Tickled Capsule Review (2016): New Documentary is No Laughing Matter

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I can’t say too much about the new documentary Tickled, which has been slowly expanding in theaters throughout the summer. My words wouldn’t do the film justice.

Journalist David Farrier directed the film with Dyaln Reeve. Farrier has spent most of his career drawn to reporting about weird stories. So naturally, when he came across a Youtube video about “competitive endurance tickling,” he had to know more.  He began to investigate and was not prepared for the story that awaited him.

Tickled is a movie that you have to continually remind yourself is a documentary and the events that occur throughout truly happened. Moments of Tickled played like a tense Hollywood thriller, which had my friend and I at the edge of our seat – literally.

I’m not concerned with trying to meet any kind of word count with this review. I don’t want to tell you anything that happens because this is a movie you have to see to believe. Tickled is one of the strangest movies I have ever experienced.

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Indignation Review (2016): Someone Comes of Age but What’s the Point?

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I have never read a book by Philip Roth. Sometimes I’m inspired to read the book before I see a movie to critique if the film adaptation is a successful transition to the screen. Indignation is not one of those cases, so I went in cold.

I have, however, seen a few of Roth’s film adaptations, which have never been fully successful movies. The Human Stain was a mess – but an intriguing one – mainly because Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins made an interesting pairing. Indignation is a problematic film but, strangely enough, makes me want to read the book to see what is missing from the film.

Indignation is the directorial debut of former studio head James Schamus, who oversaw the production of most of Ang Lee’s films, and garnered an Oscar nomination as a producer of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He has since left Focus Features and now is trying his hand at directing features. His first attempt behind the camera is a milquetoast effort at a would-be Oscar bait drama.

In Indignation, Logan Lerman stars as Marcus, a college-bound student, who grew up in a working-class Jewish family. His parents (played by Danny Burnstein and Linda Emond) want him to stay close to home – dad, particularly – but Marcus is desperate to get away from the family meat market business. There is a whole world Marcus hasn’t seen outside of Jersey and he is ready to explore.

He attends college in Ohio, where he goes to class, studies and makes $18 a week working in the library. Unexpectedly, Marcus’ focus is derailed when he meets Olivia (Sarah Gadon), who is a girl with an interesting past. Marcus knows she is not right for him but he is drawn to her wild spirit.

Indignation explores coming-of-age themes and sexual repression, which we have seen time-and-time again, but it situates itself in the foreground of the Korean War. There are plenty of opportunities to make the film a layered exploration of social life in the midst of war but Indignation often feels lost, struggling to find its footing. There is no discernable plot trajectory, which makes for a flat viewing experience. What’s this film’s thesis? I haven’t a clue.

As for helming a straightforward drama, Schamus demonstrates an apt vision behind the camera but the problems are within the story. This is was makes me interested to read Roth’s novel – what was cut from his original vision? Schamus’ script doesn’t have much of an emotional pull, as we should expect from watching someone discover who they are outside of their family

Lerman continues to prove himself a promising young actor, who has previously delivered strong performances in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and his MVP role in Fury. His interpretation of Marcus is both naïve and confident – a young person who thinks he has it figured out but really doesn’t have a clue. He and Gadon have an interesting, if never compelling, chemistry.

Some of the best moments in Indignation are when Marcus faces off with the prickly Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). Letts delivers a fine supporting performance but there isn’t enough of him to salvage Indignation into being something worthwhile.

5 out of 10

Pete’s Dragon Review (2016): Disney Remake Soars High

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Something happened to me during my showing of Pete’s Dragon. I wasn’t sure what it was at first but then it became clear: I was moved. Disney’s latest confirmed that I am still a human being, who is completely capable by being won over by an endearing film.

Pete’s Dragon isn’t groundbreaking material; it isn’t even all that original. It follows well-worn Disney tropes and takes us through a familiar trajectory for almost two hours- but none of that matters. Pete’s Dragon is a fun and thrilling adventure film, which has more heart and soul than most movies dare to have today. Especially with the dismal slog of a summer that we have been through at the movies, Pete’s Dragon rises above all the spectacles that try to win you over with their flashy trickery.

Director David Lowery (whose calling card film was the snoozy Terrence Malick-esque Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) helms the latest Disney remake. His source material is the 1977 Disney film – a rare one that I don’t have much of a connection with – where animation and live action were used together. In the 2016 version, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has been living in the forest for six years, without another human being in sight. His friend, Elliot, has taken care of him all this time – Elliot happens to be a dragon.

Much like The Jungle Book, which we saw remade earlier this year, Pete is a boy who has only known his life in the forest and has no desire to leave it. One day when Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a devoted forest ranger, her boyfriend, Jack (We Bently), and his daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence) are in the forest, they see Pete. He is brought back to their home while they try to figure out where he came from and how long he has been living out there.

Watching Pete adapt to the real world is such an interesting aspect of Pete’s Dragon and Fegley does a wonderful job conveying Pete’s confusion about simple things, words or actions. He tells Grace and Natalie about his friend Elliot and is asked if that is his imaginary friend. “What does imaginary mean?” he asks Natalie.

It’s hard for people to believe Pete’s stories of Elliot because dragons are just mystical creatures. Only one person in town, Grace’s father (Robert Redford), has ever claimed to have seen or heard the dragon. In a town filled with skeptics, Elliot needs to be seen to be believed.

Pete’s Dragon is a good example of a film that takes familiar material and works wonders with it. Movies are usually knocked because nothing seems new or fresh anymore but that doesn’t always make a movie bad. Lowery is able to effectively blend the drama, action, thrills and comedy into one even movie and creates a fresh film experience.

Your kids may want you to take them to see that fun looking hot dog movie – but don’t! – over this. There are moments of peril and genuine danger but this is one of the best family films in some time. Let your imagination take flight because Pete’s Dragon is worth a trip to the movies.

9 out of 10

Florence Foster Jenkins Review (2016): Meryl Streep is Even Good at Being Bad

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Director Stephen Frears’ latest biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins, centers on the title character, a bon vivant of the 20th century New York City arts scene. She had fortune and notoriety and a great passion for opera music and the desire to be an opera singer, herself.

Just one problem – Florence couldn’t sing to save her life. She would have never known that about herself because she was surrounded by people who encouraged her to follow her dreams.

In another transformative role, Meryl Streep stars as the titular character. There’s a great joy at watching the greatest living actress take on the role of someone who was so bad at performing because, as you could imagine, Streep is even perfect at being bad.

Florence’s husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), may not always be the best husband but is her biggest supporter. He cares greatly for Florence and champions any dreams, no matter how ridiculous they can be. He helps Florence interview piano players to help her with her vocal lessons.

They agree upon Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, in what is hopefully an intentionally awkward performance), who is excited about landing such a good gig playing piano. His first session with Florence is shocking because the sounds coming out of her sound like anything but opera music. He’s stunned when her vocal coach and husband praise her but hesitantly continues to play the piano.

The film follows Florence all the way to Carnegie Hall, where she plays for a sold out crowd. What makes Frears’ film work so well is it never passes judgment on Florence and her delusions of grandeur. She is not a crazy person but an unshakably passionate one. St Clair doesn’t indulge simply to spare her feelings – though that’s certainly part of it – but he doesn’t want her to lose her love of music.

Streep delivers a performance infused with enthusiasm and a striking balance of confidence and vulnerability. Deftly balancing heart and humor – much like her Julie and Julia performance – she delivers her best performance since her icy nun in 2008’s Doubt.

But we know Streep is great – she always is, even in movies that aren’t good. The real surprise here is Grant, who gives the performance of his career. While Florence Foster Jenkins has the heft of a Sunday matinee film, should it be remembered come awards season, Grant is deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination. (Streep will more than likely continue to break her own record and garner her 20th career nomination.)

Despite lagging a bit, Florence Foster Jenkins is an easy watch and one that comes packaged in a good message. You don’t always have to be great to do the thing you love.

7 out of 10

Nine Lives Review (2016): New Family Film Needs to be Neutered

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Nine Lives is the strangest movie I have seen in some time.

Besides having the look and feel of a mid-2000s Disney Channel movie, it has a dark undercurrent that is off-putting, especially since it is a film geared towards families. More on that later.

The most perplexing thing about Barry Sonnefeld’s (Men in Black) movie is that it attracted the likes of two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, Oscar Winner Christopher Walken and the always lovely Jennifer Garner. They read this script and willingly signed on to such a dud and I can’t understand why. Maybe they owed someone a favor? If they all just needed the money, I urge you to donate to the GoFundMe page I will begin for them once I am done writing this review.

Spacey stars as New York billionaire businessman, Tom Brand, who is working on having his named on the tallest building overlooking the city. This is all he cares about, forget his wife, Lara (Garner), and young daughter (Malina Weissman), who wait for him at home wondering when he may ever return. Tom never cared about anything besides himself or his business dealings. “Your son had to fill out an application just to see you,” Lara reminds him of his older son, David (Robbie Amell), from his previous marriage.

Tom just scoffs at her pleas to be a more present father and husband. He can buy anyone presents to make his absence acceptable. For his daughter’s birthday, she asks for a cat, so Tom stops and buys one from a shadowy cat whisperer (Walken, naturally). Events transpire and Tom ends up in a coma and his soul inside of the cat.

Seems like harmless family stuff, right? Well throughout the course of the film, we have the absentee father and his bitter ex-wife. Then there’s the question of if daddy will ever make it out of the coma. Oh, not to mention, it is heavily implied that one character plans on committing suicide. It’s all fine because Spacey’s cat pees on rugs, in purses and even stumbles around drunk in the name of wackiness.

Stunningly, there are five screenwriters credited to Nine Lives. Together they don’t find any kind of balance in tone to make this an enjoyable, silly-stupid family movie. This movie is all over the map and somehow, someway, its final draft was greenlit.

I’m not being harsh on this film for being a dumb family film. I’m being harsh on this film because it is completely warranted. The movie produces exactly one laugh off of a joke and a handful of laughs from how shockingly stupid it all is – not to mention a few cringes because it’s really a nasty film.

1 out of 10

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates Review: And Maybe a Better Script?

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In February 2013, Mike and Dave Stangle were told they were not allowed to show up to their cousin’s wedding without dates. To fulfill their cousin’s wishes, they put a lengthy ad on Craigslist, which sought the perfect dates that would impress their entire family. “You should be attractive or our aunts will judge you, but not TOO attractive or one of our uncles might grope you,” were some of the stipulations in their original self-aggrandizing post. Accompanied by a picture of their heads Photoshopped onto centaurs, their ad went viral.

The Stangle brothers’ ad became so popular that a book was written and a movie was made about their quest for the perfect wedding date. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates stars Zac Efron as Dave and Adam Devine as Mike. The two brothers live together, work together and party together. They walk into their apartment one day and find their entire family sitting there, intervention-style. Their dad (Stephen Root) insists they bring someone to their younger sister Jeanie’s (Sugar Lyn Beard) wedding. (The cousin has been exchanged for a younger sister in the film version.) They protest their father but Jeanie insists that it was her idea for them to bring dates. No one wants to risk Mike and Dave getting out of control and hitting on all of the bridesmaids.

Anything for Jeanie, the brothers say. So the Craigslist ad is created. They interview an onslaught of weird ladies, who are mostly looking for a trip to Hawaii. Discouraged that they have not met any viable candidates, Mike and Dave meet Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick). After seeing Mike and Dave on TV, the two best friends have concocted a scheme to get the Stangle brothers to take them on a trip.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates takes us on a sunny trip to Hawaii, where wedding comedy hijinks inevitably ensue. Tatiana and Alice have a hard time keeping up with their backstories because they don’t really care about impressing anyone; they just want a vacation.

Plaza and Kendrick, while dishonest and scheming, offer the majority of the sharp one-liners in the film. Efron doesn’t deliver anything that we are not used to seeing from his comedies – it’s just another variation of his Peter Pan Syndrome persona. Devine – known mostly for TV’s Workaholics or the Pitch Perfect movies – gets his first real big role. He’s loud and grating, usually operating at a 20, when we would settle for a 10. There are echoes of Jack Black in Devine’s persona, which is over-the-top and rarely funny.

Writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien carry scenes on for far too long and the jokes don’t often land. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates does have a handful of funny moments but most are killed by the repetitious nature of individual scenes. Director Jake Szymanski holds shots for far too long, hoping to give the audience time to catch-up and laugh. This movie is not that smart; we are already mentally on the next scene before the writers or directors leave the previous.

In the real Stangle brothers’ ad, they included the dates would get royalties once their night’s story is developed into a romantic comedy. Unabashedly confident, they gave themselves an 85-percent chance of that happening. Turns out they were right, for better or for worse.

5 out of 10

 

The Best Movies of the 21st Century – So Far

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Last week, the BBC posed the following question to film critics (not me, but I still wanted to play!): What are the 10 best movies of the 21st century, so far? In the past 16 years, some truly great films have come out. Even a few masterpieces. Boiling it down to 10 is a daunting task. Part of the fun about writing about movies is all the arduous list making that comes with it.

The following 10 movies are what I landed on. Tomorrow, I would probably move things around or change some movies. The number one film, for me, is a no-brainer. Anyways, my choices are:

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1. The Social Network (2010): Nothing is perfect, they say. Well, that doesn’t apply here. David Fincher’s dramatization of the creation of Facebook is a perfect film. Rarely does every aspect of a movie work in concert so perfectly. From the performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, to Fincher’s direction, Aaron Sorkin’s script and the score, this is a perfectly assembled film. It’s more thrilling than the average thriller dumped in a multiplex on a weekly basis.

When you boil it down, The Social Network is the tech generation’s Citizen Kane. It is about a deeply flawed character who built an empire that separated them from the rest of the world. If you put these films side-by-side Charles Foster Kane and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t all that different. Their creations consumed them and their characters end up alienating everyone around them and each film closes with the characters alone in a room.

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2.  Zero Dark Thirty (2012): As The Social Network captures a moment in time, so does Kathryn Bigelow’s meticulously crafted Zero Dark Thirty. Her follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker detailed the 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The movie fell subject to some controversy but every great film is worthy of a discussion.

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3. Million Dollar Baby (2004): Clint Eastwood packaged his film as a formulaic boxing movie but it ended up being so much more. The final act is haunting and devastating, also worthy of a discussion after. The movie won four Oscars: Best Picture, Director (Eastwood), Best Actress (Hilary Swank) and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman). This is the best boxing movie since Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

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4. Requiem for a Dream (2000): Darren Aronofsky’s movie about drug addiction is one of the toughest movies to sit through. Most people who have seen it can only stomach it once but like the subject matter, it’s quite addictive. Ellen Burstyn gives quite possibly the performance of her career as a woman addicted to diet pills. This is a sad and scary movie but it’s impossible to ignore its greatness.

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5. No Country For Old Men (2007): What a career Joel and Ethan Cohen have. Some filmmakers strive to make just one film that they will always be remembered for but the Coens have managed to craft two masterpieces (Fargo and this). No Country For Old Men is as tense as a movie comes and took home the Best Picture (among Director, Supporting Actor and Screenplay) at the Oscars. This is a brutal, masterful film.

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6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001): There is no movie-going experience like having seen your first Harry Potter film for the first time. The magic, the effects and the genuine thrills of it all created a movie that will forever stand the test of time. I read the books when I was younger but am not even that devout of a Potter fan. This is just a wonderful movie.

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7. The Dark Knight (2008): Christopher Nolan’s second film in his Batman trilogy is a transcendent superhero film. It’s like a peak Michael Mann thriller wrapped in Batman packaging. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is a performance for the ages. Unlike the last film in this trilogy, this movie earns every minute of its lengthy runtime.

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8. Sideways (2004): Sideways is a funny movie at times but it’s a melancholy one throughout. Paul Giamatti’s performance as a sad-sack writer, who takes his friend on a trip through California wine country just before he gets married is a thing of delicate beauty. Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen earned Oscar nominations for their performances (and deserved to win), while Giamatti’s snub still stings after all these years.

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9. Boyhood (2014): Sometimes the big ideas produce simple results and they are perfect. Richard Linklater’s near-three-hour film follows a family over the course of 12 years, using the same actors throughout. It’s a gorgeous time capsule for audiences. The film won Patricia Arquette an Oscar for her sympathetic portrayal of a mother trying to provide the best life for her two children.

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10. Cold Mountain (2003): The majesty of the late Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain was woefully overlooked when it came out. Thought to be a sure-fire Oscar player, the movie did manage to get seven nominations but missed out on Best Picture. This is an old fashion romance film set during the Civil War. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.

With any Top 10 list, there are have to be honorable mentions. At some point these following movies were apart of the 10 above:

A History of Violence (2005)
In the Bedroom (2001)
Doubt (2008)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Chicago (2002)
The Hours (2002)
Mystic River (2003)
Spotlight (2015)
Zodiac (2007)
The Departed (2006)
Little Children (2006)
Up in the Air (2009)