January, 31st 2014

That Awkward Moment

Baltimore magazine



There’s a massive disconnect between the film That Awkward Moment thinks it is and the film it actually is.

It seems to think it’s a hip, freewheeling, edgy bromantic comedy—equal parts Swingers and a Y-chromosome take on HBO’s Girls. When, for the most part, it’s clichéd, regressive, and, at times, down right offensive.

Early in the film, Zac Efron’s Jason explains that when a girl says the word “so” (as in: “so where is this going?" or “so what are we to each other?”) it’s time to cut and run. (Before they decided to appropriate that slightly-dated Internet-speak of the title, some earlier version of this film was almost undoubtedly called “So…”).

He and his best friends Daniel (Miles Teller) and Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) make a pact to fill up their “rosters” with women you can have regular sex with without any expectation of commitment. Then, you guessed it, Jason meets a girl he really likes, Ellie (the gloriously named Imogene Poots), but resists his feelings, because it’s against his own bro code.

Meanwhile, Daniel has a female best friend who acts as...

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January, 29th 2014

Labor Day

Baltimore magazine


Bless the people who can get through Labor Day without cracking up a few times, for they are made of stronger stuff than I. This story of Adele (Kate Winslet), a helpless, sex-starved single mother (for reals) who gets quasi-kidnapped by rugged escaped con Frank (Josh Brolin) and ultimately falls in love with him, is so silly, so retro in its values, so preposterous from beginning to end, it plays like a parody of a 1950s melodrama.

The film is narrated (tremulously, of course) by Tobey Maguire as the grownup version of Adele’s 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Grifflith), so if there was concern that Henry and his mom are in real danger and might not make it out of this ordeal alive, that’s pretty much dispelled.

But how could anyone see Frank as a threat? He’s the most hilariously idealized male I’ve ever seen in a film. The first day he kidnaps Adele and Henry, he changes the oil in their car, fixes the furnace, teaches Henry how to throw like a boy, inspects Adele’s firewood (she's been over-charged), and whips up a batch of chili (that he hand feeds to Adele, as she’s tied up in a chair to make the kidnapping look more legit in the eyes of the authorities). Later, he fixes squeaky door...

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January, 16th 2014

Snubs, Surprises, and why I'm SMH: The Oscar nominations are in!

Baltimore magazine


Okay, l let’s start with the SMH (that’s shaking my head, to you Internet acronym impaired): How on earth did Inside Llewyn Davis get virtually shut out? It was one of my favorites of the year—a near perfect meditation on the necessary selfishness of the artist by the brilliant (and oft-nominated) Coen brothers. I was hoping—perhaps overly ambitiously—that the film would garner Best Picture nods, best actor (for astonishing newcomer Oscar Isaac), and both best director and best original screenplay (for Joel and Ethan Coen). Instead, it only got two nods: For Bruno Delbonnel’s luminous cinematography and for sound mixing (yay?).

Also, Enough Said, my favorite film of 2013 got completely shut out. Not even the expected nods for James Gandolfini in the best supporting actor or Nicole Holefcener for Best Original Screenplay. And in my opinion, Julia Louis-Dreyfus gave one of the best—if not the best—female performances of the year.

But, I’ve licked my wounds, sulked a bit, and...

January, 9th 2014

Lone Survivor

Baltimore magazine


Not since Snakes on a Plane has there been a film with such a spoiler alert built into its title. (But how many of the men make it out alive???)

Yes, only one soldier lives to tell this true tale of an Afghanistan mission gone horribly awry. And, as is often the case with the films by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom), the film’s politics are all over the map.

It starts with some actual footage of Navy SEAL “Hell week,” including the shameful bell that is rung when a young recruit can’t take any more of the physical and emotional punishment.  I thought  these opening images displayed some compassion for the sad-faced young men who cried uncle. But as the fictionalized part of our story begins, it becomes clear that Berg was more interested in how strong, how stalwart, how mentally tough the SEALs who made the cut were. He idolizes the band of brothers they become.

These early scenes, on a base camp in Afghanistan, seem to hum with the rhythms of daily life—the gentle hazing, the physical one-upmanship, the good natured grief-giving. When four SEALs are assigned to bring back a Taliban warlord, it seems relatively routine. (One wide-eyed newbie...

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January, 7th 2014


Baltimore magazine

In the not so distant future, a lonely man named Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), an intuitive operating system. Meanwhile, his friendship with a recently divorced Amy (Amy Adams) flourishes. You think you know where this story is going—except that you don’t. Because writer/director Spike Jonze is simply too interesting, too weird (in the best possible sense) to tell us to embrace humanity over technology. Instead, he suggests something more radical: That happiness, even artificial happiness, is not something to be trifled with.

While Theodore’s ex wife (Rooney Mara) pities Theodore for not being able to sustain a human relationship, his friends, including coworker Paul (Chris Pratt) are much more blasé about it. Paul even invites the disembodied Samantha—who rests on a blanket or sits perched in Theodore’s pocket—on a double-date picnic. Meanwhile, Amy has also become close to her OS, although their relationship is strictly platonic.

The best science fiction gives us a credible vision of the future while slyly commenting on our now. Her—with its gorgeous, minimalist art direction (by Austin Gorg), retro-future clothing (Theodore...

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December, 27th 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Baltimore magazine


Cute but impossibly bland, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is missing the magic that director Ben Stiller is clearly striving for. Instead, it plays like Wes Anderson Lite. And any resemblance to the sweetly sad James Thurber story it’s loosely based on is tangential at best.

Stiller plays the mild-mannered titular character who works in the negative processing department at Life magazine, which has been taken over by efficiency experts, led by the cartoonishly smarmy Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Walter has a crush on winsome co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, mostly wasted) and spends much of his day dreaming about impressing her with a bold, heroic life that he doesn’t lead. There’s a back story: Walter’s father died when he was a boy, so he had to put away the rebelliously boyish things (mohawk, skateboard) and get a job at Papa John’s. (The Papa John's product placement is just one of many in this film: There’s also eHarmony and Cinnabon—described as “frosted  heroin” at one point!—and probably a few others that I missed.)

When a photo that is meant to capture the “quintessence of Life magazine” goes missing, Walter has to track down Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn,...

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December, 26th 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

Baltimore magazine


A few critics have complained that the endless barrage of orgies and drugs and conspicuous consumption in The Wolf of Wall Street eventually grows tedious. I don’t actually agree. To me, Martin Scorsese—in his full-on adrenalin rush, punk poet, balls-to-the-wall mode—could never be boring. Ditto for his second generation acting muse Leonardo DiCaprio, who, at 39, is still our most talented cinematic brat.

Their movie—based on the mostly true story of an unspeakably wealthy and corrupt young stock broker named Jordan Belfort—is exhausting, for sure. When it’s over, you feel slightly pummeled. Sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes it’s horrifying, sometimes it’s breathtaking. But in my mind, it’s never anything less than entertaining.

However, for all its ability to dazzle, The Wolf of Wall Street left me strangely cold. I think this is mostly because the film was told completely from the point-of-view of Jordan, and we’re encouraged to be seduced by his decadent, amoral bacchanal. Of course, Scorsese would say otherwise. He would say the facts of the film—Jordan’s misogyny, his greed, his unchecked appetites—are being held up for scorn. But I’m not sure even Scorsese believes that...

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December, 19th 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

Baltimore magazine



Emma Thompson is such a naturally effervescent presence on screen,  it’s almost a shame to have her playing a character who is fussy, dour, and uptight. But she does just that—wonderfully, mind you—as Pamela “P.L” Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins.

Saving Mr. Banks is essentially a fish out of water tale, as Travers leaves the comfort of the tea cozies and tasteful décor of her London home to fly to Los Angeles, where she finds everything to be vulgar, overly casual, and sickeningly sweet.  She’s a stand-on-ceremony lady in the land of nicknames, quick chumminess, and hugs. 

She’s there because Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) wants to turn her books into a movie and he needs her to sign on the dotted line. She’s mortified that he’ll transform her heroine into something “cavorting and twinkling.” Disney, who is used to charming people into getting what he wants, finds her to be an unexpected challenge. A day at Disneyland doesn’t do the trick, nor does a hotel room filled with giant stuffed Disney characters. She is un-seducible. Only Paul Giamatti, as a kindly chauffeur, seems to thaw out Travers’ icy demeanor, although even that takes some time.

As we...

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December, 17th 2013

Alone in the Dark: The 2013 Year in Film

Baltimore magazine


Some time late July, deep in the heart of the summer blockbuster movie season, I had what you might call a film critic’s existential crisis.

It was the summer, you recall, of Grown Ups 2 and Iron Man 3 and Fast and Furious 6 (not to mention, The Lone Ranger and White House Down)—and I thought: I literally don’t care about any of these movies. If I had to slap on one more pair of 3D glasses or see one more action film with a number after its title, I was going to lose it.

I articulated this crisis of conscience while sitting with two friends—both film critics of far greater stature than myself—and they talked me off the ledge, so to speak.

“Wait until December,” they told me, in soothing voices. “There are many more good films to come.” It was the film critic’s version of the “It Gets Better” talk.

Well, I took their advice and damned if they weren’t completely right. It did get better. Much better. In the end, 2013 turned out to be a great year for film. The kind of year where I struggled to limit myself to a mere Top 10 list (the 10 runners-up were all seriously considered for the main list).

And because Year-in-Review lists...

December, 12th 2013


Baltimore magazine


Is a road to nowhere better than no road at all?

That’s one of the big questions posed by Alexander Payne’s wise and wistful Nebraska. As the film starts, we meet Woody Grant (an astonishingly good Bruce Dern) shuffling along the side of the road—tufts of white hair indiscriminately flying from his head, his clothing inadequate against the cold. He’s determined to get to Lincoln, NB on foot (from Montana, mind you). After he’s picked up by the cops and brought back home, he explains that he was going to collect the million dollars promised to him by a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-type letter. His long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) and his two adult sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), try to reason with him: There is no million dollars. It’s a scam, an attempt to get him to buy magazine subscriptions.

But Woody is obstinate, obsessed. He’s going to get to Lincoln whether his family likes it or not. So David, who is patient and gentle by nature—and whose own life is no great shakes (he has the kind of job—selling stereos— that requires wearing a company polo shirt and his girlfriend just moved out)—decides to take his father on the road to claim his “prize.”

They drive...

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