★★★ / ★★★★
Claire (Jennifer Aniston) lost her young son in a car accident and she has since suffered from chronic physical pain. Most days, she is on drugs and that makes her quite unpleasant, to say the least, to be around. When Claire learns that a member of her chronic pain support group named Nina (Anna Kendrick) committed suicide, she goes on a mission to learn more about the tragedy.
Based on the screenplay by Patrick Tobin and directed by Daniel Barnz, “Cake” is an undercooked drama but it is uplifted for the most part by Aniston’s wry performance. Although the material does make some fresh decisions like not forging a romantic relationship between Claire and Nina’s husband (Sam Worthington), it requires more detail to become a truly engaging drama. Why is it that we do not learn a bit more about the man (William H. Macy) directly involved in the death of Claire’s son?
The first thirty minutes of the picture is independent drama at its best. It makes us wonder about Claire’s intentions, how her mind works, whether she is capable of empathy even if she is suffering a great deal. Is the reason why she is so curious about Nina the fact that the recently deceased had the courage that Claire simply does not have? Is Claire actually jealous that someone else achieved what she has fantasized about since the car accident? These are very interesting questions that are not easy to bring up and tackle directly, but this film does it with pride, respect, and class. It is true that Claire may not be the most likable character, but these questions feel right for this story—her story. I wanted to know more.
It is most disappointing then that the material begins to repeat itself just before the halfway mark. The bottom line is that the scenes which occur only in Claire’s mind or dreams communicate a mental anguish which then contribute to more physical pain. The script hammers the viewer over the head with this idea which is most unnecessary.
It is unfortunate because the supporting characters are interesting. Silvana (Adriana Barraza) is Claire’s helper and friend. A standout scene involves a trip to Tijuana and Silvana is spotted by friends from the past. Here, we get to observe Silvana and Claire’s relationship at its rawest—that even though Claire may treat Silvana like a maid at times, deep down, Claire considers Silvana to be a good friend. Another character I wanted to know more about is Claire’s ex-husband (Chris Messina). There is a sadness about him as well but the screenplay does not explore this avenue.
To create an effective drama, the details must be present and alive. It is most curious then that “Cake” often seems reluctant to dig deeply into its characters and their circumstances. Claire is grieving but grief never not isolated. Because Claire is miserable, sometimes she lashes out and this is why it is worth getting to know those around her. Claire’s story could easily have been two and a half hours long and it would likely have been much more engaging.
Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
On President Obama’s birthday, the Barden Bellas, three-time a cappella champions, were invited to perform at the Lincoln Center. The performance goes swimmingly—at least initially—until Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is shown suspended on a white sheet à la P!nk at the 2010 Grammys. Wearing no underwear, Fat Amy inadvertently flashes the world and the images spread like wildfire. The Barden Bellas’ once excellent reputation is tarnished and the university’s dean is forced to make a drastic decision.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks, “Pitch Perfect 2” matches the novelty and verve of its predecessor at times, but it does drag in parts. As it should be, the film is at the top of its game when characters are performing mashups of mainstream songs both new and old. However, in order to appeal emotionally to the audience, the script tries to explore friendships and relationships which often come across as tired and forced.
There are a few smart choices here. Beca (Anna Kendrick) is now a senior and she is making preparations when it comes to what she wants to do next after graduation. She hopes to become a record producer and so she divides her time between the a cappella group and interning with a music producer with a sharp tongue (Keegan-Michael Key). The scenes that take place in the conference room and the studio are entertaining and amusing. We believe that Beca is ready to start a new chapter, not simply sitting through a series of scenes where the character realizes eventually that she loves being a Barden Bella more than a chance at a real future. Always be on the lookout for cameos.
Less interesting is the love interest between Fat Amy and Bumper Allen (Adam DeVine), a former Treblemaker who used to work for John Mayer. I missed Bumper Allen’s sassiness; they try to make him a nice guy here which makes him almost boring. Although Wilson and DeVine do try to give it their best shot, especially when it comes to the range of facial expressions they possess, I never felt like there was anything at stake. Even if they do not end up together in the end, it still feels all right. Thus, the couple’s scenes are trivial for the most part, about twenty minutes of padding that fails to push the story forward.
Perhaps the best part of the film is when the Barden Bellas participate in an underground rif-off against other a cappella groups. It is creative, funny, and we get a real sense of the styles, strengths, and weaknesses of each group. This is stronger than the finale—the latter satisfying but not particularly impressive. The last performance relies too much on sentimentality than presentation and talent. The main rival of the Barden Bellas in this film, Das Sound Machine (Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), commands such a presence that cuteness and sweetness simply fail to measure up.
“Pitch Perfect 2” offers a good time and is best seen with a group of people. It might have been better if there had been less talking and more singing, but actors like Kendrick and Wilson possess such an effervescent, effortless charm that they could be selling me something that I don’t need yet I’ll still listen to them speak.
End of Watch (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Officer Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is attending a film class as an elective so he chooses to document the every day happenings as an LAPD cop even though some of his fellow officers and superior do not like the idea. They think it is a liability waiting to happen as well as a distraction from the job. Unaware that a cartel is forming in South Central, when Officer Taylor and his partner, Officer Zavala (Michael Peña), end up arresting a man carrying multiple wads of cash hidden in soup and a golden firearm underneath the seat of a truck, it is an act similar to shaking a hornet’s nest. The drug cartel’s kingpin puts a price on their heads.
What makes “End of Watch,” written and directed by David Ayer, stand out from yet another film that chooses a hand-held camera style as a conceit to tell its story is its keen attention on the partnership between two characters. And although it has shootings that are expected in cop dramas, they hold an excitement every time because we learn and come to understand what it is at stake for the duo. While they do embody certain stereotypes, mainly cops relishing to command a level of power, they are neither defined nor limited by our expectations.
The chemistry between Peña and Gyllenhaal is a very necessary element that must be done just right in order to be believable. During down times, the two officers share a partnership that is more brotherly than professional. Their conversations in the patrol car quickly come to mind, ranging from the clichés of dating a white woman versus a Mexican woman to seeking each other’s advice about romantic relationships. Conversely, when the they find themselves in the middle of the action, their focus is on the job and yet there is an active attempt to maintain their connection. They keep each other in check just in case one gets too caught up in the moment or his own thoughts. It is expertly communicated that being a cop is as much as an internal battle as it is an external one.
The film put me through a roller coaster of emotions. It is admirable how the funny exchanges are intercut with scenes that hold genuine suspense, sadness, and horror. It is a scary reminder of the reality with which some people live. The image of an infant and a toddler with duct tape around their mouths and limbs because their drug-addicted parents cannot tolerate the crying shook me to the core. This scene, and others similar to it that are best left to be discovered and experienced, is allowed to unravel in a slow and calculated manner until the inevitable horror is reached.
A hindrance is the generous jumping of perspective. There is a noticeable disruption in momentum when a prior scene is through a cop’s eyes and the next that of a gangster’s. While the latter’s world is also very interesting, it might have been better off if the writer-director had not employed the hand-held camera style when they are front and center. There is much talk about needing “respect,” but we do not get to know them as much as Officers Taylor and Zavala.
“End of Watch” scrubs the glamour off policing. It may not have introduced situations I have not already seen but it creates a level of excitement tiers above similar pictures that are louder, badder, and ultimately emptier.
Pitch Perfect (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is only fitting that The Barden Bellas, led by Aubrey (Anna Camp) the control freak, and the Treblemakers, led by the bombastic Bumper (Adam DeVine), face-off at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. Although both groups attend Barden University, their rivalry has grown so intense over the years that their drive to overcome the other eclipses their commonalities. The former is humiliated when Aubrey, so stressed and so intent on winning, has an accident on stage.
A new school year begins but Beca (Anna Kendrick), a freshman, does not even want to go to college. She fails to see the point since her dream is to become a music producer, mixing tracks being one of her hobbies. Her father, a professor at the university, insists that she attends her classes and puts in the effort to experience the privilege sitting on her lap. If she does and comes to the conclusion that college is still not for her, her dad promises to help her move to Los Angeles so she can pursue her passion. Inevitably, Beca joins The Barden Bellas and, despite the hardships, finds it surprisingly gratifying.
“Pitch Perfect,” loosely based on Mickey Rapkin’s book, is an energetic and sassy musical, full of one-liners so clever that it is a shame its subplot involving a romance prevents it from reaching great heights. Even though it is bogged down by unnecessary drama between Beca and Jesse (Skylar Astin), a fellow freshman who joins the Treblemakers, the mash-up of songs combined with enthusiastic performances keep the entertainment value from diminishing.
The musical numbers are fun to listen to even though I was not very familiar with most of the songs. Of course, the classics ring a bell but the ones taken from the radio are catchy enough to be, in the least, bearable. I liked it best when different music genres are fused into a musical number to create a feverish celebration of what makes music so universal, lasting, and personal.
The lead performance by Kendrick is expected, but it is her co-stars that shine. Considering the range that we’ve seen from her as a budding actor, Kendrick does not look like she is being challenged here but she plays her character with enough youthful zest combined with an appropriate dosage of cute and slightly moody energy to be believable as an alternative chick. What is surprising, however, is Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy and the actor’s willingness to put herself out there by welcoming the material to poke fun of her body type. Her confidence really shines and it makes me want to see what other things she has to offer. Representing people with extra body weight aside, Wilson has a knack for comedy. Each time she is on camera, she delivers her line with a brashness and yet we cannot help but want to be her friend.
The romance between Beca and Jesse is toxic to the picture. I think I wanted to like Jesse because he likes (good) movies… even though his taste is unbearably typical. However, it seems like the screenplay by Kay Cannon has forgotten to put some spice into his personality. He is as dull as a wooden plank and so when it comes time for the romance to heat up between he and Becca, it goes nowhere. Other than they both enjoy singing in their respective a cappella groups, I was unable to buy into why they would be drawn to one another on a deeper level. The big fight and eventual reconnection they have can be seen from the moment they happen to meet at their internship. The trials of whatever they have may not have been so bad if it had been minimized. Instead, their interactions make the picture feel longer than it is.
Some of you might be wondering how many words it will take for this review to mention Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan’s television show called “Glee.” The answer is six hundred sixty. Although the film shares more than a handful similarities to the show, “Pitch Perfect,” directed by Jason Moore, is appropriately less quirky in order to place the spotlight on the talent involved.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012)
★ / ★★★★
“What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” directed by Kirk Jones, showcased four couples who learned that they were going to have a baby. Although the fact was a surprise for some of them, like Garry Marshall’s “New Year’s Eve,” the film felt more like a reason for various celebrities to appear in a movie together instead of a realistic or accurate portrayal of couples really dealing with events that would surely change the course of their lives. At its best, it was somewhat cute despite its overwhelming number of platitudes. Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford) were former high school classmates who became food truck chefs. Even though they were attractive, there were moments when I believed that their reconnection contained a much needed weight, a seriousness despite their age, to add to a mostly airy and vapid screenplay by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach. I liked their occasional spark and willingness to be taken seriously. At its worst, it was an idiotic portrayal of middle to upper-middle class in their thirties with no genuine problem other than the pregnancy. Its lack of ambition was maddening. Evan (Matthew Morrison) and Jules (Cameron Diaz) were reality dance competition champions. When they learned that they were going to have a baby boy, their main problem was whether the child should get circumcised. Evan argued that his son should because he was Jewish. Jules believed the procedure was unnecessary and potentially traumatizing. I glared at the screen with an “Are you kidding me?” look. Knowing each other for only three months and obviously having very little in common, it was obvious that the circumcision debate should have been the least of their worries. It was an assault to the intelligence that we were supposed to believe them as a couple when they knew nothing about each other and we knew nothing about them. Meanwhile, while the strand involving Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) offered something different because they had chosen to adopt a baby from Ethiopia, it was also frustrating to watch because the seriousness and difficulties of adoption were too often swept under the rug. An unfocused mess ensued as the screenplay ineptly juggled light comedy in the form of Alex bonding with a group of seemingly miserable dads (led by Chris Rock) at the park and pensiveness of the father-to-be not feeling completely ready to be one. I would rather have had the material focus on either one, preferably the latter. Lastly, we knew that Holly was ecstatic to have a baby–biological or otherwise. However, it was disappointing that it didn’t take a risk by asking how Alex really felt about potentially raising a baby who was not of his flesh and blood. It was a valid feeling worth exploring. It may not have been easy to deal with but tackling it might have forced us to feel closer to the material. The fourth couple involved Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), a new children’s book author and store owner, and Gary (Ben Falcone), her plain husband whose insecurities took center stage whenever his dad (Dennis Quaid) was in the vicinity. Their story was not at all about pregnancy because it was overshadowed by the unhealthy competition between father and son. Each time Gary and his father tried to one up each other, it was an awkward and painful experience. I wondered why Wendy and Gary were even necessary to the film. Based on the books by Heidi Murkoff, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” committed the sin of resting on celebrity power to make funny happen instead of challenging its actors to deliver pleasant surprises. Since the picture lacked variation, scope, and ambition, I was astounded as to why it was made in the first place.
★★★ / ★★★★
“ParaNorman” began with Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) sitting on the floor and watching a grindhouse horror flick where an actress, barely acting, screamed to the top of her lungs as a zombie crept toward her and finally lunged at her head to eat her deliciously juicy brain. Norman’s grandmother, sitting on the couch, asked him to turn up the heater because her feet were cold. Norman got up to see his family in the kitchen and when he informed them of his grandmother’s request, Mom (Leslie Mann) and Dad (Jeff Garlin) became upset: Grandmother had been dead for a while. Norman, as it turned out, had the ability to communicate with the dead. Written by Chris Butler, the film had a surplus of ideas in order to make Norman’s small town bizarre enough to be unique and yet relatable enough to be enjoyable. Clearly influenced by scary movies, the film was almost made for fans of the genre more than children, from its eerie atmosphere directly taken from George A. Romero’s undead classics to the menacing beats of Lucio Fulci’s score. Its first half was rather mysterious in that it took a bit of time for us to be fully understand what it was supposed to be about. At school, Norman was bullied by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) for being a weirdo and befriended by socially awkward Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a kid picked on for being fat. The picture could have used a little more interaction between Norman and Neil. Since the two had opposite personalities, when the script focused on conjuring reasons why the duo were a good fit for one another, the human factor really shone and made their universe more realistic. Their most effective scene involved Neil asking his new friend to throw a stick for fun. Norman, barely having any fun in his life, found it difficult to perform such a simple task. One could detect an underlying message regarding Norman’s reluctance to throw caution to the wind in relation to his negative experiences with the living: they wanted Norman for feel embarrassment or shame for his contentment in being different. Its more sensitive moments and dirty jokes, like a broken sign flashing “Itchy Wieners” which was originally “Witchy Wieners,” were clearly designed for adults. The exaggerated images, on the other hand, were aimed for kids. The young characters on screen were pleasing to eye but the adults had an almost toady quality to them. It seemed like the older the character, the features were bigger, saggier, more abstract. It was an interesting technique. Because a lot of its jokes were adult-oriented, the filmmakers had to make its younger characters visually appealing so that the children could root for them. About halfway through, the film finally found its footing with respect to Norman’s mission. Creativity was abound as Norman and Alvin were chased by zombies in the woods as well as the awkward but hilarious car ride with Neil, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), Norman’s short-tempered sister, and Mitch (Casey Affleck), Neil’s muscular but dense brother. Although “ParaNorman,” directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, featured a lesson about forgiveness toward the end which I found too slow and sentimental, its other severed parts were edgy and fun. When was the last time you saw an animated film in which its kid protagonist had a chance to engage with a corpse and its bodily functions?
Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, The (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Invitations were sent to family and friends about Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward’s (Robert Pattinson) upcoming wedding. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) was far from happy after receiving the news so he headed outside, took off his shirt, transformed into a wolf, and ran to ameliorate his rage. During their honeymoon, Bella discovered that she was pregnant. The couple was surprised because it was believed that a human and a vampire could not conceive a viable being. The fetus was growing at a rapid rate and it threatened the life of its host. Despite sensible advice that she ought to terminate, Bella decided to keep the thing inside her. Based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” was the weakest entry in the series. It was divided into three parts: the wedding, the honeymoon, and the horrific pregnancy. There was absolutely no reason for the film to be divided into two halves other than to make money. There was no pretentiousness, which I would have welcomed and possibly interpreted as ambition, or even an attempt of artistic integrity. The movie lacked interesting events, both big and small, designed to challenge who the characters were and what they really stood for. Since Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the screenplay, stretched about half the novel for almost two hours, the pacing felt unbearably slow. It got so bad to the point where the characters actually ended up watching television together because they had nothing better to do. At least it was unintentionally funny. The acting was never the series’ strong point, but I’ve always managed to stick with it. In this installment, I lost my patience within the first few minutes. It was supposed to be Bella’s wedding day. It’s a big day when everyone is supposed to be excited and happy. Or at least pretending to be. Walking down that aisle, Bella looked absolutely miserable, like she was being punished and in pain. Take off the wedding dress and she looked like she really needed to go to the restroom. I understood that maybe she was nervous about marrying a vampire. Maybe she was even having second thoughts about making a monumental commitment. If those were the emotions that the actress wanted to portray, the responsible thing to do was for the director, Bill Condon, to do a reshoot until the right emotions were conveyed through the screen. The director had no control over his material. It looked like the filmmakers did only about ten takes and were forced to pick the best one, which was below mediocre. I’ve seen Stewart’s work in other movies and I know that she can act well given the right script and direction. I wish Jessica (Anna Kendrick), Bella’s friend from high school with whom she never interacted with, had more lines during the scenes prior to the wedding. Kendrick brought a certain energy, a realism and effortless charisma, that the other actors either didn’t have or were unwilling to show. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” could not afford its characters to look bored because the pacing, the script, and the plot were already on the verge of lethargy. For instance, instead of showing the Cullens, Bella, and Jacob just sitting on the couch and watching TV, why not explain the concept of imprinting? It was an important part of the movie, but I found myself having to look up exactly what it was after watching it. Like the parasitic creature in Bella’s womb, that’s not a good sign.
★★★ / ★★★★
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seemed like a healthy twenty-seven year old who abstained from smoking and doing drugs. He even chose not to learn to drive a car because it is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. When a pain in his back began to bother him, he decided to see a doctor. The results weren’t good. It turned out that he had a rare cancer and an aggressive form of treatment was necessary. Written by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine, “50/50” successfully made the topic of cancer easier to digest by highlighting the comedy without losing track of the sadness and fear upon discovering the news and dealing with the reality. The filmmakers made a smart move by making human relationships the primary concern instead of the cancer. Kyle (Seth Rogen) was Adam’s best friend and rock throughout the ordeal. One of the best scenes between the two was in the way Kyle reacted to his friend’s grim diagnosis. Rogen balanced amusing allusions of famous people who had beaten cancer and tenderness without being obnoxious. I was glad that their relationship didn’t have a significant arc. It didn’t need to. There were still unexpected discoveries along the way, but their friendship was a good place. Another important support Adam had was Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young, perky counselor working on her doctorate. Their interactions were amusing because there was an awkwardness in their attempt to find a solid footing with something new: Katherine and her job; Adam and his cancer. Adam and Katherine shared wonderful chemistry but it wasn’t creepy, unethical, nor inappropriate. Through their conversations, they learned to form a special friendship. We rooted for them to take that next step without forgetting the fact that there should be a line between a professional and her client. However, there were some connections that weren’t as strongly established. Diane (Anjelica Huston), Adam’s mom, was always worried about her son. Adam felt suffocated by her ways of showing affection and he constantly felt the need to prove that he was strong and capable of being independent. I wanted to know more about that tension between mother and son, the mother’s specific feelings in no longer being needed. Huston was only given about half a dozen scenes and she made the best out of all of them. I think that if her character was closer to the center, the actress’ talent for balancing regal quiet power and in-your-face emotions would’ve made the project soar. Lastly, the conflict involving Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam’s girlfriend, sometimes felt forced. I understood that the point was some people are just not equipped enough to handle long-term sickness. I appreciated that the filmmakers acknowledged that reality. Unfortunately, it all boiled down to whether or not she would ultimately stay with Adam. It felt out of place, too shallow, for a movie about mortality. “50/50” is a reminder: When you do have that moment where you catch yourself staring miserably at your empty glass, people who love you in the best ways possible can fill it right up. Then it doesn’t seem so bad.
[ ] Avatar
[ ] The Blind Side
[ ] District 9
[ ] An Education
[ ] The Hurt Locker
[ ] Inglourious Basterds
[ ] Precious
[ ] A Serious Man
[ ] Up
[x] Up in the Air
[x] Kathryn Bigelow – “The Hurt Locker”
[ ] James Cameron – “Avatar”
[ ] Lee Daniels – “Precious”
[ ] Jason Reitman – “Up in the Air”
[ ] Quentin Tarantino – “Inglourious Basterds”
Best Original Screenplay
[ ] Mark Boal – “The Hurt Locker”
[x] Quentin Tarantino – “Inglourious Basterds”
[ ] Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman – “The Messenger”
[ ] Joel Coen and Ethan Coen – “A Serious Man”
[ ] Peter Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy – “Up”
[ ] Jeff Bridges – “Crazy Heart”
[ ] George Clooney – “Up in the Air”
[ ] Colin Firth – “A Single Man”
[ ] Morgan Freeman – “Invictus”
[x] Jeremy Renner – “The Hurt Locker”
Best Adapted Screenplay
[ ] Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell – “District 9”
[ ] Nick Hornby – “An Education”
[ ] Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche – “In the Loop”
[ ] Geoffrey Fletcher – “Precious”
[x] Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner – “Up in the Air”
[ ] Sandra Bullock – “The Blind Side”
[ ] Helen Mirren – “The Last Station”
[ ] Carey Mulligan – “An Education”
[ ] Gabourey Sidibe – “Precious”
[x] Meryl Streep – “Julie and Julia”
Best Supporting Actor
[ ] Matt Damon – “Invictus’
[ ] Woody Harrelson – “The Messenger”
[ ] Christopher Plummer – “The Last Station”
[ ] Stanley Tucci – “The Lovely Bones”
[x] Christoph Waltz – “Inglourious Basterds”
Best Supporting Actress
[ ] Penelope Cruz – “Nine”
[ ] Vera Farmiga – “Up in the Air”
[ ] Maggie Gyllenhaal – “Crazy Heart”
[ ] Anna Kendrick – “Up in the Air”
[x] Mo’nique – “Precious”
Best Animated Feature Film
[ ] Fantastic Mr. Fox
[ ] The Princess and the Frog
[ ] The Secret of Kells
Best Documentary Feature
[ ] Burma VJ
[x] The Cove
[ ] Food, Inc.
[ ] The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
[ ] Which Way Home
Best Original Score
[ ] Fantastic Mr. Fox
[ ] The Hurt Locker
[ ] Sherlock Holmes
[ ] Up