Out in Theaters: ANNIE

There are three elements to Annie that sum up the 2014 remake: producer Jay Z, Glee choreographer Zachary Woodlee and Cameron Diaz‘s gum-smacking pie-hole. It’s a melting pot of bad taste that assumes putting a black girl in the titular ginger role is all it needs to account for its yucky existence. With music that’s bubblegum poppy even by Disney standards – all auto-tuned and ironed out to mimic the electro-caw of Billboard toppers – eruptions into song-and-dance that make no sense in the context of director Will Gluck‘s (Friends With Benefits) telling of the tale – sometimes other characters are cognizant of the songsplosions and they aid in propelling the narrative forward, other times the numbers are existential blobs of magical realism – and Cameron Diaz misunderstanding the difference between campy and straight up obtuse, Annie is a poorly intentioned money grab, pivoting away from family values and towards an indefensible thesis that dollar signs equal happiness.

The once adorable Quvenzhané Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild has sprouted into a proportionally adorable 11-year old and she’s the least to blame for the failure that is Annie. She’s not “good” in the role but she’s cute enough to make us go “Awww.” This being 2014 though, the concept of lil’ orphan Annie has gone out the window, replaced by a more contemporary and PC notion of lil’ foster kid Annie. Because orphanages are so 1982. But all the shady conditions of Ms. Hannigan’s orphanage carry over to Ms. Hannigan’s foster home –  borderline child slavery, condescension more evil than snarky, a bevy of lil orphans dreaming of the day their parents will return. But with Gluck’s clumsy hand, these grim circumstances come wrapped up in pretty bows. There’s no authenticity here, only bold-faced mockery.

As Hannigan, Diaz spits her lines like a drunk on the subway, missing the mark of subtle commentary by a country mile. She is awful. Jamie Foxx, playing a twist on Daddy Warbucks, is Will Stacks, a cell phone mogul (and is inexplicably (secretly) bald)) intent on blanketing the city in cell phone towers. He’s even got one in the Statue of Liberty. Huzzah! For an update as seemingly significant as this, there’s no underlying purpose to his career or commentary about the fact that a business man has literally planted his product inside the physical representation of freedom. How is something like that brought up and just tabled?! I digress but for a reason; this misstep provides an ample example of just how clueless the film ultimately is. In the end, Stack”s driving force is boiled down to a desire that no calls will ever be dropped. He shares his motivation with the Verizon Wireless test man.


Foxx isn’t bad so much as tired-looking, like he’d rather be somewhere else, and his musical numbers – though aggressively affected and disparate stylistically (he’s straight soul baby)  – provide a significant step-up from tuneless compatriots Diaz and Bobby Cannavale (who isn’t otherwise bad in the role.) Rose Byrne amps up her effortless charm even if she’s saddled with one of the most aggressively WTF dance serving of the film (arms swingin’, fingers snappin’) though her character struggles with a (never explained) crippling bout of friendlessness that’s hinted towards perhaps being schizophrenia (her only friends were imaginary…)

There’s more plot holes as big as the sun (Spoiler: why would Annie’s orphan friends help audition fake parents for her? Seriously, why?! Are they just the worst friends ever? Also, how the f*ck can she not read?! How is she texting her friends then? And why is Foxx bald? WHY?!) and an overt smugness to Gluck’s proceedings. It’s a sliced bread family film with blinders on, entirely lacking in the purpose department and that’s largely because Gluck’s is one big game of assumption – assuming existing fondness for the character will allow this redressing to gloss over a floppy script, assuming that a pop-update to all the songs is necessarily a good, or even welcome, thing, assuming that we won’t notice how much this stinks of white people trying to write black people (the honky jive is just embarrassing.) It’s false, it’s lifeless and it’s unnecessary.


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Out in Theaters: SEX TAPE

Jason Segel Sex Tape 3

Apparently women love to blog. Hollywood seems to think they like narrating their blog posts too. You’ll see bad movies open and close with it like they’re Kevin Hart’s mouth.

When a woman starts blogging in film, that’s when the red flag goes up. Cliché alert. Sex Tape starts with Cameron Diaz hard at work on her latest mommy post with her mom sweatpants and her tired mom hair. Uh-oh. But wait—this time she’s blogging about erections. She’s completely bonkers for her husband’s boners (Jason Segel) and she can’t stop talking about it. “I love erections.”

Her post— narrated over shots of Segel and Diaz tainting every square foot of a college campus—reads like a government censored item from the Dr. Seuss explicit collection. Would you like them here or there? Would you like them in a house? You may like them in a tree? Would you beat them in a box? Would you beat them with a fox? Would you, could you in a car? A train! A train! Could you, would you on a train? Would you, could you, in the rain? Beat them! Beat them, here they are!

She’s like Julie & Julia for dongs. Or Dr. Seduce. Call it Obscene Bags & Ham.

Jason Segel Sex Tape

Some see pornography as an addictive, brain chemistry altering evil; some see it five times a day. When Annie (Diaz) and Jay (Segel) decide to spice up their lustless marriage by making a sex tape, the concept seems forced. We’re more curious about what these people do than what they do.

Jay appears to work with a lot of iPads? That seems the only logical explanation for why his work life revolves around gifting tablets to his neighbors, his parents, total strangers and the mailman. Annie is apparently accomplished as a mommy blogger who writes about erections. Hank Rosenbaum’s (a very Chris Traegerian Rob Lowe) toy company (?) wants to buy her blog.

Sex Tape plays a lot like HD porno. Bad outfits and writing headline the beginning; no one cares about the plot. Plug your nose like a dog given a pill and you can make it out of the first act without bursting out of there. When they finally get to recording the action—Jay and Annie banging out the entire Kama Sutra like a Bruce Springsteen concert—things get juicier.

Jay forgets to delete the three-hour video and instead uploads it to the elusive Cloud™ and all the iPads he’s gifted out. Sex Tape turns into a high-paced pseudo-heist comedy with Segel as Con Jeremy and Diaz as Scamela Anderson. Rushing to delete or destroy the tape off the iPads, they quickly develop chemistry that isn’t sexual. He’s got the girth for it. You’re not sure if she can pull it off. The bacchanal that ensues comes as a surprise gift.

Jason Segel Sex Tape 2

Sex Tape doesn’t set out to be sexy. Cameron Diaz is 41 and Segel’s no Zach Efron. As she’s aged, Diaz has played roles where her beauty is suggested. It’s like she had to play slutty instead of performing pretty. In Bad Teacher, The Counselor and Knight and Day,her performances were drunk, like a binge. Maybe she thought we were bored: no one would think she’s hot unless she role-played it. In Bad Teacher, she goes for skanky educator. Stale and flat like old beer, she’s just bad. In The Counselor, she swings for seductive trophy wife. Wearing tattoos like a one-piece swimsuit and some fake jewelry, she pouts her lips and you can smell the liquor coming off her breath. Didn’t anyone tell her she’s aged like wine?

Jason Segel acts from his core—with his penis. He’s on the other end of the spectrum: he’s fully bare where there isn’t any room for pretending. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he flops out his member and he’s more naked than any of the women he’s with. Segel doesn’t seem to have any reservations. While he isn’t particularly handsome, his sense of humor and sly delivery make up for it. When you see him in I Love You, Man, he’s often an object of ridicule more than one of sexualization. Same goes for The Five-Year Engagement. Yet, he brings depth that’s sexy, not sexual. His timing is too good to notice—you’re too busy looking at his junk.

As such, Segel was probably the best fit opposite Diaz, especially after they’d already been in Bad Teacher together. Diaz and Segel have a lot of sex in Sex Tape. They’re pretty much naked half the time. We see just as much bare-ass from Diaz as we do from Segel. While she doesn’t have his humor, he takes the onus off of her to perform. In a film where the man is just as naked and vulnerable as she is, Cameron doesn’t have to worry about acting. Nothing is pornographic about Sex Tape. With Segel, they’re boinking, not banging. Their mating doesn’t turn you on—it’s just funny.

Jason Segel Sex Tape 4

When Jack Black shows up to stop Jay and Annie—who’ve broken into his YouPorn warehouse along with their two kids—from destroying his database, he asks who sent them. Hustler? RedTube? He goes on to list off about 50 other sites uninterrupted. Hot Goo? BangBros? BangBus? Some sites are ridiculous—all of them are real. That’s the kind of movie Sex Tape is: non-stop and no mincing on their raunch. It’s a world where Jack Black can be a porn magnate and Rob Lowe can be addicted to cocaine.

Oh, yeah. The kindly Chris Traeger is a heavy-metal head-banging, blow-blowing CEO. He’s mistakenly gotten an iPad which the couple tries to retrieve from his mansion; Diaz distracts him while Segel’s “diarrhea” forces him to lurk the house. With his typical upbeat, smart manner, Lowe’s character is pluperfect.

A seeming milquetoast Jewish goody, he offers Diaz some coke to get the night started. As Segel’s chased through the house by a massive German Shepherd, we see paintings of Lowe as various Disney characters: Raffiki holding up Simba, Geppetto crafting Pinocchio, Peter Pan flying through the night… it’s all glorious and uproarious. Lowe’s scene and character are the funniest in 2014 film.

Critics are giving Sex Tape a hard time and I can see why. Often it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet; other times you’d rather skip the meal. The story elements seemed crafted at YouPorn headquarters and there’s a lot of nudity. Grandpa and Grandma definitely won’t like this movie. Sex Tape is bellicose in getting a belly laugh and more often than not they draw one out: as a comedy, it’s more Shake Weight than workout, more pull-out than pull-up. Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper and Kumail Nanjiani show up to bend you over and they get the job done. At the very least, Director Jake Kasdan’s done a much better job with this film than he did with Bad Teacher.

In a world filled with sex tapes, there’s not a lot of room for originality. Sex Tape shows the consequences that come up when something private is made starkly public. At least it’s genuine. There’s a lot of discomfort around pornography in today’s culture. If anything, Sex Tape shows that it’s always better to have the real thing.



Out in Theaters: THE COUNSELOR

“The Counselor”
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Dean Norris, Sam Spruell, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic
Crime, Drama, Thriller
117 Mins

When we think Ridley Scott, typically big, lavish spectacles pop up in our minds, which is why The Counselor comes as such an admirable surprise. Much more interested in cautionary talks than fits of physical violence, The Counselor plays mind games with its audience, toying with us intellectually and emotionally. One long con bleeds into a slow climb towards a heady climax of inescapable comeuppances, and we have front row seats to the scramble. If Scott’s former films are a series of taxing somatic workouts, The Counselor is the glistening sweat beading from his forehead once the Western dust has settled. Like a man with an agenda tucked up his sleeve, Scott wields an unblinkingly grim look at the allure of the international drug enterprise and the heartless abandon of cartel justice. As a piece of purely adult entertainment, it’s fearlessly mature and irreverent – the antithesis of studio expectation.

The narrative structure in which this ill-mannered tale of thoughtless vengeance unfolds is laid out like an eight-course table settings. A series of foreboding set-ups piece together a pilgrimage through the stages of greed, wealth, and power, all bonded by prosaic speeches. Various supporting characters all leaning against the post of lawlessness forewarn our hero, a man trying to dip his toe into the drug business, known only as the counselor (Michael Fassbender), of the potential gravity of the situation he’ll be marrying his money and his mouth to. No matter the caution tape they place, telling him to settle with hamburger while he can, the counselor’s taste can’t be satiated with anything less than Kobe beef. As it is, each rehearsed soliloquy is a trap set to spring later in play.

Stepping into a new role as a screenwriter, author Cormac McCarthy is a maestro at establishing these simmering ideas that later erupt in bright bursts of bloodshed. Doling out a class of ironic justice, McCarthy defies civil expectations of “fair,” parsing romanticized ideas of criminal proceedings from the stark actuality of border politics. Standing on some dusty line in the sand and glancing into the sun, there is no line, no limit, no “fair” – only gory messes and dutiful cleanups.

In revealing this harsh reality, McCarthy and Scott know exactly how and when to play their cards.  As the adage goes, if you show a gun in the first act, it better go off by the time the credits roll. Throughout The Counselor, McCarthy and Scott show an arsenal of guns and give each a moment in the sun to pop off in the film’s home stretch. Though some may feel taxed by the grueling nature of Scott and McCarthy building this house of cards, the payoff is well worth the wait. 
Although McCarthy’s talky script flirts with being overly showy, like the teachers pet showing off, his larger-than-life dialogue works to convert this tale of untold tragedy into a thing of grit-toothed folklore, transporting it like smuggled heroin from the blood-in-the-sand shoot-em-up it might have been to a more uncharted territory. But make no mistake; this is entirely McCarthy’s intention – entirely his rodeo. His fingerprints smother the dialogue, fueling the jet black tone and unrelenting bleakness dripping from the screen. Dangling characters at the end of his puppet strings, using them as mouthpieces for his prosaic tact for conversation, McCarthy’s pithy word play is the star of the show.

To the chagrin of those expecting a guns blazing actioner, The Counselor is only violent in rare fits, so for those going for a bloodbath – beware. When it does shift to the grisly side, it’s more of the full-stop violence of Refn’s films than anything this side of Kill Bill. This is violence as reality; violence as horror; not some glamorized Hollywood spectacle. But the elements that will really haunt you are the ones that slink into the shadows, the ones that are suggested, talked about in whispers, but never shown.

With a screenplay that exchanges high-octane thrills for moments of stressful self-reflection and one-on-one character conversations, Scott keeps the proceedings lively by punctuating them with anecdotal scenes that offer some of the lighter and more engaging moments. Between the gasps, the laughs, and the many talks, there’s not too much room for adrenaline. Much more a mentally stressful film than one that will have your blood pumping in thirsty gushes, all may be quiet on the western front, but it’s not in the minds of those living there.

For a movie that depends so much on the weight of these character chats, a rock solid cast is an absolute necessity. To the benefit of all, the top-tier cast lined up fully rises to the occasion. As the titular counselor, Fassbender continues to flex his thespian muscles, showcasing a spectrum of trade tricks that really makes his performance pop. Although still unconvinced of her true talent, at least in the English language, Penélope Cruz manages to be more than just eye candy and displays a woman who humanizes beauty and love requited. Brad Pitt continues to hit his mark in a solid streak of winning performances, although his Southern drawl may have started to wear a little thin. Cloaked in gaudy clothes and rings the size of dinner party costume jewelry, Cameron Diaz puts in the role of a lifetime. Sadly, that’s a low bar to hit and her performance fails to become the true stunner that it could have been.  

As the gold-toothed Malkina, a sexual minx of any sinner’s fantasy, Diaz is on the precipice of something great but never trusts herself enough to take a true risk. In many ways, Malkina is a feminine ode to McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh. Though lacking the brute force of Chigurh, they share comparable devilishly savvy elements. It’s as if they are long separated siblings or lovers who will never be. Ironically, Malkina’s love interest here is played by Chigurh actor Javier Bardem, although his role here is more a thing of kooky-clothed comic relief than the stuff of day terrors. While Chigurh was driven by a distorted cosmic sense of justice, Malkina is ruled by authoritative greed. Too secure in her old image to take a blind leap of faith into the mysterious recesses of something fresh though, Diaz flirts with being great but doesn’t commit. Although I originally had her as a potential Oscar nominee, those chances are all but slashed.

As is becoming a trend for him, Scott throttles the line of brilliance but allows himself to get bogged down in the execution of it. Illustrating his potential for staggeringly intelligent storytelling, there are explosions of excellence scattered throughout The Counselor and a surgeon-steady backbone of thoughtful inspiration, it still gets a little muddled along the way. The wealth of intriguing ideas are there but I’m not convinced that they are fully realized.

Stepped in the tradition of the Old West, The Counselor leaves you wanting to know more, curious if you’d missed anything, and thirsty for another viewing. With the magic of a red pen and another few months spent on pre-production, this could have been an astonishing product, as it is, it’s Prometheus in the desert – brilliance pocked with gaping holes. With a little more polish and another couple edits, this could have been as solid gold as the cap on Cameron Diaz’s canine.


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