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Wish I Was Here (2014)

WIWH_QUAD_mastersReview by: Jarrett Leahy

Aiden Bloom, a husband and father of two, continues to doggedly pursue his dream of a career in Hollywood thanks to a very supportive wife and a father who is paying for the private education of his grandchildren. But as unexpected news of his father’s illness hits, this struggling actor suddenly realizes that perhaps his life’s dream may need altering.
4085_D007_02425_CROP_R.jpgBack in 2004, then Scrubs star Zach Braff came out with his feature directorial debut, Garden State, an amusing and very personal independent comedy starring Natalie Portman that found quite the cult following, as well as its fair share of detractors. I’m not ashamed to admit I love Garden State. LOVE IT! Over the last ten years, it has remained a movie I continue to return to with a nostalgic fervor, as each time it delivers the same laughs, comfort, and pleasant remembrances of the quirky world Braff so skillfully created. Over that same time period, my anticipation for an eventual follow-up to Garden State grew with each subsequent year. Finally, in April of 2013, word spread throughout various social media outlets that Braff was attempting to raise money on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter for a small passion project, co-written with his brother Adam, titled, Wish I Was Here. Within days, the fundraising campaign had reached its $2 million goal, eventually topping out at just over $3.1 million during the month-long donation drive, proving that, like myself, there were many other fans just as eagerly awaiting a new Braff creation.
WISH I WAS HERERight from the film’s opening scenes, it’s quite obvious that Wish I Was Here, for better or worse, is very Jewish. For someone not of that faith, I must confess, at times, feeling like an outsider trying to discern the unfamiliar idiosyncrasies of that world. With a lead protagonist being a struggling actor at a life crossroad, Wish I Was Here’s similarities to Garden State are hard to ignore. While not an official continuation of the Garden State story, Braff, as screenwriter, re-examines many of the same narrative topics of his previous film, this time however with a less…idealistic viewpoint. As an actor, Braff’s range hasn’t evolved much over the years, as he continues to deliver varying versions of his onscreen Scrubs persona, Dr. J.D. Dorian. In Wish I Was Here, his portrayal of Aiden feels like a more jaded and worn-down version of Andrew Largeman, his protagonist in Garden State. Forced to face the reality that perhaps his dream of being an actor may not be what’s best for his family, there is an element of settling that some may find a bit disheartening. I, however, found this aspect of the story to be one of the more sincere moments of Wish I Was Here.
WIWH1The most notable performance of Braff’s film comes from veteran actor Mandy Patinkin. Best known for his cult classic portrayal of Inigo Montoya in the 1987 action fantasy, The Princess Bride, Patinkin has since become a staple of the small screen, starring in such television hits as Chicago Hope, Criminal Minds, and Homeland. Playing Aiden’s father, Gabe Bloom, in only four days on set, Patinkin delivers a poignantly moving portrayal of a man nearing the end of his life. Delivered with an unvarnished honesty, Patinkin brings a candor to his performance that evokes true sentiment. Another surprisingly noteworthy portrayal comes from Kate Hudson. Since her Oscar-nominated role as Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s nostalgia masterpiece, Almost Famous, Hudson’s reliance on her name and pedigree has resulted in a blah career filled with a slew of vapid, forgettable rom-coms. It was rather refreshing, then, to see Hudson take, what looked to be on the surface, a pretty one-dimensional character and create a gentle, understated portrait that skillfully accentuated the performances of Braff, and Patinkin, along with Joey King and Pierce Gagnon, the two young actors cast to play their children, Grace and Tucker. While I won’t hold my breath, perhaps this performance will finally convince Hudson that she’s far more gifted as a supporting star than as a leading lady.
WISH I WAS HEREWhile attempting to characterize the type of movies he creates, it finally hit me that Zach Braff comes from the Cameron Crowe school of filmmaking. Like many of Crowe’s films, Braff’s latest creation is tender, sentimental, and a bit maudlin at times, certainly not for the derisive moviegoer. Touching on an assortment of weighty subject matter including religion, family and the difficulties of parenthood, career dreams vs. life realities, and the growing uncertainties surrounding the impending death of a parent, Wish I Was Here almost feels like a cinematic representation of a mid-life crisis. I must admit being less than enamored with the first half of the movie, for at times I found it to be almost too personal and Judaistic. By the end, however, the overall heartfelt sincerity of what Braff was trying to convey eventually prevailed, thanks in large part to the notable contributions of acting veteran Mandy Patinkin. While certainly no Garden State, Wish I Was Here demonstrates Braff’s ability to examine life’s more emotional subject matter with a genuine sentimentality few have the mettle to attempt these days.-JL

Grade: C+

Edited by-Michelle Zenor

Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash-Poster-sliceReview by-Jarrett Leahy

Andrew is a gifted young jazz drummer with aspirations of being one of the greats. After acceptance to Shaffer Conservatory, the finest music school in the country, Andrew is discovered by the school’s most renowned and formidable conductor, Mr. Terrence Fletcher. But as Andrew quickly finds out, Mr. Fletcher’s unorthodox methods for getting the best out of his musicians include tactics that involve both verbal and mental abuse. Determined to succeed in this merciless environment, Andrew withstands a barrage of indignant derision for the opportunity to prove his worth as a burgeoning musician.
Whiplash_miles-teller-jk-smmonsWhiplash is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature effort. After finishing his original script for the film, Chazelle found great difficulty getting funding to create his passion project. Undeterred, Chazelle’s solution was to modify his story, turning Whiplash into a short film and submitting it to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. It was that short film submission that went on to win the Short Film Grand Jury Prize, procuring him the money needed to create the feature film he originally envisioned.
whiplash-miles-teller-2The billed star of the film is Miles Teller, a talented fresh face that continues to ascend the ranks of the young Hollywood elite. A gifted leading man with surprising comedic timing, Teller’s breakout role came in last year’s teenybopper drama, The Spectacular Now. Originally turning down the role because he wanted to take a few months off from his busy schedule, Teller eventually signed on for the project after his manager, who saw the potential in the script, strongly encouraged him to reconsider. After agreeing to play Andrew, Teller, who has played the drums since age fifteen, was reported to have begun taking additional lessons, working upwards of four hours a day to prepare for the rigorous requirements of this character. It is this expertise, knowledge, and passion for the instrument that brings a true level of authenticity and believability to Teller’s portrayal, helping him capture on screen the obsessive power the desire for greatness can have on a musician.
Whiplash-6613.cr2In most years, Teller’s notable performance would be a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately for him, it is J.K. Simmons’ supporting performance that is dominating much of the talk surrounding the film. A talented, veteran character actor best known for his role as the father in the 2007 indie hit comedy Juno, Simmons is one of the last actors you’d picture playing a contemptuous, scornful jerk. However, it is his ruthless portrayal as the infamous professor/conductor Terrence Fletcher that takes Whiplash from a feel-good story of perseverance and transforms it into the powerful melodrama so many have fallen for. Destined to join the likes of R. Lee Ermey’s famed performance in Full Metal Jacket, Simmons’ transformative performance is shockingly abrasive, unearthing a slew of ineffable emotions in the viewer as we watch the dark manifestations of this teacher’s methodology. A gifted instructor, Fletcher is a man whose compulsive passion for perfection from his students has caused him to lose complete reality on what are acceptable teaching practices, leading to a onslaught of belligerent instructive techniques that border on criminal. As Oscar season approaches, the early word, and rightfully so, is Simmons and Edward Norton (Birdman) are the two front-runners for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Liking both as actors, I struggle to decide whose performance I will root for come February.
Whiplash2Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Whiplash is a fascinating exploration into the cutthroat and competitive world the music industry and is one of 2014’s most heralded independent films. Through Andrew’s frenzied desire to push himself to the absolute limits as a musician and Mr. Fletcher’s mania for inspiring the “next” great prodigy, Whiplash is a film that examines the overpowering nature, and corrosive repercussions, of obsession. Some have found the film’s climactic ending to be a stirring culmination. My reaction was one of more subdued relief, however, as the film’s oppressive tension finally was lifted for a fleeting moment of gratification, for both for the characters and the audience. Please don’t misconstrue what I’m about to say; I enjoyed this pressure-packed drama a great deal, and with the emotional fervor it drums up in its viewer, I can see why so many have attempted to claim Whiplash is an indie masterpiece. But now having time to fully digest the film, I feel Whiplash is a B-rated movie with two A-rated performances, making it a memorable film for 2014, but not quite the masterstroke some have sold it to be.-JL

Grade: B+

Edited by-Michelle Zenor

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1 (2014)

mockingjayReview by-Jarrett Leahy

After sabotaging the Capitol’s illustrious Quarter Quell, Katniss is rescued by the rebellion and whisked away to safe confines of the underground fortress of District 13. But as she tries to recover from the latest infliction of physical and emotional scars, Katniss soon learns that the leaders of the rebellion have bigger plans for her. Begrudgingly, Katniss agrees to be the “Mockingjay,” the symbol of courage and defiance to help fuel the growing uprising that has sprung up in various Districts as the citizens’ frustrations with the Capitol, and President Snow, begin to boil over.
mockingjay image2Austrian director Francis Lawrence turned to filmmaking back in 2005 after finding enormous success as a music video director, working with likes of Will Smith, Britney Spears, and Aerosmith. But after a string of critical misfires (Constantine, I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) Lawrence’s film career seemed to be on the verge of mediocrity until Lionsgate Studios came calling back in 2012 after Gary Ross, the screenwriter/director of the first Hunger Games film, chose not to return for the second installment. Desperate to find a new director to helm their billion dollar Hunger Games franchise, Lionsgate decided to go with Lawrence when filmmaker Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) made it known his desire to direct a smaller passion project, Foxcatcher. Lawrence took this fortuitous opportunity and ran with it, creating a successful follow-up in last year’s Catching Fire that found great critical and box office success. Returning for this third of four films, expectations were moderately high to see what Lawrence had in store for us this time around with Mockingjay Part 1.
the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-14Luckily for Francis Lawrence, the best thing that ever happened to his career was the day Jennifer Lawrence signed on to play Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence is so far ahead of her contemporaries in terms of talent it’s hard to fully comprehend. In just four years, she has not only developed into a critical darling, and rightfully so, with three Oscar nominations and one victory, she has become the face of not one but two billion dollar franchises in X-Men and The Hunger Games, bringing an unexpected level of credibility to a genre of films desperate for it. In Mockingjay Part 1, Lawrence once again fully embodies the emotional complexities that surround the character of Katniss, a reluctant hero whose main concern is the safety of those she loves most. Displaying the inner turmoil of a woman who is battered but not broken, Lawrence demonstrates a believable level of physicality without compromising authenticity; this a real woman, not some Hollywood-ized superhuman. At this point in her young career, Lawrence could make just about anything, and I’d watch it simply because she’s involved. Sadly, I can’t make that claim about many other actresses. But not even Jennifer Lawrence can overcome the biggest issue that surrounds this third franchise installment.
mockingjay-movie-reviewLionsgate, like many studios have been doing lately, decided to split the final Hunger Games book into two movies. This choice created quite the cinematic conundrum; in the bigger picture of the Hunger Games story, splitting the last novel allows for more of the story to be explored on screen in finer detail. However, for many, this is seen a blatant revenue-generating maneuver from the studio. With so many fans having already invested such emotional energy into this story and its beloved heroine, its obvious that Lionsgate knew many would willfully shell over hard-earned money to be subjected to half a story that has no real beginning or end. This gives Mockingjay Part 1 an odd feeling of being just a continuation cliffhanger whose main purpose is to string the audience along until Part 2’s finale next year.
mockingjay-part-1-movie-19-720x479As a movie fan, I tend to avoid reading the books of movie adaptations. When I admit this, most people’s response tends to be some version of, “but the book is always better than the movie.” I rarely disagree with this sentiment, yet it plays right into my response back to them, “reading the book tends to ruin my movie experience.” I find myself spending too much time comparing the two instead of judging and enjoying the film on its own merits. Saying that, thanks to the recommendation of my lovely editor, I did break down and read the Hunger Games books and will openly admit to thoroughly enjoying the series. While I desperately tried to avoid comparing Mockingjay Part 1 to the book, one big difference between the two that is too glaring not to mention involves the storyline surrounding District 13 President Alma Coin and her interactions with Katniss. The novel does an excellent job setting an atmosphere of suspicion surrounding President Coin in regards to her true motives for taking on the Capitol and President Snow. For some unexplained reason however, Francis Lawrence and the screenwriters have gone out of their way to avoid raising these same suspicions in Julianne Moore’s stalwart portrayal. While I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers for those that haven’t read the books, I will say this leads to quite the quandary leading into the final movie coming out next year and, unless addressed, could open up the possibility of a major divergence in the ending of the film series in comparison to the book trilogy.
Mockingjay-Part-1-HoffmanBlessed with an amazing supporting cast, including one of the final film appearances of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mockingjay Part 1 helps extend the Hunger Games’ reign as the most compelling of the young adult franchises. Similar to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (my least favorite installment of that series), Mockingjay Part 1 needs to be seen in the context of what it does in the big picture of this franchise, bridging the excitement of Catching Fire with the crescendo of Mockingjay Part 2. But this also forces us to invest in and accept a third installment that feels a bit incomplete and somewhat unsatisfying. While the least impressive of the three films so far, Mockingjay Part 1 offers a sufficient continuation of the Katniss Everdeen saga while showing why Jennifer Lawrence is the biggest movie star on the planet, male or female.-JL

Grade: B-

Edited by-Michelle Zenor

Birdman (2014)

birdmanReview by-Jarrett Leahy

Riggan Thomson, a washed up movie star best known for playing the superhero, Birdman, attempts to rejuvenate his floundering career by directing and starring in an adaptation of the Broadway play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” But as a myriad of mounting pre-production disasters pushes Riggan to the brink of a nervous collapse, he must fight back his personal inner demons, and a vindictive theater critic, or risk losing everything he has desperately poured into this laborious comeback.birdman-mirrorBorn in Mexico City, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a filmmaker who, sadly, doesn’t get the recognition and acknowledgment from the average moviegoer his undeniable talents should demand. A two-time Academy Award nominee, Inarritu’s films, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, have been critical darlings that helped earn him the reputation among his peers as being one of the most ambitious and creative working directors in the business. After a four-year hiatus, Inarritu is back with what just might be his most challenging and visionary creation, Birdman.
birdman-movieSet in the famed St. James Theatre in New York City, the story of Birdman was brought to the screen by the writing partnership of Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, and Armando Bo, who had all previously worked together on the screenplay for Inarritu’s 2010 foreign drama, Biutiful. First-time screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris also assisted in the writing of the film’s intricate screenplay. Inarritu’s vision for Birdman was an ambitious one, creating a film that felt as if it were one single, continuous shot. Despite being advised by the late Mike Nichols of the impending disaster this filming style would unleash, Inarritu went barreling ahead, bringing in Oscar winning director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life, Children of Men) to help meticulously map out all aspects of every scene, with the hope of seamlessly capturing the continuous action of this chaotic theater production. Many of the actors involved describe Birdman’s thirty-day shooting schedule as the most challenging movie they’ve ever been involved with. The film’s lead actors were asked to perform multiple pages of dialogue at a time while hitting precise spots at exact moments. The extraordinary efforts asked by all involved paid off tenfold, as Birdman’s visuals are truly in a class by themselves. Cameras continuously follow characters on and off stage, up stairs and down hallways, giving the moviegoer a rare, singular experience never before seen on screen.
birdman-1The surface comparisons between the story of Riggan Thomson career of Michael Keaton, the actor playing Riggan, are impossible to ignore. During the 1980’s, Michael Keaton was one of the most prominent and famous leading men in Hollywood, peaking in the box office-busting portrayal of the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s Batman. Similar to the circumstances that surround his character in Birdman, Keaton’s career path since Batman has been a slow yet steep fall from leading man to supporting player. Prior to this unexpected reemergence in fact, Keaton’s last leading role was back in 2008 when he starred in his own directorial debut, the little known film, The Merry Gentlemen. As the protagonist of Birdman, Keaton offers a perceptive, quick-witted portrayal that fearlessly explores, through an amusing assortment of internal monologues, the inner turmoil of a man on the verge of completely breaking from reality. Without a complete commitment to the over-the-top absurdity of this unhinged character, Riggan Thomson, and in turn the entire film, could have come across as a smug and ludicrous disaster. However, through Keaton’s observant and astute portrait, Birdman remains uncommonly engrossing throughout.
birdman-naked-runEqually impressive are the numerous outstanding supporting performances led by the ever-splendid talents of Edward Norton. A method actor with an exceptional ability to play a multitude of diverse characters, there’s little denying that Norton is one the most gifted and underrated performers of the last two decades. Amusingly, Norton’s character in Birdman, Mike, is a caricatured parody of the behind-the-scenes reputation some have ascribed to Norton himself. Self-absorbed, abrasive, difficult to work with, Mike is an acrimonious prick who gets away with many of his narcissistic antics because of his undeniable talents as an actor. Norton revels in this satirical exaggeration, bringing a true level of cynicism to this egotistical prima donna. Yet for all his character’s glaring flaws, it’s Norton’s adept ability to change emotions and moods on a dime that adds an amusing hubris and buffoonery to his character that plays perfectly with the rest of the film’s chaotic ridiculousness.
_AF_6405.CR2A comedian best known for playing more outlandish, over-the-top characters, Zach Galifianakis delivers another of the film’s surprisingly versed performances. Similar to how I felt about Melissa McCarthy in St. Vincent, it was quite a refreshing shock to witness Galifianakis offer a more subtle portrayal of Riggan’s lawyer, producer, and best-friend Jake. And I mustn’t forget to mention the film’s cast of accomplished actresses, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and Andrea Riseborough, all of whom brought to the screen notable portrayals that further accentuated the underlying acumen of this singular story.
birdman-movie-photo-7Offering acute commentary about the fleeting search for recognition and relevancy in the internet age, Birdman delivers amusing observations about the hypocrisy of critics and the incessant snobbery surrounding the perceived talents of theater actors in comparison to those deemed only “movie stars.” Blessed with a slew of outstanding performances, Birdman seems to be the venue that will finally earn its leading man, Michael Keaton, the overwhelming critical success he never quite received during his heyday. While the everyday movie fan may not fully grasp the impressive masterpiece Inarritu and Lubezki were able to create, make no mistake, Birdman is a technical marvel filled with astonishing visuals that flawlessly accentuate the story’s fantastical and quirky narrative. While it sadly may never reach the box office success of the likes of The Hunger Games 3 or Transformers 4, Birdman’s legacy will undoubtedly far exceed those blockbusters for many years to come.

Grade: A+

Edited by-Michelle Zenor

R.I.P. Mike Nichols (1931-2014)



One of only twelve entertainers to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (also known as an EGOT), Mike Nichols left a resume of artistic greatness that spanned over five decades. While admittedly my personal appreciation for The Graduate isn’t as high as many others (perhaps another go round will change that), there is no denying the social impact of the movie that officially introduced us to the marvel that is Dustin Hoffman. Of all Nichols created, the film that I truly remain in awe of is his classic directorial debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? An absolute masterpiece in pain, dysfunction, and hostility, you will never find a more impressively ruthless film experience then what Nichols, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton were able to create. A true legend of cinema, rest in peace, Mr. Nichols.