Annie

December 19, 2014 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Quevenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne
Directed by: Will Gluck (“Easy A,” “Friends With Benefits”)
Written by: Will Gluck (“Friends With Benefits”) and Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”)

My memories of the original big screen adaptation of “Annie” are fuzzy, mixed up with the McDonald’s commercials that interspersed the movie which my mom had recorded off of a TV broadcast in the mid-’80s for my sister and me. Sure, I know the songs “Tomorrow” and “Hard Knock Life” like the back of my hand, but they also seem strangely related to that commercial where the girl has a piano recital and sings along to “Fur Elise” by talking about how much she loves McDonald’s cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes just the same. I guess what I’m saying is that, while that version of “Annie” was a big part of my childhood, it wasn’t important enough that my mind immediately turned to rage when I was made aware of director Will Gluck’s (“Easy A”) modern take on the venerable Broadway musical.

Swapping out the source material’s Depression-era setting for present-day New York, we find Annie (Quevenzhane Wallis) as an agreeably pleasant foster kid living with a quartet of other girls with Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz, lost from the get-go as a broadly-drawn cartoon), a mean, drunken wannabe superstar who was kicked out of ’90s band C+C Music Factory just before their appearance on Arsenio Hall’s late night talk show. Meanwhile germaphobic cell phone billionaire Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is running a losing campaign for mayor of New York City. With his trusty assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) and slimy campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) by his side, he runs into disaster after disaster on the campaign trail, sending his polling numbers lower and lower. It isn’t until a chance meeting where Stacks saves Annie from getting hit by a car that his fortunes turn around, thanks to a bystander catching his heroism on camera and uploading it to YouTube. Seeing how things start going his way after Annie arrived on the scene, Guy suggest Stacks take Annie in to live with him for the duration of the campaign, a scenario that Stacks isn’t 100 percent on board with.

While the modern-day setting makes sense for a film that wants to sell (and wink at) blatant product placement for contemporary things like Target, removing the story from the original ’30s setting causes problems almost immediately. Wallis is fine as Annie, but lacks the plucky, gee-whiz spirit the material really needs. Instead of a fire plug of energy who would turn a distant plutocrat’s world upside down with her shenanigans, this Annie is a sweet, caring, low-key little girl who seems like she would be a dream to have around (the only strange thing about her being that she prefers to sleep on the floor instead of the giant bed she’s given). As Stacks, Foxx is called upon to play a strange mix of bumbling dad, fussy weirdo, and smooth R&B singer, never finding a groove to carry him through the film. And while the signature songs like “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” are given relatively straightforward arrangements, the rest of the tunes are adapted into strange, stuttering hip-hop beats that all but destroy any entertainment value, especially anything requiring Cameron Diaz to sing. Yikes.

The most enjoyable moments in the film, sadly, come from a Gluck signature: a movie within the movie, this time a bombastic “Twilight” knock off called “MoonQuake Lake” starring Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher and Rihanna, directed by Hollywood golden boys Chris Miller and Phil Lord. The fact that I’d much rather watch that movie says a lot about “Annie.”

Chef

May 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara
Directed by: Jon Favreau (“Made”)
Written by: Jon Favreau (“Swingers”)

If the effectiveness of a food-based film is based on how much said movie makes your mouth water for the dishes cooked on screen, rank director/actor/writer/produer John Favreau’s new comedy among the finest dining experiences at the theater in recent years. It may not make you have a food orgasm like in “Like Water for Chocolate,” but Favreau definitely teases the tastebuds.

It all starts with Favreau’s spirited and realistic script that allows his actors to play their roles without any artifice. In the film, Favreau takes on the lead role of Carl Casper, a chef of an upscale restaurant in Los Angeles where he has built a solid following cooking really good food. But Carl wants to do more than play it safe in the kitchen. He wants to experiment and take risks. Restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), however, wants him to stick to the menu and cook the dishes he’s been making for the last five years. After a nasty war of words on social media with high-profile food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), who lambasts Carl’s latest effort in the kitchen, Carl sees no other choice but to pack his knives and find a new start in the culinary world. Taking advice from his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), he heads east with her and their son Percy (Emjay Anthony) for the summer to Miami where Carl starts a food truck business.

While the film isn’t breaking any new ground thematically, Favreau seems dead set on making “Chef” seem as true to life as possible. Much of this comes through the dialogue and interaction between characters, specifically Carl and Percy whose father/son relationship is sweet, but never cloying. Favreau also finds a natural give-and-take rapport with actors Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo, who play support staff in his kitchen. The latter finds his way to Miami later in the film to lend Carl a hand with his new endeavor. Also joining the cast for bit parts are Black Widow and Iron Man themselves, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr., both of whom give the film a little more star power for those moviegoers who will more than likely overlook an indie gem like this and settle for superhero fare this summer.

After mixed results with the blockbuster projects he’s directed in the last few years (“Iron Man” good, “Cowboys & Aliens,” not so much), it’s refreshing to see Favreau find his way back to a more intimate story where character development and smart dialogue trump everything else. There is a lot of cooking going on in “Chef,” but it’s easy to see the main course in this film is about Carl’s shortcomings as a father. Favreau is able to balance this narrative well, especially with the effortless performance he gets from his costar Anthony. It’s a great pairing that’ll make both your stomach and your heart expand.

“Chef” was seen at SXSW 2014. For more SXSW 2014 coverage, click here.

Blue Jasmine

August 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin
Directed by: Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”)
Written by: Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”)

If director/writer Woody Allen has proven anything during his screenwriting career, it’s that he knows how to write extraordinarily neurotic characters. From Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall” to Maria Elena in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (and countless more), Allen’s ability to show off the ugly emotional scars of both men and women and give them an almost grating personality is an art form incomparable to any director over the last four decades. Despite the numerous disturbed protagonists he’s created in all that time, it could be argued that the title character in “Blue Jasmine,” played by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (“The Aviator”), is the most complex one he has ever written. It’s Blanchett’s obsessive performance that takes on a life of its own and reveals some of the same despair as a Tennessee Williams novel.

In “Blue Jasmine,” Jasmine (Blanchett, who just might end up getting her fifth Academy Award nomination here) is a well-to-do New York City socialite who has fallen from grace because of the shady business practices of her financier husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). With nowhere to go, Jasmine makes a move to San Francisco where she turns to her estranged, working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) for a place to stay. Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) doesn’t like the fact that Jasmine has come around only when she needs something. It might be a reason Jasmine starts planting seeds in her sister’s head that Chili is as big of a loser as her last boyfriend Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, in a scene-stealing role).

As things get testy in the household, Allen uses flashbacks to explain just what went wrong in everyone’s lives to get them to where they are now. It’s a storytelling devices that is tricky to do well, but Allen pieces the narrative together with such creativity and ease, jumping back and forth from the past and present doesn’t feel like work for the audience. This is a tragic tale only Allen could write. His characters are pathetic when they need to be, and enlightening at the perfect moments. At the end, they’ll all break your heart.

Besides Allen’s talent with the pen, it’s Blanchett’s total commitment to the role that gives “Blue Jasmine” its gravitas. Yes, she goes a bit overboard (think Charlize Theron in “Young Adult” without the meds), but there’s no denying the powerhouse performance still resonates, even when Blanchett is chewing up scenes like a starved Brahma bull.

Lovelace

August 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone
Directed by: Rob Epstein (“Howl”) and Jeffrey Friedman (“Howl”)
Written by: Andy Bellin (“Trust”)

“Lovelace,” the biopic featuring actress Amanda Seyfried (“Les Miserables”) as 1970s porn icon Linda Lovelace, could be a very minor companion piece to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 porn epic “Boogie Nights.” While the film doesn’t come close to the depth or emotional resonance of Anderson’s masterpiece, Lovelace herself would have been an interesting secondary character to follow in “Nights” like audiences did with Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope or Heather Graham’s Rollergirl. Instead, “Lovelace” is a solo show that has grand aspirations but isn’t playing in the same league as the big boys. Still, the screenplay by Andy Bellin (“Trust”) is distinctively framed and some inspired casting decisions were made giving “Lovelace” just enough stamina to see it through.

While Seyfried is playing the title role, actor Peter Sarsgaard really has control of the film just like his character Chuck Traynor does with Linda’s life and career. Once Linda meets Chuck, who is just about as sleazy a character as James Woods’ Lester Diamond in “Casino,” there’s no turning back for the innocent Catholic schoolgirl from the Bronx. When Chuck tells Linda they need more money, it’s never a question about how they’re going to get it. Chuck’s plan is definitive when he begins pimping out Linda and then introduces her to the world of pornography.

From here, the fantasy of a perfect marriage and home life is destroyed as Linda finds herself trapped in an industry that praises her for nothing more than a nonexistent gag reflex. As she continues to perform and live with her physically abusive husband, we watch as Linda transforms from a human being into a belittled brand name simply to line Chuck’s pockets. Her claim to fame is the infamous 1972 adult film “Deep Throat,” which is considered one of the most successful ever made.

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who teamed up in 2010 for the inadequate Allen Ginsberg biopic “Howl” starring James Franco, the duo do a better job making us believe Seyfried is more than a big-name star playing pretend during an era she wasn’t even alive for. For the most part, Seyfried loses herself in the role as does Sarsgaard and other well cast actors like Chris Noth (“Sex and the City”), Bobby Cannavale (“Win Win”) and Hank Azaria (“Along Came Polly”). As Linda’s overbearing and seemingly uncaring mother, Sharon Stone (“Casino”) gets her biggest opportunity to shine since her role in 2006’s “Bobby” and does a commendable job. As Linda’s father, Robert Patrick (“Gangster Squad”) is given the most emotional scene in the film when he asks his daughter what he did wrong that pushed her into an immoral lifestyle.

Linda might have transcended the porn industry in the 70s, but “Lovelace” doesn’t do the same for biopics in general. Her life was a complex one, but Epstein and Friedman only skim the surface. With Linda Lovelace, you have to go a lot deeper than that.

Win Win

April 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”)
Written by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”)

While most sports-themed films focus on the game-winning shot at the buzzer or a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, none are as emotionally rich as the ones that revel in the post-game celebration. Even then, winning isn’t everything if the narrative is brimming with spirited drama like in “Rocky,” “A League of Their Own,” or “Friday Night Lights.”

Sure, watching Rudy Ruettiger on the sidelines during his team’s final defensive stance in “Rudy” would have been extremely anticlimactic, and Daniel LaRusso probably would’ve found himself in a body bag if he hadn’t crane-kicked Johnny in the face at the end of “The Karate Kid,” but those things happen. The ball doesn’t always find the center of the rim. The coach leaves you sipping Gatorade on the bench. Nerves factor in. Someone always goes home disappointed.

It takes a film like “Win Win” to find a silver lining or thematic balance when a screenplay isn’t dictated by typical Hollywood standards. Directed and written by Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “The Station Agent”), “Win Win” isn’t so much an inspirational “Pride of the Yankees”-type sports movie as it is an endearing family dramedy set delicately in the competitive world of high school wrestling.

Unlike Gary Cooper in that 1942 Lou Gehrig biopic, Paul Giamatti in “Win Win” is far from announcing to anyone that he’s the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” As a small-town New Jersey lawyer with a struggling practice, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) worries about how he will support his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters. Moonlighting as the local high school wrestling coach doesn’t help ease any anxiety since his team of young grapplers is missing a few things, specifically skill.

But Mike’s problems seem to be solved two-fold when he agrees to take legal guardianship of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a client suffering from early stages of dementia. Afterwards, Mike’s moral compass spins out of control; he pockets the monthly stipend and checks the old man into a retirement home. His sketchy behavior leads him into the path of Leo’s unusually mature, albeit slightly rebellious, teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer in a breakout role), who happens to know his way around a wrestling mat. Mike and Jackie are adamant about giving Kyle the stable, suburban upbringing he needs after they find out the only adult in his life is his drug-addicted mother (Melanie Lynskey). McCarthy writes Kyle with sensitivity and depth and treats him like a real kid, as opposed to the oversized puppy dog Sandra Bullock boards in “The Blind Side.”

McCarthy could’ve replaced the wrestling scenes with scenes from any other sport and still produced the same heartwarming and darkly hilarious movie (credit actors Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor as assistant wrestling coaches). The crux of this story comes from the complex relationships between all of McCarthy’s meaningful human characters. Giamatti’s role isn’t a stretch from the frustrated failures he’s accustomed to playing, but there is such a decent heart inside Mike that it allows audiences to overlook some of his early underhandedness and will his redemptive qualities to the forefront. Newcomer Shaffer holds his own in the daunting task of sharing the screen with juggernaut Oscar nominees; his non-actor charisma and natural athleticism (he’s really a state high school wrestling champion from Jersey) maintain his believability. “Win Win” may not be a flawless victory, but McCarthy is able to pin us down effortlessly nonetheless, proving there’s more to life than being carried off the field a hero.