Tag: michael cera

Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Great movies almost always contain one image or scene that summarizes the entire work so perfectly, it is etched onto the viewer’s mind long after the picture fades to black. Here, it is that of a woman dressed in at least two thousand dollars worth of clothing who is asked by a worker at a food stand whether she would like hotdog. She does, but once she reaches into her coat pocket, she is only able to find two dollars. The hotdog costs three bucks and so she must settle for a pretzel. This four- to five-second snapshot, which can be easily overlooked by less observant viewers, captures the story’s trajectory. “Molly’s Game” is highly efficient and supremely watchable, an electric directorial debut by Aaron Sorkin.

The plot involves a woman, once an Olympic-level skier, who creates a multimillion-dollar business of running poker games with nothing but her intelligence, ability to think on her feet, and willingness to take risks. The titular character is played by Jessica Chastain who sashays through Sorkin’s extremely tricky script like a most graceful international ballerina. Every emotion expressed, calculated silence, and subtle body language commands precision, matching that of the writer-director’s clinal approach in storytelling. It invites the audience to become involved in exploring the protagonist rather than relying on words we hear to tell us who she is, what she hopes to accomplish, and why she did the things she did to have been mired in a high-stakes federal investigation.

Dialogue-heavy and unafraid of technical jargon, the material ensures that it leaves enough room for viewers to make reasonable assumptions when it comes to what certain terms might mean. For example, when the screen shows different poker ranks, in addition to the carefully enunciated voiceover, lines, texts, and boxes are employed in order to highlight which part of the screen the audience should veer their attention toward in order to discern which player has the upper hand and those about to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While scenes that take place around the poker table are enjoyable and occasionally suspenseful, the focus is on the character who is raised to become a champion—before and after she is arrested for running an illicit gambling operation and having possible ties with the Russian mob. I am particularly impressed by how it captures the loneliness of a highly driven person, someone who hates to lose, to be regarded as weak or less than in any way. On many levels, I found myself relating with her curiosity and capability to obsess, as well as the willingness to push the envelope even further than it is supposed to go so long as it feels good. I think in a way, the material has an understanding of the less sunny side of passion, how a form of addiction takes control and consumes.

Intricate in just about every way but never inaccessible, “Molly’s Game” respects the intelligence and time of those willing to peer into its world of poker and addiction. Near the end of the picture, Molly comes across a shelf filled with green law books. Notice how she caresses the backbones of these texts and the manner by which she picks one up to read its contents. It presents an opportunity for us to imagine an alternate reality of Molly actually pursuing law school rather than delaying yet another year to make a quick buck.

The End of Love

The End of Love (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Shot in a cinéma vérité style, “The End of Love,” based on the screenplay and directed by Mark Webber, falls just short of greatness. By utilizing familiar actors who play a version of themselves, some of its grit—what makes the story so fascinating in the first place—is diminished. Instead of us focusing on what is being told, how, and why, many of us will wonder if an actor is playing himself or just another character that happens to be a popular performer on the big screen.

Upon his wife’s recent passing, Mark (Mark Webber) has been taking care of their two-year-old son named Isaac (Isaac Love, Webber’s real-life son). Since the single dad is a struggling actor with no job on the side, making ends meet is an every day challenge. There is pressure on rent payments, keeping himself and his son healthy, and also Mark still being in the process of grieving but not having anyone to talk to. When he meets Lydia (Shannyn Sossamon), a single mother, there is a glimmer of hope that Mark can get it together.

The romance between Mark and Lydia is not predictable. When they meet, the problems do not magically go away. We feel Mark making an effort to pick himself up just a bit, not to impress the woman in front of him but as to not appear so pathetic. We root for him because he is aware that he is not at his best but is trying to make the most of what he has to deal with. Mark and Lydia are tired parents. Though the camera does not spend much time on Lydia, we get a sense that some of her struggles might share parallels with Mark’s. In that way, we want them to get together so they can help better each other.

Love is perhaps the most talented two-year-old I have had the pleasure to watch on screen. During a handful of scenes, especially when the father and son are going through their every day morning routine, I was mostly at a loss for words. How does the child manage to articulate the lines so effortlessly and naturally? In addition to an almost perfect line delivery, he has the subtle expressions to match the words he is saying. Even teen and adult actors have trouble matching the two. I would love to have had a behind-the-scenes peek on how the filmmakers managed to get a shockingly good performance from the toddler.

The cameos by Amanda Seyfried, Jason Ritter, Michael Cera, Michael Angarano, and others hold the picture back in varying degrees. While understandable that the protagonist is friends with such familiar figures because they share the same profession, one or two would have been sufficient. Two-thirds of the way through, especially during Cera’s little get-together, it starts to feel like a parade. We wonder who will appear next instead of remaining invested in the poverty of father and son. Mark is running out of options.

Due to the cameos constantly disrupting the tone of the picture, I had a lot of trouble buying into some of the events in the final act. Mark explaining to his son what death means might have sounded good on paper but since several scenes leading up to it are distracting and atonal, we are not neck-deep into the drama. As a result, Mark teaching Isaac about what it means for a living thing to die is somewhat sad but not particularly touching.

This is the End

This is the End (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Seth Rogen is ecstatic that Jay Baruchel is visiting L.A. for the weekend because the two of them have not seen each other for about a year. Though Seth knows that Jay is not that fond of Hollywood and its stereotypical lifestyle, he thinks that Jay’s opinion can be changed by allowing him to meet people who Seth thinks are pretty cool. What better way to socialize than to attend James Franco’s wild party. The fun screeches to a halt, however, when a massive earthquake shakes the city and kills the guests–some of whom are very familiar faces either on television or film.

“This is the End,” based on the screenplay as well as directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, heavily depends upon celebrity power in order to amuse. Though it is not consistently funny, losing its way somewhere in the middle, I found myself unable to contain my laughter when the jokes do work.

The picture’s most crucial limitation is the writers’ decision to allow its six central characters to stay in Franco’s house for too long. While the early scenes are effective because we are bombarded by one performer after another, the novelty wears off as the material gets deeper into the survival. Although part of it is amusing because Rogen, Baruchel, and their friends have no useful skill whatsoever (other than being funny), spending so much time in that nicely decorated home is no fun; there are plenty of dirty jokes and bro-mantic lines but the plot fails to move forward.

When it experiments, it shines. It can focused on the actors trying to survive another day but it just has to be creative. For instance, there are a few scenes that are very reminiscent of Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.” Despite being more comedic than suspenseful, I always feel uneasy whenever a character has ropes tied around his torso and goes toward a place where everybody knows, including himself, he should not be heading.

In addition, the last fifteen minutes feel fresh because the characters are finally given a chance to roam outside where anything can happen. The most successful comedies maintain an element of surprise–whether it be situational, within the dialogue, or through subtle character development. Here, the writing is not very deep–and does not need to be–and so, in a way, the amusement inspired by situations should be exaggerated even further. A good twenty to thirty minutes of the middle portion rests on its laurels.

I enjoyed that everyone is willing to poke fun of themselves. Jonah Hill giving himself a not-so-subtle pat on the back for being considered as a “serious actor” after having co-starred in Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” is a laugh riot. Craig Robinson, meanwhile, capitalizes on his familiar nice-guy persona. I wished the screenwriters had given him a more dramatic angle to play with–again, an element of surprise–because he seems to be up for it. Still, no one tops Michael Cera in playing a cocaine-snorting firecracker. I want to see cokehead Cera starring in his own movie.

Ultimately, inconsistency prevents “This is the End” from becoming more than good entertainment. It will likely hold up on repeated viewings but keep the remote in hand in order to fast-forward through the slower, lumbering, less inspired digressions.

Youth in Revolt

Youth in Revolt (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) was obsessed with losing his virginity to the point where his id, appropriately named Francois Dillinger (also Cera), pitied Nick and decided to take matters into his own hands. Nick, his mom (Jean Smart), and her boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) decided to temporarily move away in order to escape angry sailors who wanted their money back. Convinced that he would not have a good time during his mini-vacation, Nick was surprised when he met Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a girl who had substance and had similar interests as him such as foreign films and music. “Youth in Revolt,” based on the novel by C.D. Payne and directed by Miguel Arteta, was one of those films I decided not to see after watching the trailer for the first time because it just did not make any sense. From the trailers, I somehow got the impression that Francois was some sort of an evil twin. I’m glad I decided to give this movie a chance because it actually entertaining and the characters, though not fully explored and some were more like caricatures, exhibited intelligence unlike most teen flicks about losing one’s virginity (Sean Anders’ “Sex Drive” immediately comes to mind). The strongest part of the picture for me was the first twenty minutes prior to the appearance of Francois. Though I did somewhat enjoy the conceit regarding the alter ego, there was something very refreshing about the unpretentiousness of two lonely souls meeting and sharing something special, which may or may not be love. Cera and Doubleday did have chemistry but the picture did not rely on that initial and lasting spark. The material bothered to show more tender moments between the couple and I felt like I connected with them even though it was instantaneous. The rest of the picture, on the other hand, was not as strong. It used Cera’s very awkward mannerisms as a crutch instead of using his acting skills as a base to present terrific material that was focused but unpredictable, funny yet sensitive in its core. Although the film did have its darkly comic moments, it was too obvious with its comedy such as Justin Long drugging everyone in his path and Jonathan B. Wright, as much as I love him, finding ways to make Nick’s life unbearable. It was too safe and safe, in this case, was boring. The only side character I thought had potential was Nick’s dad played by Steve Buscemi. I wanted to know more about him and I wished he and Nick had more scenes together because I saw the son’s qualities in his father. If “Youth in Revolt” had a lot more edge and darkness, it would have been a much more memorable film. Although a part of it was slightly different than Cera’s other roles, the majority of it was more of the same.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Twentysomething Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) creepily dated an Asian high school girl (Ellen Wong) after he was dumped by a girl around his age who made it big as a rock star. Having a fiery passion with music, he and his kooky bandmates (Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, Mark Webber) decided to participate in various battle of the bands until Scott literally met the girl of his dreams (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) named Ramona. Based on the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley, there is no doubt that the adaptation to screen of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is visually creative, hyperkinetic, funny, and charming on the surface. However, I found the picture to be hollow at its core because I did not buy the romance between Scott and Ramona. This was a key problem because we were supposed to believe that Scott was willing to fight for her by defeating her seven evil ex-es (Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Keita Saitou, Shota Saito, Jason Schwartzman) as if he was in a video game. I’m not talking about how they necessarily looked: Scott with his bad haircut and puppy dog eyes and Ramona with her hair color changes every week-and-a-half. After all, we’ve all seen couples where we thought, “What the hell do they see in each other?” I’m talking about how Ramona seemed stand off-ish and almost elitist with her fickle personality of going from one person to another. And it wasn’t like she was warm with his friends either. In a nutshell, whenever the picture had scenes of them together, I could not help but get bored or roll my eyes because the emotion I was supposed to feel did not complement the images I saw on screen. A lot of people might have been easily distracted by the nostalgic images of old school video games (I miss them, too) but I was not one of them. When Ramona and Scott were in the same frame, I wanted to know more about the hilarious gay roommate (Kieran Culkin) who brought home a lot of guys and slept on the same bed as Scott, Scott’s bitter redhead ex-girlfriend (Pill), and the wannabe bass player of the band (Simmons–who was greatly underused; I hated that he was simply there to look cute when I knew he was capable of so much more). As for the battle scenes, I generally enjoyed most of them but was repelled when audio waves were used as weapons. The line between campiness and cheesiness was crossed; there were so many in-your-face images as it is and raping my ears with extremely loud dissonance and feedback was totally unnecessary. I understand that the material was based on the graphic novel and it wanted to remain true to its source (which I appreciated) but I could not help but wish that the duels strictly remained physical or even verbal à la Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (Ramona vs. Roxy Richter was exciting). I say “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” directed by Edgar Wright, is a classic case of style over substance. It was supposed to be a satire for followers of hipster music and video game addicts but unfortunately I think the ones who will end up loving this film are exactly the people it points its fingers on.

Paper Heart

Paper Heart (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

This mockumentary chronicles Charlyne Yi’s quest to find love. Just when Yi was convinced that she would never feel the passion of romance because there was something innately wrong with her, she met Michael Cera and sparks immediately flew. But it wasn’t all fun and games because the presence of the cameraman and director (Nicholas Jasenovec) eventually put a strain on their relationship. I don’t understand why I lot of people hated this movie. I thought it was funny, honest and cute even though the scenes that involved the paper dolls were a little corny. What I love most about this picture was not the relationship between Cera and Yi. It was the many different types of people she interviewed from all kinds of race, gender, sexuality, age and the stories and point of views they had to offer. There was something genuinely honest about this film and that’s why it won me over even though it did have its flaws. Unlike most romantic comedies out there, this movie didn’t have dramatic arcs. It simply constituted a series of scenes that eventually forced Yi to look inside herself and realize that her not finding or not feeling romantic love has got nothing to do with emotional or chemical defectiveness. There’s a good message embedded in this film for those on the same page as Yi. That is, if you actively look for love every minute of the day, it’s never going to come. But if you just open yourself up to the value of experience, sooner or later, without even realizing it, it just might happen. As a person who doesn’t really care about being in relationships or finding “the one,” I can honestly say that I thought this movie was not going to be entertaining. I was so wrong; I actually saw Yi from under a different light. She’s not just an annoying girl who thinks she’s a comedienne who happens to make YouTube videos. There was a simplicity about her reflected in her reckless abandon. The awkwardness between her and Cera, especially the scene in the diner, was very amusing and relatable. Admittedly, I thought the last fifteen minutes of the movie could have been a lot stronger but the rest of it was strong and it made me feel warm. It’s been a while since I smiled so much while watching a movie.

Year One

Year One (2009)
★ / ★★★★

“Year One,” written and directed by Harold Ramis, was another one of those movies that looked really funny on the trailers but was actually devoid of laughs in the actual film. Jack Black and Michael Cera star as Zed and Oh, respectively, as they traveled from their village to many different places mentioned on the Bible. It also had other references from the Bible such as the forbidden fruit and popular characters such as Cain, Abel, Isaac and others. As a Bible farce, this was extremely disappointing because there were so many things that the filmmakers could have done to make the story funny and smart. Instead, it degraded itself into slapstick comedy and we literally see the characters urinating on themselves, tasting feces, and other things I won’t mention. Don’t get me wrong–I think Black and Cera are usually very funny comedians but I don’t know what they were thinking when they decided to sign up for this movie. Just the script itself was so bad; it was random, it lacked energy, and it didn’t have a powerful enough story to drive it forward and for us to ultimately root for the characters to succeed on their mission. At times I wondered whether the actors were literally making stuff up as they went along. The constant winking at the camera annoyed me greatly, which was tantamount to that pesky mosquito that kept buzzing at your ear when you’re trying to sleep. The only thing I liked about this movie was Paul Rudd as Abel, but he was in it for barely two minutes. Other actors such as Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, David Cross and Olivia Wilde didn’t add much to the picture because their characters were also one-dimensional. I really wanted to like this movie because every time the trailer was shown in theaters, it never failed to bring a smile to my face. Unfortunately, it was just so mindless to the point where I thought the director didn’t care about his movie. If the passion is absent, why then should the audience care? When I say that this movie is bad, consider it an understatement. Save your precious time and watch or do something else. I wish I did.