It’s almost impossible for a film to live up to the amount of hype that The Interview had prior to its troubled release. Threats from the North Korean government and the “Guardians of Peace” Sony Pictures hack thrust the comedy into a political spotlight for weeks as the film’s release status hung in limbo amid national conversations about artistic censorship. Despite all this, the movie has been released in limited theaters and On Demand and while it certainly doesn’t live up to the lofty political ambitions that have been placed on it, The Interview has enough goofy exchanges and memorable one-liners to merit it a modest success.
Rogen plays Aaron Rappaport, long time collaborator and close friend of entertainment talk show host Dave Skylark, played with idiotic glee by James Franco. After their 1000th episode together, they get word that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, played by Randall Park, is a big fan of their show and he invites them to his headquarters in Pyongyang to get the world’s most exclusive interview. Upon hearing the news, Aaron and Dave are intercepted by the CIA with the hopes that the two can carry out an assassination attempt on one of the world’s most ruthless leaders.
This setup should give the sense that The Interview has its heart set on being more of a silly spy farce rather than some piece of sharp political satire. There are some shots taken at the propaganda that Kim Jong Un directs at his people but the majority of the comedy is more broad, focusing largely on bodily function punchlines and the type of ridiculous, over-the-top violence that also took hold of the climax of the Rogen-Franco led Pineapple Express. Also present from that film is the comedic chemistry between the two leads, which is more palpable here than ever before.
Of the two performances, Franco is the clear standout. His Dave Skylark is a character who steadily wears you down with his dopey affability until just about everything that comes out of his mouth is hilarious. The best scenes in the movie showcase Dave and Kim Jong Un’s blossoming bromance ,which includes shooting hoops with margaritas in hand and listening shamelessly to Katy Perry. There’s a manic charisma in Franco’s performance that reminded me of other comedic actors like Mike Myers or Jim Carrey, who also work hard to get the audience on their side. He has a comedic magnetism here that is so effective, it’s almost a let down when he isn’t present on screen.
Indeed, the scenes that feature Rogen without Franco often flounder without their chemistry, including a romantic subplot with Kim Jong Un’s assistant that simply goes nowhere. Rogen’s comedic talent as an actor is squandered here but he proves himself again as a competent director alongside Evan Goldberg, with whom he also co-directed last year’s This Is The End. The Interview may not have the satirical bite that curious audiences may come to expect but has enough lowbrow laughs to make it worth their while anyway.
How is greatness made? Hard work and dedication, sure, but can truly great figures of history get there through normal circumstances or is there a deeper pain that must be confronted and overcome? Is it worth pushing these figures away from the possibility of a normal life in order to serve a higher calling? The new music-based film Whiplash, one of this year’s very best, deals with these concepts with brutal honesty and feverish intensity. It sometimes feels like a companion piece to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which also dealt with the darker side of ambition and the potential perils of perfectionism.
Miles Teller, one of the best young actors working today, plays Andrew Neiman, a freshman jazz drummer who is just starting out at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. After drumming in a practice room late one evening, he is discovered by the conductor of the school’s lead jazz band Terence Fletcher, played with merciless tenacity by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher sees potential in Andrew and invites him to play in his group but after a verbally abusive confrontation with Andrew on his first sit-in, it’s clear that Fletcher’s teaching tactics will push him further than he’s gone before.
It’s hard to overstate just how good Teller and Simmons are here. Both do so much to defy the typical teacher-student role conventions seen in lesser films and instead create believable characters that are morally complex and psychologically compelling throughout. Fletcher is generally monstrous and Andrew is often sympathetic, if by necessity, but each character is given a fair trial and first-time director Damien Chazelle doesn’t give us an easy sense on which character is right or wrong in what they’re doing. He gives us the opportunity of perspective and allows us to make up our own minds; a refreshing concept.
Another refreshing aspect of this movie is the way it doesn’t bind itself to traditional Hollywood storytelling methods. There are subplots involving Andrew’s caring father and also his temporary girlfriend that serve the story purposefully but the majority of the run time is tightly focused on the relationship between these two complicated characters. It also doesn’t shy away from mental and physical anguish associated with being the best in a highly competitive field. There are no convenient montages of steady progression; we see all of the tears, sweat and yes, blood, along the way.
Chazelle uses these tortuous settings to create a relentlessly tense and downright dangerous atmosphere that had me pinned down from beginning to end. There’s an anxious, propulsive energy to Whiplash that gives it a bracingly unpredictable quality, especially leading up to and including the film’s spellbinding climax which further showcases Teller’s amazing abilities behind the drum set. Frankly, I’ve never seen a movie that was this singularly focused on music performance and as a musician, I was thrilled and delighted to find a film that dealt with the subject passionately and intelligently.
Those who like their movie franchises unnecessarily drawn out and bloated, fear not: the final chapter of The Hobbit series is upon us at last and I fear that not even the most staunch Tolkien devotees will find much to like in the joyless obligation that is The Battle of the Five Armies. The whimsy and wonder of the previous entries has been replaced with stilted dialogue and endless barrages of computer generated chaos. In fact, this film was previously subtitled There and Back Again but unfortunately, The Battle of the Five Armies turns out to be a more fitting title after all, as the majority of the run time is dedicated to the titular conflict.
We pick back up right where the previous movie left off, with Smaug on his way to terrorize the small town of Esgaroth as Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, and the Dwarves look on from the Lonely Mountain. After the great dragon is vanquished by Bard, played by Luke Evans, the fate of the vast treasure at Erebor becomes uncertain. Led by the fearless Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, the Dwarves defend their treasure against the Middle Earth armies of men, Elves and Orcs (frankly, I couldn’t tell you after seeing the movie who the Fifth Army is).
From the Helm’s Deep battle in The Two Towers to the battle at Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King, large scale showdowns were an integral part of the success of the Lord of the Rings franchise and they used to be one of director Peter Jackson’s fortes. Some of the sequences in this film feel like a parody of Peter Jackson’s directing style, whether its characters taking long pauses to speak amongst hundreds of characters fighting around them or the hilarious over abundance of Orc beheadings that used to be treated as a novelty in the LotR series but is literally done to death in Five Armies.
When the screen isn’t filled wall to wall with incoherent and increasingly implausible action, we’re treated to meaningless subplots that crop up sporadically throughout. The most noxious are those involving an Elf-Dwarf romance that inspires some amazingly mawkish lines of dialogue like “he is my king but he does not command my heart.” This could possibly be forgiven if the acting was worthwhile but it consistently appears as though the majority of the actors are bored to reprise these roles. Least compelling among these actors is Lee Pace, who has proven again to be a colossal bore in his antagonistic film roles after his charming lead part on ABC’s Pushing Daisies.
While plodding through its comparatively gracious runtime of 144 minutes, there’s an unshakable sense of looming déjà vu as one watches this entry in the Hobbit series. It’s the feeling that everything we’re seeing has been done better before and even by the same production team, which is unfortunately the case here more often than not. I personally can’t wait for the day when all the Hobbit films are available on Blu-Ray and someone clever on the internet condenses the three into one cohesive piece of filmmaking. Until then, I can’t suggest that even diehard fans go out to see this thud of a conclusion.
After a couple near misses in the director’s chair, Chris Rock returns with his third feature Top Five, which isn’t without its drawbacks but ultimately comes across as Rock’s most honest film to date. The feel and premise recall the recently released Birdman, which both feature actors reflecting on their careers and striving to do more ambitious work in order for their fans and critics to take them more seriously. While the comedy here is decidedly more broad, both films know how to use comedy as a means of catharsis for their lead characters.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a washed-up comedian turned actor who threw away a successful stand-up career for a hit buddy cop franchise called “Hammy the Bear”, which has him running around in a bear suit and shouting catch phrases like “It’s Hammy Time!” As a backlash against the character, he chooses to star in an award-baiting, Haitian revolution movie called “Uprize” in hopes of winning back the critical admiration that he squandered with the “Hammy” series. While back home in New York to tirelessly promote the film, he is followed and questioned by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown, played with winning charm by Rosario Dawson.
Brown starts with softball questions about Allen’s career and his upcoming celebrity wedding but the questions grow more personal as the day goes on. It turns out that they both have more in common than they think and soon, an easy and likable chemistry forms between the two. Their scenes together make up the best stretches in the movie, whose New York street walk-and-talk style feel like Rock’s version of a Woody Allen movie. The dialogue, also written by Rock, covers Rock’s usual favorite topics of race and relationships but it aims to penetrate deeper into how these characters think and feel.
While I don’t doubt Rock’s merits as an actor or a writer, he still has room to develop as a director. This film has a start-stop, jerky rhythm to it, which is caused by sporadic flashback sequences that are very hit-or-miss on the whole. Some of those scenes just go on for too long, like a flashback to Houston in 2003 when Allen is recounting a “rock bottom” affair that is neither as comedically appealing or dramatically revealing as Rock thinks it is. Others work quite well, including an unexpected rapper’s hilarious rendition of “Smile” while he and Allen are staying the night in jail.
In many ways, Top Five also reminded me of the movie Funny People with Adam Sandler, who is among one of the film’s numerous cameos. Both star comedians who started in stand-up comedy, strayed away to advance their careers but yearn to return to the stage once again. There’s an excitement to performing stand-up that Rock captures well here in the scene after Allen returns to the Comedy Cellar for the first time in years. Likewise, both films also give way to melodramatic turns and meandering subplots but Top Five has enough to recommend to fans of show biz comedies and especially to fans of Chris Rock.
Documentaries can serve many roles: they can inform, they can influence and yes, they can bore. But some, like genre greats Hoop Dreams and Capturing the Friedmans, take a seed of an idea and pursue it with the dramatic precision of a fictional feature film. The result is an exquisite experience: watching a true story that feels like it’s being created before our eyes. That’s how I felt while watching The Overnighters, which I found to be one of the most compelling and transfixing documentaries that I’ve seen all year
The movie’s title refers to a program started by Pastor Jay Reinke at his church in Williston, North Dakota, which allows men who are effectively homeless to find shelter as they hope to take advantage of the rampant growth in the area’s fracking jobs. While this is clearly an overwhelming act of charity, Reinke’s plan soon comes under fire from a community whose recent population spike has also seen an increase in the number of felons and criminals residing in the small North Dakota town. When details of an Overnighter’s criminal past come to light, Reinke finds himself in a very public act of moral tug-of-war that threatens to erode his career and his family’s trust.
Even if you take the weighty and worthwhile topics of economic inequality and the nature of charity away from The Overnighters, you would still be left with a fascinating and deeply personal character study. Reinke is compelling for the same reason the main character in a fictional drama would be: we root for him and yet we can’t be entirely sure of his motivations. He consistently refers to himself as a deeply flawed man when confiding in the men that he shelters, although he generally comes off as a thoughtful, charismatic and generally kind person. “It’s easy to become a facade,” he states at the film’s opening, and we don’t fully learn the weight of what he means until the concluding moments of the story.
The entire structure of The Overnighters is similarly purposeful, which can be attributed to the keen eyes and ears of director Jesse Moss. In interviews, Moss has revealed that he originally went to Williston to capture the fracking story and how it affected the community but he shifted his story’s focus when learning of Pastor Reinke and his mission. This spontaneous shift in storytelling makes Moss’ film even more admirable, especially considering that Reinke’s culminating moment in the movie was almost entirely unplanned by the filmmaker.
I also admired Moss’ level headed approach to this material. This is a documentary potentially ripe for loads of political posturing but he gives each character room to express their thoughts and feelings freely instead of editing together a series of talking head interviews to hammer home a point. The Overnighters often plays like a parable for the cynical notion that “no good deed goes unpunished” but in Reinke’s case, the unravelling of that good deed reveals universal truths about the resiliency of the human spirit.
Most modern horror films don’t have as much patience or trust in their audience’s intelligence as The Babadook does. While most work on a surface level that mainly involve knee-jerk reactions and amped up music cues, there is a select class of films like this one that work on an intimate psychological level of dread and discomfort. For those reasons, among others, it stands out as one of the best horror movies of the past few years and certainly the most unique that I’ve seen this year.
Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a struggling widow and mother of a troubled seven-year-old named Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman. Through an early flashback, we find that Amelia’s husband Oskar, played by Benjamin Winspear, passed away the night of Samuel’s birth as he was rushing to drive Amelia to the emergency room. It’s made clear that the seven years of single parenthood haven’t been easy on either Amelia or Samuel and when a macabre pop-up book titled “Mister Babadook” begins appearing around the house, it unleashes the titular supernatural force that cruelly threatens to rob them of their sanity and their lives.
While the creature is only seen briefly during its moments in the film, its ominous silhouette alone creates a lasting impression and when seen in full, the Babadook reminded me most of a twisted combination of Nosferatu and Jack the Ripper. This archaic aesthetic is fitting, as the lighting and staging in the most climatic scenes feels like a throwback to silent era films. Even the majority of the effects are practical as opposed to computer generated, which lends a more realistic and grounded approach to scenes that may have otherwise come off as cheap or lazy.
Grounded is also a good word to use when describing the storytelling as well, which does involve supernatural elements like ghosts and monsters but is rich with subtext on human issues like the persistence of grief and the hardships of single parenthood. Amelia’s feelings of resentment and exhaustion towards Samuel exist long before the Babadook arrives in their home and director Jennifer Kent does a great job at materializing these impulses in a way that feels psychologically convincing and dramatically satisfying. While some scenes may be a bit too on-the-nose when tying the allegorical elements together, it’s hard to fault a debut film that’s striving to push an entire genre into more narratively complex territory.
It’s difficult, too, to understate the importance of Essie Davis’ performance to the film’s success. She’s a marvel to watch, conveying depths of anguish and rage underneath the guise of a mother trying to put on her best face for her child. When moments of brutal honesty do arrive, Davis delivers them with a frightening amount of conviction. She, along with director Jennifer Kent, have created a very special scare-fest that I hope will haunt audiences for years to come.
The final entry in the Hunger Games series has arrived and in the tradition of the hugely successful Harry Potter and Twilight films, it has been split into two parts with the final film being released a year from now. While I haven’t read the books and can’t tell you if Part 1 creates a viable stopping point for the final film, I can say that this standalone portion of Mockingjay feels quite stretched at feature length and I have a hard time believing that this material couldn’t be skillfully condensed into one movie. Clearly this was a financial decision on the part of Lionsgate to milk their $1.5 billion (and counting) franchise as long as they can.
Mockingjay picks up right where we left off from Catching Fire, with our heroine Katniss Everdeen, played by Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, living in the bombed-out District 13 and still reeling from the outcome of the Quarter Quell. Her actions in those Games have sparked uprisings and civil unrest throughout the Districts and the President of 13 Alma Coin, played with conviction by Julianne Moore, hopes to mold Katniss into a symbol of united revolution against the Capitol. She agrees under the condition that her lost love Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, be retrieved from the clutches of the Capitol and its corrupt President Snow, reprised with grinning menace by Donald Sutherland.
The film has taken away what I always thought was one of the least interesting things about the previous entries, the Games themselves, but it hasn’t replaced them with much exciting material either. Fans of the series will likely be put off by the Katniss-less action in Part 1, in which the main character fires exactly one arrow in combat, although it does produce one of the movie’s most satisfying, trailer-ready shots. The majority of the material here is comprised of characters brooding or explaining or plotting, which may prove worthwhile for Part 2 but doesn’t leave us with much for now.
All of the characters, Katniss included, feel sidelined and underutilized, often waiting for things to happen as opposed to moving the story along themselves. If that was a conscious decision on the part of director Francis Lawrence, it comes off more as spinning its wheels rather than organically building tension. The acting here is similarly dubious; I never imagined that Josh Hutcherson would give a more convincing performance than Jennifer Lawrence in this film (or any film, really) but it’s sadly the case here.
Despite this, Mockingjay is not without its share of inspired moments. There are thankfully some beats of levity in a scene that finds Katniss botching her lines for an overproduced propaganda film that has cheeky notes of political satire embedded. I was most taken with a quietly poetic scene in which soldiers infiltrate the Capitol to retrieve previous Tributes, which frequently reminded me of the Abbottabad raid sequence in Zero Dark Thirty. Here’s hoping that the finale has more gripping scenes like this one but for now, it feels like we’re stuck with the world’s most expensive bookmark.
Taken from the name of its main character’s inflammatory radio show, Dear White People is a campus comedy that finds both black and white students coming to terms not only with how others view them but how they view themselves. While the movie and its marketing do have a prickly, sardonic exterior, the core of the film is an intelligent, even-handed look at young people choosing to conform or not conform to others’ expectations of them. First time director Justin Simien explores these layers of identity through a myriad of well-thought-out characters that don’t just serve as mouthpieces for the film’s message.
The lead character Sam, played by Tessa Thompson, is the resident rabble-rouser of the prestigious Winchester University, whose radio show lobs loaded racial one-liners such as “Dear white people: the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.” The show proves offensive to both white and black characters, drawing the ire of the school president’s son Kurt, played by Kyle Gallner, and the dean of Winchester, played by Dennis Haysbert. With the backing of the campus’ Black Student Union, Sam is able to claim control over the all black Armstrong/Parker house from the dean’s son Troy, played by Brandon P. Bell.
As an act of rebellion against Sam’s reign, Kurt and his humor magazine group Patische choose to celebrate their annual Halloween party by throwing an intentionally offensive “black” themed party, complete with blackface makeup and “thugged-out” apparel (the invitation states that XXL is the smallest permissible t-shirt size.) While this may feel like an overreach on Simien’s part, the film’s end credits document real life headlines of fraternities caught hosting eerily similar events. The party serves as the film’s climax, which has noticeable parallels to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
We’re obviously dealing with heavy material here but the level of honesty and humor that Dear White People brings to the conversation of race is refreshing. The acting, by a generally unknown cast, is generally stellar across the board. The screenplay is often witty and relevant, only faltering when going after easy targets like Kanye West and the Big Momma’s House series. Even without the race content, the film would work as a Robert Altman (who is name checked by one of the movie’s characters) influenced look at modern college life.
Certainly this is an ambitious film, especially for a debut, and Simien does spread himself too thin over multiple story lines that come together through one contrivance or another. I would have enjoyed the scope being narrower overall, focusing more intensely on 3-4 characters as opposed to broadly on 7-8 characters. Although tonally consistent, the film’s visual style tries to cover too much ground without ever truly establishing itself in the first place. However, the contemplative musical score does help to fill in those gaps and bring Dear White People together as a worthwhile piece of sharp social satire.
Michael Keaton soars above a star-studded cast in Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the newest film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. In one of the film’s touches of art imitating life, Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor of a popular superhero movie franchise attempting to revive his career through the treacherous world of New York theatre. His turbulent production of the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” makes up the majority of the movie’s narrative focus, although there are plenty of pit stops and tangents along the way.
Joining Riggan on stage are his girlfriend Laura, played by Andrea Riseborough, and Broadway newcomer Lesley, played by Naomi Watts. When one of the leads is involved in a tragic rigging accident, he is replaced by cocky method actor Mike Shiner, who is portrayed hilariously with haughty intensity by Edward Norton. Off the stage, Riggan is bolstered by his neglected daughter-turned-assistant, played by Emma Stone, and fearlessly supported by his lawyer and best friend Jake, performed with sputtering conviction by comedian Zach Galifianakis.
Iñárritu is no stranger to this type of stream of consciousness filmmaking but here he is graced by the presence of the visionary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose dazzling camerawork gives the film an unmatched level of liquidity and vibrancy. There’s an ethereal quality to this filmmaking, as if the camera is an omniscient being floating around the theater in a search for a greater truth. Many films have been credited as being “dreamlike” but thanks to Lubezki’s sublime technique, Birdman actually has the emotional urgency and attentive detail of a waking fantasy.
The lingering feel of the film is captured most prominently by the film’s extended takes, which are woven together to give the impression that it has all been filmed in (almost) one unbroken shot. While this gimmick has been attempted most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the concept here is used not to show off but rather to give the characters’ interactions an additional level of propulsive resonance. It has the dramatic effect of a great bottle episode in a television series, in which characters are confined to one location and often “bounce off” one another as a result. In addition, the free jazz-based musical score also helps provide a demanding rhythm to the storytelling.
While Birdman is technically courageous and consistently well acted, the story arc here is not nearly ambitious as it should have and could have been. Keaton fully commits himself to this role but Riggan’s tale is one that ultimately left me feeling a combination of ambivalence and puzzlement. It also doesn’t help that the rest of the characters’ story lines don’t add up to much in the end either. Despite this, the screenplay does pack in enough existential musing and witty wordplay to make it work best as a dark comedy. Iñárritu’s inventive flight of fancy is generally a surface affair but when the surface looks this good, it sure is difficult to look away.
Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne are back for the first time in twenty years and while this should be grounds for celebration, the result is a movie that can be considered a disappointment regardless of where your expectations are set. Dumb and Dumber To strips away the charm and goofiness its predecessor in favor of broader and more tasteless humor designed for increasingly cheap laughs. Though some of the jokes do land, the majority of the film feels like a desperate cash grab from the Farrelly Brothers, whose best days of comedy are clearly behind them.
For the uninitiated, Lloyd, played by Jim Carrey, and Harry, played by Jeff Daniels, are best friends and idiots who unwittingly find themselves caught up in misadventures that send them across the country. This time around, Harry and Lloyd find an old, misplaced postcard from their mutual flame Fraida Felcher (one of the many callbacks to the original film) that alleges Harry as being the father of her child. When the two meet face to face with Fraida, played by Kathleen Turner, she explains that she gave the child up for adoption years ago, which prompts Harry and Lloyd to set out and find her.
I’ll stop there because, let’s be honest: the plot is not the focus of this movie, nor was it the focus of Dumb and Dumber either. These films live or die by the punchlines and sight gags but this time around, the humor usually falls flat because the element of surprise and discovery is completely dissipated. As usual, Jim Carrey gives it all that he has here but Jeff Daniels just looks tired and embarrassed through most of Dumb and Dumber To. Even the often reliable Rob Riggle can’t manage any laughs as a hopeless chaperone forced to travel along with the two imbeciles.
Clearly there was just a lack of inspiration and creativity that went into this production. It inexplicably took six writers, including the two Farrelly Brothers, to produce a script that just does not give the actors anything to work with. It also paints Harry and Lloyd as more obnoxious and mean-spirited than we’ve seen them before, whether they’re “nerd bashing” at a TED-like conference or blatantly insulting women based on their appearance. There used to be a sweet charisma to these characters that has since been misplaced, which makes it more difficult to find a rooting interest in them.
Despite these criticisms, this film has the joke-a-minute pace of the original and I did laugh at a fair amount of material throughout. While they were mainly laughs that I felt guilty about the next day, I did sporadically enjoy being in the presence of these goofballs once again. One of the funniest scenes involves fireworks shooting off in a car and the subsequent hearing loss that renders Harry and Lloyd oblivious to an oncoming train. Unfortunately, there’s not enough here to recommend to newcomers or even the most hardcore of Dumb and Dumber aficionados.