Friday, May 29, 2015

Movie Review - The Voices

This is proof positive that Ryan Reynolds, despite his handsome face and chiseled body, could work as a voice-over artist, and probably be somewhat successful. He walks around as a meek and meager, pink-wearing factory worker, possibly in middle America who lives above a bowling alley, awkward and unassuming. Yet, Reynolds provides the voices for several animated characters within this movie. To hear those voices and seeing them come from his own mouth might be ridiculous, but seeing it come from the mouths of animated characters, an animated cat and dog specifically, makes it work.

There is a great cast of women that are supporting characters. The best among them is probably Jacki Weaver who plays the therapist of Reynolds' character, Jerry. Written by Michael R. Perry, the script limits the scenes with the therapist so that there isn't a lot of digging into Jerry's past or how he was first diagnosed and then put into therapy. This movie references the character of Norman Bates from Psycho (1960), not only with a name-check but with suggestion of matricide, though it's a toss-up of why Jerry is crazy or when it first manifested.

In light of all the real-world tragedies and killings that are attributed to mental illness, this movie seems to be a relevant and seriocomic look at mental illness. However, the first murder that Jerry commits is depicted as almost an accident. It would have been better if this movie gave Jerry more of a motive.

Gemma Arterton co-stars as Fiona, a woman who works at the same company as Jerry. He develops a crush on her. He tries to go on a date with her but she blows him off. This sets the stage for why Jerry might kill her, but that's not the stage that Jerry takes. If you want to see a better movie that runs with that premise, check out Rubberneck (2013) by Alex Karpovsky from HBO's Girls.

Directed by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), there isn't a distinction of Jerry's delusions or hallucinations. He seems only to have his psychotic breaks at home and at certain moments. There's a weird consistency and inconsistency. He claims to be off his medication all the time, but his hallucinations aren't all the time and there's a wonder why. His brain seems to cover-up bad things, but that wouldn't explain his talking animals. It's somehow simply intriguing to watch and listen to Reynolds work as an actor here.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for bloody violence, and for language including sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.

Movie Review - Cake

Despite starring Jennifer Aniston, this was one of the most under-marketed films of the past year featuring such a high-profile actress. This movie had the potential of being for Aniston what Dallas Buyers Club was for Matthew McConaughey. Because this film only got a limited theatrical release, certainly not as wide a release as Dallas Buyers Club, it got buried underneath all of the other movies that were vying for attention. Thanks to the campaign of screeners, it did get three major nominations. All of them were for Jennifer Aniston. It got a Golden Globe nomination, a SAG Award nomination and a Critics Choice Award nom as well.

It had such momentum with these considerations that some thought Aniston might get an Oscar nomination. Yet, she seemingly was pushed aside, but Aniston does give a great performance. Aniston stars as Claire, a woman who used to be a lawyer, who used to be a wife and who used to be a mother. She lost it all in some kind of incident that left her forever scarred and barely able to walk. She's also in chronic pain and from beginning to end Aniston convincingly portrays that pain. I believed that she was really hurting physically.

Therefore, as a vehicle for Aniston to showcase her dramatic acting, it's a success. Director Daniel Barnz perfectly captures her and gives her the space to display this woman's suffering. The story that the narrative follows feels contrived. Claire is in a support group that has had a recent suicide, so Claire decides to stalk the husband and little boy of the dead woman, ultimately she befriends him, but the whole thing is so contrived.

Adriana Barraza co-stars as Silvana, the Hispanic woman who works for Claire. There is a great relationship between the two, which is vastly more interesting than any interaction that Claire has with any guy. The two main guys are interesting though. Chris Messina is great, even in his one scene, and this is probably only the second time I've liked Sam Worthington in a role. The other time was The Debt (2011).

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language, substance abuse and brief sexuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

VOD Review - Teacher of the Year (2015)

Matt Letscher in 'Teacher of the Year'
Written and directed by Jason Strouse, this movie feels like an episode of NBC's The Office. It seems as if Strouse is trying to venture into Christopher Guest territory but in reality this is an episode of The Office, if that show was set, not at a paper company in somewhere, Pennsylvania, but instead a charter school in somewhere, California. The problem is that it possesses way more characters who are more idiotic and way more awful than the characters in that American television series.

Even though he's not the protagonist, Keegan-Michael Key stars as Principal Ronald Douche. Despite only being in a few scenes and none of the story revolving around him, Keegan-Michael Key is on the poster and cover art. He's great with his main joke being that he always has to correct people on how to pronounce his name. It's pronounced DOO-SHAY and not DOOSH, the latter pronunciation referring more to the feminine hygiene product.

Matt Letscher (Scandal and The Carrie Diaries) co-stars as Mitch Carter, the actual protagonist of this film. He's the English teacher at Truman High School. He's also the soccer coach and the teachers' union representative. A documentary crew comes to make a movie about him after he wins the Teacher of the Year award. Except, if this movie is The Office, the Principal is Steve Carell's character, while Mitch is John Krasinski's character.

Mitch gets a job offer in Washington, DC, for a lobbying position at a corporation with special interests in private education. The movie then presents the pros and cons of Mitch taking the job. Mitch has a wife and daughter whose opinions go back and forth. It's a tug-of-war therefore of what Mitch will do, if he'll stay or if he'll go.

Along the way, we meet the various other teachers and administrators who weigh-in on the decision, as well as comment and complain about their own lives and jobs. All of whom are annoying, or just weirdly odd. The worst are the two guidance counselors who are twin brothers Clive and Lowell Hammer, played respectively by Randy and Jason Sklar. Some might be considered funny like Brian Campbell, the AP Calculus and math teacher, played by Chris Conner.

A very provocative story is built around Brian and him being accused of a sexual assault, which changes the dynamic and tone of the movie pretty drastically. It's not to say that a comedy couldn't be had about a teacher being accused of assault or molestation, but it makes for a difficult balancing act with all the other comedy here. I'm not sure if Strouse strikes that balance.

I was fascinated with one of Mitch's students. Alex Carrillo is a soccer player who gets into a fight and garners extra attention from Mitch. Gabriel Chavarria from the Hulu series East Los High plays Alex and is an interesting, young, Latino actor of whom I wish we got more.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 22 mins.

DVD Review - All Yours (Je suis à toi)

This is the second feature from David Lambert. His first feature was Beyond the Walls (Hors les murs), an unexpected, romantic prison drama, and it was excellent. With this movie, it's less about an idealized affair between two men. I suppose it's a roundabout love story, but its protagonist is less a lover and more a user. It keeps a crucial piece of information of the protagonist from the audience as a pivot point, which ultimately hurts with empathizing with that character.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart stars as Lucas, a young man from Argentina. Like Rodrigo Guerrero's The Third One (El Tercero), Lambert's movie opens on a full-screen of a computer as Lucas is making web cam videos. Lucas' videos are pornographic. Apparently, he has a following and inexplicably he asks his Internet followers for money under the presumed threat of suicide. He says to give him a ticket and he'll go. The movie then smash-cuts to Lucas at an airport in Belgium.

Jean-Michel Balthazar co-stars as Henry, an overweight, Belgian cook who works in a small-town bakery. He's gay and he picks up Lucas at the airport, providing him with a place to stay and hoping to have sex with Lucas. Henry is not only overweight but he's significantly older, probably in his early 40's if not middle-age. However, it becomes apparent that Lucas is disgusted by Henry and doesn't want to have sex with him at all.

Eventually, Henry sees that Lucas isn't happy or is reciprocal of feelings, so Henry offers to send him back to Argentina. At the beginning, Lucas said incredulously that he has no family or friends. He tells Henry that he abandoned everything to come to Belgium. His desperation would seem to indicate this to be true, but Lucas reveals himself to be a hustler, a guy who'll do anything for money, whether it's porn or having sex with men, despite claiming to be straight, so it's difficult to believe anything he says.

Monia Chokri (Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways) plays Audrey, an employee at the same bakery where Henry works. Lucas falls in love with her, probably because she's the first female that he sees, but it's not clear what she sees in him. She knows that Lucas is living with Henry and that they're sleeping together. She knows that Henry is gay, so when Lucas starts showing interest in her, she should be skeptical, hesitant or have more regard for Henry. She does have sex with Lucas, even after hearing Henry say in a room full of people that Lucas is his boyfriend.

A secret is then revealed about Lucas that's supposed to make him the most sympathetic character ever. Yet, the screenplay doesn't provide enough of his back story that allows us to understand what his life in Argentina was like. It disconnects us from his initial motivations, so I don't get what Lucas' plan was or what his end game was for coming to Belgium.

Lambert dwells on the bakery procedures and what goes into making various breads and pastries. He also has too many instances of depicting gay sex as a thing that is repulsive. Almost every time that Lucas has sex with a man, regardless if he's a fat man like Henry or a younger better-looking man, Lucas is always shown in the shower desperately trying to wash himself clean. Given that the character is straight, I guess this is fine, but where it leaves Henry is ultimately pathetic.

The final shot of Henry is him dancing with a man who is more age-appropriate and more than likely is actually gay. Yet, the screenplay again is so lacking that I couldn't tell you that man's name or confirm if he even has any kind of romantic interest in Henry at all.

There's a few comparisons to be made to Lambert's debut. There's a connection between two characters who are of two different ethnicities or of two different countries. However, this film is not as much of a knockout as his previous film.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains male full-frontal nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Movie Review - Chocolate City

If you watched the hit film Magic Mike (2012) and wondered where were all the African-American strippers, then this movie, written and directed by Jean-Claude La Marre, answers that. It's basically a rip-off of Magic Mike but instead with all black men. As such, there are some things that are better than Magic Mike, and there are some things that are worse. The scales are tipped so that ultimately this movie's only selling point is that it puts black men on the big screen, particularly Robert Ri'chard who should be more of a star than he is, but other than that, this movie doesn't fly. Even worse, it's not sexy and is rather boring.

Unfortunately, the movie references Magic Mike way too much and its basic narrative is too similar to the Steven Soderbergh picture. That narrative is that a young guy having financial problems is lured into becoming a stripper at a male revue nightclub, which in the end messes with his life. Whereas Soderbergh was not much interested in watching the guys dance, La Marre is very much interested in it. Soderbergh instead wanted to tell a complex story with some nuance and depth. La Marre doesn't care about the story. La Marre just wants to see shirtless, black men gyrate and thrust on stage.

Robert Ri'chard stars as Mike McCoy, a college student who works as a line cook in a restaurant to help pay the bills. He's like Alex Pettyfer's character in Magic Mike, except La Marre makes Mike's circumstances way more depressing. Mike lives at home with his mom, Katherine, played by Vivica A. Fox, who can barely make ends meet, despite working two jobs. Mike also lives with his freeloading older brother Chris, played by DeRay Davis, who despite being in his thirties actively refuses to look for work, which would help his struggling family.

Michael Jai White co-stars as Princeton, a man who runs the nightclub called Chocolate City that features black and Latino, male exotic dancers. He's the Matthew McConaughey equivalent from Magic Mike. The opening of this movie is with Princeton on stage trying to rile up the women in the audience, just as McConaughey's character did in Magic Mike.

Later, there's a scene where Princeton teaches or coaches Mike McCoy how to dance, much like McConaughey's character did with Pettyfer's. It's a ridiculous scene because unlike Pettyfer's character who had no rhythm initially, Ri'chard's character absolutely knew how to dance right out the gate, his first time on stage. It's not just that Ri'chard's Mike McCoy had rhythm but his first time as a stripper isn't awkward. He's confident and totally like a natural, which is never explained or reconciled.

The problem is that after we see the first stripper dance, then every other stripper's dance is exactly the same. It's not like in Magic Mike where there are a variety of styles and different choreography. From group numbers to routines, involving sets and props and acrobatics, Magic Mike had fewer dances, but they were all mostly different. One memorable dance included umbrellas. Another had Channing Tatum doing an unbelievably fast and lengthy spin in mid-air. Conversely, the dances in this movie are all the same, over and over again. There are ironically more dances, but they're all repetitive, and it's boring.

It's not even stripping. Mostly the black guys will come out shirtless in leather pants or long chaps. They'll gyrate, do some pop-and-lock moves as well as a lot of pelvic thrusts. They'll then just repeat that incessantly. They'll grind on the ground or up against a woman until they get too sweaty and tired, and that's it. They might pull down their pants and briefly expose a buttock, but principally their crotches stay covered. No full-frontal nudity!

I'm sure La Marre did research, but for every dance, the women just throw cash onto the stage or at the guy in the center, even if he's not looking at them, or if the guy isn't even close to them. I thought the cash worked like tips or direct payment for the stripper to do something directly to a specific person. The way the women here just tossed money at the guys all willy-nilly, it was as if it didn't matter what the guy did. It just seemed like an inefficient way to pay these guys and it made the women seem rather empty, less like people and more like just ATMs.

Along with story, La Marre doesn't care much about characters. Aside from the names of some of the strippers, La Marre doesn't invite us to know more about them beyond the superficial. Soderbergh's film didn't go too deep into the other strippers, but, at least, we learned a little something about each of them. At least, we spend some significant time with the other strippers. La Marre does just drive-by characterizations. One stripper named Slayer is Latino and that's all we get to know about him.

One stripper whose name escaped me is played by R&B singer Ginuwine. Odd fact is that in Magic Mike, Tatum's titular character dances to a song by Ginuwine. Tatum dances to "Pony," which was Ginuwine's debut single back in 1996 and became a certified-platinum hit. Ginuwine in this movie dances to that same song, except it's no where near as good. Tatum out-dances Ginuwine to his own song. It's not aided by La Marre whose cinematography and direction of the scene is very flat.

Tyson Beckford plays Rude Boy. His character is simply the villain who hates Mike McCoy. There's no real explanation why, beyond Princeton's inexplicable obsession with Mike McCoy. The movie could have done something interesting with Rude Boy but again beyond his superficial hatred, La Marre's screenplay doesn't dig any deeper.

For example, I love Robert Ri'chard. He won an Emmy nearly twenty years ago when he was just a teenager. He's turned in great performances in film and TV shows. His best role was Feast of All Saints (2001) on Showtime, but this movie doesn't use him to his full potential. His character here hardly has any complexity or shading. He's a college student who takes French class, presumably just to be near a girl he likes or if he just likes French, which would have been interesting since Ri'chard is reportedly Creole in real life, but La Marre's script is so shallow that I couldn't even tell you what Mike McCoy's major was.

Finally, there is a scene where Princeton says, "We sell fantasy, not sex." He continues by saying, "What these women want is fantasy." Just like Magic Mike, it perpetuates this idea that women don't like or enjoy sex, even though every dance in this movie has the guys grinding and thrusting and licking at women's crotches, not giving them flowers.

In regards to women, Princeton says, "They don't want sissy boys. They want real men." His idea of real men is the buff and overly muscular guys who act hard, tough or aggressive. Of course, this hammers us again with the stereotype, the homophobic stereotype of how men should be.

Last year, Prince Fielder, the MLB player for the Texas Rangers, posed nude on the cover of ESPN magazine. Whatever backlash he got was met with overwhelming praise for his body, which isn't buff or overly muscular, but still beautiful. No, he doesn't have six-pack abs, but it doesn't change that Fielder is sexy and just as many women would appreciate him dancing on stage as men appreciate him swinging a baseball bat. Yet, La Marre doesn't get that.

One Star out of Five.
Rated R for sexual content throughout, partial nudity, language and brief violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Movie Review - Tomorrowland

I get the point of this movie. It's a liberal, rallying cry to promote science and fight against things like political strife and climate change aka global warming. It's also a general boosting for children to never give up on their dreams. Ultimately, it lands on the side of optimism about the future and that war and pollution won't ravage the Earth. The movie hopes that humans will come up with ideas or technology to make life better.

That being said, I don't get the point of the titular city where the majority of the narrative takes place. Tomorrowland is a futuristic city that exists in a different dimension that certain people can visit to live and work. The point seems to be a place where the Earth's greatest minds, in terms of art and sciences, can go to further their pursuits and continue advancing the already advanced technology there. It fosters inventors and innovators, except I don't know to what end or even to what beginning.

Oscar-winner George Clooney (Syriana and Argo) stars as Frank Walker, an inventor who has been inventing since he was a little boy. In fact, he attended the 1964 World's Fair in New York after coming up with a jet-pack that he built himself. There, he's introduced to Tomorrowland and he's taken there where he becomes a resident. There's no explanation as to how he explained his disappearance into a city in another dimension. Where were Frank's parents?

Maybe I missed the explanation, but it's not clear who first discovered Tomorrowland, or who built it. Was it by aliens? All this great technology exists there, yet it's not being shared with the world, so what was the original point? Was Tomorrowland stealing or squirreling away these great minds and hoarding them selfishly?

Britt Robertson (Under the Dome and The Longest Ride) co-stars as Casey Newton, a young scientist whose dad is a NASA engineer. She's recruited to be a resident of Tomorrowland, but Casey learns Tomorrowland has been closed, not unlike an unsafe ride at Disneyland or Walt Disney World. Her mission is to find a way to get there no matter what. She's certainly on the plucky side with a lot of child-like wonder and an adventurous spirit. Even though Robertson is in her early twenties, you feel as though her character is half that age.

At first, I thought Tomorrowland might be a glimpse into the future and be a place that all humans will eventually reach, but it's not necessarily an aspirational place for all of humanity. The screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird suggests Tomorrowland lives in the here and now as a place kept secret from humanity, save a select few. Therefore, in this movie, it just stands as a bright, shiny place with no real function, just itself an icon with no more symbolic or real value than the 1964 World's Fair but at least the World's Fair was open to the public.

There's some nifty action scenes. A fight scene in a toy store, involving Keegan-Michael Key, was very hilarious and helped to get me on board with this movie's ride. There's also a funny scene where Frank gets locked out of his house that I thought was clever. The movie, however, failed to live up to its own expectations. The movie is more about getting to Tomorrowland than actually delving into it.

The movie, unfortunately, ends on an extremely awkward note. Raffey Cassidy plays a robot named Athena. Cassidy is only 13-years-old in real life, but there is a suggestion that Frank fell in love with Athena, a feeling suggested as we see Frank, played by Clooney who is 54-years-old, holding Athena in his arms. It's an awkward and icky moment because it's a little too close to pedophilia.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 10 mins.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

DVD Review - Big Eyes

This is a movie about a woman who constantly retreats and runs away from her problems finally confronting her issues and standing up for herself. This is about a woman finding her voice, not only creatively but also socially. There is a comparison to be made between this and the movie about another real-life, female artist who was also never properly recognized for her work, though for vastly different reasons, that of Finding Vivian Maier. This movie could be dubbed "Finding Margaret Keane."

Five-time Oscar-nominee Amy Adams (The Fighter and American Hustle) stars as Margaret Ulbrich, a painter who married Walter Keane, a man who started to pretend that his wife's paintings were his own and lied about it for the better part of a decade, from the late 50's into the early 60's. Margaret escaped as a single mother with her daughter Jane from a presumptive, abusive relationship to San Francisco where Walter provided a place for her to land when her options were few.

Two-time Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained) co-stars as Walter Keane, a real estate agent and aspiring painter who sees that Margaret's paintings are attracting more attention, so he decides to take them as his own. He's so charming and a bon vivant that he's able to fool or convince people to go along with his lies.

The craftiness of the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is that it doesn't totally portray Walter as an evil villain at least not at first. It doesn't make him a maniacal thief. He seizes upon an opportunity and lies in order to do it, which was wrong, but it's not as if Margaret is kept in the dark. She is fully aware of what Walter is doing, and she even has the opportunity and power to stop him, but she doesn't initially.

On a psychological level, the movie works as the dominance of Walter's personality and the submissiveness of Margaret's. As such, Waltz gets the showier role and the more grandiose moments. Any and all are more drawn to him. His shining moment is the trial at the end, which is just nothing but a showcase for Waltz to devour the screen, so much that you forget Adams is even in the film.

The screenplay might lose too much sight of Margaret in terms of fueling her complicity. She goes along with Walter's lie almost because the plot demanded her too. Her undefined past, which put her on the run in the first place, meaning her ex-husband whom we never see, as well as the time period of pre-Women's Liberation, set the table, but a bit more digging would have been preferred.

Directed by Tim Burton, the production design and cinematography are of course impeccable, bright and colorful. It harkens back to his Edward Scissorhands (1990) days. He's dwelled in CGI-land for a while, relying on a lot of computer special effects. This film brings him back to Earth with real objects and places. It's beautiful and at times literally eye-popping.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.