Category Archives: 5 Things

5 Things You Need to Know: EDGE OF TOMORROW

As always, when I see a movie in theaters, I will (attempt to) write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About…


1) My Edge of Tomorrow cinematic experience was easily the most fun I have had in a movie theater since the awestruck majesty of GravityComing on the heals of the depressing and disheartening redundancy of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, my continued movie theater patronage was at stake. Edge of Tomorrow was exhilarating with a purpose, expertly navigating an otherworldly premise (an ultimate reset button in a futuristic Groundhog Day scenario) with logic, consistency, and justifiable rules. Yes, it couldn’t happen, but at the same time, it all seemed to make sense (so, the anti-X-Men: Days of Future Past). Unabashedly humorous and intentionally staying away from a funereal mythology, Edge of Tomorrow reminded me of all that can be fun about an original action/science fiction picture and how more such highly original concepts (thank goodness for Christopher Nolan, Inception, and the overwhelming promise of Interstellar) should be made. Please.

2) It is no surprise that at the forefront of this temporary reversal of cinematic fortune is a performer who over the years has consistently been the reason to spend the extra dollars to see a movie in theaters: the man born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. At the youngest age 51 (52 next month) in recorded history, Tom Cruise remains ever the magnetic force of nature. His onscreen draw and appeal, imbedded in his fearless commitment to character and story, to passionate determination, to performing his own stunts, and to maintaining the illusion that he is taller than 5′ 5”, crackles and sparks with classic Tom Cruise luster in Edge of Tomorrow. He is having a great time and exuberantly invites the audience to ride shotgun on the ride.

3) As this movie’s female counterpoint to the scene-chewing dominance of a Tom Cruise performance, Emily Blunt fits into her role with an “I don’t really care what you think, so I am going to do what I want whenever I want” command. She pitch matches every Cruise energetic burst with a powered punch of her own. Their strategic and plotted co-dependence appreciatively stays largely out of “will they get together?” trope zone. The goal is to survive, save lives, destroy the alien insurrection, and then, if possible, save each other. Blunt is just as her name suggests without losing an iota of likability (she had this going for her in Looper as well).

4) Thank you to Edge of Tomorrow for recognizing that action humor has a place in a dystopian destruction movie. Despite my love of his work, the Nolan-nification of storytelling has largely yield worlds of morose melancholy. In Edge of Tomorrow, although the world is in the roughest of shape, the movie does not lose sight of how both the audience and the players within the story have to laugh a little at the challenging circumstances. Doug Liman’s editing and quick hitting cuts pop and spark moments of joyous levity that force an audible audience response usually in the form of laughter, if not a inhabited smile.

5) The Edge of Tomorrow is a movie that feels like both a relic of the golden era of the non-superhero summer action movie (this is a great thing by the way) and a fresh and perfectly executed piece of modern audience entertainment. It moves with a pulse, with a swagger, and with the confident smile that has marked much of the career of its top-billed movie star. It is a movie star’s movie and easily one of the best ways to be entertained this summer.

5 Things You Need to Know: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Actually, there is really only one thing you need to know: don’t see this poorly plotted, incongruous disaster.

Here are some of my additional takeaways while departing the theater:

  • If Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is the worst villain ever realized in a comic book movie (Try to make an argument to the contrary…just try), then Jamie Foxx’s Electro is the second worst villain ever realized in a comic book movie. What a conceptual embarrassment it was.

  • This movie is a complete waste of the beautiful Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone onscreen (and off!) chemistry and charisma, several strong scenes from Sally Field (I really like you), and a beautiful visual sensibility.

  • Dane DeHaan’s eyes can be scary to look at.

  • Paul Giamatti’s career (tough moment Hoke) has fallen a little off the deep end. He apparently wanted to play the catastrophe sometimes called the “Rhino.”

  • Speaking of tough moments, I am currently having one with cinema. For every Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, there are too many random Marvel sequels, big-budget CGI-fests in unnecessary 3D up-selling rip-offs, and stories that should never have been told. As TV has increasingly become more and more of my daily jam, spending time in a movie theater has unbalanced more toward the chore end of things (pleasure has become harder to come by). The result: I aim to be more judicious in my “in theaters” viewing (Oscar season will continue to be the exception) during the blockbuster months because there are apparently much better ways to spend my time.

5 Things You Need To Know: Summer Movie Edition Part I – NEIGHBORS, GODZILLA, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

With the summer movie semester well into the summer session, the time has finally come to comment on some of what I have seen. This edition will feature Neighbors, Godzilla, and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

As always, when I see a movie in theaters, I will (attempt to) write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About…

NEIGHBORSRose Byrne and Seth Rogen

1) Although I hated Neighbors and most of my Neigbors viewing experience, I recognize its relative success as a modern, pushing-the-envelope comedic summer romp.

2) Zac Efron’s body and physical persona may be the closest thing I have ever seen on screen to a Greek God and he and the filmmakers seem to both know and celebrate this.

3) Ike Barinholtz has a brand of comedic timing on The Mindy Project that he brings to his supporting role in The Neighbors. As on The Mindy Project, he is both sometimes hilarious and sometimes far too many steps over the top.

4) I was pleasantly surprised by the chemistry between Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as an oddly-coupled set of new parents. They both were willing to go there – with each other, with other co-stars (particularly the surprisingly fantastic Efron), and with the hyperbole of the plotted circumstances.

5) Neighbors is a movie that delivers a full filling of disgusting raunch and was frequently too much out of control partying for me to take. If this kind of thing is your jam, Neighbors is an escapist escapade, but if you are at a place in your life in which you are ready to settle down with a spouse and kids, be warned.

GODZILLAElizabeth Olsen

1) Godzilla‘s relative CGI and monster reveal procrastination fuels its suspenseful success. Like summer blockbuster heavyweights like Jaws and Jurassic Park (both under the helm of Steven Spielberg the Magnificent), we earn the climactic curtain pull-back.

2) Bryan Cranston is good at acting – sure, see: Breaking Bad. But also, see: Godzilla.

3) Director Gareth Edwards has recently been attached to helm an “untitled Star Wars project.” With operation total secrecy expertly and indefinitely locked in the bag on everything Star Wars movies related, one secret did recently get out: a future Star Wars movie may be even luckier to have Gareth Edwards as its director than Gareth Edwards is lucky to be able to direct a Star Wars movie. If Godzilla’s promise is any indication, this is an outstanding choice.

4) I am not sure when it is going to come and Godzilla is certainly not it (this is by no means a bad thing – the character performance stakes are just a little lower in a movie about a fictionalized monster), but I have a strong premonition that Elizabeth Olsen is going to have an iconic film performance at some point in her career. She has something undeniably unique and compelling going on as an actor and with the right character/director/writer combination may have the talent to deliver something really special.

5) Godzilla is a movie that executes its mission (a summer escape, a chance to see cool looking monsters that destroy things, a platform for  Bryan Cranston to reinvent himself post Walter White) with a confidence, artistry, and intrigue not often reserved for the modern summer blockbuster. Although littered with characters built from traditional stock and a little darker (as in lighting and mood) than necessary, Godzilla entertains (and decimates property and other monsters in its path!) most responsibly.


1) My X-Men movie journey is very similar to my at-large X-Men journey. Throughout my life, X-Men has always been a franchise, a concept, and a group of action figures to play with that I enjoy and indulge in on extended breaks from Batman. Although they adequately fill the gaps during forced vacations from Gotham City, rarely do Professor Xavier’s crew of mutant super outcasts stand tall against Batman’s human awesomeness. With Batman and Robin and director Joel Schumacher defecating on Batman, the moviegoing experience, and human decency in 1997the X-Men had been handed their cinematic window to makes some dents in Batman’s armored nipples. Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) was a passable franchise welcoming (this does not include anything to do with the mistreatment of Halle Berry’s Storm character nor the CGI budget limitations that make its production value seem much closer to a movie released in 1990). X2 (2003) was a revelatory leap forward and stands up well to this day (the bigger budget and everything to do with Nightcrawler were significant contributors). By the time the inferior and belabored X-Men: The Last Stand rolled out in 2006, Christopher Nolan had just given Batman an exceptional new cinematic restart (Batman Begins in 2005), and the X-Men franchise had to re-mutate again. One attempted genetic experiment was resoundingly anti-climatic – besides the estate of Hugh Jackman, I am not sure there are too many people who have benefitted in any way from the Wolverine movies (their complete lack of pop cultural impact is really telling). 2011’s X-Men: First Class had the opposite effect. Set in 1962 and infused with a nostalgic charm by director Matthew Vaughn, First Class expertly told the X-Men origin story of young Professor Xavier and Magneto through the brilliant chemically balanced performances of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (although a little too miscast as Raven/Mystique, it never hurts to have Jennifer Lawrence on your team). If First Class rebooted and restarted the X-Men mythos in the best of ways, X-Men: Days of Future Past was an opportunity to tie the two X-Men time periods (and actors thereof) into one elegant through-story. The resulting movie, again with Bryan Singer at the helm and again buttressed between two Batman movie franchises, conveniently resets the events of the past movies by creating an entirely new history (popular deceased characters can now have new life in future movies), but unfortunately works to both cheapen what was good about the original three movies and the goodwill brought on by X-Men: First Class. Time travel is the trickiest of fantasy tropes. Mind-blowing is palatable if there is some restraint (this is why I am so stoked for Interstellar and why Inception worked so well – thanks again Christopher Nolan). X-Men: Days of Future Past does not show as much restraint as it could (everything seems awfully convenient, especially the premise that Jackman’s Wolverine is the perfect candidate to take the journey) and the result is a lot of sloppy and imprecise filmmaking (the anti-Usual Suspects).

2) I am thrilled for Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s onscreen chemistry and offscreen professional and personal relationship that has grown from their time together on the first movies, but after seeing Fassbender and McAvoy again do their young Erik and Charles thing, there is nothing quite like it. I could sit and watch these two play a board game together or model vintage fashion and it would be mesmerizing (it’s a good thing because these opportunities come up throughout DoFP).

3) If you have seen any of Peter Dinklage’s work on Game of Thrones, you immediately recognize two things – he is a superior actor and you want to see him perform more. I thought that Dr. Bolivar Trask, the sentinel’s Dr. Frankenstein lobbyist, would be the perfect dichotomized bad guy for Dinklage’s talents to shine. Sadly, Trask is written poorly and without a desired amount of ethical and psychological depth. Dinklage is wonderful so not all is disappointing, but this is a lost opportunity to showcase the full extent of Dinklage’s brilliance.

4) For her second straight movie release (I see you, American Hustle), Jennifer Lawrence has played a part she was not born to play. The weight of her movie superstardom and talent may even at times be more of a detriment than of a benefit. You know she is capable of such incredible things, so when her Raven character is given such choppy dialogue and inconsequential and confusing motives, you are left feeling as blue her full-body suit.

5) X-Men: Days of Future Past is a movie with epic, interstellar storytelling ambition that too often feels grounded to Earth. It is too many things all at once such that what it really needs to be – thoughtful, provocative, compelling – fails to fully develop. The future scenes are action-sequence pleasure, but of little care or consequence. The past scenes from the 70s are fogged by a blurry dedication to external realism over internal truth.

5 Things You Need to Know: Noah

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About…


1) I saw Noah almost two weeks ago and up until now, did not think it too important to get the message out.

2) Although an afternoon screening, I spent most of the first act fighting off sleep. Was I tired and fatigued? Probably, but the product on screen didn’t help.

3) The biblical story of Noah has a few key tenets: Noah built an ark, there was a flood that eradicated the earth’s human population (besides Noah’s family), Noah saved the animals (two by two!) by housing them on the ark during the flood, and there was a dove that brought evidence of land to mark the end of the global catastrophe. You would think that an aspiring cinematic epic such as this movie that Darren Aronofsky hoped to make would at least hit all of these key points effectively. Unfortunately, the director of point-of-viewed The Fountain and Black Swan manages to gloss over most of the ark construction (in deference for angsty Ham and Shem emotional baggage) and creates one dimensional CGI animals that seem to be more alien to Noah and his family than the Giant Rock Transformer Angels were to EVERY member of the viewing audience.

4) Maybe I should have already put up a SPOILER ALERT on this one because studio publicity wants to maintain the secret for as long as possible, but the chatter seems to already have pervaded the cultural gossiper. In case you are living under the rocks that may have inspired them, in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah there are Giant Rock Transformer Angels who build arks, destroy humans through CGI magic (and weirdly and uncomfortably compelling action sequences), and disappear into heavenly light. You can’t make this stuff up.

5) Noah is a movie by a filmmaker (the aforementioned Aronofsky) whose incredible creativity, ambition, and vision execute story in a most fantastical way. Unfortunately, his fantastical musings often hit the wrong notes in the wrong ways and Noah is flooded with these inaccessible decisions.

5 Things You Need To Know: Muppets Most Wanted

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About…


1) Nostalgia for pop culture can be a tricky thing. Formidable memories and experiences from an early age (or at least an earlier age) retain a certain degree of romantic appreciation and unavoidable bias. We remember all of the good, barely any of the not so good, and see the given movie, television series, franchise, or album through an impenetrable lens of celebratory devotion. While both our tastes and preferences evolve with the inevitable progress of a given medium, our most beloved entities are captured in time, protected from objective critique and heightened discernment. This is not to say that by looking back in a haze of rose-colored love, what we remember is somehow lesser than. As objectively considered as possible, The Wizard of Oz will always be great, The Godfather and The Godfather II remain pillars of film history, and The Wire still holds the “best television series I have ever watched” crown (Breaking Bad‘s final season had more than something to say about this). Greatness is greatness in any context, era, or through any cloud of nostalgic bias. It was of tremendous and satisfying relief last April when my Jurassic Park 3D experience held up against that voracious fandom of my youth. Jurassic Park remains a phenomenal cinematic experience, whether 1993 or 2013. As “they” (people who consider these kind of things) say, it has aged well. It is through this starry-eyed vision that I consider the Muppets. The Muppets are my original, longest-standing, and most beloved franchise. I have been a consumer of their blissful humor and irreverent joy since before I could read the opening credits of their movies. There is a video recording that exists showcasing my four-year-old self’s voice acting and singing prowess on the song “Saying Goodbye” from The Muppets Take Manhattan (I was particularly good at Floyd and Gonzo and particularly challenged by lyrical accuracy). Jim Henson’s tragic death in 1990 remains one of the handful of saddest days of my life and still, all these years later, is one of my profoundest “I remember every detail of that day” experiences. I even have recordings of every Muppets Tonight! episode on VHS (not the most successful or well-received of ventures with Muppets in the title), my apartment is adorned with Muppets figures and replica models of Kermit, Animal, and Gonzo, and I sometimes watch the DVDs of Jim Henson’s funeral as a reminder for what it really means to creatively collaborate (as becomes abundantly clear through the inspirational and beautiful tributes by the other Muppet performers). The Muppets are ingrained in my consciousness, imbedded in my psyche, and central to the development of my soul. Jason Segel’s 2011 Disney restart, The Muppets, a nostalgic ode and love letter to fans brought to fruition by one of the biggest out there, put Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and the other Jim Henson furry creations back on the map (as unrealistic as traveling on a map in the movie may be – we have to move right along with travel time exposition, naysayers). It was at times inspirational and muppetational, although often more for its existence (a new Muppet movie in 2011!) and awareness of fan desires (renewed focus on classic characters like Rowlf, Scooter, and Dr. Teeth who had been sidelined or retired after the deaths of Henson and RIchard Hunt, another core Muppet performer), than for its storytelling prowess. It was still the Muppets and as musical numbers like “Man or a Muppet” proved, the Muppets can still be amazing. When I spoke to Jason Segel a few months ago and asked him why he would not be returning for the sequel (there was disappointment from this fan), he intimated that his intention was always to facilitate a Muppet return and cultural rebirth, but then hand the property to others (fueled by the power of the Disney marketing albatross) to tell subsequent stories.

Nostalgia can be a tricky thing, and, fully (and admittedly exhaustively) acknowledging the hyped-anticipation and blinders of adoration that surround my viewing, Muppets Most Wanted was a neatly packaged, cleverly executed, mostly enjoyable ride of a movie that certainly quenched my Muppets thirst, but still left me ravenously hungry for the days of Jim Henson.

2) There is a lot of wonderful to take away from the Muppets Most Wanted movie experience. Walter is already fully immersed in the Muppet world and feels like he has been around a lot longer than three years. With Kermit separated from the gang for most of the movie, Walter fills in the sentimentality gaps quite nicely. Constantine, through an awesome performance from Matt Vogel and a series of great bad Kermit impressions, is one of the movie’s great successes. He is not a good frog, but through a campy, villainous persona, he is a joy to root against. Core Muppet characters are featured once again (Rowlf and Scooter especially) and it seems like everyone this time has at least one moment to shine (One of the best scenes of the movie lets Rizzo and Robin, relegated to sideline status in this Disney reboot after so many years of being featured players, openly vent about their apparent demotion). The pacing never drags, the songs are just the right length and levity, and there are enough mystery plot tropes (albeit predictable) to carry a coherent story. I exited the movie refreshed, amused, and with a smile on my face.

3) In Muppets Most Wanted, Muppets look like the Muppets, they sound like the Muppets (special recognition goes to Eric Jacobson for doing such credible and incredible vocal performances of all of the characters of Frank Oz), but tonally, something feels a bit off. I recognize that the times have changed, that our comedy attention has diverted to a more pithy, sardonic, single-camera sensibility, but there was always a padded layer of warmth behind the Muppet zaniness. There is some of that here, but something just doesn’t feel totally right. It’s almost as if the central conflict of Constantine’s unrecognized Kermit imposter impersonation is a metaphor for the movie at-large. I feel like I am Animal (way to go, old friend), and later Walter and Fozzie, who see through the surface level impression to know that this isn’t the real Kermit. By no means is this a deal-breaker or a lack of appreciation for what is mostly a funny and entertaining experience, but it definitely discolors the post viewing consideration. So, what is missing? And what role is Disney playing in all of this? The answer to the former is on one level quite obvious. Each passing year takes us further from the glory years of The Muppet Show and subsequent three Muppet movies (of which The Muppet Movie is the best). Jim passed twenty four long years ago. Richard Hunt (Scooter, Janice, Sweetums) passed in 1992. Frank Oz is retired and hasn’t performed with the Muppets in over a decade. Jerry Nelson (Robin, Floyd, Crazy Harry) passed last year and hadn’t performed prior to his passing several years before that. Only Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew) and Steve Whitmire (Rizzo the Rat, Kermit and other Jim characters since his death) remain from the original troupe. The new guys (Bill Barretta, Eric Jacobson, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz) are all super talented and give credible essence performances on all original characters, but they are still new guys. The next level answer to the first question may lie with the role of Disney in all of this. If you are marketing a reboot of a franchise, you want Disney on your side. They put out in their marketing onslaught unlike any other big boy at the table (it has been hard to get through a half hour of TV in 2014 without coming across some type of Muppets advertisement or promotional material). Their belief and support in the Muppets has been much appreciated, but at what cost? As just another arm on a tree of Disney properties (Marvel! Princesses! Pixar!), the Muppets lose some of their inherent individuality. Don’t get me wrong – it is much much much better to have Muppets around, even if slightly off, than no Muppets around at all, but I just wish that Animal’s metaphoric drumming was more off the beat.

4) Most of the humanity in Muppet movies usually comes more from the Muppets than the humans, but Muppets Most Wanted, as The Muppets did before it, uses the human characters most effectively. All three human stars – Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell – fit seamlessly in a Muppet world. Gervais portrays Dominic Badguy, frequently reminded of his “Number 2” villain pecking order status behind Kermit doppelganger (add the mole) and “Number 1” villain, Constantine, with a fair share of David Brent cadence whimsy. I do wish he were given more improvisational freedom (the plotted script seems very deliberate), but his onscreen time is always comedically appreciated. Tina Fey’s Nadya character, a Gulag guard turned variety show supporter, gives this modern comedy heavyweight some fun material. Her burgeoning crush on the mistakenly incarcerated Kermit is a lovely B plot. Ty Burrell’s Interpol agent, Jean Pierre Napoleon (Inspector Clouseau inspired), odd couple with Sam the Eagle, playing a CIA agent, is a wonderful conception. Their interrogation song may have been one of the movie’s best moments. The random collection of other Gulag prisoners (Ray Liotta! Danny Trejo!) and their “A Chorus Line” aspirations is a whole bunch of funny fun. The incessant line of cameos is the one major misstep of the human experience in Muppets Most Wanted. Each inclusion (especially Salma Hayek, Lady Gaga, Usher, and P. Diddy) seems a little bit desperate, a little bit pandering, and a little bit unnecessary (another downside of the Disney commercial train). I have been trying to erase the closing musical number (in which the human cameos all come back in the worst display of CGI in the history of cinema) forever from my memory. I am just going to pretend that it didn’t happen.

5) Muppets Most Wanted is a movie that taps into our collective nostalgic heartstrings, but plays an everso slightly different melody that’s enough to keep us both satisfied and wanting more. It is a privilege for new audiences to be able to experience the Muppets for the first time in a 2014 movie theater and Muppets Most Wanted will be a serviceable entry point, it is just hard for those of us who have been devoted fans not to actively reminisce about the good old times.

5 Things You Need to Know: Veronica Mars

When I see a movie in theaters (or in this case, as an iTunes rental), I will write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About…


1) As a loyal fan of the sardonic, snappy-witted television series (although I connected much more with UPN’s season 1 and 2 than the newly merged CW’s season 3) of the same name, there was real excitement to see more of the Veronica Mars character. Commercially, and at times creatively, at the raw end of the network gene pool, Veronica’s cult status was always due in large part to her “location on the dial” circumstances. If she had been given a CBS procedural factory time slot to grow and prosper, show runner Rob Thomas’ (the other Rob Thomas, not the crooner from Matchbox Twenty) modern telling of “all that made Nancy Drew great” mixed with pop-cultured referential writing would have reached its mainstream stride. Unfortunately, at the time, a hit on the UPN was a relative term, and the CW had yet to find its YA/tween calling when it made its fall of 2006 network debut. Failed attempts to rebrand Veronica Mars as an FBI agent (cleverly referenced in the movie) on another network never elevated from failed pilot purgatory, but Thomas and star (with a capital “S”) Kristen Bell persistently kept the dream alive. Fast forward to March of 2013 and the launch of a Veronica Mars Movie Kickstarter campaign that hoped to raise two million dollars toward a movie and enough momentum and consumer demand to justify a studio to fill in the other financial gaps. When the Kickstarter fundraising period closed a month later in April of last year, over 91,000 people had donated and over $5.7 million had been raised. The Veronica Mars movie was a thing, there was buzzy publicity for this unorthodox fundraising pioneer, and palpable anticipation for Veronica’s return to the screen (albeit in a wider form).  Ironically, I watched Veronica Mars on my television yesterday as an iTunes rental (released on both iTunes and in theaters on Friday) and was pleased to have not paid the increased cinema price on this disappointing film.  As a tribute to fans of the Veronica Mars television series, the movie valiantly attempts to hit every single self-referential point (most of which I had forgotten the details to), but lost in the page-turning of the Neptune High School yearbook is the well-executed central mystery that made the show so entertaining.  It may be fun to see the gang back together again, but without any passion for the story, why take the case in the first place?

2) Veronica Mars should never have been a movie. With an emphasis on nostalgic re-living (even down to Veronica’s increasingly grating decision making throughout the movie) rather than story-telling, Veronica Mars feels simultaneously too long (there were way to many clock glances) and too short (after so many years, that was it?). What if Veronica had been redesigned as a Sherlock-lite, a limited series told over the course of three, ninety minute installments that give enough fan appreciation catering to satisfy the diehards and enough plot “raison d’être” to justify a new story.  Instead, the movie does neither well and feels like it is both not good enough to be a movie and not good enough to have been part of the television series. Ouch.

3) Despite its failings and despite her increasingly troublesome actions and inactions (it all seemed more fun when she was in high school – as an aspiring high-powered lawyer, the casual “law breaking” and “heart breaking” is too much to take), Veronica Mars and Kristen Bell’s performance thereof remain compelling to watch. Still owning her youthful looks, she pulls off late twenties in the movie (Bell is in her mid-thirties) as successfully as she pulled off late teens (when she was in her mid twenties) on the show. Bell’s fiery spirit and sharp delivery have always given Veronica her edge and her honest, humanity has always given Veronica her heart. It is a pleasure to see both again, older and unencumbered by network FCC standards and practices (PG-13 language is in full force), even if her motivations lose credibility throughout.

4) Veronica is not the only one returning home. If all you want out of the Veronica Mars movie is a Neptune reunion, then you will love Veronica Mars.  It seems like everyone is back and this potentially dangerous convention could have been a massive failure, but Rob Thomas and friends manage to recreate some of the world and character dynamics that make the show such a joy. I particularly appreciate Dick Casablancas (played by Ryan Hansen), ever true to his douchebaggery, Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) teaching and coaching (perfect!) at Neptune High, and Keith Mars (the always appreciated Enrico Colantoni), still trying to figure out what he did wrong with Veronica while providing the firm, yet tender conscience of the Veronica Mars world. One notable exception to this reunion bliss comes from Jason Dohring’s performance as Logan Echolls. Either Dohring doesn’t play Echolls as well as he used to or my quality acting discernment back in the day left something to be desired.  Logan, and the actor playing him, seems a little dazed and confused throughout.

5) Veronica Mars is a “made-for-movies” movie that feels more like a “made-for-TV” movie (in quality and execution) that should have been made for television in the first place.  If you watched the show, rent it at home.  If you didn’t watch the show, watch the television series instead. Veronica Mars is a character worth taking on, just not in this form, and certainly not as a paying patron of a cinema.

5 Things You Need To Know: Non-Stop

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 


1) As the recent 21st Century early calendar year movie release schedule has come to dictate, Liam Neeson, the sixty-one-year young modern movie action star, will star in a movie where his character gets to show a motley crew of brooding, ill-advised international bad guys, wolves, and unknown kidnappers his specific set of skills. For the bad guys nefarious, criminal aspirations this is the worst of news – one can expect beatings will be taken. For the audience of such films looking for a mindless and purely entertaining respite from awards season seriousness, Liam Neeson has come to deliver punch after punch. Non-Stop, a classically compelling (in a mid 90s In the Line of Fire/Air Force One kind of way) thriller featuring Neeson as an United States Air Marshal attempting to save every “character actor” soul on board of an increasingly dangerous transatlantic flight, is the best of these “Neeson saves the day” pictures since Taken and a most enjoyable, appreciatively plausible (my scornful eyes are squarely on you, Taken 2), “who done it” thinker of a ride.

2) Much of the success of Non-Stop is driven by its “Hitchcockian,” “everyone could be a suspect,” “Agatha Christie mystery-like” suspense. Plot twist after red herring reveal after bad guy profiling tropes keep you fumbling guesses of culpability until the climactic end. The screenplay team, led by John R. Williams, create a variety of potential guilty party narratives that all could work. Oftentimes the journeys on mystery thrillers can be fun, but once you get to the last chapter, the resolution comes out an unrealistic mess. Non-Stop manages to avoid these pitfalls by giving the audience a healthy dose of dramatic irony filled up by the unapologetic first person point of view of Neeson’s Bill Marks character. We never doubt his motivations (as many rowdy passengers, TSA agents, and F16 pilots do), freeing us to spend the movie suspect hunting alongside Neeson’s native 6’4” Belfast frame.

3) If you are going to spend an entire movie with a finite group of characters on a plane facing imminent danger, you best fill it, cockpit to coach, with some reliable talent. With Julianne Moore (aging, both in roles and in looks, so beautifully) and Corey Stoll (after two seasons, his performance is still the best thing about House of Cards) as passengers, Michelle Dockery (I promise, 2014 will be the year I finally indulge in Downton Abbey) and Academy Award winner (!!!!) Lupita Nyong’o as flight attendants, and Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne and Liam Neeson’s Batman Begins co-star) and Jason Butler Harner (a “that guy TV award” candidate) as pilots, your chances of making a successful movie are greatly enhanced.

4) Liam Neeson does not disappoint in Non-Stop (at this point, not that anyone would expect him to). This action star niche, third act of a career reinvention is just remarkable. Although he continues to carry the trustworthy gravitas of earlier performances like Oscar Schindler and Qui-Gon Jinn, seemingly each of his recent characters have an infectious “don’t mess with me, I have nothing to lose” abandon that has transformed him into the go-to (Neeson is now a United States citizen) symbol of the American Action Hero (as this week’s SNL cold open suggests, Mr. Putin). Neeson wears this distinction with a power, weight (his height only helps), and earned credibility that his predecessors (Stallone, Willis) may not have ever achieved. This obviously kind and generous (as every interview I have seen him do suggests) widower dad of two boys has become our real-life Superman. Be warned fictional bad guys everywhere – you don’t want to mess with a character played by Liam Neeson. (Even his late night talk show talking point wrath directed at New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s proposed policies to destroy the horse and buggy industry gains traction through his action movie star cred. You want to see the stables? He’ll show you the stables.)

5) Non-Stop is a unabashedly fun, exhilarating, throwback movie thriller. You are taken on a suspenseful ride through turbulent twists and turns in which you can only trust two things: everyone is a suspect and you never want to mess with Liam Neeson’s specific set of skills.

The 2013 Year in Movies – 50 Awards and Superlatives, My Oscar Ballot

With the Oscars fast approaching on Sunday night, the time has come to look back on the 2013 year in cinema.  Yes, I am aware that it is the end of February, but if it is good enough for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to have the year end award celebration two months after the year’s end, it is good enough for me too!  2013’s movie year had its share of groundbreaking achievements (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave), box office and critical disasters (The Lone Ranger, Man of Steel), movies about attacks on the White House (two more than we asked for), memorable and career-defining performances (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club), and a throwback Disney animated movie that, along with its signature song, is still sweeping the nation.  Speaking of letting go, we had to concede that Oz was more bad and terrible than Great and Powerful, that in modern times Superman destroys city property and opponent necks without reservation, and that Jodie Foster’s performance in Elysium may have been as awful we originally thought.  We saw Tom Hanks return to his vintage prolific acting form in Captain PhillipsWe witnessed the much anticipated return of Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant directing in Gravity after a seven year break between releases.  We even lived through the return of Bruce Willis’ Die Hard franchise to unnoticeable cultural significance.

At best meaningful or magical, at worst disappointing or depressing, and at times utterly confusing (everything to do with Ridley Scott’s The Counselor), 2013’s twelve cinematic months were always memorable.  First, I present fifty awards and superlatives to help put all of this into a clearer perspective.  Then, I delve into my rankings and selections (if I filled out a ballot) for the six major Academy Award categories.  Brace yourselves.

50 Awards and Superlatives for the 2013 year in movies

2013 motion pictures: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave

2013 movies that could be motion pictures in the future (depending on Academy Award wins): The Wolf of Wall Street

The best acting performance of 2013: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

5 most memorable sequences and scenes of 2013: the endless, opening one shot of Gravity;

the almost lynching from 12 Years a Slave;

the lunch between Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street;

that sex scene from Blue is the Warmest Color; the Tom Hanks emotional release at the end of Captain Phillips

5 movies, performances, etc. we will most remember from 2013: “Let it Go” from Frozen, DiCaprio’s transcendent performance from The Wolf of Wall Street; the wholly unique viewing experience of Gravity in an IMAX theater; the emotional roller coaster ride of 12 Years A Slave; the prophetic future of Her

Most unexpected narrative turn of events: Superman’s mode of punishment at the end of Man of Steel

The Benedict Cumberbatch casting we all saw coming: Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness

The Benedict Cumberbatch casting we least saw coming: Little Charles Aiken in August: Osage County

Age has been kind to you: Jurassic Park 3D, Sandra Bullock, Dame Judi Dench

Age has not been kind to you: most of this act of Robert DeNiro’s career, Jodie Foster character choices, any interest I might have in Woody Allen movies

Most overrated movies: American Hustle; Dallas Buyers Club

Most underrated movies: World War Z; Her

Most overrated performances: Amy Adams in American Hustle; Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

Most underrated performances: Will Forte in Nebraska; Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street

Best use of bones: Dr. “Bones” McCoy in Star Trek Into Darkness

Worst use of bones: the at times hard to watch weight loss of Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

The “a great excuse to take a nap” award: Oblivion

The I was awake, but totally exhausted when it was over” award: 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

Most unrealistic portrayal of a city’s population: Man of Steel

A sequel that was not as good as the first one: Star Trek Into Darkness

A sequel that was better than the first one: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The “I want my money back” award: Blue Jasmine; Oz the Great and Powerful

The “at least it was really colorful” award: The Great Gatsby; Nebraska

Best sidekick experience: Josh Gad as Olaf from Frozen; Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff in The Wolf of Wall Street

Worst sidekick experience: James Franco as The Wizard from Oz the Great and Powerful for all the other characters that followed him around

Can we please find better work for Morgan Freeman: Oblivion; Olympus Has Fallen; Last Vegas; Now You See Me

Least justifiable destruction: Man of Steel

Most justifiable destruction: World War Z

The plot was just so hard to follow” award: Oblivion, American Hustle

“The play was better” award: August: Osage County

“The book was better” award: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Great Gatsby

Best performance by a voice: Scarlett Johannson as Samantha in Her; Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel singing in Frozen

The most peculiar accent award: Jodie Foster in Elysium

The most peculiar performance award: Jodie Foster in Elysium

The “did that really come out in 2013? It felt more like 2010” award: Iron Man 3

The screenplay that wins the figurative 2013 heavyweight fight for writing: Terence Winter’s treatment for The Wolf of Wall Street

The 2013 “The Academy forgot us” award: Saving Mr. Banks, Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Fruitvale Station

Most plausible future: Her

Least plausible future: Elysium

Favorite Amy Adams performance: Amy from Her

Most wasted use of Amy Adams: as Lois Lane in Man of Steel

The Amy Adams performance in which I wasn’t sure anyone knew what was going on: as Sydney Prosser in American Hustle

The “failed by the director” award: Man of Steel (Zack Snyder); August: Osage County (John Wells); The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)

I just don’t know why people liked it so much: American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club

Worst use of an amazing actress: Rachel Weisz in Oz the Great and Powerful

The “I mailed in the Oscars. Why not mail in a beloved cultural institution too?” award: James Franco in Oz the Great and Powerful

The “this is f-in real” award: Gravity; 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Blue is the Warmest Color

My favorite movie of 2013: Gravity

The best movie of 2013: Gravity

My Oscar Ballot


Oftentimes the Best Supporting Actor is the strongest and most stacked group of actors of any of the four major acting categories.  Each nominated actor last year in this category had already won at least one Academy Award prior (Last year’s losers include all-time greats like De Niro and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman whose legacy of outstanding, brilliant work and the magnitude of his tragic loss will be a haunting reality engulfing this year’s ceremony).  This year’s group of actors lack some of the same longevity, staying power, and reliability.  There are three first time nominees: Native Somali Barkhad Abdi is entirely new to the scene and landed his first agent after filming Captain Phillips.  Jared Leto (Jordan Catalano lives!) is just back from a five year acting hiatus and is oftentimes a little bit enigmatic (his band Thirty Seconds to Mars seems aptly titled) and a little bit inaccessible.  Michael Fassbender, although delivering strong performances for sometime, may still be on the precipice of full arrival.  Both Bradley Cooper (last year’s Silver Linings Playbook in the Best Actor category) and Jonah Hill (Moneyball) have been nominated before, but we are only beginning to consider them more closely as serious actors.

Although prognosticators see this category as Jared Leto’s to lose (and he may be one of the surest bets of any of the major awards), I struggled to place these performances in some kind of relative order of deserving merit.  Abdi’s ruthless Somali pirate wins the “just happy to be acting, let alone nominated for an Academy Award” nomination and was effective in his dogged determination, but falls short of some of the other performances.  Bradley Cooper had a great time in American Hustle and he and his hair stole a few scenes, but I am not sure his performance (nor the movie for that matter) amounted to much.  Jared Leto’s portrayal of Rayon, a transgender, HIV-infected drug addict from Dallas Buyers Club is a wonderful piece of acting, but the summation of the character (and the movie as a whole) holds me back from appreciating it more.  This leaves me with a choice between Michael Fassbender’s sadistic plantation owner from 12 Years a Slave and Jonah Hill’s sadistic stockbroker partner of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.  Fassbender gets the nod for me because his Edwin Epps portrayal seems to have taken a more courageous and uncomfortable departure from his true self in a setting and through a subject matter that just matters more.

My rankings:

1) Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

2) Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

3) Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

4) Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

5) Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Michael Fassbender


I didn’t like Blue Jasmine, I don’t like Woody Allen’s writing, I don’t like Woody Allen’s direction, I don’t get what all the fuss is about Woody Allen’s women, and I didn’t connect with Sally Hawkins performance in the least bit.  June Squibb was wonderful in Nebraska, but I had trouble discerning how much of her work was actual performance versus how much of her work was just playing a slightly dramatized version of herself.  What she pulls off is certainly incredible at age eighty-four; a nomination stands by itself as an unbelievable accomplishment.  Poor Jennifer Lawrence, fast becoming David O. Russell’s cinematic muse, was woefully miscast in American Hustle (her youthful age was painfully apparent).  Notwithstanding, her performance is electric, especially when she engages jab for jab with a methodized Christian Bale, and deserves so much credit for making something so dynamic out of a casting decision so ill-conceived.  Julia Roberts knocks Barbara in August: Osage County out of the screen, certainly gives one of her most fearless performances, and may even deliver one of my favorite performances of her career.  Unfortunately, this less than cinematic execution of this brilliant stage play by Tracy Letts leaves so much to be desired despite creating a series of strong performances (Julianne Nicholson was most successful as Barbara’s younger sister, Ivy).  The performances, especially Miss Julia’s, are sucked up into individual vacuums that should have been left as the dusty familial messiness that the stage version so successfully exploited.  Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey, a strong-willed slave and the object and victim of Michael Fassbender’s character’s lustful and abusive ownership, is a courageous and revelatory screen debut.  Her poise, confidence, physicality, and subtle and personalized self awareness deliver an inspired and moving embodiment of one of the many awful human subplots of the American slavery story.

My rankings:

1) Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

2) Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

3) Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

4) June Squibb, Nebraska

5) Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Lupita Nyong'o


Chiwotel Ejiofor, Christian Bale, and Bruce Dern all give outstanding performances in their respective movies.  I am not even sure if Bruce Dern was acting in Nebraska, again, toeing the June Squibb line of authenticity mentioned above.  He deserves a nomination and nothing further.  Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld in a another high achieving performance in a career of so many, but, as was also the case with Bradley Cooper, the disjointed messiness of American Hustle does not do Christian Bale’s award deservedness any favors.  Chiwotel Ejiofor carries the weight (and at times burden) of Solomon Northrup’s journey in 12 Years a Slave on his shoulders and largely delivers at a most exceptional level, but, likely out of a combination of factors (Steve McQueen’s focus and direction, the adaptation of a real person), it never reaches a transcendent level.  This leaves me with a decision between what I consider to be the two best acting performances of 2013.  Both are in movies that I did not particularly like, although, albeit exhausted afterward, I did totally enjoy The Wolf of Wall Street experience (the same cannot be said for the “let me check my watch/iPhone/iPad constantly” experience that was my iTunes rental of Dallas Buyers Club).  It is a good time to be a viewer of Matthew McConaughey’s work as True Detective fans can attest and Interstellar excitement grows by the minute.  His living with HIV/AIDS Ron Woodruff and the forty seven (painful to watch at times) pounds he lost for the role are all components of this tour de force work of acting.  I just think Leo was better.  Fatigued, I left the the Coolidge Corner theater on that cold, December night after The Wolf of Wall Street with the strong, guttural belief that I had just witnessed the best acting performance of the year.  I have not wavered since.

My rankings:

1) Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “Leonardo DiCaprio is absolutely phenomenal in The Wolf of Wall Street.  His performance as the morally incompetent, but toxically charismatic wolf, Jordan Belfort, is physically and emotionally fearless, breathtaking scene after scene after scene, and as naked (literally and metaphorically) as I have ever seen Leo.   Here, he is the movie star he was always destined to be – free from any inhibition and constraint to cruise control (and frequently out of) his way through an unyielding barrage of the baddest behavior.  His scene work and chemistry with fellow actors is the best of his career and rivals his work with Kate Winslet, his professional star-crossed lover.  Although content-wise, I would not recommend The Wolf of Wall Street to many in or out of my circle, for anyone who enjoys the movies, you must see this pinnacle performance of Leo’s career.”

2) Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

3) Chiwotel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

4) Christian Bale, American Hustle

5) Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio


I am surprised at how dispassionate and ambivalent I am about most of this category.  The performance of Amy Adams is the embodiment of the unlikeable, sloppy messiness of American Hustle (and I usually love her!).  Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep.  She is expectedly extraordinary in August: Osage County, just too young, to encumbered by some unwise casting and directorial decisions, and too restricted by the cinematic medium in a story best told on stage in front of an audience.  Dame Judi Dench is amazing (as expected and as usual) in Philomena and the story intrigues, but it is not a performance (or a movie for that matter) that moves the needle to be something really special.  As for frontrunner and likely award winner Cate Blanchett, as repeated from above, I didn’t like Blue Jasmine, I don’t like Woody Allen’s writing, I don’t like Woody Allen’s direction, and I don’t get what all the fuss is about Woody Allen’s women.  Cate Blanchett plays one of these aforementioned Woody Allen women and admittedly owns her performance of Jasmine Francis (with a very high difficulty level I might add), but when a movie amounts to so little (Blue Jasmine is the antithesis of Her.  Her is one step into the future, but at the same time entirely current.  Blue Jasmine is several steps into the past and unintentionally dated), it’s hard for the performance to reach Best Actress heights.  When I saw Gravity, I did not expect Sandra to be the last woman standing in this category and inevitably the woman to win my heart for this award, but here we are, and she deserves it.

My rankings:

1) Sandra Bullock, Gravity

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “In a movie that requires the audience to face unwavering vulnerability, it is Sandra’s most human guide that so successfully grounds our own most realistic and immersive movie encounter.  The level of difficulty (she spent the majority of her time in a 9×9 box, carefully and precisely marking each movement and emotion so that CGI post-production could do their thing) could not have been higher, and she nailed it.”

2) Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

3) Judi Dench, Philomena

4) Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

5) Amy Adams, American Hustle

Sandra Bullock


Four of these directors made outstanding films.  Scorsese, McQueen, and Cuarón are all deserving of the highest praise.  Alexander Payne is an acquired taste, but for those who dig his dark humor and dull toned emotional palettes, Nebraska is your jam (Even David O. Russell’s messy narrative cannot get in the way of his ability to bring out the best in his actors).  The decision in this category lands with the answers and the scaling of the following two questions: “Is this monumental and transcendent work?” and “Was the director integral to this transcendence?”  In the case of Alfonso Cuarón, the answers are “without question” and “Not only integral, but central and essential.”  Gravity is Gravity because of the visual, conceptual, and directorial brilliance of Alfonso Cuarón.  His work is unrestrained, ambitious, and resets the ceiling of cinematic possibility.

My rankings:

1) Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

2) Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

3) Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

4) Alexander Payne, Nebraska

5) David O. Russell, American Hustle

Alfonso Cuarón


My rankings:

1) Gravity

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “Gravity is a motion picture that takes the cinematic medium leaps and bounds forward, giving its audience an unforgettable ride that both touches our deepest vulnerabilities and allows our most expansive imaginations to have no limits.  It is shot (the first being almost twenty minutes long) after shot of beauty, wonder, and the most pristine filmmaking execution (so worth the delayed release!).  Mr. Alfonso Cuarón has created a movie masterpiece that should be considered a classic of the medium from this point forward.”

2) 12 Years a Slave

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “12 Years a Slave is a motion picture that will sit next to Roots as one of the two definitive cinematic depictions of American slavery. Its prolific form is only matched by its unyielding, unrelenting, and unafraid delivery of this horrific stain on this nation’s history.”

3) Her

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “Her is a film set in the future that has both currency today and will have continued resonance as it ages.  Although very much a byproduct of a soon to be now, its timeless relationship truths are as universal as its title.”

4) The Wolf of Wall Street

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie, unlikeable, oftentimes unwatchable, and certainly interpretable as not an indictment, but rather a glorified celebration of the filthy excess and monetary tomfoolery of the protagonist’s world, that provides an exhilarating, exhausting, awesome cinematic ride.  It is not out of contention as potential motion picture in the foreseeable future as either a tentpole of DiCaprio and Scorsese’s outstanding careers or sooner, if critical momentum leads to some Academy Award success.”

5) Captain Phillips

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “Although Captain Phillips may at first glance be well-fit in the classic “great rental, but don’t need to see it in theatres” category, such a movie of pristine competence, execution, and entertainment value, deserves a cinematic viewing.  Most importantly, Captain Phillips delivers the best performance by the best modern movie actor of the last twenty-five years without the first name “Daniel” and the last name “Day-Lewis” in over a decade.  With Saving Mr. Banks on the holiday season horizon, it is a pleasure to have Tom Hanks back in the conversation and Captain Phillips is a most meaningful way to start it.”

6) Dallas Buyers Club

7) Philomena

8) Nebraska

9) American Hustle

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “American Hustle is a movie that, despite its on paper goods, fails to connect, to entertain, and to inspire any passion.  Without a full understanding of what it aims to do and be, the audience are the ones who are left feeling hustled.”


Enjoy the Oscars Sunday night and the realization that not only are U2 performing “Ordinary Love” (nominated for Best Song), but there is a strong possibility that Bono could be giving an acceptance speech.  I digress. Stay tuned for a whole new year of 5 Things You Need to Know in 2014 and more movie commentary, musings, and news on Culture Challenged.