Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Movie Review | The Best of Me (2014)

Playing as more of a romantic mystery than a love story, “The Best of Me” is an adaption of best-selling author Nicholas Sparks’ novel of the same name. A dual timeline weaves together the romantic entanglement of Amanda (Michelle Monoghan) and Dawson (James Marsden). Meeting up again after a 20 year estrangement, they reconnect while sifting through the estate of their recently deceased, mutual friend. Drawn back to their hometown, memories of the past come flooding back and the two begin to bond over their long ago love.
The question at the heart of the story is what drove these two love birds apart in the first place. As flashbacks take viewers back to the duo’s high school days, they recall a past filled with painful memories.

One of the few highlights along the way being the love that develops between them. All of this leads up to reveal, the life altering event that forever changes the course of their lives. For teenage Dawson (Luke Bracey), the looming cloud of an abusive father and criminally inclined family, make his dreams of reaching lofty scholastic achievements, a daunting challenge. For the teenage Amanda (Liana Liberato) a kind-hearted, accomplished student, the allure of a good guy stuck in bad circumstances proves too much to resist and she sets out to help him.

Clearly from the onset there are a cache of clich├ęs that beckon for a formulaic outcome. Where it manages to break away from the pack is in portraying its Romeo as a truly good kid, who’s hit the bad dad genetic lotto, making him a sympathetic victim of cosmic cruelty rather than a cocky bad boy who walks through the movie determined and entitled to get the girl come hell or high water (i.e. “Endless Love”). It's this alteration that makes Amanda’s draw to him more endorsable than the typical hormone induced origin of star-crossed love affairs that usually fill the screen.

When it comes to the romance genre Dawson and Amanda’s opposing "side of the tracks" dynamic is a relied upon recipe for romantic conflict and it hits on all of the usual buttons, even down to the hesitant protective parent stepping in. To its credit “The Best of Me” presents the danger that's discussed as a real threat and not the paranoia of an overprotective parent.

Hampering the movie is the zigzag between timelines, which causes direct comparisons between the younger and older cast members. While Michelle Monaghan and Liana Liberato prove to be ideal counterparts as Amanda, the same cannot be said for Dawson's portayers, James Marsden and Luke Bracey. Not only do they share zero physical resemblance, their acting styles don’t correlate either. This makes the transition from past to present all the more jarring. Unlike “The Notebook”, viewers are aware the younger and older set are one in the same from the outset so the lack of continuity in casting isn’t a purposeful tool meant to be misguiding for a shocking plot reveal. The only thing it accomplishes is leaving viewers to feel as if they’re watching two unrelated storylines.

While the story is grandiose and takes many melodramatic turns it gains a valuable edge with the inclusion of a mature mentor for the youngsters to take guidance from, "Major Dad" star Gerald McRaney in a robust performance. Seldom is the older generation given a voice in movies lately, so it is refreshing to have them included here. The moral of the story is the same as you’ll find in most romances. Young love knows better and always finds a way, a romantic notion that can be devoid of much reality. Something “The Best of Me” does depict is the fleeting loyalty that can be shown by a young lover, in this case Amanda and how despite all of her big declarations, she moved on with her life in a very short period of time, even though her heart supposedly remained with Dawson. He, on the other hand, remained true to her the entire time they were apart. Without her returning his measure of loyalty, their love story is very one-sided; undermining a desire for them to end up together.

In terms of likability, adult Amanda starts the movie from a difficult position. She is married and since suffering a terrible tragedy her husband has been taking solace in a bottle and instead of working to get him help for his dependency, she goes off canoodling with her high school sweetheart. With her home life in rough shape and her son going away to college, she clearly spots an opportunity to leave her marriage and seizes it for all its worth. Romantic music and beautiful cinematography can't change those facts. Her disloyalty is a personality flaw that plays heavily into the movie and it's not an attribute that makes for an overly sympathetic heroine, quite the opposite. Why Dawson, an incredibly loyal person would be drawn to her despite this gaping personality flaw is a major plot hole the story struggles to fill in, tending to rely on its leads chemistry for viewers to overlook it.

Anchored by the sparkling performances of Michelle Monaghan and Liana Liberato, "The Best of Me" finds the winds to sail and James Marsden (who notably played the sadly discarded third wheel in "The Notebook") proves to be one of the better leading men to take on the heavy lifting of Nicholas Sparks’ idealized male protagonists. “The Best of Me” is as much a weeper as “A Walk to Remember, a vast improvement over “Safe Haven”, features more likable characters than “Nights in Rodanthe”, is less gratifying than “The Lucky One” and more logical than “Dear John”. While not on par with “The Notebook”, it’s still a strong and thought-provoking effort. Rating: 6.5/10

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Now on Netflix: Movie Reviews for "The Look of Love" and "Compliance"

The Look of Love (2013) This biopic carries viewers through the fascinating life of Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan), a successful British real estate mogul, club owner and publisher; who up until his death in 2008, was the wealthiest man in all of Britain. Avoiding the portrayal of an individual as either a saint or a devil is a good place to start when it comes to depicting a real-life person and “The Look of Love” succeeds in presenting its subject as simply being human.
Reteaming with frequent directing collaborator Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan gives one of his best performances in a role that demands a greater versatility than his typical work, a challenge he proves to be quite adept at tackling here. Bringing his trademark charisma to the role, Coogan is endearing as Raymond, a man who in lesser hands might’ve had a harder time getting a fair representation. Up until seeing this, Paul Raymond was a personally unfamiliar figure and this film provided an interesting introduction, to say the least. "The Look of Love" depicts his incredibly colorful life and the typical hazards that come with excessive financial achievement.
As a womanizer and drug user, the Raymond character finds a redemptive streak in his relationship with daughter Debbie, whom he lavishly spoils and genuinely adores. Rising star Imogen Poots gives an exceptional performance as the vivacious Debbie, sharing genuine father/daughter chemistry with Coogan, something that softens the oft-times frigid persona of Raymond. “A Look of Love” is a mesmerizing ride that provides a captivating portrait of a complicated man. Heartfelt despite its debauch interludes, it proves an unexpectedly moving and highly memorable experience. Rating: 8/10

Compliance (2012)
What makes watching this movie so wondrously frustrating to get through is the knowledge that the events depicted throughout its run time, actually happened. As sensationally difficult as it is to believe, the disturbing situation re-enacted in the film transpired in the recent past and as security cameras rolled. This fictionalized account stays closer to the facts than most true crime films typically do. It's a story so twisted and horrifying that a Hollywood screenwriter would have a hard time matching its insidiousness with a work of fiction. That's because most of the horror comes from knowing this was someone's reality. It all unravels after the manager of a fast food restaurant (Ann Dowd) receives a prank call that Becky (Dreama Walker), one of her employees, has stolen money from a customer. This accusation eventually leads to Becky being strip searched to prove her innocence and from there it gets even worse.

At the eerie center of “Compliance” are the motives it suggests for the otherwise, irrational behavior of two adults and a traumatized teen. That a sinister opportunist will bide their time to take advantage of another person's lowest and most vulnerably moment is an honest and chillingly accurate assertion. Also illustrated is the depraved nature of a person who stands by and does nothing to stop it. Director Craig Zobel allows the walls to close in around his audience as Becky’s desperation becomes viewers’.

Dreama Walker brings the fragile torment of Becky into sharp focus and Ann Dowd portrays the cruel mentality of an individual's clinical arrogance with searing authenticity. Sad and confusing are the lengths, the self-righteous manager goes to in the name of reclaiming what she believes to be a theft of petty cash. It's a dollar amount that in no way warrants her rabid response and zealous alarm to begin with, leading one to wonder if she didn't have her own malicious motivations to so readily take the bait. The whole situation is sickening. If Becky were informed of what would transpire ahead of time, she would have probably never believed it. The scenario was much like that of being trapped in quicksand and others maliciously pushed her in deeper. It’s not an easy film to watch but if it wakes someone up to the realization they might be sinking into a similar situation and it prevents them from becoming a victim, then it’s worth it. Rating: 7.2/10

Monday, August 10, 2015

Let's Talk About...the First Season of "True Detective"

I’ll admit it. I was late to the party last year when everyone; critics and friends included, were raving over the premiere season of HBO’s anthological series. Having caught a brief glimpse of the show several minutes into its runtime and completely out of context, I had pretty much written it off after it failed to immediately captivate. Upon hearing a similar review from a trusted source who had responded similarly, it backed up that initial response and the decision to skip it, in spite of all of the buzz last season, seemed the apt move. It was a choice that brought with it, its own nagging feeling that it was a bad one. Having been a fan of the cast involved, it seemed an impossible failure, though stranger things have happened. As it turns out recently giving the series a second chance has been one of the most rewarding entertainment investments of my TV-watching “career”.

The biggest lesson I learned having marathon watched the entire first season over the course of three days is that you should never judge a show based on a sliver of a snippet. Not to mention making the cardinal sin of not watching something from the beginning. It’s an inherent rule that allows for one to acclimate to the tone and pacing, minimizing initial disconcertion. So what spurred the overturned verdict? It was watching the premiere of the second season. Getting an initial sense of series creator Nic Pizzaloto’s style and how effectively he utilized his cast in the season premiere, threw doubt on how he could’ve possibly misused the behemoth talents of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Throwing caution to the wind, the in-demand button became a familiar friend.

Starting with the pilot, the engagement was immediate. The plot was dark, the writing sharp; the dialogue riff with realistic banter and deft philosophical abandon that never rambled. The two lead characters were easy to root for; the kind of guys that seemed to walk right off the street of real life, while simultaneously brimming with a majestic Hollywood aura that peaked interest. The non-linear format took viewers between timelines with a mercurial bent that flawlessly flowed from one time period to the other; a task few mediums succeed with. 

Opening where these guys ended up as they took present day detectives and viewers back to where it all began; the series jumped back to where it all began. Not just to the origins of their partnership but the integral case they’d been working all of those years ago. From the first episode you have questions. Why aren’t they partners anymore? Is Marty still with his wife? Why has Rust let himself go to this degree?

Their tentative start as partners left one wondering as to whether they could or would ever become friends. This isn’t a bromance that’s outcome is so certain. What happened between these two in the course of the past and present? The portrait of these two very different guys, struggling with life’s big problems and trying to make sense of it all, carried with it tremendous moments of pathos and humor. Coming together for a common goal, they drift through lives that have seen arduous person turmoil and at times, self-made catastrophe. They’re self-destructive and simultaneously desperate to hold it all together. As much conflict as there was, there was also a lot of ruminating, soul searching and compelling philosophical bent to its rhetoric. Did they really believe everything their saying? 

As an exposition on the perspective of the modern male, it was fascinating. Questions surrounding primal masculinity, native sensual drive and the desire to evolve past a role as “sentient meat” all coalesced to create one explosive scene after another. This is what great television does. It asks question, not just of its characters but of its audience. As much as Rust Cohle seemed to be preaching, he was probing. Throwing his theories out to whoever would listen to see if his philosophical notions could withstand the heat of thoughtful opposition. In Marty he finds a true sparring partner, not willing to readily back down and open-minded enough to keep listening even when he wants to shrug it off.

These characters were complex; raw in their human simplicity and equally captivating when displaying their more complicated sides. In Rust, you saw a highly intelligent individual, understandably worn down and disillusioned with the world, though still resolutely optimistic in his pursuit of justice for a case that others might’ve lacked determination in solving. While in Marty, you saw an incredibly compassionate and demonstrative family man with a rough side that doesn’t easily suffer foolishness or evil. Emotionally tormented by his job, he desperately tried to separate his two lives as they helplessly hemorrhaged into each other.

McConaughey and Harrelson were riveting. McConaughey downright mesmeric; as he disappears into Cohle’s gripping skin. At times shaded with a bit of his go-for-broke performance in “Killer Joe”, it’s the tenderness that peaks through in somber waves that catches one off their guard. Cohle was complicated, a cacophony of harsh and broken, reconciled and wandering. Harrelson was the season’s one two punch. Without him McConaughey’s work doesn’t soar to the levels it ventures to. He creates a characterization with all of the panache and bravado McConaughey manages. As a team they are an unstoppable dynamo.

This installment of the series sticks with you, haunting your thoughts long after its ended. As it unfolded, the feeling you were watching something so exquisitely unique, a true lightning in a bottle piece of art was overwhelming. In keeping with its name the series was “true” to its characters, never hitting a false note. A rare gem such as this is truly something to behold and I’m happy to have finally experienced it. No matter the disappointment that season two was, viewers will always have the masterpiece that was season one to fall back on.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

TV Rundown: "True Detective" Special Edition | Rehashing the Last 3 Episodes Before the Season Finale

Episode 5: “Other Lives”

“True Detective” leaped forward two months after the events of the previous episode’s high octane shootout and gave viewers a…fairly monotonous hour filled with one major revelation and not much else. As was speculated earlier in this column, Frank did not send Ray after the man truly guilty of raping his wife. Fortunately, Frank was not guilty of the more sinister option of setting Ray up completely and having one of his own guys go after Ray’s wife to get him under his thumb. The cliffhanger ending found Ray showing up to confront Frank about the newly acquired intel as the potential for things to turn deadly, hung in the air. 

Ray had a terrible go of things in “Other Lives”. Not only did he learn he’d killed an innocent man. His spiteful ex-wife relentlessly attacked him in their custody mediation, he was let go from the force and was given the bad news that he had to move out of his house. It was a tight race but after this episode, Ray’s wife has officially become the most despicable character of the season. Her beef with Ray is ridiculous. The man has been taking care of, raising and most importantly loving Chad for his entire life; in spite of some incredibly difficult circumstances and this is Ray's reward? He has done nothing bad enough to deserve losing his son. She’s just cruel and beyond callous. 

Episode 6: “Church in Ruins”

With months of expectations, speculation and serious hoopla at its back, "True Detective" unveiled what was going on in that mansion in the woods. For those expecting a racy play off of Stanley Kubrick's watershed film, "Eyes Wide Shut", that wasn’t in the cards. One couldn't even call the much talked about sequence, an even mildly loose homage. The presence of a mansion, drugs and top dollar escorts were about the only things the two scenes shared in common.

If there's one series currently airing where a send-up to the iconic scene in the trailblazing 1999 film would've been a relevant detour that didn't come across as simply fishing for shock value, it's "True Detective". The series has notably dabbled with the darkly mysterious, explored the pervasive past times of the powerful and flirted with the occult. The scene was all set for something presumably steamy, only to reach a lackluster crescendo that registered with not even a hint of eroticism. Despite its release some 16 years ago, "Eyes Wide Shut" remains a never again duplicated spectacle. Since its release, neither television nor movies have dared to venture anywhere close to its unprecedented territory. In fact, it remains staggeringly unchallenged. Perhaps it was too ahead of its time or it's just a key example of how cable, with all of its big promises of a cutting edge lack of censorship, still maintains a glass partition to the sensually audacious.

For "True Detective" in particular, it was a missed opportunity for a season that desperately needed a jolt of something spicy. If Pizzolato thought he would surprise viewers by using the opportunity to offer a sad glimpse into Ani's psyche, he managed to land a punch. It was an odd choice to marry the two together, especially to reveal information that should've been known much sooner concerning the dogged detective. For 6 episodes her angry furor has seemed out of place and without any palatable motivation. Now that we finally know where she's coming from, it will make the final episodes a lot more explicable as far as her narrative is concerned. Instead of spending all of this time being able to root for Ani, she's come across as a pointlessly frigid jerk, not as a pained individual struggling to overcome long-term trauma. Knowing this, could have made a tremendous difference in terms of her arc.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Let's Talk About...the Top 5 Emmy Snubs

That time of year has come and gone. The day that can consume TV fans with great frustration, the announcement of the Primetime Emmy Awards. For every exciting nomination, there is typically more than a disproportionate trail of disappointing snubs. This year proved no exception. Besides “Game of Thrones” rightfully earning its 24 nominations, there was little excitement to be had for this TV fan. So it is with that Eclectic Pop tackles the Top 5 slights that cut the deepest.

#1 Bates Motel

The best series of the year for the third consecutive year in a row, A&E’s “Psycho” prequel once again rose to the occasion of high expectations. What makes “Bates Motel” stand head and shoulders above the rest is that it possesses an equal caliber of acting, writing, production, direction and casting talent. The combination of which, consistently harmonizes to create a thriving final product. In its third season, the series continued to delve into the psyche of its infamous mother/son duo and those surrounding them, a mega complicated tribe of characters that continued to elevate the series. It’s impossible to pick one standout moment that is indicative of how outstanding this show is because the options are truly immeasurable, a rare feat.

At its core, “Bates” is a family drama filled with steep moral conundrums and constant tests of twisty loyalties. There aren’t a lot of shows daring to tackle the pathos of a tragedy afflicted family, the way “Bates Motel” has consistently done over the course of its three years. The stunningly understated and quiet moments that comprised the season, only punctuated its case for Emmy recognition. During its three year run, it has failed to ever hit a dull, disingenuous or non-heartfelt note. What fails to register is why it continues to be ignored by the Emmys. Fans can take solace in knowing they are assured two more seasons of this masterful drama, perhaps the best reward of all.

#2 Vikings and Travis Fimmel

While the History Channel’s blood drenched period drama has always been a good show, 2015 saw it become a great one. Showrunner Michael Hurst’ gritty, raw and utterly captivating glimpse into the fascinating world of the Vikings was must-see TV that creatively outpaced “Game of Thrones” this year. The key to its magic is in how it continues to transport viewers into a foreign world and make it accessible to the modern viewer by finding the strands of commonality that tie the past and present together. Humans will always be humans the series points out; prone to bouts of ambition, ruthlessness and pride.

As a character study it remains simply remarkable. Transmitting all of this is the exceedingly impressive performance of series lead Travis Fimmel, who once again brought the Viking leader’s chilling capacity for violence, brilliant military stratagem and mental war games into a crystal prism of hypnotic breadth. Hirst would be at a loss to pull off his vision were it not for Fimmel’s turn as the indomitable Ragnar Lothbrok and the collaboration between the two continues to bring the series to staggering new heights.

#3 Penny Dreadful

Showtime’s horror series could’ve stuck to the bloodletting and gore that overly comprised its freshman season and it would’ve been understandable. It is a horror series after all. What it chose to do instead was far more rewarding as it ventured into daring terrain, the heart. In the third episode titled “The Nightcomers” Eva Green was joined by guest star Patti Lupone for a mesmeric installment of benchmark proportions for the series. A two-hander that showcased the grudging friendship between two powerful ladies fighting for good and warding off evil. It all made for spellbinding television and its dark ending, served as one of the most hauntingly dire in the annals of TV. Watching it, one could tell it was a rare gem; moments of laughter, tears and wisdom, filling one very powerful episode. Sadly Green and Lupone’s handy work went scarcely unnoticed.

#4 The CW

After network star Gina Rodriguez went home with the Golden Globe for “Jane the Virgin”, it seemed the glass ceiling separating The CW and awards recognition might’ve been shattered. Unfortunately that turned out, not to be the case when the Emmys were announced and Rodriguez’s name went uncalled. It would’ve marked the first time an actor from The CW had been nominated. While known for its younger skewing fare and onslaught of supernatural and sci-fi themed series, the network has undergone a bit of a reboot over the last few years. One thing that has remained the same throughout its transformation is the network’s stable of incredibly talented actors, who’ve gone sorely unrecognized come awards season.

Among the actors most frustratingly overlooked this year were Jesse L. Martin of “The Flash”, whose work as Joe, the compassionate single dad/mentor/detective, has been at the heart of the freshman series (for proof just watch "The Man in the Yellow Suit"). Then there’s The CW’s lavish period drama “Reign”, whose cast (Adelaide Kane, Toby Regbo, Megan Follows) knocked the doors off of its sophomore season. Acting isn’t the only endeavor the series deserves props for though. The costume design is another aspect of the show that’s out of sight.

#5 Honorable Mentions: Tyrant and Daredevil
FX’s exotic and exciting drama is markedly underrated and its cast (Adam Rayner, Ashraf Barhom, Moran Atias and Jennifer Finnigan) deserves major kudos for selling some very fantastical plot points with terrific finesse. Over on Netflix, Scott Glenn’s show stopping performance as the salty Stick gave “Daredevil” the extra jolt of vigor it desperately needed, helping it achieve its best episode. While, Wai Ching Ho brought a regal menace to her role as the erudite villainess Madame Gao; stealing scenes in a number of expertly executed monologues.