Friday, January 31, 2014

Day 277: Labor Day

"Help me put a roof on this house."
 Jason Reitman was embraced by the establishment almost before he came onto the scene. He scored back to back Best Director Oscar nominations for his second and third film, the wildly overrated Juno and the mildly overrated Up in the Air, and seemed to be the guy that everyone was lining up to work with if they wanted to be in high profile awards bait. A lot of the shine came off the apple with his last film, the mean-spirited Young Adult, casting the first light of suspicion on the director, though the film does have its ardent admirers. For his latest effort, he adapted Joyce Maynard's melodramatic love story Labor Day into a feature film, and even though he managed to recruit some major league talent, it looked as though he might be in over his head. So could he manage to work his charms once more and keep this thing afloat, or could this be the stone that sinks his reputation once and for all? Read on to find out...
Opening in the waning days of summer, 1987, Labor Day is told from the perspective of a pre-teen boy named Henry (Gattlin Griffith when he's a young man, Tobey Maguire when he's the narrating adult). Henry's mother Adele (Kate Winslet) has been in a deep depression and become something of a hermit since her husband (Clark Gregg) ran off with his secretary (Alexie Gilmore). Henry tries to assume the role of the man of the house, cooking his mother breakfast in bed and giving her a coupon book full of free chores and back rubs, but he soon realizes that there's one thing that as a son, he cannot give her. We know that Henry isn't like other boys, and is more sensitive to the needs of a woman like his mother because he has an Empire Strikes Back poster in his room at a time when most kids his age would have likely held up Return of the Jedi as the best Star Wars film. 
On a trip to a department store on the eve of Labor Day weekend, Henry is confronted by Frank (Josh Brolin) who is bleeding and asks if his mother can give him a ride. Adele reluctantly agrees to give Frank a ride, as she wants no harm to come to her son, and Frank insists that they go back to her place so he can recover from his injuries, promising that he'll leave at nightfall. Frank has escaped from prison and is a wanted man, which at first frightens and confuses Adele, but he's such a gentle soul, and she longs for companionship, so it isn't long before spending the night turns into spending the weekend, which inevitably leads to plans to make a run for the Candian border. 
The inherent flaw of Labor Day is that it paints itself into a corner by having Frank be nothing short of a saint who serves as both a handyman for the home, a lover for the wife and a surrogate father for the son. He claims to be innocent of the charges he was in prison for, and over the course of the film, we get his backstory, which quite frankly did little to absolve him of the crime. It's also a bit strange to have the adult Henry serve as the narrator of the piece as there are at least three moments which he is not privy to, making him something of an unreliable narrator. What's more, the entire love story at the core of the film is preposterous. It's nothing more than a treacly, idealized romance that wouldn't be out of place in something as banal as Twilight, or one of its many fan fiction derivatives. It's the sort of thing that is supposed to appeal to hopeless romantics, but seems more like the psychotic fantasy of a crazy cat lady. 
Having said all that, Labor Day is an absolute gem of a terrible film. Because it's so earnest and sincere, and every performance is pitched to Douglas Sirk levels of melodramatic nonsense, the film becomes one of the more hysterically funny unintentional comedies you'll ever see. The furtive glances being cast by Brolin and Winslet at one another, not to mention the fact that the film makes everything crackle with sexual tension, caused me to laugh out loud several times. Everything from chili eating to pie baking to playing baseball is charged with a sexual energy that would not be out of place in a soft core porn. And oh that pie baking scene. Holy mother of pearl, that scene (which is where my quote from the beginning of the review can be found) was so absurdly pitched, it will reduce anyone with a healthy sense of irony to fits of hysterics. The pie in American Pie wasn't so overtly sexual as this one. 
Although I firmly believe that this was all unintentional, the only way to make a truly bad movie is to do it with the passion and intensity reserved for making a great film. This isn't on a par with something like The Room or Birdemic as those have the added layer of ineptitude that makes them transcendentally bad. It's also not on a par with films like Hudson Hawk or Drive Angry that were made with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. This is closer to films like Gigli or Flash Gordon where everything is pitched just a level or two higher than it needs to be. It's competently made and acted, but there's something about it that plays like comedy when that is clearly not the intention. 
And as for those performances, they are a wonder to behold. Winslet and Brolin both deliver the categorically absurd dialogue with the conviction they've brought to their best performances. Part of me thinks that they both know better, but there's something so earnest and sincere about their work that allows the material to come off twice as absurd as it actually is. I applaud them both for committing so heartily to the material, as it truly made the film watchable. Gattlin Griffith is perfect as the younger version of Tobey Maguire as he has Maguire's deep commitment to never doing anything with his face, lest he risk looking like he's engaged with the material. The flashbacks to a younger Frank, played by Tom Lipinski, were also comically absurd because Lipinski holds one facial expression through every scene he's in, presumably because it's the only one in which he looks convincingly like a young Brolin. 
Jason Reitman knows how to shoot a film, when he can keep his god damned camera still. His use of rack focus and his shot compositions are admirable, but he's clearly out of his league with this material. It's not unlike his father's flirtation with somewhat more highbrow films like Legal Eagles and Six Days, Seven Nights, that similarly misfired and drove him back into more comfortable territory. Don't be surprised if Jason retreats with his next film as well, teaming up with Diablo Cody for something more his speed. The film's soundtrack choices and maudlin score by Rolfe Kent also help to make the film seem more like an incredibly well made parody of melodrama rather than an earnest attempt to make one. 
Make no mistake about it, Labor Day is a terrible film. It will appeal to only two audiences, both of whom are miles apart in their desires, but will nevertheless get the most out of the film. If you fall into the "lonely woman looking for a perfect man to rescue you" camp, this film will play like emotional pornography. Similarly if you fall into the "loves a well made, terrible movie with tons of hysterically funny unintentional comedy" camp, you will be beside yourself with the mounds of material this film dishes out. Anyone in either of these categories can go ahead an add two more stars to the score. If you wouldn't comfortably place yourself in either camp, avoid this film at all costs. It's a disastrous attempt to make a modern melodrama and you're more likely to roll your eyes than laugh at it or even enjoy it. Anyone in this latter category should go ahead and subtract two stars from the score. This film is a head scratcher, but I might go so far as to say that I loved it for what it was, which is certainly not what anyone involved with its making intended. 
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Day 276: Sweet Leaf

Sweet Leaf Poster
"The Bible says contrition is good for the soul."
With the dissolution of the Hays Code in the late 1960s, a whole new world was opened up to American filmmakers, and it paved the way for them to bring more European sensibilities to American audiences. One genre that thrived in the wake of this revolution was the exploitation film. Any filmmaker with a couple thousand dollars and access to actors and locations could get their film made and then shown in one of the myriad "grindhouse" theaters that were ubiquitous in the seedier parts of major cities. As those theaters disappeared, the movement went underground and onto home video where it lived, but certainly didn't thrive, for many years. 
The 2007 release of Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse looked like it might change all that. Now directors with a budget and a love for these films could bring them to the mainstream, but they lacked the edge, danger and love that made this such a vital movement in the first place. With the advent of digital video, we're now seeing a revival of true grindhouse cinema with the same ethics that once drove filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Paul Bartel and William Lustig to create their masterpieces of the genre.
A new pioneer of the micro-budget movement is writer/director Julian Grant, whose latest film Sweet Leaf recently screened at Las Vegas' PollyGrind Underground Film Festival where it picked up five awards including Best Crime Film and Best Overall Cast. If you're a fan of exploitation cinema, you're looking at its future...
Scoobie gang 
Sweet Leaf tells the story of Steve (Brandon Galatz) and Billy (Graham Jenkins), two lowlife Chicago drug dealers who chose to smoke away their supply rather than sell it. They're now in deep to their supplier Tyvan (Sean Patrick Leonard), and have formulated a plan to rob a suburban car wash that is known to have large sums of cash on hand due to their lottery business. Never the most solid plan to begin with, it unravels a piece at a time, first when Mary Lou (Alexis Martino) a woman that Steve sometimes sleeps with discovers their plan and wants in. 
Realizing that they'll most certainly need a getaway driver, they open up their plan once more to include a fourth member, Byrdy (Zane Byrdy), who has dubious reasons of his own for getting involved. Tyvan gets wind of their plan and flips the script on the would-be robbers, forcing them to either give him all the cash from their score, or be killed. Steve becomes increasingly paranoid, not sure how everyone is finding out about his plan, and no longer sure who he can trust, sending these ill-equipped criminals onto a collision course with fate. 
It's unfortunate that most casual filmgoers frame of reference for exploitation films are the higher profile ones such as the aforementioned Grindhouse and Machete, as those are pale imitators to what a true exploitation film is, as they have the gloss of Hollywood safety written all over them. Jason Eisener's 2011 film Hobo With a Shotgun came much closer to the true feel of an exploitation film, and I would comfortably place Sweet Leaf in its company. This is a low budget affair that makes up for its obvious lack of funding with a ton of style and a deep understanding of what makes for a good exploitation film. Director Grant's use of Brian DePalma-esque split screen is one of the best stylistic flourishes that lets you know immediately that you're not just in good hands, but that you're in the hands of someone who inherently understands the language of the genre in which they're working. 
The script contains all of the overt racism and casual misogyny that fans of the genre have come to expect, so take this as a warning to those of you who may find yourself offended by such touches. The use of inter-titles and odd techniques such as an "f-bomb" counter that rattles off the nearly thirty f-bombs dropped by the characters in a four minute sequence are also nice, if underused displays. In other words, if you're a fan of this genre and these conventions, you're in very good hands. 
MAry LOu
The cast is dedicated, if a bit uneven, and like most exploitation films it gives the best actors the smallest roles. Brandon Galatz is a perfectly serviceable lead, resembling and often channeling a young Chris Penn. The two best performances in the film by a mile came from Zane Byrdry and Sean Patrick Leonard. Byrdy underplays everything nicely, particularly considering that most of his scenes were played opposite a core trio of actors who all seemed as though they were trying to out-act one another. Byrdy compliments this perfectly, always doing less and coming off that much better as a result. Leonard conversely is having a blast going over the top, but never to his own detriment. He takes a page right out of Gary Oldman's playbook from True Romance, playing a white guy who acts like a black guy, yet scoffs at the notion of being compared to a black man. It's a perfectly pitched performance. 
The cinematography and lighting made the film look as though it cost three times as much as it actually did. The film looks incredibly professional in that regard, almost doing itself a disservice. It feels strange to say this, but it felt almost too well-made for its own good. I would certainly never downgrade a film for looking too good, but you can tell that this is made by people who know their way around a film set, cameras and lighting equipment, making it feel strangely better than the average micro-budget production.
Tyvan and the gang
Sweet Leaf is not for everyone, but fans of the genre will most certainly get their rocks off on this one. Much like the disclaimers you hear on various programs about the content not being appropriate for younger or "more sensitive" listeners, this can be comfortably placed in that category. Those whose tastes run towards the grimier, filthier side of life will have a blast with this film, and be able to enjoy it for what it set out to do. It is expected to be released on VOD soon, and is still showing up at film festivals, so genre lovers should keep their eyes and ears peeled for this film, it's one hell of a ride. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Top 5: Actors That Won An Oscar For The Wrong Film

The Academy Awards are nothing if not an organization whose awards are given out in a completely political way, rarely awarding prizes to what would legitimately be considered the best work in a given year. They do get it right a lot of the time, but they also tend to give out awards based on a number of factors, not the least of which is whether or not the recipient has won an Oscar before. While a lot of the best craftsmen in the industry have gone unrecognized altogether (just check out last week's column about the best working actors who've never been nominated), it also happens from time to time that an actor wins an Oscar for the wrong performance. Oftentimes their competition in a previously nominated year was too strong for them to win, or sometimes they've just gone without one for so long that they win by default. 
While this phenomenon is not exclusive to actors (see Martin Scorsese or Errol Morris for non-actor examples), it happens most often to actors as they have multiple categories to compete in each year. Here are my top five actors who have won an Oscar, but they won it for the wrong film.
5. Russell Crowe, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Gladiator (2000).
It's hard to believe this now as he's become something of a punchline, but early in his career, Russell Crowe was held in very high esteem, and with good reason. He brought an intensity and focus to many of his early roles that made him a dynamic screen presence and an actor worth watching. His performance in Gladiator was perfectly fine, he was very good in the film, but certainly not what I would dare to deem award worthy, yet he won the Oscar for Best Actor, swept up in the film's tide of victories that evening, leaving many to wonder why. The most obvious reason lay in the fact that just one year prior, he turned in the best performance of his career as big tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann's The Insider, yet he lost the Best Actor trophy to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. It felt like the Academy was making up for ignoring his outstanding performance the year before by recognizing him belatedly for Gladiator, but it remains one of the more head scratching victories in the Best Actor category. 
4Denzel WashingtonBest Actor in a Leading Role for Training Day (2001).
As is the case with Crowe's belated victory in 2000, Denzel Washington's Best Actor win the following year for Training Day is more or less a "sorry we didn't give you the award for The Hurricane last year" victory. His well deserved win for Supporting Actor for Glory excepted, Washington was always seen as a great actor who deserved an Oscar for Best Actor, but the Academy always seemed torn for which film to reward him. Having lost in 1992 for Malcolm X, he seemed due right around the turn of the century, and Oscar voters chose to reward his role as a crooked cop in the otherwise forgettable Training Day. It was a baffling victory, particularly considering that if they had just rewarded him for The Hurricane, they could have fixed both his loss and Crowe's at the same time by rewarding Crowe for A Beautiful Mind in 2001. The Academy is nothing if not short sighted, so all of this should come as no surprise to anyone who's watched the awards for as long as I have.
3. Kate Winslet, Best Actress in a Leading Role for The Reader (2008).
Much like Washington, Winslet was an actress who constantly turned in exceptional performances in film after film throughout her career, so when it got to be the tail end of the last decade and voters realized they had yet to reward her, they just sort of threw her this one. Her performance in The Reader is just fine, typically strong work from an outstanding actress, but it's far from her finest work. I would have been happy had she won for any of her previously nominated roles from Sense & Sensibility, Titanic, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or especially Little Children. Hell, she should have even won for her other, better 2008 performance in Revolutionary Road, but yet again the Academy was looking to atone for past mistakes by just giving her an Oscar in hopes that it would make up for all the times they ignored her. Nice gesture, but they got this one patently wrong. Look for this pattern to repeat itself when Amy Adams goes home empty handed for the sixth time this year as well. 
2. Al Pacino, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Scent of a Woman (1992).
If there's one Oscar I'd be willing to bet most voters wish they could take back, it'd be this one. Al Pacino was one of the quintessential actors' actors of the 70s. He was passed over for recognition for the first two Godfather films, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, so when it came to 1992 and they saw him acting up a storm, yelling and hoo-hahing his way across the screen in Scent of a Woman, they just decided to give him an Oscar to apologize for not recognizing him sooner. Bad move. Pacino has now made this sort of over the top, ridiculous screaming his stock in trade for the last twenty years. He was nominated for Supporting Actor that same year for his (comparatively) much more subtle and nuanced work in Glengarry Glen Ross, so had they just rewarded him for that and given Denzel Best Actor for Malcolm X, we maybe could have avoided a whole lot of aggravation from Pacino in the ensuing decades. Will the Academy ever learn?
1. Paul Newman, Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Color of Money (1986).
I'll go ahead and say this, Paul Newman has never been bad in anything, so it's hard for me to argue that he didn't deserve an Oscar for his work in Martin Scorsese's belated sequel to The Hustler, but this felt more like atonement than any other Oscar that's ever been given. Newman had gone home empty handed seven times before this, so there was no way they were sending him home without an Oscar again, but it's hard to argue that anyone thinks this is his best work. His reprisal of the character Fast Eddie Felson was a bit of a stunt and an awards grab, and it certainly paid off, but they should have given it to him the first time he played the role. Or for HudCool Hand LukeAbsence of Malice, or especially for his sublime, career best performance in The Verdict. It feels like if the Academy would just start actually rewarding the best performance in a given year, we could avoid all of this, but they'll likely never learn. 
[Photos via 123456]

Day 275: Lone Survivor

"If this is what happens when God's looking out for us, I'd hate to see him pissed."

First hand survival accounts are always a dubious proposition on film. They risk an awful lot of scrutiny in the telling because film has a language all its own that differs from real life, and the more far fetched a story is, the harsher the light can be that shines on them. At the same time, things can always be chalked up to the notion that something must be true because it's so unbelievable, which somewhat absolves filmmakers of any dramatic license they may take with the source material. 

This slippery slope will be ever present in your mind while watching the new film Lone Survivor, based on a failed Navy Seal mission in Afghanistan in 2005. While it is no doubt based firmly in the reality of the sole survivor of this ordeal, it also suffers from the same thing last year's Best Picture winner Argo suffered from which is an all too perfect climax that seems to have been punched up to make it more cinematic and suspenseful. But I'm getting ahead of myself, read on for the full story...

Opening with a Navy Seal training highlight reel, Lone Survivor lets you know immediately what it is and where it's headed. The film then jumps to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan where a group of Seals is told that their latest mission, Operation Red Wing has been given the green light. Heading up the four man mission is Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), who will lead Gunner's Mate Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Sonar Technician Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster), and Hospital Corpsman Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlbeg) into the mountains of Afghanistan to take out a Taliban leader (Yousuf Azami) who has been killing soldiers and civilians in the region.

Almost immediately after arriving, the four get a sight on their target, but lose radio contact with the base. Not long after, their location is discovered by an elderly goatherd and two teenage boys. The soldiers detain them, realizing that they have three options. They can release them, but they will surely give up their location. They can leave them tied up, but that will spell their demise either from the weather or from wild animals. Or they can terminate them. After some deliberation they release the three and head further up the mountain to make radio contact and request a rescue, but it isn't long before they're engaged by two hundred Taliban soldiers.

The most undeniable thing that one can say about this film is that screenwriter and director Peter Berg has a lot of love and passion for the source material. The film's earnestness radiates out of every frame of the film, showing that it's the work of someone who loves and cares for the story they're telling. This does not necessarily make it a good film, it just makes it a very hard film to hate because it does feel so personal and strives to do right by these men who sacrificed their lives for our country. Though the first twenty minutes of the film led me to believe that it was going to be yet another exercise in jingoism, it thankfully skirted that once the story proper kicked into gear. Don't get me wrong, it is AMPED with patriotism, but it never ventures into jingoistic territory, and thank goodness for that.

Since the very title of the film is a spoiler, it should come as no surprise that Luttrell is the only one who survives the compromised operation. What I found interesting is what they chose to keep in the film and what was deleted from the story, and the whys surrounding that which I'm left with. In Luttrell's book, he is found alive by Taliban soldiers who relocate him to a cave where he's held hostage for ten days before being rescued by an anti-Taliban Afghani farmer. This entire portion of the story was jettisoned, and I truly wonder why. Did Berg deem it too far fetched to work within the confines of the film, because if that's the case, he certainly had no problem leaving in a number of far fetched third act developments.

Please understand that my criticisms and questions are in no way meant to question the facts of the story, which are undeniably harrowing, it's just strange for Berg to pick and choose which parts of the story stayed in and which were thrown out. The film's attention to detail and verisimilitude is admirable, and I appreciated the fact that they wasted no time explaining various military terms or behaviors and just allowed the story to unfold as naturally as it must have in real life. Like I said, it's virtually impossible to hate this film.

The performances were all solid and all four lead actors brought their A game to the proceedings. Hirsch has always been a dynamic screen presence, and his work here is about as good as you'd expect from someone as talented as he is. Foster and Kitsch are two actors I normally don't care much for, but they both surprised me with their work here which was nuanced and strong. Wahlberg surprisingly comes off the least interesting of the four which really threw me for a loop. He's honestly not given much to do in the early goings, coming off as somewhat of a dope which was really shocking considering he was portraying the author of the book, but he rebounded nicely in the last half hour or so. It was also nice to see the real Marcus Luttrell as a Seal on the base as well.

The film's climax did reek a bit of American pride, particularly considering that the American military, as an entity, is not really the hero of the story, but more the muscle that rolls in to save the day. I was grateful that the actions of the civilians that saved Luttrell were given their due as they truly sacrificed everything to save this man, and a pre-credits scrawl explains why. I really could have done without the overly earnest Peter Gabriel cover of David Bowie & Brian Eno's "Heroes" that plays over photos of the real men involved because it added an unnecessary layer of schmaltz to an otherwise powerful montage of photos, but it will no doubt reduce many a hardened military vet in the audience to tears.

Lone Survivor is the kind of film that works really well because it's a good story that's told well, but it's brutality makes me content to never watch it again. I'm not sure why I need to constantly point out that it's not a bad film, but it truly is not, it's just the sort of thing that I'm fine with only seeing once. I can see this being a landmark film for many people, and as I mentioned already, military personnel in particular will admire it more than the average person because of the attention to detail that Berg and company put into it. But much like Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, it just doesn't appeal to my sensibilities, so it's one and done for me.

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Day 274: The Nut Job

"I've got four words for you… Thing-a-ma-boobie."
January is a notorious dumping ground for films that studios either don't want to or don't know how to market, usually because they're unimaginative reheated dreck. The last animated film released in January was Disney's 3D conversion of Beauty and the Beast in 2011, but you have to go all the way back to 2008 to find the last original animated film, the Veggie Tales feature film The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, released during this dead period. Following the less than lackluster performance of Fox's Walking With Dinosaurs in December, it seemed like releasing any family film in the wake of Disney's Frozen was a dicey proposition at best, but Open Road's first in house animated film The Nut Job managed to buck the trend and pull in a $20 million opening weekend.
So is the film really that good or is it just something different for parents who don't want to be dragged to see Frozen for the third or fourth time? Read on to find out... 
Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett) is a bit of a rebel. He's an outcast from the main group of park animals headed by Raccoon (Liam Neeson) who try to stick together to gather food for the winter. With no one by his side except his mute best friend Buddy the mouse, he plans to steal nuts from a nut cart set up just outside the park they live in, but Raccoon sends his two best squirrels Grayson (Brendan Fraser) and Andie (Katherine Heigl) to get the nuts off the cart before Surly can. A series of events lead to the cart exploding the large oak tree where the animals food is stored, and Surly finds himself banished from the park forever.
The cart was manned by a couple of goons that have now moved into a nut shop right next door to a bank they're planning to rob with their newly paroled boss King (Stephen Lang). When Surly discovers the nut shop, he plans to break in and steal enough nuts to last him the whole winter, but things are further complicated when Raccoon sends Grayson and Andie out for food and they discover Surly and his plan. Will Surly set aside his hard feelings and work with the park animals to boost the nuts, or will he selfishly keep them all to himself? And more importantly, will they be able to steal any nuts at all, since the goons plan to use the nuts as decoys for the money they're going to steal from the bank?
Confused? You're not alone. The major problem with The Nut Job is that for a film aimed squarely at the under ten set, it's got a more complicated plot than The Godfather and enough confusing double crosses to pad out several Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. I marveled at how confusing the film was, particularly considering it's target audience, and couldn't help but chalk it up to either poor planning or over planning. The film's director and co-writer Peter Lepeniotis made a short film titled Surly Squirrel back in 2005, so my guess is that this was a padded out version of that short, and in padding it to feature length, he added so many convoluted betrayals and counter-betrayals that wouldn't feel out of place in a real heist movie.
I admire aspects of the film, in particular the dual nature of the plot that has both the animals and humans planning concurrent heists, and the way that the dialogue is overlapped between the humans and animals as they execute their plans was a clever, if underused conceit. I likewise admired the film's score by Paul Intson which recalled the old Looney Tunes shorts. The automobiles and architecture also suggested that the film was set in the past, likely the 1950s or early 1960s, and it was a nice change of pace from the typical children's film, though nothing interesting was done with this concept, and the absurdly incongruous use of the omnipresent ear worm "Gangnam Style" only further muddled the decision to set the film in the past. 
The voice cast was a mixed bag of odd celebrity stunt casting that either paid off, particularly Arnett and Maya Rudolph, as an overly friendly dog, or didn't at all. Brendan Fraser pitched his manic performance for a totally different film, much like he did in last year's Escape From Planet Earth, and to say that Neeson phoned in his performance is an understatement. The plethora of non-celebrity voice actors fared much better than the big name stars, and honestly did much more memorable work than their co-stars who were likely getting paid ten times as much.
The overall design of the film was nice and comforting to look at, but had no edge to it whatsoever. It's certainly not hard for even a mid-grade animated feature to look better than the animated features that came out even a decade ago, but without anything to distinguish the look of the film, it will fade from your memory as quickly as it entered. The absolutely inexplicable credits dance sequence set to "Gangnam Style," complete with an animated Psy, was baffling, and all of the credits to Korean animators and animation houses made it make more sense, but contextually it was a downright head scratcher. They certainly knew well enough to send the kids out of the theater on a high note, and since they likely won't be bothered by its startling incongruity, I suppose that's all that matters.
I know that your kids have probably dragged you to see Frozen several times now, or at least tried to, but it's a much better bet than this film. The Nut Job breaks no new ground and will end up being a mild distraction for 85 minutes, but if your kids are obsessed with woodland creatures pulling off a heist, better to show them the much more imaginative Over the Hedge than shell out a bunch of money for this film. It wasn't terrible, but that seems to be all that films like this strive for anymore as there's no love or care put into its making. If you can catch it at a low price matinee or even a discount theater, it will be a worthwhile endeavor, but don't spend more than $5 a ticket seeing it. Why pay premium prices for discount entertainment? 
GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Top 5: Best Working Actors Never Nominated for an Oscar

Last year I wrote a piece about the biggest Oscar snubs of the last ten years, and for this year I thought I'd take a different path in my reaction to this year's nominations. Looking back at the Academy's history, there have been a lot of actors that have never even been nominated for an Oscar. As a matter of fact, the list of never nominated actors would make one hell of an ensemble film. Since there were close to twenty that could have easily made the cut, this could have gone a lot of different ways, and I've decided to limit it just to living and working actors, as that would have only made it harder to narrow down had I included the deceased. Here's my current top five, which could definitely change over the course of the next few days or years, along with fifteen others that didn't make the cut.
I've included the role I think each of my top five actors should have been nominated for, and who they could have bumped out of the list of nominees for that year. 
Honorable Mention, aka Just Missed the Cut (in alphabetical order, with their most Oscar-worthy performance in parentheses)
Kevin Bacon (Mystic River), Ellen Barkin (Sea of Love), Steve Buscemi (Fargo), Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Michael Keaton (Clean & Sober), Val Kilmer (The Doors), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Georgia), Steve Martin (All of Me), Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange), Ewan McGregor (The Impossible), Alan Rickman (Sense & Sensibility), Meg Ryan (When a Man Loves a Woman), Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now), Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H*), Robin Wright (State of Grace).
5. John Goodman
38th AFI Life Achievement Award Honoring Mike Nichols - Arrivals
Though he's been recognized for his work on the small screen, John Goodman has never been nominated for an Oscar, despite the fact that he's been performing in critically acclaimed films since the early 1980s, including having roles in the last two Best Picture winners The Artist and Argo. Goodman is reliably good in everything he does, but in particular when he works with the Coen Brothers, who didn't really become Academy darlings themselves until 2007's No Country for Old Men. Early buzz this year indicated that he might be recognized for his supporting role in Inside Llewyn Davis, but his role was likely too small, and the Academy clearly had no love for that brilliant film. 
Biggest Snub: Best Supporting Actor, 1998, The Big Lebowski
He Should Have Replaced: Pretty much all of them, but I'll go with Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love
4. John Turturro
Another Coen Brothers regular who has flirted with Oscar before, but never been nominated, is John Turturro. An actor that marches to the decidedly off-beat of his own drum, Turturro has carved out a career playing oddball characters. You kids out there who only know him from his admittedly awful performances in Michael Bay's Transformers movies are missing out on some fantastic performances from him in films as diverse as Cradle Will RockMiller's Crossing and Do the Right Thing. His next film, Fading Gigolo, looks to continue his trend of strange films, but something tells me he might get recognized sooner rather than later.
Biggest Snub: Best Actor, 1991, Barton Fink
He Should Have Replaced: Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides or Robin Williams in The Fisher King
3. Jeff Daniels
Jeff Daniels
The very definition of a journeyman actor, Jeff Daniels has always been a solid character actor who is sadly not talked about very often as one of the best working actors. Thankfully his role on Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom changed people's perceptions of him dramatically, but he's been doing reliably good work since he first captured audience's attentions in the Best Picture winner Terms of Endearment in 1983. Sadly his best performance of all, as a bitter and calculating divorced father in 2005's The Squid and the Whale, which truly seemed like his best shot at a nomination, was completely ignored by the Academy. 
Biggest Snub: Best Actor, 2005, The Squid and the Whale
He Should Have ReplacedTerrence Howard in Hustle & Flow
2. Mia Farrow
This one shocked me when I found it out, not only because she's been so good for so long, but because she spent the better part of the 80s and early 90s acting in the films of her former lover Woody Allen, and he has a knack for scoring serious hardware for actresses in his films. Mia Farrow could have been nominated for any of those films, most especially The Purple Rose of Cairo (in which she co-starred with fellow snub-ee Jeff Daniels) or Hannah and Her Sisters. Her best performance by far though was her star making turn in Roman Polanski's thriller Rosemary's Baby, for which co-star Ruth Gordon won Supporting Actress, and the fact that she acts so rarely these days leads me to believe she may never be nominated. 
Biggest Snub: Best Actress, 1968, Rosemary's Baby
She Should Have Replaced: Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl

1. Sam Rockwell
Sam Rockwell
It should surprise no one that my favorite actor tops this list, particularly since he somewhat inspired its creation. Sam Rockwell is one of the most versatile actors that has ever lived, and the number of films for which he could have been recognized is staggeringly depressing. He could have scored Supporting Actor noms for his work in The Green MileFrost/Nixon, this year's The Way, Way Back or last year's Seven Psychopaths, and was most assuredly robbed of nominations for his lead roles in Confessions of a Dangerous MindMoon and Snow Angels. I'm sure he'll get recognized eventually, and I have no doubt it will be for high caliber work, it's just a shame that the Academy is truly late to the party on this tremendous actor. 
Biggest Snub: Best Actor, 2002, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind 
He Should Have Replaced: Michael Caine in The Quiet American
[Images via 123456]

Top 5: Biggest Oscar Snubs of the Past 10 Years


With the Oscar nominations for 2013 having been announced this past Thursday, there was as much talk about who wasn’t nominated as there was about the actual nominees. Everything from best picture snubs for The Dark Knight Rises and Moonrise Kingdom, to directing snubs for Ben Affleck (Argo) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), to acting snubs for John Hawkes (The Sessions) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained) had people up in arms.
Snubs for outstanding work are nothing new. Here is a look back at what I consider to be the biggest Oscar snubs of the past ten years…
5. WALL-E - 2008 Best Picture
Beauty & the Beast broke the animation curse in 1991 when it scored a Best Picture nomination, and this was back in the days when there were only five nominees in the category. Pixar’s best film in their entire history deserved to be the second film to be honored with a Best Picture nomination, but the Academy opted not to include it in the list of nominees.
Common wisdom holds that leaving both WALL-E and The Dark Knight out of the Best Picture race was the key to them expanding to 10 nominees the very next year, but that’s still no excuse for ignoring them in favor of inferior fare like The Reader and preordained winnerSlumdog Millionaire.
4. United 93 - 2006 Best Picture
Although it did score a nomination for its director Paul Greengrass, the most riveting film of 2006 was United 93. A straightforward, virtually real-time chronology of the events that took place on board the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania on the morning of September 11 was the perfect film for bringing catharsis to the United States.
The film is difficult to watch, but impossible to forget, and the fact that the Academy chose to nominate obvious Oscar grab films like The Queen and Letters From Iwo Jima only served to illustrate how out of touch they were with the times.
3. Jim Carrey - 2004 Best Actor (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
It was a foregone conclusion that Jamie Foxx was going to win Best Actor in 2004 for his performance in Ray, but it’s an absolute shame that the Academy refused to throw a bone to Jim Carrey. After ignoring his award-worthy performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, they seemed to have it in for the actor, but not nominating him for his best, most realistically grounded and wonderful performance ever was just pouring salt in a wound.
It doesn’t hurt that it’s my favorite film of all-time, and very deservedly won an Oscar for its screenplay, but a good portion of why the film is as effective and unforgettable as it is is due to Carrey’s amazing performance.
2. Spirited Away - 2002 Best Original Screenplay
Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece was given the second ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, but the film’s screenplay is the absolute gold standard of script writing. The film has an economy of emotion, language and some startling imagery, and it was quite simply the best written film of 2002, animated or not.
Considering that there were two other nominees in the category that were not written in English (Talk to Her and Y Tu Mama Tambien), it’s even more egregious that this beautifully written film was overlooked.
1. Christopher Nolan - 2010 Best Director (Inception)
You could make a case for Christopher Nolan being snubbed in this category for at least three other films (Memento, The Dark Knight, The Prestige), but it was his snub for Inceptionin 2010 that really stood out.
Nolan is arguably the most accomplished and successful filmmaker both critically and commercially since Steven Spielberg, but the fact that the Academy has ignored his work behind the camera is absurd. The way in Inception that he deftly handled multiple storylines and settings, and kept numerous balls in the air, landing them all at the exact right moment is the work of a true master.
He will get his recognition eventually, but I fear that much like Martin Scorsese, it will be far too late.
Just missed the cut:
Best Editing & Makeup 2012: Cloud Atlas
Best Actor 2011: Michael Fassbender (Shame)
Best Supporting Actor 2011: Albert Brooks (Drive)
Best Supporting Actress 2010: Mila Kunis (Black Swan)
Best Picture 2007: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Best Supporting Actress 2006: Ivana Baquero (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Best Actor 2005: Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardener)
Best Picture 2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Best Actor 2004: Paul Giamatti (Sideways)

    Friday, January 17, 2014

    Day 273: Ride Along

    "All in all I gotta say, today was a good day."
    For better or for worse, the surprise 1994 hit Friday turned Ice Cube from a hip hop outlaw into a mainstream comedic straight man, thanks in large part to his undeniable chemistry with co-star Chris Tucker. Though he's floundered through some less than stellar vehicles since then, including two Friday sequels that produced increasingly diminishing returns, he has more or less transitioned from a hard as nails rapper into a reliable staple of comedic films where he has shown some excellent instincts, particularly in more ensemble driven films like Barbershop and 21 Jump Street. The only thing missing from his films was a co-star like Tucker, with whom he truly showed what a gifted straight man he could be, and the best thing that can be said about his new two-hander Ride Along is that it has finally given him a worthy successor to Tucker in the form of comedian Kevin Hart. 
    Ben Barber (Hart) seems to have a lot going for him. He's got a beautiful girlfriend (Tika Sumpter) that loves him a lot, he's an ace gamer, and he's just been accepted the the police academy, which will help him escape his current career as a security guard at a high school. The only problem is his girlfriend's prickly police officer brother James (Ice Cube) who is overly protective of his only sister, and cannot stand Ben. When Ben informs James of his acceptance to the police academy in hopes that it will earn him some respect with his would-be brother-in-law, James offers to take Ben on a ride along for a day, to show him what the day to day grind of being an Atlanta police officer is like.
    James has been consumed with taking down a major crime lord and arms dealer in Atlanta named Omar (Laurence Fishburne, whose appearance late in the film is treated like a surprise even though he's given prominent billing in the opening credits). James' only problem is that he's too much of a renegade, putting others in harm's way to bring Omar down, including two other cops he works with (John Leguizamo & Bryan Callen). He hopes to use Ben as a distraction to get some investigative work done without the looming eye of his boss (Bruce McGill) on him, but Ben proves to be too much of a loose cannon, which could spell danger for the investigation, as well as their lives. 
    Hart & Cube have terrific chemistry in the film, and demonstrate how a well tuned comedic rapport can elevate even the most mediocre material. Hart has a fearlessness as an actor that is refreshing, and he is not afraid to make himself look foolish because he fundamentally understands how much funnier a given situation is if he throws himself into it wholly. He is, without a doubt, 90% of the reason why the film works at all, and he plays incredibly well off of whomever he's sharing the screen with, whether it's Cube or, in one of the film's funniest scenes, a ten year old kid. Any doubts I may have had about his ability to carry a film were almost instantly erased thanks to his refreshing audacity as an actor.
    Having said all that, it's a real shame that he and his co-star have been relegated to performing in a film that has the most pat, lackluster, tread worn plot imaginable. The script manages some funny one-liners and exchanges, but every beat can be seen coming a mile away, and the film is just frankly not clever enough to subvert your expectations, and stupidly falls victim to them. We know that certain characters will prove to be morally dubious because the film telegraphs their motives forty minutes ahead of time. We know that Ben's video game skills will come in handy because the film devotes several minutes to setting up his online dominance of war games. We know that Ben will similarly earn James' respect because that's just sort of what happens in these films. Nothing is surprising or refreshing about any of this, and anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the tropes of the mis-matched buddy cop movie will know every twist and turn long before it happens.
    And that's a real shame because it severely limits the film's potential, though the heartily packed screening I attended indicates that the film will have no problem attracting viewers. Ice Cube seems reinvigorated by his co-star's antics, and rises to his level by sublimely undercutting him throughout the entire film. Their interactions serve as a solid core to an otherwise flabby script, and I would happily watch another film with them in it as I think they could do a lot more with better material. The rest of the cast is fine, but no one necessarily stands out. It's nice to see Fishburne on screen again, and he still manages to pack a lot of menace into the kind of character he's played countless times before. 
    Director Tim Story has a knack for staging action well, and establishes a light hearted tone that compliments his leads well, but he does fall victim to too many cliches, particularly when it comes to the way he stages the reveals of certain characters' true intentions. It's certainly not his worst work behind the camera, but he's not quite savvy enough to keep the film from succumbing to some mind numbing cliches. Not to beat up on the script more than I already have, but the film's climax drags on for an eternity, and then quickly wraps things up in a matter of about two minutes, which could be the fault of the editing and directing, but the film feels much longer than its 100 minute running time suggests. 
    For a January release, Ride Along is about as good as you can hope for. It's shortcomings reveal why it was relegated to the graveyard of release dates, but it's certainly got enough going for it that it's not a total wash. It's mainly a victim of squandered potential, but that certainly won't be enough to deter audiences hungry for an action comedy. Hart and Cube both do great work and given a better script to go on, this could have been another Friday, but as it stands, it's merely a forgettable time waster that will be all but forgotten by the time it hits home video in two months. 
    GO Rating: 2.5/5

    [Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]