Film Review: The Upside (dir by Neil Burger)

There’s a lot of opera in The Upside.

That, in itself, is not a surprise.  The Upside is about a wealthy, emotionally repressed white man and, if there’s anything we’ve learned from the movies, it’s that wealthy, repressed white people always love opera.

Another things that we’ve learned from the movies is that wealthy, emotionally repressed white people always hire a streetwise person of color to help them learn to appreciate life.  This person  of color will inevitably not care for all of the opera and will then introduce the wealthy, emotionally repressed white person to their own type of music.  If the movie’s a comedy, that music will be rap.  If it’s a drama, that music will be jazz.  The Upside is a dramedy so the music of emotional liberation is Aretha Franklin.

There’s not a single cliche that goes unused in The Upside.  Actually, I take that back.  As opposed to so many other films of this short, Phillip (Bryan Cranston) does not start the film as a politically incorrect bigot, which means that we’re spared of any cringey scenes of Philip trying to bait Dell (Kevin Hart) by being casually racist.  Otherwise, every cliche imaginable is present in The Upside and it all gets to be a bit much after a while.  I’m sure that the film means well and there’s a part of me that felt a little bit guilty about not liking it but seriously, this is one of those movie’s that just keeps coming at you.

Phillip is a paraplegic who wants to die, though not before listening to a lot of opera.  Dell is an ex-con who needs to find a job so his parole doesn’t get revoked.  Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) is Phillip’s personal assistant.  She’s obviously in love with Phillip, though for some reason this fact is never acknowledged until the end of the film.

Together …. they solve crimes!

No, actually, they all become friends and learn the importance of celebrating life.  It’s a good lesson to learn, make no mistake.  But it’s just all so predictable that it’s hard not to resent just how thoroughly and blatantly the film insists on trying to manipulate you.  You get the feeling that the filmmakers didn’t have any faith in their audience’s capability to feel empathy.  Director Neil Burger did such a great job with Limitless but, with this film, he seems to have lost his sense of pacing.  The movie drags from one heartwarming cliche to another, without any hints of the type of quirky self-awareness that would help to make those cliches easier to digest.

Bryan Cranston’s a great actor but, perhaps realizing that he’s merely playing a more a benign version of Walter White, he seems a bit bored here while Nicole Kidman is sabotaged by a script that doesn’t allow her to do much other than reproachfully shake her head.  Kevin Hart, however, actually gives a pretty good performance, one that suggests that he actually has a lot of potential as a dramatic actor.  The character may be a stereotype but Hart at least brings a bit of energy to the film.

The Upside came out this January and it was actually a modest box office hit.  I imagine that a lot of people loved this film for the exact reason that I disliked it.  The film’s just too predictable for me to embrace The Upside.

6 More Film Reviews From 2014: At Middleton, Barefoot, Divergent, Gimme Shelter, The Other Woman, and more!

Let’s continue to get caught up with 6 more reviews of 6 more films that I saw in 2014!

At Middleton (dir by Adam Rodgers)

“Charming, but slight.”  I’ve always liked that term and I think it’s the perfect description for At Middleton, a dramedy that came out in January and did not really get that much attention.  Vera Farmiga is a businesswoman who is touring colleges with her daughter (Taissa Farmiga, who is actually Vera’s younger sister).  Andy Garcia is a surgeon who is doing the same thing with his son.  All four of them end up touring Middleton College at the same time.  While their respective children tour the school, Vera and Andy end up walking around the campus and talking.  And that’s pretty much the entire film!

But you know what?  Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia are both such good performers and have such a strong chemistry that it doesn’t matter that not much happens.  Or, at the very least, it doesn’t matter was much as you might think it would.

Hence, charming but slight.

Barefoot (dir by Andrew Fleming)

Well, fuck it.

Sorry, I know that’s not the best way to start a review but Barefoot really bothered me.  In Barefoot, Scott Speedman plays a guy who invites Evan Rachel Wood to his brother’s wedding.  The twist is that Wood has spent most of her life in a mental institution.  Originally, Speedman only invites her so that he can trick his father (Treat Williams) into believing that Speedman has finally become a responsible adult.  But, of course, he ends up falling in love with her and Wood’s simple, mentally unbalanced charm brings delight to everyone who meets her.  I wanted to like this film because I love both Scott Speedman and Evan Rachel Wood but, ultimately, it’s all rather condescending and insulting.  Yes, the film may be saying, mental illness is difficult but at least it helped Scott Speedman find love…

On the plus side, the always great J.K. Simmons shows up, playing a psychiatrist.  At no point does he say, “Not my tempo” but he was probably thinking it.

Divergent (dir by Neil Burger)

There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Divergent.  Shailene Woodley is a likable heroine.  The film’s depiction of a dystopian future is well-done. Kate Winslet has fun playing a villain.  Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort are well-cast.  But, ultimately, Divergent suffers from the same problem as The Maze Runner and countless other YA adaptations.  The film never escapes from the shadow of the far superior Hunger Games franchise.  Perhaps, if Divergent had been released first, we’d be referring to the Hunger Games as being a Divergent rip-off.

However, I kind of doubt it.  The Hunger Games works on so many levels.  Divergent is an entertaining adventure film that features a good performance from Shailene Woodley but it’s never anything more than that.  Considering that director Neil Burger previously gave us Interview with the Assassin and Limitless, it’s hard not to be disappointed that there’s not more to Divergent.

Gimme Shelter (dir by Ron Krauss)

Gimme Shelter, which is apparently based on a true story, is about a teenage girl named Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) who flees her abusive, drug addicted mother (Rosario Dawson).  She eventually tracks down her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser), who at first takes Apple in.  However, when he discovers that she’s pregnant, he demands that she get an abortion.  When Apple refuses, he kicks her out of the house.  Apple eventually meets a kindly priest (James Earl Jones) and moves into a shelter that’s run by the tough Kathy (Ann Dowd).

Gimme Shelter came out in January and it was briefly controversial because a lot of critics felt that, by celebrating Apple’s decision not to abort her baby, the movie was pushing an overly pro-life message.  Interestingly enough, a lot of those outraged critics were men and, as I read their angry reviews, it was hard not to feel that they were more concerned with showing off their political bona fides than with reviewing the actual film.  Yes, the film does celebrate Apple’s decision to keep her baby but the film also emphasizes that it was Apple’s decision to make, just as surely as it would have been her decision to make if she had chosen to have an abortion.

To be honest, the worst thing about Gimme Shelter is that it doesn’t take advantage of the fact that it shares its name with a great song by the Rolling Stones.  Otherwise, it’s a well-done (if rather uneven) look at life on the margins.  Yes, the script and the direction are heavy-handed but the film is redeemed by a strong performance from Vanessa Hudgens, who deserves to be known for more than just being “that girl from High School Musical.”

Heaven is For Real (dir by Randall Wallace)

You can tell that Heaven is For Real is supposed to be based on a true story by the fact that the main character is named Todd Burpo.  Todd Burpo is one of those names that’s just so ripe for ridicule that you know he has to be a real person.

Anyway, Heaven Is For Real is based on a book of the same name.  Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor of a small church in Nebraska.  After Todd’s son, Colton, has a near death experience, he claims to have visited Heaven where he not only met a sister who died before he was born but also had a conversation with Jesus.  As Colton’s story starts to get national attention, Todd struggles to determine whether Colton actually went to Heaven or if he was just having a hallucination.

You can probably guess which side the movie comes down on.

Usually, as a self-described heathen, I watch about zero faith-based movies a year.  For some reason, I ended up watching three over the course of 2014: Left Behind, Rumors of War, and this one.  Heaven is For Real is not as preachy (or terrible) as Left Behind but it’s also not as much fun as Rumors of War.  (Rumors of War, after all, featured Eric Roberts.)  Instead, Heaven Is For Real is probably as close to mainstream as a faith-based movie can get.  I doubt that the film changed anyone’s opinion regarding whether or not heaven is for real but it’s still well-done in a made-for-TV sort of way.

The Other Woman (dir by Nick Cassavetes)

According to my BFF Evelyn, we really liked The Other Woman when we saw it earlier this year.  And, despite how bored I was with the film when I recently tired to rewatch it, we probably did enjoy it that first time.  It’s a girlfriend film, the type of movie that’s enjoyable as long as you’re seeing it for the first time and you’re seeing it with your best girlfriends.  It’s a lot of fun the first time you see it but since the entire film is on the surface, there’s nothing left to discover on repeat viewings.  Instead, you just find yourself very aware of the fact that the film often substitutes easy shock for genuine comedy. (To be honest, I think that — even with the recent missteps of Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children — Jason Reitman could have done wonders with this material.  Nick Cassavetes however…)   Leslie Mann gives a good performance and the scenes where she bonds with Cameron Diaz are a lot of fun but otherwise, it’s the type of film that you enjoy when you see it and then you forget about it.

44 Days of Paranoia #4: Interview With The Assassin (dir by Neil Burger)


Continuing with the 44 Days of Paranoia, we today take a look at one of the best films to have been inspired by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 2002’s Interview With The Assassin.

Interview With The Assassin tells the story of Ron (Dylan Haggerty), a cameraman who, at the beginning of the film, has recently lost his job.  His gruff neighbor, an ex-Marine named Walter (a brilliantly menacing Raymond K. Barry), approaches Ron and tells him that he’s dying of cancer and he wants Ron to film him confessing to a crime.  After Ron sets his camera up, Walter proceeds to state that he was the second gunman and that he — and not Lee Harvey Oswald — was the sniper who killed President Kennedy.  When Ron asks Walter who hired him to kill Kennedy, Walter says that he was approached by a man named John Seymour but that he’s not sure who Seymour was working for.

Ron, not surprisingly, is initially skeptical of Walter’s claims.  However, Walter gives Ron a spent shell casing that he claims he grabbed off the ground after he shot Kennedy.  Walter explains that the only reason he’s been allowed to live is because he has that shell casing and, therefore, can prove that there was a second gunman.  Ron gets the shell casing analyzed and is informed that it was probably fired in 1963.

Still skeptical but now intrigued, Ron agrees to make a documentary about Walter and his claims.  Walter and Ron drive across the country to find John Seymour and confront him.  Along the way, they stop in Dallas and Walter shares more of his memories of killing Kennedy.

As Ron becomes more and more convinced that Walter is telling the truth, he also finds himself becoming more and more immersed in Walter’s secretive and fatalistic worldview.  However, as their paranoid road trip continues, Ron also starts to find reasons to doubt whether or not Walter is telling the truth about anything.  It all leads to a genuinely surprising finale that forces us to reconsider everything that we had previously assumed about both Ron and Walter.

I usually hate found footage films but Interview With The Assassin is a wonderful exception.  In his directorial debut, Neil Burger (who would later direct the brilliant Limitless) makes good use of the faux documentary format.  As opposed to many other found footage films, Interview With The Assassin actually provides a believable reason for why the characters are filming everything and, even more importantly, it’s willing to both explore and question the motives of the man holding the camera.  As a result, even though he spends much of the film off-screen, Ron becomes as interesting a character as Walter.

The genius of Interview With The Assassin is to be found in the film’s ambiguity.  While the film creates a believable atmosphere of conspiracy and paranoia, it also forces the viewer to interpret what she’s seen and heard for herself.  Is Walter crazy or is he telling the truth?  Is Ron a hero trying to uncover the truth or is he a frustrated journalist who is exploiting a dying and mentally disturbed man?  Convincing arguments can be made for any of those interpretations as well as a dozen more.  I’ve seen the film a handful of times and I’m still conflicted on just how I feel about both Walter’s claims and the initial assumption that Ron is meant to be the film’s hero.

Interview With The Assassin is a film that invites its audience to think.  As a result, it’s a film that deserves to be seen.

Raymond Barry in Interview With The Assassin

Raymond Barry in Interview With The Assassin

Film Review: Limitless (dir. by Neil Burger)

This review is a little late.  I saw Limitless last Friday and I was hoping to write up this review on Sunday.  Unfortunately, I ended up 1) not sleeping at all between Saturday night and Sunday morning and 2) having a massive, life-threatening asthma attack between Sunday night and Monday morning.  Anyway, this all led to the usual Emergency Room hijinks (I’m on a first name basis with a lot of the nurses now and it was nice to get all caught up with them once I finished nearly dying) and then I came home a few hours later, intent on writing up my review but then I was ordered to rest and anyway, it all boils down to this: the review is late.

In Limitless, Bradley Cooper plays Eddie.  Eddie is a writer who is suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block.  He’s divorced, he drinks too much, and his tiny apartment is seriously so filthy that I would never step foot in it, even if it was owned by Bradley Cooper.  In short, Eddie’s a loser.

However, one day, Eddie runs into Vernon (Johnny Whitworth).  Vernon is Eddie’s former brother-in-law but even more importantly, he’s a drug dealer.  After hearing about Eddie’s troubles, Vernon gives Eddie a pill which is designed to allow Eddie to use 100% of his brain as opposed to just 20% of it.  (Wisely, the film doesn’t spend too much time trying to explain how exactly the drug works but essentially, it’s the strongest ADD medication ever.)  Reluctantly, Eddie takes the pill and, half-a-minute later, he’s the smartest man on the planet.

(Actually, the film’s advertising is deceptive.  The pill doesn’t make Eddie smarter as much as it just allows him to focus his mind and remember all of the thousands of little lessons that we learn everyday and lose track of almost immediately.  Director Neil Burger does something very clever here, making use of flashbacks to illustrate the difference between Eddie’s mind on drugs and his mind while sober.  Most importantly, the film doesn’t make Eddie the smartest man on the planet, just the most focused.)

After one day on the drug, Eddie wakes up to discover that he’s a dullard again.  He goes to Vernon to try to get more of the drugs but, during the visit, Vernon is murdered by persons unknown.  Eddie manages to escape with Vernon’s stash and quickly finds himself both addicted and succesful.  He finishes his book in a matter of days.  He makes a fortune on the stock market.  Eventually, he is hired as a financial advisor by a ruthless business tycoon (Robert De Niro) and he transforms himself into the center of the universe.

At the same time, Eddie grows more and more dependent upon the drug and, with Vernon dead, he has no way to replenish his own dwindling supply.  As he tries to find someone else with a supply, he discovers that everyone else who has tried it has ended up dying as soon as their supply ran out.  He also discovers that someone knows about his supply and they’re determined to take it away from him.  As well, he soon starts to suffer from black outs as time and space apparently skips around him.  One morning, he discovers that a woman he vaguely realizes was murdered during one of his blackouts.  Is he the murderer?  Or is there a greater conspiracy at work?

As a film, Limitless is definitely uneven.  It meanders a bit in the middle, Robert De Niro is wasted in a role that seems more appropriated for an actor like Frank Langella, and there’s a lot of plot points that just seem to vanish after they’re introduced. 

However, flaws and all, Limitless is still an enjoyable little thriller that on a few very rare occasions manages to suggest something deeper going on beneath the surface.  The premise is intriguing and, though I could have done without some of Cooper’s heavy-handed, off-screen narration, the film is intelligently written and even has a few moments of genuine wit.  Director Neil Burger does a good job contrasting the drabness of Cooper’s life as a sober loser with the vibrancy of his existence as a victorious addict.  Burger also does a good job of visualizing those moments when Cooper’s mind starts to skip through time and space.  Speaking as someone who has had similar experiences while taking dexedrine (which I take for ADD, it’s all legal), these scenes ring surprisingly true.

Much like Inception, Limitless is fortunate to have an excellent cast.  Everyone in the film seems to be taking his or her role seriously and works to keep things compelling and relatable no matter how outlandish the plot might occasionally get.  Abbie Cornish (who starred in one of my favorite films of all time, Bright Star) doesn’t get to do much in the role of Cooper’s girlfriend but she does get one great scene where she has to take a pill in order to escape a pursuer.  (And after seeing that scene, I’ll never watch ice skating the same way again.)  Johnny Whitworth oozes a potent combination of sleaze and charisma while Anna Friel has a poignant cameo as Cooper’s ex-wife.  Playing a Russian mobster, Andrew Howard is both funny and scary (which is saying something since the sarcastic Russian mobster is such a familiar character archetype that I now roll my eyes whenever I hear a Russian accent in a film because I know exactly what’s coming up).

However, the film truly belongs to Bradley Cooper and he probably gives his best performance to date here.  I have to admit that I love Bradley Cooper.  I’ve loved ever since I saw the Hangover.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t love him because he was the guy making snarky comments in Vegas or encouraging his friends to be irresponsible.  Quite frankly, those scenes could have been acted by an actor with a cute smile.  No, I fell in love with Bradley Cooper at the end of the film when I saw his character at his friend’s wedding, holding his film son in his lap.  There was something surprisingly genuine about Cooper’s performance in those scenes that it forced me to reconsider everything that had happened in the film up to that point.  Those scenes offered a hint that Cooper is the type of talented movie star that Limitless proves him to be.