Cake (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
In this season of rampant awards campaigning, no team has done as astoundingly effective job as those pushing Jennifer Aniston's performance in the until-recently obscure Cake. The fact that her team managed to score both a not-too-surprising Best Actress in a Drama nomination from the (in)famously starstruck Golden Globes and a genuinely shocking Best Actress nomination from the Screen Actors Guild is all the more impressive considering how generally underwhelming and forgettable Daniel Barnz's micro-scale drama otherwise is. That's no knock on Aniston's certainly strong work here as Claire Bennett, a literally and figuratively scarred sufferer of chronic pain. While she's made her name on screens small and large as a comedic actress, Aniston has long shown glimmers of promise in more serious-minded projects as varied as 1998's The Object of My Affection, 2002's oft-cited The Good Girl, and even in something seemingly throwaway like 2001's Rock Star, so the fact that she pulls off this difficult part isn't necessarily surprising. What is, however, is that counter to impressions given off by the "I wear no makeup, therefore I act" cornerstone of the awards-baiting/begging campaign, Aniston's work eschews easy melodrama, with very little in the way of obvious Oscar-clip-ready histrionics. Instead, she delivers a more well-rounded, fully formed character turn, exemplified by how she plays Claire's auto accident-caused condition. No exaggerated wails of agony and clutching of limbs here: just constant, understated winces with each of her already-tentative movements, and a generally fragile, cautious carriage, like someone who, while still feeling intense pain, has been living with it for long enough at this point that it's now just part of the day-to-day experience she's become accustomed to.
One can also say that she even willingly wallows in the pain, and as such Claire's physical ailment is also a metaphoric representation of her perhaps even more destructive psychological trauma, not to mention how her steady stream of pharmaceuticals thus reflects her own numbing sense of denial--which points up the generally heavyhanded treatment Barnz and writer Patrick Tobin give the already formulaic story. After a member of her support group (Anna Kendrick) commits suicide, Claire is forced to take a hard look at her own scattered life. Through friendships ranging from new, such as that with Kendrick's widower (Sam Worthington); to old, namely that with her loyal longtime housekeeper (Adriana Barraza, terrific in a thankless role); to imagined, with Kendrick herself (who, in one of the fantasy sequences, the film its oh-so-pretentiously would-be-profound title), she finds the motivation and enlightenment to face up to and work through her issues. The occasional smatterings of dark comedy, particularly with Claire's prickly dealings with the support group's condescending organizer (Felicity Huffman), do lend some spark to the proceedings (not to mention give Aniston some fallback comic material to work with), but otherwise the film lurches along in by-the-numbers fashion, with the impressive acting talent involved giving their all to but ultimately being let down by the uninspired material. While there's no debating the effectiveness of the awards campaign so far, the manufactured hype machine does a bit of a disservice to Aniston's solidly done departure here, which probably would have organically received its due (and possibly even more credit) had it been a genuine discovery in a film released and sold as the modest, blip-on-the-radar non-event indie that it is, rather than as one of 2014's crowning achievements.
Unbroken (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
If Angelina Jolie's first directorial effort, 2011's Serbo-Croatian language war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, was boldly, admirably gritty but to an overly chilly fault, then Unbroken lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. This particular war drama, set during WWII and based on the life of one Louis Zamperini, is glossily polished to an old school Hollywood sheen in every respect, from the honey-golden cinematography (by ever-great Roger Deakins) and handsome period production details to, unfortunately, a programmatic and ultimately unconvincing slathered-on sentimentality. This is especially unfortunate since the specific story being told should have served as an ideal vehicle for Jolie to further hone her already established sense for hard-edged reality and balance it with a more emotionally accessible narrative--or, more specifically, character. Reportedly a film on the life of Zamperini (played here as an adult by Jack O'Connell) has been in development since the 1950s, and the highs and lows, adversities and triumphs are timelessly tailor-made for a cinematic treatment. Born to an Italian immigrant family, he overcomes prejudices and his modest background to become a successful long-distance runner, competing in the 1936 Olympics. Service in the Air Force during WWII brings its own, more trying challenges to overcome, first a deadly crash landing in the Pacific Ocean, then an even deadlier internment in a Japanese prison camp.
The film is at its best during the lost at sea passage, where Jolie most successfully finds that balance between harrowing realism and a warmer sense of humanity. Zamperini and the other crash survivors' struggles to survive are indeed believably rough, with the inherent humor in their learning curve to hunt food and deal with the elements that further endearing the characters to the audience. The film should then only grow more intense and involving in the prison camp sequences, but instead quite the opposite happens. Despite the committed performances star-on-the-rise O'Connell and Miyavi, who plays the cruel sergeant who runs the camp, the script (credited to, among others, the Coen Brothers) rest of the production fails to reach their level of authenticity. While they all look dirty on a cosmetic level, all of the prisoners come off a bit too cleanly healthy of both body and mind; and on a more basic, problematic level, even considering the theme-reflecting title, Zamperini's resolve never seems remotely shaken, much less even in the slightest jeopardy of being broken, throughout the ordeal. The depiction of such a stalwart attitude in the face of day-to-day danger may indeed be inspirational, but it only registers so on the most one-dimensional level with the absence and avoidance of any realistic and relatable sense of doubt. (Also avoided to a large degree is Zamperini's real-life Christian faith, to which he gave much credit for his survival; while it would not have been a cure-all for the script's problems, its inclusion would have at least gone a long way toward explaining the unwavering screen portrayal.) That lack of dramatic tension makes for a pleasant but strangely inert inspirational tale where one comes out admiring the technical precision of each calculated, respectable move but not quite feeling what should be the soul-stirring message of an experience endured and survived, and a full, fulfilling life thus lived.
The Interview (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
One of the most unfortunate tragedies to come out of the still-increasing real life hysteria stemming from a cyber-terrorist group's attacks against Sony Pictures and the cancelled release of The Interview is that two truly terrific comic performances are now doomed to go virtually unseen, unappreciated, and unrewarded (for now at least). I speak not of the work of leads James Franco and co-director (with regular collaborator Evan Goldberg) Seth Rogen, but that of Randall Park and Diana Bang, who make the most and then some of all-too-rare showcase roles for shamefully, perpetually Hollywood-neglected Asian-American talent. While certainly fulfilling the usual cosmetic requirements of being The Girl in a testosterone-driven comedy, Bang gives even better than she already gets as North Korean communications officer Sook. She definitely, appropriately looks tough as nails on initial glance, but the role and Bang prove far more than meets the eye as the film progresses, with her proving her adeptness with the physical and verbal gags while also generating believable chemistry with Rogen.
Park, who plays North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has received the rawest deal of all. In a less politically sensitive time (and, if we're going to be honest in the current can-of-worms-opened climate of mainstream Hollywood's less-than-accommodating, ever-dismissive attitude toward minority talent, if he were of a different ethnicity), Park's flat-out brilliant performance would be hailed as the breakout, star-making, even awards nomination-worthy, turn that it is. Yes, the Supreme Leader is the primary butt of Rogen, Goldberg, and co-writer Dan Sterling's jokes, and he is indeed at times depicted as a buffoon, as the movie's marketing would lead one to believe. That said, Park's portrayal is far more multi-faceted and, dare I say, human than those appearances suggest. He never lets one lose sight that Kim's cluelessness stems from a sheltered, even innocent, naivete that reflects not only his lack of worldliness but his very youth. His starstruck adoration of American TV personality Dave Skylark (Franco), to whom he grants the titular world exclusive interview, is all the funnier because it is so honest and relatable; like any typical young adult anywhere far from the glitzy light of Tinseltown, to meet, much less hang out, with a favorite celebrity is a fanboy dream come true. One step beyond that, having been so pampered and singlemindedly groomed to rule over his nation his entire young life, he would be--to quote another, and actually far more incendiary, satire of a North Korean dictator released a decade ago--so lonely, and he would cling on so tightly and try to win favor with someone he considers on his same, elevated level. Park nails this sheepish, ingratiating, seemingly unassuming demeanor so well that it more than sells the predictable plot contrivance where Skylark starts to take Kim's side over that of his producer/BFF (Rogen) and his own nation. But Kim's youth and tunnel vision also implies, however, a hair-trigger temper when he feels he loses any semblance of power and control and things don't go his way--and Park does an equally good job with Kim's turns to selfish and monstrous deeds, which come off as an organic extension of an isolated, spoiled man-child's thin skin. While certainly hilarious, Park's Kim is truly a character rather than a caricature.
The idea of thin skin comes to mind as far as the real-life North Korea and cyber-terrorists' reaction to The Interview. The core of the plot may hinge on the CIA calling on Skylark to use his interview access to assassinate Kim, but at the end of the day, this is a Franco/Rogen comic vehicle, and overall the film is more or less exactly what that label entails: often crude, often silly, and always featherweight and way-over-the-top to point of ever being in the orbit of seriousness, much less anywhere resembling reality. Going even farther than even that is Franco's turn as Skylark; to portray a self-absorbed television "interviewer" as being just as shallow and moronic, if not more, off-camera than he is on is an obvious joke, but Franco commits so completely to conveying such utter vacancy that it's less a performance than some sort of absurdist, avant garde performance art. Almost as if to leave ample space for his cohort's outsize display, Rogen is pretty much the straight man here (or at least as far as that term goes in one of his films--after all, one centerpiece gag involves having to use a certain natural hiding space on his person), and he acquits himself well, with the proven bruh-port with Franco making for some reliably big laughs.
And that's what The Interview is good for: laughs. Given the fish-in-a-barrel targets of megalomaniacal dictators and vacuous media personalities, clearly that's all that Rogen and Goldberg were going after, with none of the incisive, self-mocking ambition of their first directorial effort, 2013's (superior) This Is the End, never mind the go-for-broke eagerness to offend of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's previously alluded-to 2004 puppet epic Team America: World Police. If or when The Interview is finally unlocked from the vault, that the film is just a silly lark--or should I say "Skylark"--of an entertainer will leave viewers wondering what all the national security-threatening fuss was all about.
PK BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Disney/UTV Motion Pictures and the makers of PK deserve major kudos for somehow, some way keeping the plotline of Rajkumar Hirani's comedy largely under wraps until opening day--no easy task since, like any film starring the brilliant Aamir Khan, it is one of the most eagerly anticipated films by moviegoers in India and the world over. All the pre-release promotion frankly gave the impression that Hirani and Khan were aping the delightful Indian Oscar entry of 2012, Barfi!, with Khan playing a quirky, slapstick-prone goofball whose story is narrated by a female lead, against the additional audio backdrop of a distinctly European-flavored musical score. But not for nothing does Khan's reputation for picky perfectionism and penchant for taking genuine artistic chances rival his megastar popularity, and from the first shot, his reunion with his 3 Idiots director Hirani goes against all preconceived notions, immediately announcing itself as something far more off-the-map bizarre, with a Khan arriving somewhere in an Indian desert... completely nude... from a UFO. Yes, PK is, as the title actually plainly suggests, a bit of a riff on E.T., for not long after his arrival, "PK" (so named because his strange behavior leads many he encounters to call him that, for it means "tipsy") has the communication device to his spaceship stolen, leaving him desperate to find a way to phone home.
Even with as famously risktaking a star as Khan, for about the first half hour, one wonders just what the hell Hirani and co-writer Abhijat Joshi are up to, especially as an earnest romantic thread involving Indian woman Jaggu (Anushka Sharma) and Pakistani man Sarfaraz (Sushant Singh Rajput) in Belgium is developed alongside the slapsticky antics of an alien bumbling his way through Delhi. But patience, but more importantly faith--in more ways than one, and appropriately so--in this creative team is duly rewarded, for their greater point proves to be even bolder and ballsier than their already weird premise. When PK's eccentric efforts and queries about getting home are widely, inevitably met with retorts that only God can help, he then honestly, innocently goes on a quest to find Him--only to be utterly confused by the conflicts and contradictions he confronts with humankind's vast variety of faiths and accompanying dogmas. The stage is thus set for a most unlikely and rather subversive religious satire, raising a number of smart and stinging questions in a genuinely thought-provoking but always gently amusing and humorous fashion. Hirani and Joshi rather cleverly protect themselves from potential offense and accusations of blasphemy with the whole alien angle and by casting as the "villain" a blatantly fraudulent guru, but no such punches are pulled by the genuine issues and questions they do raise about religious differences and the strident belief in them, particularly in the minutiae of their practice. Lest the core Bolly-audience find the material too high-minded, the regular genre tropes are present here: song and dance; familial drama in the form of TV news reporter Jaggu's boundary-crossing romance; an additional romantic angle in the crush PK develops for Jaggu when she offers to cover his story. Hirani reliably handles all of those elements well and coaxes good work from all of his actors, but for once with a Khan vehicle, what is most memorable is not his predictably strong performance, but material and execution as fearless as he is.