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Capsule review: ‘Whiplash’
3.5 out of 4 stars
J.K. Simmons makes a terrifying jazz drill sergeant as a conductor at the country’s top music conservatory. His teaching style thrives on crushing spirits, and it’s easy to imagine a sticker that says, “Humiliate to motivate” adorning his bumper. Teach really lays into Andrew (Miles Teller, excellent as always), a first-year student desperate to make it as a drummer and impress his taskmaster. Trying to become the star player for the school’s best band, his core pays the price—and so do his hands. While the storytelling sometimes wobbles and repeats itself, “Whiplash” bracingly asks, “What do we sacrifice to become great?” and “Do the ends justify the means if harsh coaching gets results?” In certain ways the film resembles “The Social Network” in exploring obsession, social discomfort and the collateral damage of innovation. Andrew could even make a Mark Zuckerberg-esque business card from one of the movie’s best lines: “Turn my pages, bitch.” —Matt Pais, RedEye
Captured not for the image (most stars aren't showing up) but the quiet.
Zach Braff introduces 'Wish I Was Here' at Sundance
Full review: ‘Wish I Was Here’
* (out of four)
After waiting 10 years to make his follow-up to “Garden State,” Zach Braff probably could have kept his sophomore writing-directing effort “Wish I Was Here” free of gags about Sinead O’Connor, Ani DiFranco, Tang and the Amish. Especially when several of these stale jokes come from his character, a struggling actor in L.A. you’d think would be pop culture savvy enough not to walk into an Aston Martin dealership and awkwardly claim to work with “Sean ‘Puff Daddy Dirty Money’ Combs.”
It’s not just the jokes that seem like they’ve been in a vault for a decade. “Wish I Was Here” demonstrates that Braff has no new moves as a triple threat, or even a single threat. Don’t get me wrong: I loved Braff on “Scrubs,” and though “Garden State” hasn’t aged well, it spoke directly to my 20-something angst. In “Wish I Was Here” (co-written by Braff's brother Adam) every character sounds like Braff, and they’re all emoting and saying Hallmark/sub-Bueller-isms like, “You need to wake up because life is happening all around you.” This is earnestness without poignancy.
In what sometimes feels like part Apatow (“This is 40”), part Coen brothers (“A Serious Man”) and all schmaltz, Aidan (Braff) decides to home-school his kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) after his dad (Mandy Patinkin) can no longer fund private Jewish day school due to cancer treatment payments. Inevitably, Aidan tells his daughter she won’t need to know geometry, and she becomes the teacher when it’s clear dad doesn’t know anything.
Side note: Not remembering what you were taught in fifth grade does not mean you know nothing about life. This was also the fundamental problem behind “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”
I’m not a cynic. I’m often easily moved, very much inclined to go for stories about struggling families and the fear that life is racing by as regrets pile up. Yet in “Wish I Was Here,” Braff merely shoots emotional fish in a barrel without contributing to the conversation.
Parenting and getting older are anything but easy, but “Wish I Was Here” merely repeats the same old complaints about sexually unsatisfied dads and dreams that didn’t pan out. Yet Aidan’s rarely forced to make adult decisions or have adult conversations that don’t sound like college-level stream-of-consciousness. Oh, and the acting’s mostly lousy, partially a result of all the characters speaking the same way. It’s part platitudes (“We move forward; it’s the only direction God gave us”) and part hand-me-down lunges for laughs (Aidan repeatedly says stuff like, “[Bleep] the swear jar”). That’s to say nothing about the running gag about a dog named Kugel who pees everywhere or Aidan’s strange, nerdy brother (Josh Gad) about whose subplot involving a beautiful neighbor (embarrassingly underused Ashley Greene) I can’t say anything because it’s only two scenes and they go from bad to worse. “Wish I Was Here” repeats things that weren’t funny on “Entourage” eight years ago and hopes that the universal notions of searching and sadness will redeem the dreadful script and pathetic gags like a rabbi riding a Segway or Aidan’s wife Sarah’s (Kate Hudson) problems with an inappropriate colleague (Michael Weston).
The film’s best moment might be when Aidan looks at a container that says, “This pamphlet could save your life.” The container’s empty, as if Aidan was this close to getting on the right track and came late to the info session. That’s perceptive and funny. Most of the time, though, “Wish I Was Here” finds Aidan navel-gazing and unable to derive joy from his children. He’s having a midlife crisis with the perspective of a quarter-life crisis, even delaying an urgent trip to the hospital to satisfy his ego. Late in the film, he learns a simple (and contrived) lesson about karma and then tosses the message aside, again advancing his own interest without considering what he’s teaching his kids.
I wanted to like “Wish I Was Here.” I wanted it to speak to me the way “Garden State” did, at least the first time. Instead, “Wish I Was Here” (which does make a nice point about unwittingly passing down fears through generations) is desperate, manipulative and self-indulgent. It often seems like it’s missing a laugh track, and there may be no greater sign of Braff stubbornly stuck in the past than his use of Colin Hay’s "Beautiful World,” which featured prominently in “Scrubs.” With a film about assessing life and having the guts to move forward, the filmmaker doesn’t practice what he preaches. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
Kate Hudson on relating to "Wish I Was Here."
***1/2 (out of four)
Seriously: Jenny Slate has arrived. In the wonderful “Obvious Child,” she’s funny, vulnerable, lovable and specific—an odd character who feels real because the person playing her makes her real. It’s like Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids,” and “Child” feels like that kind of breakout part for Slate (“Kroll Show”). I hope.
She plays Donna Stern, a stand-up comedian whose act consists only of venting about her life. On and off stage, she’s proudly vulgar, with unintended vaginal functions and bowel movements serving as her way of relating her concerns to the world. After she’s dumped and fired in quick succession—the unisex bathroom-set breakup scene achieves special, heart-slicing insincerity as the dumper constantly checks his phone while confessing to cheating—Donna eventually has a drunken night with Max (Jake Lacy of “The Office”) that results in an accidental bodily function she hasn’t yet covered in her act.
Expanding her short film of the same name, writer/director Gillian Robespierre avoids nearly every cliché and pitfall that could derail a movie like this. She makes Donna and her plan to get an abortion messy but blunt. With each line (Donna tells the audience, “I feel like when someone does something bad they should just die”) the filmmaker cuts right to the gut of pain or loneliness or uncertainty or all of the above. That the film is often cackle-inducing funny is no small achievement for something so honest.
A few moments stretch credibility, but the rapport between every character, especially Donna and Max, more than compensates. At a restaurant they share one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen on screen in a while, and no way I’m going to ruin it. I want to hug this movie. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
Anna Kendrick, ladies and gentlemen.
**1/2 (out of four)
Movies are so much more than their concepts. “Gravity” is an amazing onscreen achievement, but the script is lousy. It’s not a great movie. Its points come from the fact that Alfonso Cuaron pulled it off.
To a degree, the same goes for “Boyhood,” which writer-director Richard Linklater filmed over the course of 12 years. That’s really ambitious. Unlike Michael Apted’s series (docs checking in with the same people every seven years) or Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (following the same characters every eight or nine years), “Boyhood” filmed a little bit with its cast over the course of a dozen years. So we don’t just meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as an elementary schooler. We’ll see his voice change and observe as he goes through rites of passage like sucking at bowling when you lose the bumpers, peer pressure to drink and lie about your sexual experience and incidents when trying to be yourself means you become a bit of an ass to the people who are trying to help you.
Here’s the thing: None of the moments in “Boyhood” are bold in suggesting that the experiences are universal. Linklater isn’t deconstructing our communal stepping stones; he’s merely reminding us of them. It’s easy to watch the film and recall similar moments in your own life. That’s not enough; the film needs to inspire reflection, not just recollection, and it doesn’t.
Linklater pal Ethan Hawke plays Mason’s dad in such an Ethan Hawke-y manner you think he’s still being Jesse from the “Before” movies. Patricia Arquette’s a bit stiff as Mason’s mom, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays Mason’s older sister Samantha, who begins the movie annoying her brother by singing and dancing to Britney Spears’ “Oops! I Did It Again.” Which brings us to another problem with “Boyhood”: The movie constantly marks years with popular songs, opening with Coldplay’s “Yellow,” stopping at, among others, Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and Phoenix’s “1901” and winding up at Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Music is a big part of people’s lives. Popular songs remind us where we were at the time. But to depict the bulk of a lifetime and show the characters constantly listening to the most popular songs turns the movie into a dramatization of life, not an authentic portrait.
Mason experiences minimal joy, sadness or surprise. Perhaps that’s because Linklater wants to show that for many, years are made up of the mundane, not the peaks and valleys. That may be true, but when charting the significant experiences someone has between 6 and 18, it’s ridiculous not to include the most resonating sorrow and elation that shapes who he or she becomes. When Mason’s mom marries a college professor who turns out to be an abusive, alcoholic jerk, “Boyhood” becomes cartoonishly melodramatic.
Again: Everyone has seen someone play a solo acoustic version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and Linklater deserves credit for following through on his ambition. But it’s worth wondering how much the way the actors grew influenced the trajectory of the movie—if Coltrane hadn’t grown into a good-looking fellow, would Linklater have been able to make Mason a bit of a ladies’ man?. And, more importantly, why the movie feels like a list of experiences instead of an exploration of them that makes you feel anything. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
** (out of four)
When “Rudderless” begins with Josh (Miles Heizer of “Parenthood”) unhappily writing music in his dorm room, you think you could be watching an episode of “Parenthood.” Later, when Josh’s dad Sam (Billy Crudup) passes off the songs Josh wrote as his, you think you’re watching the episode of “Nashville” when Gunnar did the same with songs his brother wrote.
The important distinction is what happens in between. Josh dies in a campus shooting, and the way co-writer/first-time director William H. Macy withholds relevant information about the incident is hard to justify. He plays coy with a major plot point, selling out credibility for the sake of a twist when coming clean from the start would have been bolder. (Note: A film from 2011 explored these issues more appropriately, but identifying which one would be a spoiler.)
“Rudderless” does feature a great turn from Crudup and some really fantastic music, performed by a band that includes Anton Yelchin (as nuisance-turned-friend Quentin) and musician Ben Kweller as the bass player Quentin very deliberately runs into--hoping Sam will want to recruit his talents. Their songs stick immediately, and this Oklahoma-based group attracts a following to its regular bar gig like any band should when performing excellent material.
And still. In addition to Sam’s go-nowhere friendship with a music shop owner (Laurence Fishburne), an underdeveloped part for Selena Gomez as Josh’s girlfriend and painful scenes of Sam bickering with an annoying guy at the lake where he lives on his boat, it’s hard to get the taste of manipulation out of your mouth when “Rudderless” obscures truth instead of challenging it. Macy was smart not to assert answers to questions that don’t have any. And he raises but insufficiently considers whether we can separate art from the artist, an ever-intriguing conversation that crops up every time a controversial figure (Chris Brown, for example) releases an album. The problem is that “Rudderless” perpetuates the very denial it indicts. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
Shailene Woodley on filming out of sequence.
Gabourey Sidibe on a major, secret moment in "White Bird in a Blizzard."
More from Shailene Woodley on the appeal of "White Bird in a Blizzard."
The actress explains her interest in working with the "White Bird in a Blizzard" director at the film's Sundance premiere.
Christopher Meloni on "White Bird in a Blizzard" director Gregg Araki.
‘White Bird in a Blizzard’
**1/2 (out of four)
Shailene Woodley (“The Spectacular Now”) is just so good. She’s always present in the scene; you don’t want to take your eyes off of her.
That helps compensate for some of the narrative bumps in “White Bird in a Blizzard,” adapted by writer-director Gregg Araki from Laura Kasische’s novel. The movie opens on 17-year-old Kat (Woodley) discovering her mom (a breathy, effectively odd Eva Green) zonked out in Kat’s bed. She’s dressed up and acting bizarrely, something that can be considered a regular occasion before mom disappears. Dad (nicely subdued Christopher Meloni) hangs missing posters; Kat’s concern can’t diminish her attraction to the detective (Thomas Jane) on the case.
Much of “White Bird in a Blizzard” feels stuck in neutral. Kat talks to a therapist (Angela Bassett). She gabs about sex with her pals (including Gabourey Sidibe) and wonders why her boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) doesn’t want to sleep with her anymore. It’s all circling the long-challenging relationship between Kat and her mother, who years earlier told her daughter, “God, you’re getting fatter by the hour.”
But no matter how many times it generates laughs from Phil’s stupidity (he thinks the expression is “cut him some slacks”) or, uh, makes Kat’s breasts a key point of emphasis, “White Bird in a Blizzard” (which contains an absurd, out-of-nowhere ending) seems distant. It’s not as a means to emphasize Kat’s occasional feeling of being an actress playing herself. And there’s only so much Woodley can do when the film only scratches the surface of a young woman who’s equally haunted when asleep and awake. -- Matt Pais, RedEye