostly having to do with his inability to grow up and become a responsible adult.

Wright's invasion piece doesn't necessarily have all of the charm as some of his previous work. But there are some really amusing comedic moments as well as some well-executed action sequences. The most enjoyable element is probably when the group takes on groups of the aliens, grabbing whatever set pieces they can to use as a weapon against them. The film very much feels like a hybrid of Shaun of the Dead and Wright's video-game-romantic-action picture Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It feels like it takes a while for Gary to assemble the group and the action to pick up. The World's End would have been better served had Wright trimmed up some of the introductory fare and attempted to get the film down to the 90 minute mark.

August 20, 2014

The Internship

Shawn Levy, 2013
Somewhere in a movie studio office there is a giant wheel. It resembles the luminous assembly featured on daytime Game Show The Price is Right. Except this one is a Vince Vaughn / Owen Wilson movie wheel. When studio heads are looking for a quick comedy piece to churn out, they spin it and they are forced to green-light whatever premise it lands on.

It's already been used to conjure up a movie about two guys who crash weddings to score with women. Another time it was used to do a modern remake of Starsky and Hutch. Then there was that time it was used to make that movie about the two being a part of a neighborhood watch team (The Watch). This time the wheel was spun and it landed on two guys get fired from  job and get hired as Google interns. Given their on and off history together and compared to some of the bad-on-paper ideas that have been thrown out there this one actually doesn't seem too bad. That is until the movie starts rolling. The end-result applies some of the manipulative tendencies of a bad Adam Sandler film. Was that redundant? But in a way it's the best Adam Sandler movie he didn't make. Like a dumbed-down Social Network, it attempts to run on the fumes of the Vaughn / Wilson dynamic, even though there can't be much left in the tank. At least you get to see quite a bit of the beautiful Rose Byrne.

August 19, 2014


Steven Knight, 2014
It's the night before commencement of the biggest construction project of his entire career. Instead of driving home to watch a football match with his son, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) suddenly decides to drive away from everything to the shock of his employers and to his family. As he speeds down the highway, his life continues to unravel after each hands-free phone call.

At first glance Locke appears almost as if it's a sleek television commercial for BMW with the typical high-profile celebrity. As if BMW finally gave Tom Hardy an offer he couldn't refuse for a TV spot.  You soon realize that it's something much more compelling. Ivan Locke has made the decision to drive. And the decision to keep driving. Driving away from the much controlled existence that he has long been living in. Driving away from his high-pressure work duties that have long required his presence. Driving away from the familial obligations of watching football with his son and loyalty to his wife. For a good period of time you don't know what the limits of Ivan's conflicts are. The immediate seriousness of the situation gives you the impression that this could easily end in death for him. Does he owe someone money? Is he after someone? What is he hiding? He isn't silent about his personal history as he looks into the rear-view mirror, cursing his long deceased father. Almost as if he sees his father in his own reflection. Ivan has seemingly been an organized person. A man who thrived on strict order. A reliable person. As he keeps his foot pressed against the gas pedal, the reflection of the streetlights glide across the glass. The light constantly shifts from gold blurs to focused glows. A subtle abstract sound echoes in the background. Hardy is a commanding force, bringing a certain intensity to his complex Locke character. He is someone undoubtedly capable of carrying a film on his back.

In terms of construct, the film is actually quite similar to 2010's Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. A real-time limited storytelling piece consisting of one man and a phone. One could argue that Buried is more fierce, more forcible. Albeit undeniably more far-fetched. Perhaps that's the charm of Locke. The ordinary nature of the problems at hand. Ivan is a flawed man like so many in the world. The aftermath of a man who fell victim to his own impulses. But it's not a story of a man completely fleeing his personal shit-storm. He is actually in pursuit of something, some kind of shifting resolution to the mess that he has created. There is a determination to avoid repeating his father's mistakes. But Buried has a more lasting effect on the viewer. That particular story grips you until the very end, whereas Locke maintains a certain pace that carries on until the final moments without much excitement. We often go to cinema to take us to explore the incredible. Perhaps it would have been better if Locke took us on more of a journey with the story.

August 11, 2014


Darren Aronofsky, 2014
Loosely based on the classic Biblical tale, Aronofsky's Noah tells the story of Noah (Russell Crowe) - a loyal father and husband suddenly served with visions of impending destruction. The earth's creator has grown disheartened with the current state of the human race which has become destructive and violent. Noah realizes that there is an intention to cleanse the Earth of the toxic human race that has spread through the lands. He realizes that it's his duty to salvage Earth's animal creatures and re-establish the human population after the storms have settled.

There are a lot of expectations going into an Aronofsky film. You know that there is going to be a real built-in dim disposition to any of his pictures. Examinations of human morality. Self-serving impulses. Self doubt, regret, weakness. Inner conflict. Interpersonal conflicts. Orchestral scores to assist in manipulating the dramatic tones. There's clearly a lot of these elements in his take on the story of Noah's Ark. But Aronofsky has one leg out of the door from his usual pure-twisted murk and in a more Guillermo Del Toro-imaginary mindset. It's curious as to why filmmakers want to touch religious material to begin with. The amount of scrutiny and inherent controversy raise the expectations so high that it's nearly impossible for the picture to please the masses. This is especially the case when you take on a story like this, a story that's already quite limited in depth in it's original form. Because of this the whole artistic licensing must be used. Aronofsky does this by attempting to make a thorough examination of Noah the character while also employing a considerable amount of CGI and a large cast of familiar faces. A story about a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Noah is certainly a flawed character, forced to watch the majority of the world quickly die off so he can save his own family and some indifferent beings. He ventures through the crowds of people during the final stages of construction of the Ark. They are greedy, self-serving, malevolent. Willing to kill one another off for a quick meal. They have cheapened the value of human life. But he also sees himself in them, which ultimately causes him to suffer with a sense of survivor's guilt as they all drown in the flooding. Their pleas for refuge are heard through the wooden walls that he has spent so much time building. He struggles with questions of why was he chosen? What is he supposed to do next? Are his convictions correct? The film certainly does a good job of examining Noah the character, with much help from the always-good Crowe. The two standout features of the picture are certainly Crowe's performance and the rather impressive CGI. Quite surprising to discover that not one real-life animal was used in the production, and the digitally-manufactured creations are really as good as Richard Parker in the Life of Pi. The rock-monster-like Watchers may be THE most memorable visual element of the entire picture, assisting Noah in his construction of the sanctuary so that they themselves may be redeemed and return to Heaven.

But where Aronofsky succeeds in creating a character study he fails at creating a thoroughly engaging story. There is some captivating build-up as Noah works to construct the clock as not only the clock is ticking when it comes to Mother Nature's impending doom but also Tubal-cain's people are knocking at the door. As the clock ticks and the pressure is on Noah, you're right there with the story and engaged. But as soon as the Ark begins to float away the story basically gets lost at sea. It begins to meander, to falter, soon becoming a predictable bore. Aronofsky has to take the blame. Perhaps it was the PG-13 rating, creating too much of a confinement for him. Perhaps it was the studio breathing down his neck, putting too much pressure on the production. It seems quite clear that Aronofsky is better equipped to handle smaller films with more unsettling elements like the unforgettable Requiem for a Dream or the very-compelling The Wrestler

August 5, 2014

The Battered Bastards of Baseball

Chapman Way & Maclain Way, 2014

Documentaries are so great because they often expose the viewer to a particular subject that may have become forgotten in time. Something under-appreciated. Something that may have slipped between the cracks. Quite often its something that surely should not have, something that needs to be remembered. Something that needs to be cemented in the fabric of time forever. The King of Kong introduced us to the bitter Donkey Kong high-score world record bitter battle between Steve Wiebe and super-douche Billy Mitchell. If you haven't yet seen this doc, it's a must see. If you have, it was another great story that had you rooting for the underdog. There's certainly an underdog in the Battered Bastards, and it's the Portland Mavericks. Most sports fans have probably never heard of them. But they were a team of misfits, put together by retired-actor Bing Russell (father of Kurt Russell, star of shows Maverick & Bonanza). These are men who were forgotten by the the commercial Baseball empire. Big Baseball, if you will. They were pushed to the side. But Bing Russell opened the doors for them. He introduced open tryouts to anyone who would like a shot at the team. Expecting a handful of applicants, he was surprised to find hundreds at the door waiting for their chance to prove themselves. And much to everyone's surprise, they were good. They were scrappy. They had a chip on their shoulders. They played their hearts out. Some of them, like pitcher Jim Bouton, were even ex-MLBers who were blackballed by the league and found a new home in the independent circuit. They broke the rules of baseball etiquette, with their facial hair and questionable hygienic practices. They probably would have failed a drug test had they been given one. But they were a loyal bunch who would jump into the stands and drink a beer with their fans after a victory. Men of the people. A team a city can easily get behind, and they did. They came in droves.

Like all great stories (and many great documentaries), you need your bad guy. The bad guy in this story is Big Baseball. Embarrassed after the Mavericks not only proved to be successful on their own but even defeated actual Minor League franchises, they had to clean the egg off of their faces. And so they attempted to. But the real hero in the story is Bing Russell. He gave the everyman a chance with the most fan-friendly team ever created. You find that these players not only enjoyed their success with the Mavericks but even credit that period of their life to future successes. You can certainly credit Bing with creating an accessible team whose story is worthy of the film treatment.