by Preston Tolliver
Twenty years ago, a new era of slapstick comedy was born. And then it was taken away from us way, way too soon.
March 31 marks the 20th anniversary of Chris Farley's leading debut on the big screen, when he portrayed Tommy Callahan, son of Big Tom Callahan, a man whose death put the fate of his auto repair parts business in the hands of his dimwitted -- albeit lovable -- son. It was the first of many where he'd play that one character -- a man we not only laughed at, but with. Today, it's the highest-rated film that Farley led, hitting an even 7.0 on IMDb, a rating that really undersells the talent he brought in all his roles.
Of course, “Tommy Boy” wasn't the start of his comedic career, only the first of his leading roles on the big screen. He spent five seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” creating such memorable (and perhaps some of the most quotable) characters as cynical-and-far-too-personal news correspondent Bennett Brauer, Todd O'Connor of Bill Swerski's Superfans, his nervous and self-deprecating host of the Chris Farley Show, and of course, Matt Foley, a manic motivational speaker, a role that would preface his comedic tag team reign with David Spade.
On his roles alongside Spade: they were short-lived. But although they only starred in two films together – “Tommy Boy” and its follow-up “Black Sheep” -- those films are what fans of Farley generally remember most. If Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder are Pippen and Jordan, then Farley and Spade were more Bill Murray and Wayne Knight in “Space Jam.” They were fun to watch, but they were still one piece and a ton of experience away from being great. You could argue that they could at least prove competitive to other popular film duos: Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, but “Tommy Boy” and “Black Sheep” alone wouldn't come close to sniffing the Big Screen Tag Team Championship.
Some of Farley's best ‘SNL’ roles were single-use: his sketch alongside Patrick Swayze comes to mind (though it has been criticized as mean, a skit where some laughed at Farley more than it did with him), the two vying for a dancing position with Chippendale's. Swayze had the looks and the body, but Farley had the agility and the laughs. For a 300-pound man, he moved on stage and screen with grace, doing cartwheels in a way I've yet to perfect at 150 pounds skinnier.
What was unique about Farley's short film career wasn't the characters he played -- he only had one, at least in terms of his leading roles: the lovable screw-up, who brought with him to every movie an arsenal of fat and uncomfortable jokes. What was unique was his talent to take that character and introduce him to new settings, and each setting take the viewer on a different ride to the same means -- an ending where that lovable screw-up finds redemption and his happily-ever-after. It was always the same story, and it was always told the same way, but with entirely different words and backgrounds.
He got his foot in the big screen door through cameo roles alongside other ‘SNL’ alumni -- playing Milton in “Wayne's World,” Ronnie in “Coneheads” and a creepy-and-all-too-realistic bus driver in “Billy Madison.” Some of these even overshadow some of his starring roles, such as his not-so-popular “Beverly Hills Ninja,” where he plays that same character, only as a ninja named Haru who keeps getting saved by Robin Shou ("that guy from Mortal Kombat," as he's more commonly known), until finally Haru gets to save Shou and get the girl.
His curtain call would come in 1998 with the posthumously-released “Almost Heroes,” where he played Bartholomew Hunt, playing his regular shtick to Matthew Perry's Leslie Edwards, who really was just Chandler Bing in colonial garb. It was slaughtered by critics, even today holding a 5.7 rating on IMDB and an abysmal 8 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It was released over six months after Farley's death, the end result of drug abuse and a weight problem that may have been Farley's greatest punchline. He was 33.
Being human (especially one with a lot of time on his hands), it's fun to imagine an alternate reality, one where Farley overcomes his drug addiction and his career gets the chance to skyrocket. Like any daydream, the possibilities are endless and frankly, fun to think about. Here are a few:
* Farley and Spade continue tag-teaming the comedy genre, culminating in a buddy-cop movie in which Spade is a hardnosed detective and Farley is the new-guy whose skills at solving cases can only be described as "prophetic and 'incredibly detrimental to the department's integrity'." The film, “Law and Disorder” (working title, willing to budge), gets nominated for Best Comedy but is edged out. Meanwhile, Farley and Spade continue to move up in the "Best Comedy Tag Team," and eventually challenge Pryor and Wilder's 20-plus-year reign.
* Every awful Rob Schneider cameo in Adam Sandler movies is replaced with Chris Farley. Imagine Chris Farley dressed as a backwoods Louisianan yelling "You can do it!," followed up by his hoarse laugh and tell me it doesn't make that movie ten times better.
* “Grown Ups” still happens for some reason, but Farley replaces Kevin James. James, meanwhile, goes on to make “Hitch 2” with Will Smith, which barely beats out “Law and Disorder” (tentatively titled) for Best Comedy.
* Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin perform the same Weekend Update bit they did for the ‘SNL’ 40th anniversary show, only at the end, the camera pans to the right for Chris Farley's revival of Bennett Brauer. He ends his best-rant-yet by flying over the audience one last time. The crowd goes wild.
* After “Almost Heroes,” Farley spends the next 15 years making comedy after comedy, but keeps coming short of any big-time awards. He then transitions into drama, and wins Best Actor for his leading role in biopic “High Times: The Rob Ford Story” (tentatively titled). This skyrockets him into a new chapter of his storied film career, and he becomes the next Daniel Day-Lewis.
Chris Farley was extreme, intense, manic, sometimes sweaty and always hilarious. He was goofy, fun and quotable ("Fat guy in a little coat," "...living in a van down by the river," and "Aww man, yeah!"). He quickly became a giant staple of slapstick comedy, oftentimes compared to John Belushi, and his death left a giant void in slapstick we've yet to really see filled. But until it is, I'll keep thinking about what could have been.
'Maps to the Stars'
by Philip Price
I don’t understand the intent of satire if not to criticize and expose the stupidity of others with the inflicted idea of how to correct such stupidity. I’m not saying everyone who pokes fun of something has to have a solution for how it shouldn’t be funny, but while director David Cronenberg’s latest, “Maps to the Stars,” is most definitely intended to be satire it certainly has no intention of being funny and with that one would expect it to have something more to say than the comments it hands out. If you’ve been watching movies for any amount of time you will come to realize the one thing Hollywood loves more than money is itself and so the indie kings, the rebellious filmmakers and those who generally defy the system consistently mock it for never allowing them the artistic expression to do as they please. To this point, I’m not one who is overly-keen on Cronenberg’s work (though I admittedly haven’t seen much) and so before you read any further know there is a bit of a grudge present because despite hearing promising things from the time I really began investing critical thinking in films (“A History of Violence”) I have come to be slightly disappointed with the results of what has been praised. Again, his last couple efforts (“Cosmopolis” and “A Dangerous Method”) have admittedly not been his most well-received, but while I knew I was experiencing something different with both ‘Violence’ and “Eastern Promises” I didn’t necessarily dig what I was seeing either. Maybe I didn’t “get” what Cronenberg was going for, it’s easy to dismiss it as such, but in giving a valid effort to want to like every film I watch I typically come away with something whether I feel a movie is good or bad, but the majority of the time I walk away from a Cronenberg picture I simply feel frustrated. I know there is plenty more to see between what I’ve heard about “Scanners” and “The Fly,” but why should I feel intrigued when the other products this company has produced haven’t been satisfactory? “Maps to the Stars” is no different in that it features a singular style and voice, but more disappointing here is the fact we’ve seen this kind of satire before and so this typically unique perspective doesn’t even feel fresh.
Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is a spoiled and self-obsessed actress who seems to have lost her credibility and been out of the game to the point she is clamoring for any kind of recognition. She is especially desperate for a role that her long-deceased mother played when she was young and beautiful in what I’m assuming was the sixties given it tells us she died tragically in a fire in 1976. The ghost of Havana’s mother, Clarice (Sarah Gadon), haunts her every dream. There is talk of sexual abuse between Havana and her mother that she is unable to recover from in Havana’s sessions with Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) who seems to be little more than a self-help hack. Cusack’s character segways us to the other half of the film by introducing us to his family that includes his wife (and sister) Cristina (Olivia Williams) who mainly looks after the career of their newly-teenage son Benjie (Evan Bird) who is a child star already recovering from a drug addiction. Before we meet any of these screwed up, egotistical jokes though we are introduced to Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who meets a limo driver and aspiring actor (Robert Pattinson) upon her arrival in Hollywood before securing a job as Havana’s personal assistant through her connection with Carrie Fisher and most likely having a tie to the Weiss clan that has something to do with those gloves she is always wearing (or more specifically, what they’re covering).
There is hardly a character to like in this cesspool of self-involved and beyond crude individuals that make up what they seem to think is a society of superiority. It is at once fascinating and at the same time a horrible disaster as it’s clear the same patterns of abuse, degradation and rejection have been cycling for years upon years. I realize much of that is the intent, but we already knew Hollywood was full of these yuppies, so what do you have to bring to the table that we haven’t seen before, Mr. Cronenberg? Herein lies my main complaint with the film as it’s not simply because I don’t like any of the characters that I don’t like the film. Benjie is a repulsive bigot who was given too much power and too much knowledge before his innocence had a chance to create the possible wonderment this world can hold and is all the more interesting for it, but his character arc is nothing that came as unexpected. Instead, Benjie plays to the same beats we’ve seen in any issue of US Magazine covering the life and times of Justin Bieber. The reality of what we’re witnessing right now whether it be through tabloids or any one of the ludicrous love/game shows on VH1 is that it is in itself ridiculous and so if one is going to comment on it, if one is going to attempt to mock or derive it in a shocking and effective way you really have to be willing to flip the switch. While “Maps to the Stars” is plenty vulgar, plenty in-your-face and beyond insensitive it means nothing, it hits no nerves and because of that it really has no purpose.
While the film was written by Bruce Wagner (“A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors”) meaning Cronenberg can’t take the full brunt of my frustrations it almost feels as if the two were going for something completely different. Mix in the performances from the obviously talented cast and we have what is collectively a mash-up of different goals for how they wanted to comment on the state of the people in Hollywood and how the state of the industry makes them that way. Further, the central conceit of the plot, the big mystery has nothing to do with the big idea of satirizing Hollywood anyway so it is curious as to what the real intention of each of the involved parties was. Sure, Julianne Moore is fine and she shows range and bravery (by farting on a toilet, no less) and this is right up Wasikowska’s alley so you know to expect something of an oddity out of her Agatha, but nothing else of note takes place here unless you want to consider Pattinson being Cronenberg’s new go-to actor as something interesting. I didn’t particularly care for what the two of them did in “Cosmopolis” and my indifference towards “Maps to the Stars” gives me little reason to look forward to what they may do next. In the end, I recognize where some might find this film interesting and even sharply and darkly humorous and we each arrive at our opinions based on what we find attractive rather than any sense of proof, but regardless I found nothing about this outing attractive.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2
by Philip Price
I don’t know if it’s because I’m older and maybe less impressionable, but while I found the original “Hot Tub Time Machine” to be humorous in its attempt at pure ridiculousness this sequel seems to be latching so hard to the absurdity of the first that it just falls flat on its face every single time it tries. I guess trying is maybe too kind of a word as it seems that is the last thing on the people behind this debacle’s mind as they contort and twist their way around one too many reasons why John Cusack isn’t back for this go around. I can’t say it really adds or takes away anything with Cusack not being present in the sequel, but more he was smart to stay away from it even if the truth is he wasn’t asked back at all. The funnier route to go would have been to publicly acknowledge how difficult the actor was to work with by having his friends in the film say how they never really liked him anyway and that he quit hanging out with them after they got back to the present and leave it at that. Instead, the script from Josh Heald, who also wrote the original and who has only penned one other film outside the hot tub franchise called “Mardi Gras: Spring Break” is doing nothing here but walking in circles and hoping the chemistry between the characters will be enough to elicit laughs from the audience. Instead, the friendships seem stale, the tone is beyond unenthusiastic and worst of all the movie just sits there with second rate components and characters who have no idea what they’re doing. This should be a sequel where, much like its predecessor, it exists simply to have a little fun or as an excuse to let off a little steam and laugh at something meaningless, but rather than simply go for emphasizing the camaraderie between the cast and letting these guys pre-defined senses of humor spill out over the presented outlandish scenarios both Heald and director Steve Pink bog them down in semantics of the plot and scenarios so forced we can’t hardly buy into any of it being remotely funny despite the one thing anyone going into this should know is that it’s all completely ridiculous. Ridiculous can be funny, but forcing laughs never is and that is the greatest offense of “Hot Tub Time Machine 2.”
We begin by being reintroduced to the main cast of characters including Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson) who tell us what they’ve been up to since radically reinventing their lives while Nick updates us on the going-ons of Adam (Cusack) who he has a “feeling” will return at some point, but don’t count on that being during this film. We are then treated to Nick’s rendition of a Lisa Loeb track that’s genuinely funny, but already been spoiled in the marketing as the film introduces a moral conflict within Nick that could go somewhere interesting, but doesn’t. Instead, the film devolves from here into the adventures of Lou who might be the most unlikable character in cinematic history, congratulations Corddy! Lou, as seen at the end of the first film, has used his knowledge of the future to make himself filthy rich and the CEO of Lougle ... you get it? During a party in Lou’s honor, he is shot by an unknown assassin in the penis. This prompts both Nick and Jacob (Clark Duke), who doesn’t seem to be using his knowledge of the future for any gain, to once again use the time traveling hot tub to try and travel back to the past, figure out who Lou’s murderer is and stop him before it ever happens. Of course, when messing with time travel things can always get a little crazy and the group of guys somehow end up ten years in the future. Jacob gives a whole long explanation as to why they ended up in the future instead of the past which ultimately comes down to the fact that the “tub takes who where you need to go, not where you want to go.” What this really means is that Lou’s assassin came from the future and wasn’t already willing to kill him in the past. There’s a whole side story dealing with some kind of invention that makes time travel possible dealing with Lou’s associate, Brad (Kumail Nanjiani), and Adam’s future son, Adam Jr. (Adam Scott), which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense because at the age Adam Jr. is at in the future, Nick, Lou and Jacob would have likely been aware of him, but it doesn’t matter because a movie called ‘HTTM2’ only cares when it wants to.
I usually don’t get this irritated with movies in general, especially comedies. Comedies, for me, are the most subjective kinds of movies and so I never feel a grudge or insulted if someone disagrees with me when it comes to what I and them find funny. I feel like I grant more sympathy to actors willing to go out on a limb and risk doing comedy and so I appreciate it when there is an honest attempt at humor. One can seemingly tell when those in a comedy are simply showing up, reading their lines and looking forward to getting the day over with though and that kind of vibe is written all over this movie. For example, if we’re talking about the kind of jokes you’ll get in ‘HTTM2’ we are talking about one where a futuristic game show exists called “Choozy Doozy” hosted by someone looking eerily like Christian Slater (it is Christian Slater, but not as Christian Slater which would have been funnier than the whole set piece). In this game the audience shouts out suggestions of crazy things the contestants should do before they vote on the best idea for which the contestant has to perform in order to win. What they win or if there is a challenger, I don’t know – we didn’t get that far. As the movie deals with a celebrity edition of the show Nick is of course plucked from his task of finding Lou’s future murderer and brought onto the show. As things can only go in a crude, R-rated comedy Lou makes a suggestion from the audience that Nick fornicate with a dude and apparently in ten years the entire viewing audience will be rooting to see that happen. The twist, and I’m sorry I’m not sorry if you feel I’m spoiling anything here, is that whoever choozes it has to dooze it, if you know what I’m sayin’. This leads to a scene in which actors such as Craig Robinson and Rob Corddry literally had to shoot a scene where Corddry gets on all fours and has to ask Robinson’s character to be gentle, where they critique ass hair and then contemplate how emotionally invested they should get. It’s not that there isn’t humor in this somewhere as it is nice to see Corddry’s Lou get a little bit of what’s coming to him, but it is just so desperate for laughs it’s pathetic.
There are only a few slightly redeeming things to be found here, most coming from the existence of Duke’s Jacob as the most level-headed person in sight. It’s almost as if every other character in this story comes from a world where decency doesn’t exist. Duke, who I’ve always had a soft spot for given he comes from a small town about an hour from where I live and because he made small, immature comedies like “Sex Drive” all the more bearable and funny is the only one who seems to have some kind of investment here. Maybe it’s because his Jacob is not only the most level-headed, but the only remotely likable character in the whole thing. That is, until Adam Scott shows up and the two of them form a kind of force that might power the movie towards smarter, more refined comedy, but are unsuccessful due not only to Lou and Nick being the stars of the film, but also because Scott is strapped with playing a bit of a prudish loser. This is problematic because Scott plays it as if he knows he’s acting like a prudish loser which makes Adam Jr. feel like an even bigger schmuck than the more oblivious and humble facade he’s supposed to represent. This is all a shame really, as we know director Pink can make a solid comedy and more for just directing the first film. He made last year’s under appreciated “About Last Night” re-make with Kevin Hart and made his debut with 2006’s “Accepted” which I love for reasons more for the stage of life I was at when I saw it than having anything to do with the actual quality of the film, but regardless, the point is, I know the guy can do better than this. I’d like to think I haven’t completely outgrown the carefree and sophomoric sense of humor I always found endearing in people who never thought themselves too good to appreciate those kinds of jokes and then I remind myself I still laughed at the likes of “Horrible Bosses 2,” “22 Jump Street” and even parts of “Sex Tape” last year more than I did at any of this. I’m reassured it isn’t me, but that ‘HTTM2’ really is a piece of crap.
by Philip Price
I faced something of a conundrum with “Focus” as I was really rooting for it and yet I’m wondering if I enjoyed the film more because it wasn’t as all over the board as it seemed to be or if it’s genuinely pretty fun. There is also the case of Will Smith. Smith is one of those personalities I feel like I’ve known my entire life and that I’ve grown up with. And like many, I’ve acquired an affinity for the actor/rapper over the years and have been happy to support him in his mega-stardom and remain hopeful when he delivers bombs like “After Earth.” If anything, anyone who is, was or might still be a Smith fan was looking to “Focus” to redeem our hope in big Willie’s style and get the guy back on track, back to where he needed to be both at this point in his life and career. For me, that was the aura surrounding this film and it felt good because Smith had never looked cleaner and the film had all the same slick edges to it that seemed to match Smith pound for pound in its style. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy Stupid Love”) these guys are the first ones in what seems like too long that actually know how to use Smith in what he does best. In “Focus” there are plenty of pretty people wearing what are no doubt outrageously expensive clothing in exotic locations, but it is the confidence of Smith not only in his appearance, but in the way he conducts himself and his ability to portray all of that effortlessly with a sense of cool to match that keeps him our main point of, well, focus. And so, despite being concerned I was coming at the film from something of a biased perspective (though really, I have no reason to) I can’t help but feel it follows through on what it promised in that it’s a stylish con man thriller in the vein of not only pulling one over on its characters, but the audience as well in that they’re too self-aware to go for the “one con to end them all” scheme, but that they instead get away with as many twists and turns as they do while coming out unscathed with audiences who are seemingly hip to their game. In a movie that is so much fun to watch with characters so attractive and interesting one is literally unable to take their eyes off the screen.
In the beginning there was a con man by the name of Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) who was more than extremely accomplished in the game. In fact, Nicky seems to exist on a level someone like me finds incomprehensible in the lengths they must go to in order to obtain their money. Of course, it is not all about the end goal, but more the rush of seeing if they can in fact pull it off. Nicky has a close circle of friends he trusts with the bigger cons he attempts to pull that mainly includes Farhad (Adrian Martinez) and Horst (Brennan Brown). That is, of course, until he meets a girl. This girl, Jess (Margot Robbie), is something of an amateur con artist looking to get in on the big game, but is doing nothing to impress Nicky by tricking him into her room and giving up on the con the moment he calls her bluff. Things progress though, Nicky is attracted to the gorgeous Jess, but for more than just her looks it seems and so he takes her under his wing to see if she might have what it takes. In New Orleans, around the Super Bowl, Nicky and his gang of pickpockets, thieves and generally despicable human beings preying on the weak test Jess. Her skills are proficient as is evidenced by her ability to lift almost anything off any innocent bystander and so Nicky brings her in on the bigger cons, but not before they become romantically involved. The tricky thing here is trying to decipher if a relationship based on genuine human emotion is possible for a man who lies and cheats for a living. Can he separate the two? Is he even willing to try? Ficarra and Requa have an interesting hook in this approach to two tales we’ve heard time and time again, but it is their tight and proficient script that allows the story to match up with the style and coolness of the images and characters presented on screen. It is in their ability to do this that the film gels even if it has a little trouble getting around to its finale on the story side of things.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on here, but in each of these circumstances we’re set up to watch unfold there is always a level of how high can the con go. It’s something of a game you play with yourself when you watch any kind of movie where you know the movie is not only out to trick its characters, but you as well. While the weight and stress of thinking the way Nicky must in order to constantly stay one step ahead seems daunting it is in his ability to anticipate and play the situation and the people around him that allows us to be taken with him. The audience wouldn’t be willing to play this game or even empathize with the protagonist if he was seen for what he actually is and so how do you make people root for a criminal? Well, 1) you hire Will Smith at his most charming and 2) you give them a level of humanity that we can see ourselves in, something that allows us to tell ourselves we would do the same were we in his shoes. It is the plight of the anti-hero, the same reasons we rooted for Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan and Walter White. To his credit, Smith almost doesn’t need that slither of humanity necessary to convince us we should be on his side, but rather he is detached from all the reasons we might understand the struggles and choices of someone typically labeled a bad man. The one link to humanity here is the possibility of actually caring about another human being in Jess and yet, half the time, we don’t even know if the feelings he exchanges with Robbie’s Jess are the real thing or part of a larger scheme. In setting this up Ficarra and Requa have played a game with their audience where they tempt us to want to look too close while at the same time daring us to try and remain detached. It is impossible to know how big the scheme might get because with filmmaking you can control every aspect of what you want to be seen and how you want things to be perceived. No matter if you become a legion of the fooled or not it must be appreciated when directors use the weapons in their arsenal to the max in order to hook and reel you in.
It also doesn’t hurt that Smith and Robbie have some pretty palpable chemistry here as well. If you didn’t see Robbie in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and don’t know who she is already (also, go ahead and rent “About Time”) you will certainly be aware of her after this as she cements her status as the perfect combination of everything it takes to become a movie star. She is unbelievably gorgeous on the big screen yet retains a credible quality to her personality where we take her seriously and who never comes off as being out of her own depth. Having now matched Leonardo DiCaprio and Smith on screen I’m interested to see what she does with the future projects she has lined up (“Suicide Squad”). As for what the couple does in “Focus,” they gel smoothly by playing off one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Nicky on the fact Jess might be more emotionally invested than him and Jess on the ego that has naturally come with Nicky’s building of his reputation and determination to carry on his family legacy in innovative ways. The rest of the cast is played to a polished gloss by the likes of Rodrigo Santoro (“300”) as he fits comfortably into the kind of archetypal persona he is asked to portray while both Gerald McRaney and BD Wong are show-stoppers with the witty dialogue and distinctive attitudes they’ve been given to play around with. Wong is especially memorable as he essentially only appears in one scene, but it is a scene that shifts “Focus” from a generally good, beautifully shot film of a story we’ve seen countless times to a rather exceptional piece of filmmaking. The scene, which includes Wong going back and forth with Smith over insignificant bets as the stack of money on the table grows bigger with Robbie in the middle of it all could be the perfect ending that encapsulates everything the directors wanted to say about these characters and their moral dilemmas in a 45-minute short film, but instead they continue the story. The continuation is in no way regrettable, but I’d be lying if I didn’t clarify the first segment of the film is where it’s at. Despite “Focus” having its fair share of flaws, they’re thankfully not of the glaring type in that Ficarra and Requa know what they’re doing to the point I’m not even sure those flaws weren’t intended.
by Philip Price
There is something oddly charming to the outright oddity that “Jupiter Ascending” is trying so hard to be. It is in this pushing, this trying to separate itself that the Wachowksi siblings, Andy and Lana, perpetuate their inherent “weirdness” while what they are actually trying to do is paint a mind of possibilities in a way that feels illogical when first introduced, but makes greater sense as a greater understanding and deeper contemplation are taken into account. As written by The Wachowski’s it would seem likely that “Jupiter Ascending” once had a greater amount of substance to it than what the final product delivers. As the credits began to roll what I was left with was the incessant nagging of my brain questioning what exactly the directing duo were trying to say with this film. There is always a stream of consciousness to The Wachowski’s films hinting at an overarching theme, but it seemed all I was left with here were a few cool ideas, some exceptional visuals and a solid piece of entertainment value, but little to actually ponder. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with making an outright spectacle that delivers large scale thrills in spades with little to no substance, but what makes “Jupiter Ascending” not that type of movie is that it’s clear that wasn’t the original intent of its creators. Throughout, there are consistent hints of a much larger, much stronger narrative existing within this well-developed universe The Wachowski’s have created, but unfortunately much of it is lost in the barrage of frequent action scenes that take us from point A to point B. It’s also true that the plot becomes a little too convoluted and tiresome by the time it reaches the third act yet I was never bored either with what I saw unfolding in front of me or what might be staged next. In this regard, while “Jupiter Ascending” is certainly strange to the point it will immediately off-put some and may be The Wachowski’s most outright weird production to date for others familiar with their work it is also their most commercially accessible given the style over substance mentality it has seemed to take on in its delay. Despite it not living up to what I’d hoped it be, there is still plenty of fun to be had here and more than enough to marvel at.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), born to a Russian mother in the middle of the night on a cargo ship, is nothing to take note of. Her father, who is inexplicably killed in the first scene, was a lover of the stars and destined his daughter be stuck with that horrible name. In all honesty, that opening scene seems to exist solely to justify the name of the titular character and therefore the title of the movie while also, I guess, setting up the unenviable lifestyle Jupiter and her mother fall into once in the United States. Jupiter along with her mother and aunts work as maids for the wealthy, cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors all day. Naturally, Jupiter dreams of something more, something her destiny feels more in line with, but when she becomes the target of an intergalactic dynasty intent on getting Jupiter on their side for reasons of inheritance she gets more than she bargained for. If you hadn’t guessed already, we’re not alone in the universe and in fact, it is one big booming industry anchored by a product that us mere humans don’t think of as product, but rather an unobtainable commodity we cannot gain more of: time. It is after the matriarch of what we come to learn is the House of Abrasax dies that her children, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth), go to war over a small planet called Earth that happens to hold a being who shares their mother’s genetic code. This somehow makes Jupiter the heir to the throne (after essentially going through immigration and becoming a citizen of the galaxy of course) and the owner of the universe if she so chooses. As spoiled kids do, Balem and Titus begin fighting over who rightly owns Earth and in turn, Jupiter, while Kalique sits back and watches while delivering a bunch of exposition. Titus attempts to coax Jupiter into joining his plight while Balem simply puts a bounty on her head. To avoid the bounty hunters, Titus sends out the genetically engineered interplanetary warrior Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who is referred to as a “splice” as he is half dog, half man. One can see what angles will be played here as Caine is regretful of his past and feels inadequate as a human while Jupiter, coming to realize the extent of the Abrasax dynasty’s intentions, has to save her world.
It is clear very early on what The Wachowski’s hoped this film might be. Like “The Matrix” and “Cloud Atlas” before it, these guys don’t simply make movies to serve as distractions for a couple of hours, but rather they create templates for conversation. They strive for visual-think pieces. They like to create experiences from which we can take away what might be a fresh perspective and apply them to thoughts we might have already considered giving way to what might be an even more original idea. This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of “Jupiter Ascending” as it has all the ambition in the world, but leaves a strangely barren feeling of not making a statement outside of the somewhat standard thoughts on money, family, love and the level of importance we place on each. Given the level of detail included in fleshing out the rules of this universe one might expect greater metaphorical or analogical implications, but besides some of the more obvious correlations concerning Tatum’s character and his fallen angel status as well as the clear commentary on the level of bureaucracy present in our culture that serves as a means to need to classify and organize everything to the point there is no point anymore, we don’t have much. While much of bureaucratic registration sequence could be relegated to The Wachowski’s attempt at humor outside of their rather serious-minded film it does bring to mind the level of corporation brought to the galaxy as it is approached as a large company. In these details one assumes the filmmakers are attempting to elicit a mirror of our own race for how little our actions and attempts at this kind of organization mean in the face of the vastness of the universe. More to the point, these kinds of ideas feel like something that should only begin to scratch the surface of what The Wachowski’s are alluding to and what topic they want to put on the table with their latest. Instead, this is all I’m able to come up with and that is after seriously sitting back and taking a moment to consider what weight this movie might hold outside of its spectacle.
Despite all of this it would be a lie to say I didn’t have a blast watching this movie. While there are certainly a number of disappointing facets to the film, as I’ve touched on prior, the fact it is immensely enjoyable on a pure entertainment level is not to be taken for granted. If anything, the straight-up entertainment value of “Jupiter Ascending” will promote the re-watchability of it that will in turn allow me to hopefully garner more substance from the going-ons of what I initially saw in front of me to what The Wachowski’s intended for me to take away from it. Besides the tone and scale of the picture, it is clear this is a massive universe of governing systems and dynasties and all sorts of avenues they would be keen to explore further given the opportunity and I wouldn’t mind it a bit given more films in the series would likely only add more flesh to the bones “Jupiter Ascending” has presented us with, but I somehow doubt we’ll ever see those adventures.
There is no denying the ridiculousness of something as inherently dorky as what we see on screen here, I mean, Channing Tatum is basically a Werewolf with Elf ears that sprouts wings (spoiler alert!), but there are enough genuinely cool ideas thrown in to justify the idea that general audiences will dig what this film has to offer. Despite it being chock full of fantastic action sequences there is the appeal of the popular cast to be considered. Tatum is a draw regardless of what he’s wearing (or not wearing) and while he certainly has the most to overcome here, he wears it well and never once did I catch myself snickering at his appearance, but more appreciating his willingness to play it straight and subdued rather than making the attitude of Caine match his outlandish appearance. Kunis, on the other hand, is fine, but like in “Oz the Great and Powerful” she feels miscast as her reputation for her comic work doesn’t lend well to this kind of material where the audience doesn’t need to be laughing, but might be easily tempted given some of Kunis’ mannerisms will certainly invoke a few unintentional chuckles. Finally, I just can’t get on the Eddie Redmayne train as here. Just as in “Les Misérables,” he is trying too hard to camp it up and the effort bleeds through the actual performance making it feel as forced as it is.
What gives the greatest inclination to what The Wachowski’s wanted this film to be though is the score from Michael Giacchino. It is superbly epic and even overpowering in some scenes, but it makes its point. It adds a grand gesture to the sweeping visuals we are watching and creates the almost unattainable scope and theory behind what the writer/directors are trying to capture on film while being undermined only by the lack of depth in that theory. It is the issue with many a science fiction films or films in general that intend on hooking the viewer with a mystery in that they often can’t deliver on the promises of that intriguing hook. “Jupiter Ascending” is an achievement in that it was made in the first place and the battle over the skyline of Chicago is one of absolute wonder and an experience I will cherish getting to see play out on an IMAX screen and maybe one of the best of the year, despite the rest of the film feeling pieced together from a grander film we will never be privy to screening. We’re told the difference between the human race on Earth and those able to understand the existence of intelligent life outside our small sphere is their knowledge and technology. “Jupiter Ascending” wants to convey this higher intelligence level through a display of originally extravagant costumes and tech while deluding the more uncomfortable suggestions of its content through the action we’re bombarded by. It makes me wonder what we might have been given were The Wachowski’s not granted a $175 million budget and what insight we might have taken away from that film. Maybe this presumed financial failure will lead to a more subtle, less extravagant success in the future as their minds (and hearts) are clearly in an interesting place.
by Philip Price
“Cake” wants to be a lot more than it is, but it is nothing short of well-intentioned with something resembling ambition. What is even more fascinating about a film such as this is the alternate universe where Jennifer Aniston became a strictly dramatic actress and this film is given more weight than it’s currently receiving. Given Aniston is largely known for her comedic work and as something of a lesser, more archetypal actress it is when she does something pointedly dramatic it’s automatically assumed it’s nothing more than an Oscar bid. This could be taken in a number of ways given Aniston not only stars as the face on the poster here, but executive produced the effort and so one might cynically see it as a power play to cast herself in a movie she wouldn’t normally be picked for putting herself in better standing as a “real” actress. The thing is, Aniston has already proved she’s a real actress if not with 2002’s “The Good Girl,” but with her inherent ability to relate to almost anyone in the audience. Aniston, especially in her comedies, has always had the uncanny ability to serve as the common audience members way into the world of whatever movie she is starring in with the added bonus of being what every female viewer would like to envision themselves as physically and an ideal image of what every male viewer imagines himself being with. Aniston is one of us, or at least she is able to convey that sense of community, and while many may not consider her exceptionally talented it’s difficult to find anyone who doesn’t necessarily like her. While one may not consider that talent, it certainly takes a lot of skill. In “Cake,” Aniston uses this skill of relatability to gain access to the psychology of a lost cause. Aniston’s character, Claire Bennett, is a mysterious figure to us, frustrated and consistently irritated by the people around her. We don’t know why, but this is who we go on a journey with and in the end it’s not so much about Aniston’s performance as it is the disappointing fact she’s still looking for the right vehicle with which she might spread her wings.
Written by Patrick Tobin and directed by Daniel Barnz the film follows Aniston’s Claire as she becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick). As she uncovers the details of Nina’s suicide and develops a poignant relationship with Nina’s husband (Sam Worthington), she also grapples with her own personal tragedy. We meet Claire in the aforementioned support group as the counselor (Felecity Huffman) puts herself in the position of Nina so that the members of her group may express how they feel to the recently deceased. It is a fair enough set-up that allows the introduction of Claire to be quite blunt with the intent of taking the audience aback. That is all well and good, but the intent is so transparent that it causes more of a groan than that of the hook it desperately wants to be. From here we continue to see just how far the bitchiness of Claire goes as she is dismissed from the support group and lives at home by herself except for her in-home caretaker Silvana (Adriana Barraza). Even Silvana, who seems to be her only friend, is emotionally abused by the cold and distant Claire who finds something wrong in every choice she makes including the route she takes while driving. Claire is addicted to pain pills, but why and as a result of what we don’t know. She moves with the slow caution of fearing every step and is quick to use her stilted posture as an excuse to do anything more than sit around and seemingly feel sorry for herself. The death of Nina sparks something in Claire though, something she has been unable to feel in an indeterminable amount of time and she can’t help but follow the bread crumbs. Tobin, who has only written one other film from 1996 guides his clearly defined lead character through a perfectly obvious set of circumstances that allow us to better know her motivations, but while the performance is determined it is unable to flourish in such a calculated environment.
In short, it is the performances that save the day here. They are the one thing you will take away from the film in seeing past the facade of it wanting to be a hip, bleak comedy that takes everything at face value and hopes it’s observational humor and “who cares” attitude will put it in favor with the cynical, narcissist crowds. Instead, the possible tag line of a woman suffering from chronic pain who becomes a real pain is something to be attached to a broad comedy rather than a determined drama that is so self-consciously dark it ends up hardly carrying any real weight. The scenes I enjoyed most were those featuring Claire and the ghost of Nina converse in Claire’s hallucinations that allow for the audience to see both the need for Claire to seek out more details of the real Nina’s life while also allowing us a glimpse into the psyche of Claire. It is a bit of a disturbing gimmick, but is the only genuine dark comedy of the piece that resonates without feeling like it’s trying too hard and most of that is due to the ease of the camaraderie between Aniston and Kendrick. Other highlights include the continually evolving relationship between Claire and Silvana that at first seems unbearable in its conventional nature, but while the transformation is expected and comes in the ways that are most obvious we appreciate the sincerity of it due in large part to the portrait that Barraza paints of this struggling woman. Silvana, no matter the hardships of her life, continues to pray for the privileged and short-tempered Claire. Silvana is constantly of the mindset where she is trying to put herself in others shoes and treat them as she imagines she would like to be treated under such circumstances while hardly thinking of herself. It is a role of real care, of being truly humble and Barraza knocks it out of the park while never crossing the line of overshadowing Aniston’s strong lead performance despite the fact Silvana is much easier to like and become interested in. Other cast members include the likes of Chris Messina, William H. Macy, Lucy Punch and Britt Robertson who all show up for one scene or less and add little to nothing except for reinforcing the calculated nature of the story.
While “Cake” is by no means a bad movie, it certainly isn’t something to write home about and neither is Aniston’s performance. They’re both perfectly fine, with nothing to take exception with. Despite her lack of make-up and consciously de-glammed appearance this still resembles the Aniston we think we know. While her character’s in a decidedly worse mood than most, the actor is still unable to shed that persona she has so heftily built on her appearance. In taking away the glamor she might have hoped to shed that image instead of simply making it obvious she wanted awards attention, but it is difficult to see Aniston as anything other than the personality we imagine her as in our minds. This is no fault of hers (she visited our living rooms for a decade on a weekly basis), but it proves it’s going to take more than removing her make-up and playing a bit against type to distance herself from that persona. I believe she is a talented enough actor to make this transition, but “Cake” is not the project to do that for her. While I appreciate the film for at least attempting to explore some complicated emotions and the ease of conversation versus the actuality of a situation it phones its main ideas and revelations in so early that I found it hard to take anything substantial away from the feature. I haven’t seen director Barnz’s first two features though I did catch his 2012 film, “Won’t Back Down,” that was also a rather conventional yet inspiring story elevated by the quality of the performances. In his latest, Barnz depicts his character study of Claire as a mystery for us to piece together while those around her already know everything going on in her life and why she is the way she is. There is no development for the people around Claire, suffering from her self-pity, but more the arc is for the audience to figure out what is actually going on with this woman. This isn’t so much a complaint as an inquiry as to why Barnz then found it necessary to make his third act one that felt redeeming to this central character when the overall point of the film was to explore the psychology of this lost cause and her need to seek out someone who was more desperate then her. Maybe had it stuck with this darker road (as it likes to claim it does) it would have also carried the weight it seems to think it does.
by Philip Price
Honest to a fault, “Still Alice” feels as heartbreaking as you might expect any traumatic event in your own personal life to affect you. The story is basic, the people are familiar and the storytelling is uncomplicated. In some fashion you might peg the film as something of a Lifetime story in pedigreed actors clothing, but it is only because Alzheimer’s has become such a hackneyed topic at this point. This is unfortunate as the disease is of course a very serious one as well as being close to soul-crushing for those who bear witness to their loved ones slowly drifting away from the person they once were. Thankfully, I’ve never had to deal with the disease in any form with any family members, but as it’s been used in films before it is easy to see why storytellers not only position it to gain large amounts of sympathy for their characters, but depend on it to pull in the entire emotional investment of their film. When used correctly though, stories concerning Alzheimer’s can not only be affecting and moving, but like “Still Alice,” they can be eye-opening. There are moments within the film that naturally ring familiar and tread the line of being somewhat overly-sentimental and manipulative but this is only due to the timing and use of lyrical songs as well as the inclusion of a big speech to clarify the emotional peak of our protagonist. These moments are few and far between the more personal, small highlights of what it’s like to exist outside these moments though. This introspective look is what sets the film apart from something you might see on late night cable along with, of course, the lead performance of Julianne Moore that guaranteed her an Academy Award this year. “Still Alice” is not a film that screams innovation and isn’t even anything to necessarily write home about, but it does take you in completely as you give yourself over to its briskly paced hour and forty minute run time. Concerning itself with the basics of life and the unforgiving nature of the disease at the heart of its story, “Still Alice” provides a no-frills look at both deterioration and inadequacy in the human spirit that cannot be controlled and is all the more poignant for it.
Moore plays Alice Howland, a happily married woman settling into the second half of her life as the film opens on her fiftieth birthday celebration. She has three grown children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Alice is a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia and happily married to John (Alec Baldwin), a doctor at the university. While Alice certainly seems to have it all she has seemingly worked hard for in this picturesque life and has been rewarded by the majority of her children who have gone on to become doctors and lawyers. Anna, the oldest, is the lawyer and is trying to get pregnant with husband Charlie (Shane McRae). Tom is finishing up med school while going through a bevy of girlfriends none of which he can seem to settle on while Lydia is the dark horse having left the family’s New York City safe haven and ventured out to Los Angeles to become an actor. As a woman steeped in academia who prides herself on her accomplishments it is hard for Alice to accept her daughter’s uncertain and inauspicious career path. All of these relationships and the dynamic of keeping up with the ever moving lives of her family only help to build to the moment Alice receives her devastating diagnosis. It begins with the small things such as forgetting certain words, escalating into becoming lost when going on jogs around a campus she has known for the better part of her adult life and only getting worse from there. In visiting a neurologist Alice learns she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. One could take the film from here as Alice and her family finding a way to work through this unexpected trial and how the ties that bind are tested under such stress and tragedy, but more so the film is about learning to cope and if there is any, the best way to do so while still maintaining some kind of normality. The way in which directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland handle the transitions of the family from helpful hopefuls to slightly more jaded pessimists is nearly flawless and only serves to make the story all the more recognizable.
Glatzer and Westmoreland, while not having anything of note that might serve as a reliable precursor to this film, are more than adept at understanding it is best to let the actors breathe and not distract us with anything else. This is a pure human story and so why go any other route than approaching the characters with anything other than a focused style? In doing this and allowing Moore to exude her incredible talent through this woman we get more than just a simple look at pain, but more we understand the psyche of someone losing the understanding of their own tragedy. It is noted many times throughout “Still Alice” that memories are our most precious possessions and so how are we to see this loss of all that we hold dear as anything but harrowing? Through Alice, Moore presents a study of struggle. It is in her looks that we find the most agonizing of moments. Some of the looks are that of realization, others are that of confusion and when you land somewhere in the middle they are simply that of being scared. It is a real gamut of emotions that Moore must run in order to keep the worsening effects of her disease both in check and in line with a natural progression without ever making it all seem as melodramatic as it could easily resort to. That would be the easy way out, for both Moore and her directors in broadly appealing to the mass emotions of those in the audience while showing the heightened moments of sorrow in exaggerated fashion, but Moore is too tempered an actor to allow that to happen. This allows Alice to take on the disease as if it were a challenge rather than a fight already lost. Alice takes to testing herself daily, to putting questions in her phone that she forces herself to answer while being unafraid to use her illness to appeal to Lydia and her desire for her to go to college. As much as the relationship between Alice and John is understood for what it should be (a loving, solid marriage) the film focuses more on the children and their individual dealings, especially Lydia, opening up the second half of the film to something more than just an internal struggle, but a sense of appreciation from her children both in reflection and more importantly in the present moment.
If “Still Alice” wants to remind us of anything though it is how fast life seems to pass. There is a moment a few months after receiving her diagnosis where Alice and John have escaped to a beach house for the summer. It is clearly a place they visited often when they were younger and therefore holds many fond memories for them. They talk of the times they had, John keenly touches on the loss of Alice’s mother and only sibling in a car accident when she was young by referencing how he wishes he could have met them. The couple then sit back to take in all that they’ve accomplished in their lives and how it all has come to something of an unceremonious end. It is one of the small moments of perspective, of reflection where you can tell the characters are present rather than simply being in a place for the sake of feeling obligated. This isn’t a wedding, a party, a charity event or even one of Lydia’s plays where fun and spontaneity is the expected convention, but rather it is natural, improvisational and more than anything it is honest. It is in these moments that the film thrives, that we as viewers see ourselves in these characters no matter if we ever share their circumstances. That Moore and her supporting cast are able to transcend the material in such a way that we can relate in this fashion and then be able to pull back to the overall point of the narrative to sledgehammer our emotions home give this simple film an unexpected amount of weight. The relentlessness of Moore’s character is so tangible, so intense that it is clearly what will resonate for days after walking away from the film. These kinds of aforementioned moments are all we have and at the rate in which our lives disperse it is vital not just that we recognize this truth, but that we stop to invest and find value in these moments when they are unexpectedly presented to us. I always find a discussion about time and perspective one that can be heartfelt while being completely logical and understated which is the kind of mature conversation “Still Alice” brings to the table.