Second Act — Movie Review

Second Act Movie Poster Jennifer LopezI’m no Roger Ebert, and it can therefore be somewhat difficult to articulate why a movie doesn’t quite land. In the case of Second Act, it’s pretty easy.  The movie is so on-the-nose predictable it feels as if the writer took its formula from a screenwriting book on Amazon and just plugged in new names.

I saw Second Act with my folks, and my father’s limited knowledge of pop culture meant he walked in blind to the film’s plot. His confusion was noteworthy. “What is this movie about,” he asked cantankerously. “I feel as if I walked in twenty minutes late,” he furthered. When I told him it’s about reinvention or a woman’s second shot at a new path in life, he barked, “Well that is NOT clear.”

Second Act begins with Maya’s (Jennifer Lopez) attempt at landing a big promotion. When she is passed up for a more education man, her friend Joan’s (Leah Remini) internet-savvy son submits her resume to another job without her knowledge. Because the resume is filled with inflated lies about her education and work history, she lands it. What follows is a poor man’s Working Girl (insert rivalry, a jealous and suspicious employee, and a former boss who could blow her cover). As for the rivalry, it comes with a twist that removes the movie’s conflict far too early in the film. The subsequent schmaltz-fest is just too much to bare. There’s a little levity provided by the very funny Leah Remini but unfortunately for the television comedy veteran, she simply does not have much to work with.

It should be noted that I’m a massive fan of Jennifer Lopez, and I very much wanted this movie to work. Romantic comedies are far and few between these days, and I appreciate the effort.

Leave No Trace Movie Review — Survival Isn’t Just Physical

If there was a political message bubbling below the surface of Leave No Trace, I certainly was not looking for it. For me, this was first and foremost a father/daughter story about love and pain. The beautiful indie drama directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) centers on a teenage girl named Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her veteran father Will (Ben Foster), who live off the grid for a reason that is not immediately apparent. When they are caught in a nature preserve of Forest Park (just west of Portland), social services treats them with both compassion and structure, the latter of which Will is loathed to accept. Tom has an easier time, especially when she socializes with children her own age. Though she subtlely expresses her enjoyment to her father, he simply can’t adjust, and away they go again. We won’t ever know the full backstory of these two, and that’s okay. The audience is entrusted to fill in the gaps, and we have all the information we need to know these characters.

There are a few reviews of this film that suggest it’s about much more than meets the eye. First, should we question our social norms? Maybe. But this isn’t about that. There’s one thing separating both Will and Tom in my opinion, and it isn’t social norms. It’s people and expectations. He can’t expend the mental energy required to interact with others and follow guidelines, unlike Tom. Perhaps that’s a far too simplistic way of viewing his struggle, but isolation seems to be the anecdote for his angst. Though it would be nice to say his love for his daughter knows no bounds, it isn’t true. He’s paralyzed by demons that the love for his daughter cannot fix. Tom’s final decision is more about empathy than a typical teenage/parent schism, and it’s beautifully executed by both actors.

It has also been suggested that this film shines a spotlight on PTSD and the way in which America treats its Veterans. Again, if that’s the case, I did not see it. If anything, it shines a spotlight on the power of depression. For Will to recover, he’d not only need the means, he’d need the motivation, and he simply doesn’t have it. The generosity of others can’t outweigh his personal peril, and as we’ve seen from many recent, tragic suicides, the love for one’s child is also not enough. Mental illness is a beast that only the sufferers fully understand. And speaking of that generosity, it’s also been mentioned that this is a story of white privilege. If Will were a black man, would he have been gifted with such generosity? It’s certainly a reasonable question we should all ask ourselves when a neighbor is in need of help.

If there’s a deeper meaning at play here, it’s to celebrate the earth and to acknowledge that sometimes the littlest of things are enough. Will and Tom could live off the earth, but should they? Indulgences are okay but beware of the pendulum swinging too far in either direction.

‘Adrift’ Movie Review (SPOILERS AHEAD)

Courtesy of STXfilms; Motion Picture Artwork © 2017 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Some have suggested that Adrift emotionally manipulates its audience by keeping Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) alive via hallucination when in the true story, Sharp sadly died during Hurricane Raymond, leaving Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) to navigate a terribly damaged 44-foot yacht for 41 days . . . alone.  As someone who has personally experienced profound grief, I can unequivocally defend this creative choice. First, Tami is said to have relied on the voices in her head to keep her alive, and one of those voices was Richard’s. Again, I reiterate that after having experienced personal grief, I relate to the idea that it’s possible to be propelled by the spirit of someone who has passed, as if they are still present. Had they let the audience in on the secret, the audience would not have felt Richard’s presence in the same way as Tami.

The story of the real Tami and Richard began in September 1983, when they took a 4000-mile sailing job from Hazana to San Diego, where they encountered 40-foot waves and 140 mph winds via the largest storm in the Pacific. With a non-functional electronic navigation system and a radio device that could no longer indicate the boat’s emergency position, Tami used a sextant to change course and accurately navigate to Hawaii. A sextant is a tool that employs celestial navigation, and it was introduced in the 19th century. Had she missed Hawaii due to any navigation error, she’d be dead.

Shailene Woodley delivered one of the best performances of her career. I saw The Fault in Our Stars, and she has grown tremendously since that film. This is a highly physical role, and Woodley is incredibly believable. Knowing it’s a true story certainly helped, but she kept the audience engaged from beginning to end, showing the array of emotions, including panic, defeat, and determination. Each new challenge (food rations, a broken sail, etc. . .) created an edge-of-your-seat intensity that’s up there with Cast Away.

Movie Review: The Revenant

Written by Guest Contributor, C. Dillon

The Revenant is brilliant. Inspired by real events, The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman and hunter working for a U.S. Government expedition to trap beaver along the northern reaches of the Missouri River in the 1820s.

Glass’ past is not deeply explored in the film, though it is shown that he was married to a Pawnee woman and lived with her (and their son, Hawk) until their village was raided and torched by (apparently) U.S. troops. Glass’ wife is killed in this raid, and young Hawk is badly burned. Glass’ mantra to his son while nursing him back to health – “as long as you can grab a breath, you fight” – echoes as the driving theme of the film.

Years later, Glass and teen-aged Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) are working under Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), collecting beaver pelts in the frigid, mountainous forests lining the northern Missouri. The expedition is attacked by a group of Arikara warriors, forcing the survivors to flee down river. Concerned that the “Ree” will track and ambush their boat, Glass convinces Captain Henry to abandon the boat and continue on foot, trying to make their way hundreds of miles back to Fort Kiowa. Soon after, Glass is attacked and viciously mauled by a grizzly bear, suffering terrible wounds. The party tries to carry Glass with them, but it becomes apparent that they will not be able to get him through the snow-covered mountains in his condition. Captain Henry offers a substantial bonus to any volunteers who will stay with Glass until he succumbs to his wounds, and give him a proper burial. Hawk, his friend Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) agree to do so. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, Glass is left for dead, and spends the rest of the movie trying to get back to Fort Kiowa to exact revenge on those who abandoned him.

It is a relatively simple story, but gorgeously told. Director Alejandro Iñárritu reteams with his Birdman cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to paint a stark, violently beautiful portrait of the American frontier. Each shot is more beautiful than the last, whether it be leaves frozen in encasements of ice, or the open, snow-swept emptiness of a northern plain. In fact, I became so immersed in Lubezki’s realistic portrayal of Glass’ cold, wet world, I found myself shivering in the theater.

CGI is used sparingly, and in some cases with less than perfect results. One scene, however, makes heavy use of this technique to brutally effective ends. The attack on Glass by the grizzly is as visceral, immediate, and compellingly vicious as nearly anything ever put to film. Each swipe of rending claws, each gnash of crunching teeth is perfectly rendered, and makes this pivotal scene so realistic, it’s nearly unwatchable. The mass of the giant grizzly is a physical thing, felt by the audience as it tears Glass’ flesh to ribbons. It is a masterful scene of incredible violence, but even this feels somehow beautiful.

That the filmmakers paid incredible attention to detail is apparent in almost every shot. Specifically, Native Americans and First Tribes experts were consulted to ensure that the Arikara and Pawnee were accurately portrayed, down to the war paint on the horses. This pays off in spades, as there was never a moment in the film where an anachronistic gaffe pulled me out Glass’ environment.

Glass is a far cry from other characters DiCaprio has portrayed – often they are loquacious, easily charismatic types who have page upon page of sparkling dialogue to carry them. Not so in The Revenant, where Glass is naturally not prone to talking much, and spends a good deal of the movie unable to talk at all. This does not at all take away from his performance, however, he is as good here as he has been in anything. His face and eyes carry the burden of his pain, his loss, his lust for vengeance, where words would seemingly fail. It is a physical role, and an emotional one, and DiCaprio masters it.

He is surrounded by an equally adept supporting cast, led by Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald. While he sometimes seems to be doing an impression of Tom Berenger’s Sergeant Barnes from Platoon (they are both hard men from Texas, after all), Hardy’s villain is both contemptible and, to a point, understandable. He knows what it means to be captured by the “Indians,” having lost a good chunk of his scalp in an earlier encounter. He accepts that this job, and this world, are brutal and unforgiving. He truly believes that Glass has no hope of survival, given their situation. All that said, however, he is not sympathetic, and the audience knows quite clearly that he is the bad guy in the story.

On a personal level, The Revenant – especially in the first 30 minutes or so – took me back to aspects of my own youth. As a young man assigned to the Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington, I had spent significant time learning about “Roger’s Rangers,” a pre-Revolutionary War force that fought on the British side in the French and Indian War of the mid- 18th century. Modern Army Rangers trace their lineage directly from Roger’s Rangers, and include in their training “Roger’s Standing Orders,” a collection of things that every good Ranger – then and now – must to do be effective in combat. Watching Glass and his expedition patrol forested mountains, cold, wet, and under heavy burden, brought me straight back to my days doing the same (albeit 170 years later, and under very different circumstances). The Revenant is that kind of movie – it will hit you in places that you don’t expect, and bring you back to a time when you could be truly awed by a film.

‘Unfinished Business’ — Movie Review

When an entire movie revolves around closing a business deal, it might help to actually understand the deal in question. That’s not a macguffin, it’s a necessity. ‘Unfinished Business’ begins with a scene straight from ‘Jerry Macquire,’ as Dan Trunkman (Vince Vaughn) defiantly insists he can do his job better than his boss, Chuck Portnoy (Sienna Miller). He then turns to his fellow coworkers to request they follow him to his new company. As for what his company does, why he’s so angry, or whether we should root for his success, that’s never clear.  The remainder of he film explores the antics around the deal in question, with a great level of desperation given that it’s Dan’s only chance to keep his illusory company alive. Because this film solely revolves around the dialogue among Dan and his two cohorts as they travel through Europe to seal this deal, the movie lives or dies by its dialogue. Unfortunately, it died. The only funny moment is ironically ripped from Louis C.K. whose joke about giving his first class seat to a veteran landed in the trailer. Do you think Louis scored some cash for that? You can catch both clips below.


Movie Review: ‘The Imitation Game’

the_imitation_game_posterThere are men who are given a set of challenges inside a system, and there are men who challenge the system. Alan Turing was the latter, and the code-breaker used his unique genius to win WWII. Beautifully brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game tells the true tale of Turing’s time at Bletchley Park, where British Intelligence hired him and a team of men to crack “Enigma,” the encryption device used by the Nazi’s to communicate. During his time at Bletchley Park, Turing barbed the base commander at every turn (brilliantly portrayed by Charles Dance), who constantly questioned Turing’s unorthodox approach to breaking the code. His cohorts were also cantankerous, and his detached hubris didn’t help. His isolation is explained through flashbacks showing Turing as a solitary schoolboy with a single friend who rescued him from his bullying peers. The film takes a welcome turn when a fellow code-breaker named Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightly) arrives, whose bond with Turing helps soften the team who would later defend the man they previously questioned, and the rest speaks for itself through history. Sadly, the very country he helped save then turned against him, forcing dangerous hormone medication to rectify his homosexual status, which ultimately ends in tragedy.

Much like Einstein, Edison, or Newton, Alan Turing’s name should be universally acknowledged, and The Imitation Game might solidify that sentiment. The English-language directorial debut of Norway’s Morten Tyldum is adapted from Andrew Hodges’ biography: Alan Turing: The Enigma, and there’s no better actor of today’s generation than Benedict Cumberbatch. The Resident “it-man,” is riveting.

DISHES: 4.5/5

Roger Ebert’s ‘Life Itself’ Debuts — A Beautiful Masterpiece

My father introduced me to Roger Ebert at a young age, and my fandom has since spanned decades. In fact, I fancied I’d emulate his career, which was the original aim of this blog. After watching ‘Life Itself,’ I feel more determined than ever.

My favorite Ebert reviews were for the films he frowned upon, because it always affirmed his resident-bad-ass status. For example, when Rob Schneider took out a full page ad in Daily Variety to attack the credentials of a film critic who bashed “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo,” saying “He didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven’t invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter Who’s Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers,” Ebert boldly joined the battle, saying, “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.” Another personal favorite involved Kick-Ass, with Roger Ebert’s negative review inspiring barbs about his age from the movie’s angry filmmakers. Ebert nutshelled his cutting response on twitter, simply saying, “Them: I was too old to get it. Me: My problem was that I got it.” And let’s not forget his infamous feud with Vincent Gallo, who called Ebert a “fat pig” in reaction to his negative take on ‘The Brown Bunny.” Ebert replied with a play on Winston Churchill, saying, “It is true that I am fat, but one day I shall be thin, and he will still be the director of ‘The Brown Bunny.'”

Though Roger Ebert allowed us into his life with movie reviews, blog posts, interviews, and his own television shows, ‘Life Itself,’ gives us a new look at the legend. Directed by Steve James, the film lets us in on the lighter side of Roger Ebert, with a beautiful glimpse at the love he shared with his wife, Chaz, who clearly kept him going during his more challenging days, which Ebert always met with joy. He poetically described her impact on his life, saying, “Her love was like a wing pushing me back from the grave.” We also get a window into his iconic partnership with Gene Siskel, with funny videos of their feud, which eventually transformed into a loving friendship.

There’s no doubt that Ebert’s life work is inspirational. But what’s more inspirational, is how he lived his life. He was happy in the face of great difficulty, he refused to let his illness define him, and even in the most physically challenging state, his family and his writing brought him joy. I feel grateful for this incredible glimpse into Roger Ebert’s life.

Watch the trailer below, and see the film on the big screen. That’s how Ebert would have wanted it.

‘The Other Woman’ — Movie Review

‘The Other Woman’ is a hell-hath-no-fury revenge comedy that’s entire premise hinges on the antics of three women determined to ruin the life of a cheating man. That man in question, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, cheats on Leslie Mann’s character (Kate King) with Cameron Diaz (Carly Whitten), who discovers his married status only upon an awkward run-in with his wife. The two then strangely become friends and mutually decide to make Kate’s cheating husband miserable. They bring another scorned mistress into the mix (Kate Upton), and the predictable punch lines ensue.

While it’s refreshing to see another film with female leads, this film lacks the same comedic power of ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘The Heat.’ That’s likely because Mann is forced to carry the film without much help from her cohorts. Though Cameron Diaz is certainly a sight for sore eyes, she lacks Mann’s masterful timing, sacrificing the needed power-pairing. Plus, toilet humor tends to turn me off. The other issue with the film is that in order for it to work the man has to be cartoonishly awful. After all, if he has even a modicum of humanity, we might take a moment to feel sorry for him, which would destroy the humor. But if he is in fact cartoonishly awful (which he is), then why would these women waste their well-valued time taking him down? It’s a creative conundrum, but I was willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of having a little fun.

Though this film has some predictable plot holes, it’s worth seeing. It’s a fun, refreshing comedy that will certainly make you laugh if for no other reason than Leslie Mann.


‘Enough Said’ — Movie Review by The Dishmaster

movies-enough-saidThere are mandatory must-haves to propel the plot of all popular films. Without them, the film will sink faster than one of Tony Sopranos’ rats. There are; however, ways to achieve Hollywood’s most-wanted themes without infringing on the hokiest of sentiments. And ‘Enough Said’ did just that.

Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the late, great James Gandolfini, the film centers around Eva and Albert, two divorced, middle-agers who are settled in their lives but open to a new relationship. Their mutual affection is slow-growing, and much like real life, each take the time to assess their feelings. Eva isn’t sure she’s attracted to Albert, and Albert, though interested in Eva, seems slightly broken by his past. They begin to date, and just when you fall for their adorable affections, Eva does something to sabotage what they’ve built.

Though I’ve always been impressed by Louis-Dreyfuss and Gandolfini, this film well exceeded my expectations. Each is known for the extremes of their comedic and dramatic genres, but it’s far more impressive to forgo those extremes for a more nuanced performance. These lovable characters come with a powerful palette of details that are so beautifully subtle, it’s mesmerizing.  That’s a feat also attributable to writer and director Nicole Holofcenter,who clearly made a conscious choice to forgo all of Tinseltown’s tritest tricks. During a post-film Q & A at the AARP’s Movies For Grownups Film Festival, Louis-Dreyfus touched on this idea, explaining that she didn’t want a “standard Hollywood kiss,” and instead hoped to get the point across another way. She did just that.

Go see this film. It’s a little gem that’s hard to come by. And as James Gandolfini’s last performance, it does him justice.

4.5/5 DISHES





‘The Counselor’ — A Full Review

20131025-103515.jpgWhen you eliminate the back-story behind your characters, you also eliminate my investment in their journey. The lines between the good guys and the bad guys become blurred, and the performances suddenly become irrelevant. It’s a shame too, because this film was certainly saturated with powerful performances.

Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), The Counselor follows a lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who, in a bid for big bucks, engages in a drug deal with the very shady Reiner (Javier Barden) and Westray (Brad Pitt). Things predictably go awry, and some very dark drama ensues.

Though I’d call this a visually artistic masterpiece, that’s not enough to rescue it. In film school, there’s a cardinal rule that every scene in a movie should propel the plot forward. I thought of that while watching The Counselor, and then quickly realized that there’s no plot to propel. There’s no indication about why Fassbender’s character chose to engage in this drug deal, and because his cronies are also vapid villains, there’s also no suspense associated with their safety. Do I care about the life of a seemingly evil group of people who I know nothing about? Does it matter if their lives are destroyed? The only saving grace is Penelope Cruz’s character, but much like the others, I found myself judging a woman who would be with such a creepy guy without any suspicion.