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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Montage-Filled Trailer For '70s-Set Drama, AMERICAN HUSTLE: Man Perms, Vintage Menswear and Amy Adams as Jessica Rabbit

The interwebs have been a-spinning for months about the reunion of of Silver Linings Playbook stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence with their director, David O. Russell, in the upcoming '70s-set drama, AMERICAN HUSTLE. If you remember my take on the former film, you probably already know that I am not as excited as apparently my fellow bloggers are about this.

Once again, it seems like Hollywood has mistaken Lawrence for a far more seasoned actress that can tackle roles that embody themes with which she might be able to identify (or in which she can at least be convincing). Without rehashing my disappointment in certain aspects of Silver Linings, in the new film Lawrence plays the forlorn wife of a New Jersey con artist (a gold-chain-clad, bespectacled Christian Bale), who is forced with his partner (played by Amy Adams) to team up with a "wild" FBI agent (Bradley Cooper, with an unfortunate man perm). This partnership catapults them to A-list grime status, mingling (and pissing off) a lot of shadier and more powerful power players.

More on the film below (from Collider):

A fictional film set in the alluring world of one of the most stunning scandals to rock our nation, American Hustle tells the story of brilliant con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who along with his equally cunning and seductive British partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is forced to work for a wild FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  DiMaso pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia that’s as dangerous as it is enchanting.  Jeremy Renner is Carmine Polito, the passionate, volatile, New Jersey political operator caught between the con-artists and Feds. Irving’s unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) could be the one to pull the thread that brings the entire world crashing down. Like David O. Russell’s previous films, American Hustle defies genre, hinging on raw emotion, and life and death stakes.

A montage-filled trailer of the film has just been released, which I've included for you down below. I spent more time fascinated by how hard Amy Adams is trying to be a hood-rich vixen (and trying to figure out how Cooper got his hair this way). But I did find the trailer intriguing, in a Casino kind of way. Tell me what you think of it in the comments box.

AMERICAN HUSTLE hits theaters December 25th. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

"Cinema In Noir" Asks...What Makes a Feminist Film?

That is today's hot button question on our newest podcast episode of "Cinema in Noir." And, as it turns out, the definition in itself is quite subjective. Why? Because what makes a woman feminist is equally as subjective as what makes a film feminist. If you look at the evolution of so-called feminist films over the last 50 years, you'll notice a shift in the definition. Folks throwing around the word "feminist film" every week. Are all films with the female lead character automatically feminist, or does it take a good amount of feminist empowerment and themes in the storytelling to make it a pro-feminist work of cinema? Or has "feminist film" become just another way to uplift female-led films that aren't so great? I'm asking sincerely. 

Needless to say, we all had an opinion on that one.

But we also took a look at Spike Lee's recently released list of essential films to watch. You can read the full here. Like many auteur's lists who have come before him, you might notice that a few of your favorites are overlooked. However, like I mentioned above--much of film criticism is subjective, regardless of what many of have been told. Should Lee have more talent of color on the list, more female, I mean, er, feminist, films? Or, should he simply just have, well, his essential list of films to watch?

We also shared our reviews of The Wolverine and Blue Jasmine (we liked one of these), and talked about the latest in film headlines (including this Rocky 7 business with Michael B. Jordan and his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler).

Missed the show? You can watch our Google On Air Hangout (via YouTube) below:

Friday, July 26, 2013

9 New Images From The Denzel Washington/Mark Wahlberg Buddy Cop Action Comedy, 2 GUNS

It's no secret that male duos on the big screen aren't faring too well at the box office these days (note: White House Down, After Earth, etc). But here's hoping  Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg can turn the curse around with at least a popcorn-worthy 2 GUNS. If you a need a recap of what this buddy cop mismatch action comedy is all about, check out my previous post on the film here.

Before we can find out whether the film is any good, Universal Pictures aims to entice us with a few new images from the film (in theaters August 2nd). I've included them below for your viewing pleasure. The film's other stars--Paula Patton, James Marsden, Edward James Olmos and Bill Paxton--are also featured.

Game On, C^&ksuckers! Check Out 9 New Images From KICK-ASS 2

Ready for a new batch of nerdtastic images from KICK-ASS 2?

Universal Pictures has just released several to hold you over until the film's release next month. Buckle up, friends, because amateur superheroes Kick-Ass and Hit Girl (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz) are back battling self-made villains, with the help of badass Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). Their target? Red Mist who's been reborn as The Motherf%&*^ (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), of course.

Get a sneak peak below (featuring Morris Chestnut, who's joined the cast as Mindy's guardian, John Leguizamo, as Chris/The Motherf%&*^'s guardian, and Donald Faison as Doctor Gravity):

KICK-ASS 2 is in theaters August 16th. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

(Review) BLUE JASMINE: Woody Allen's Inspired Re-imagining Of A Tennessee Williams Classic

If Midnight in Paris was Woody Allen's ode to classic literature, then his latest, BLUE JASMINE, pays homage to the time-honored Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, if Blanche DuBois was a Park Avenue socialite played by Cate Blanchett.

And what a fine way to revere one of Williams' most adapted dramas with a modern take that thrusts its slowly malfunctioning central character into a new situation that only hastens her demise.

Blanchett stars as Jasmine, a self-fabricated New York City aristocrat, who is forced to move in with her lower-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in the slums of the Bay Area in California when her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) goes from highfalutin big shot to money-swindling convict within a moment that proves too overwhelming for Jasmine to bear. So she tries to do what any fragile, male-dependent, newly penniless damsel would--leave the messy, shattered remains of that life in a pile and go find a new one to which she can cling. But her fractured past comes back to haunt Jasmine in a series of increasingly devastating flashback scenes that are nagging reminders to her that she can't honestly move forward without acknowledging what happened.

It is that psychotic neglect that Blanchett perfectly captures so sadly yet so beautifully in Jasmine's desperate attempt to remain intact when her emotional (and mental) composure withers at the seams. Blanchett walks a very thin line so as not to make Jasmine come off batty but rather a deeply despondent patient of her own making, whose only defense is to project her pain on her far more self-aware sister (someone she thinks is too dim to make anything of her life). But Ginger, and the audience, already know that much of Jasmine's character is barely made of various elements of her own life, some real, some not real--down to her name, which she handpicked as an adult after listening to the Rodgers and Hart tune, "Blue Moon." You can often hear this despairingly amorous ballad lightly playing in the background of the film.

But in true Streetcar fashion, all her delusions begin to collide with one another once she moves in with Stella Kowalski Ginger, who, along with her Stanley Kowalski-type boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) expose Jasmine for who she really is, in a non-malicious but matter-of-fact way. While Blanchett's performance wonderfully portrays the contradictions of a complex character (even always seeming on the verge of tears without actually crying), Hawkins' Ginger is an astounding depiction of a woman who grapples with becoming a two-character composite of who she knows she is and who Jasmine says she should be.

In one of his most painfully neurotic portraits of his career, Allen still manages to romanticize the story, using Jasmine's coveted memories to cushion her otherwise agonizing downfall, while juxtaposing it with Ginger's imperfect yet dependable romance that turns out to be worth fighting for. Throughout the film, there's even a Meanwhile, Cannavale's Chili is a surprisingly soft-hearted yet rugged gentleman who doesn't bother to tip toe around Jasmine's delicate feelings. While his rather brute approach further dampens Jasmine's feelings toward him, his authenticity and loyalty (two things Jasmine has never given Ginger) is ultimately what solidifies his and Ginger's relationship.

An inspired re-imagining of Williams' already brilliant piece, BLUE JASMINE is marked by staggering performances (including Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's jilted ex-husband) and a fine-tuned script that punctuates the ailing romances we sometimes have with ourselves and each other.

Rating: A (***** out of *****)

BLUE JASMINE is in theaters Friday. Watch the trailer below:

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Cinema in Noir" Talks Hollywood Diversity, Underrated Asian Actors, And The Primetime Emmy Nominations

Our "Cinema in Noir" podcast returned to Blog Talk Radio today with a brand new hour and a half episode that featured our reviews of the latest releases, including Girl Most Likely, Only God Forgives, Big Words, Red 2 and The Conjuring. (Hint: we only liked one a half of them).

We also shared our thoughts on the latest trailers, including the Hallmark Channel's The Watsons Go To Birmingham and Wendell Pierce's upcoming drama, Four. If you missed those two, watch them here:

The creator of the new sci-fi web series, "Evolve," called in to discuss the show and her inspiration behind it. To watch the show's trailer on YouTube, click here.

And in our slightly gratuitous segment, we discussed Hollywood's constant neglect to cast Asian actors in leading roles (or sometimes any roles). It just so happens that the guys we mentioned are also super hot too (but that's just a bonus).

Lastly, we went over what we found both good and bad about the recently announced list of Primetime Emmy nominees, which you can find over here.

Missed the show? Catch it here.

5 Cool Comic-Con Things You Might Have Missed

If you've been anywhere near the Internet or a comic book fanboy over the past four days, you probably already know that Comic-Con International, the mecca of geek festivals, is going on right now in San Diego. Below are just a few trailers and film footage coming out of the event that you may want to know about.

The KICK-ASS 2  restricted trailer:

The RIDDICK restricted trailer (Vin Diesel's sci-fi menace/hero gets an amped up sequel):

Fan footage and red carpet photos of DIVERGENT, the upcoming dystopian series (via its awesome tumblr page):


This burning hot new trailer for THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE:

The official sneak peak of the VERONICA MARS movie:

And this is just a few of the highlights. For more info on the event, click here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Idris Elba And Naomie Harris Are Nelson And Winnie Mandela In MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (Trailer)

As South African President Nelson Mandela continues to battle a lung infection, actor Idris Elba hopes to immortalize his legend in the trailer for the new movie, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM.

You're probably thinking the same thing I am: 1) Yummmmm...Elba, and 2) Wait, Elba doesn't really looking like Mandela (like, at all).

But it's not really mandatory that the actor looks identical to the real-life person he's portraying (though it does help us separate the actor from the role he's playing). In any case, Elba steps into Mandela's big shoes, to hopefully help illuminate a side to Mandela that we haven't seen in the several adaptations that have come before it (Invictus, the on again/off again Winnie movie, etc). Judging from the trailer, it looks like Elba's certainly got the accent down, despite his obvious physical differences from Mandela), and he is just the type of actor--other than Morgan Freeman--that could dramatize some of Mandela's key speeches.

A little more about the film:

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM is based on South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, which chronicles his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison before becoming President and working to rebuild the country’s once segregated society. Idris Elba (PROMETHEUS) stars as Nelson Mandela with Justin Chadwick (THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL) directing.

I've never seen The Other Boleyn Girl, though I've heard nothing but great things about it. But I know that Chadwick's last film, The First Grader, about an 84-year-old Kenyan man who went to school for the first time, was also a critical darling (and is now available on Netflix instant). It may have been just the movie to propel Chadwick to next helm a film like MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. So he's definitely an auteur to watch.

William Nicholson, who penned last year's Les Misérables, wrote the script.

The film's other big name (or one that should be) is Naomie Harris (Skyfall, 28 Days Later), who plays Mandela's strong and loyal wife, Winnie. She's always excellent, so I can't wait to see what she brings to the role.

Check out the trailer below and let me know what you think in the comment box.

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM hits theaters November 29th.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nicolas Winding Refn Tries To Strike Gold Again With ONLY GOD FORGIVES And Misses The Mark Completely

If pundits wish to continue the ongoing debate about reckless violence in movies, a mention of ONLY GOD FORGIVES would probably work to their advantage in a heated discussion. 

This isn't to say I have a dog in that fight either way, but if a film--specifically a drama-- contains excess violence and gore, it should at least have a substantive story. But unfortunately writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn sacrificed the subtle allegory he tactfully employed in 2011's Drive for a film that relies heavily on blood games as a simplistic form of entertainment. And it barely even does that. 

In the film, Refn re-teamed with his Drive superhero, Ryan Gosling, who stars as Julian, a oddly taciturn (who can also be described as weak) stuck in Bangkok after fleeing a criminal charge in America. Despite his bum deal, he finds himself slinging drugs among the champions of drug dealers in some of the seediest spots Refn was able to concoct. But Julian's rather complacent lifestyle comes to a screeching halt when his scumbag brother, Billy, (Tom Burke), also dwelling in the Thailand capital, is murdered after a particularly psychotic disagreement with a brothel owner goes bloodily awry.

Although we're introduced to Billy early on in the film as a somewhat ally or partner, if you will, of Julian, an ambiguous protagonist, the audience isn't exactly prepared to feel any kind of way about his quick demise. Before his death, we aren't clear on why he was in Bangkok, what kind of relationship he had with his brother or why he had a sick infatuation with violence (when we first see him he is transfixed by a particularly savage boxing match and says, "I love violence!").

Billy is virtually a stranger to us, so when his death triggers a reluctant revenge trip for Julian, as coerced by his similarly certifiable mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), we're already indifferent to the cause and utterly bored by the direction the film takes. Crystal, frustrated by Julian's hesitation toward finding and killing the man who offed her "good" son, wages a parallel attempt to retaliate on her own (with the help of a few other shady characters she's recruited). The film further spirals and soon becomes a desperately hollow mess of its own making (the gorgeous cinematography is its one saving grace). 

Although Crystal does provide some background story about her two sons, humanizing, or perhaps further dehumanizing them, just a bit, her erratic behavior--a potent blend of bigotry, callousness and carnality--does little to offer the audience anyone to care about. As the blood splatter continues to escalate, even at its most vicious, we're checking our watches for the time.

Aside from the film's utter lack of empathy for its own characters, it is also confounding in its contrived depiction of Asian culture. Street fighting, over-the-top brutality and thinly drawn characters are sadly not unfamiliar images in mainstream cinema, but here they further pronounce the already uninspired themes in the film. In one scene, we see Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), Julian's prime target, ordering one of his minions to sever a man's fingers (the victim refused to give up information about Crystal) slowly and methodically in the middle of dinner at an elegant restaurant. When that's finally over (it seems to last forever), Chang resumes singly--horribly--into a microphone. This type of thing happens several times in the film and the audience becomes more and more exasperated by it. Whatever tactic Refn is using here has very little effect.

It is also worth mentioning that aside from Crystal, the women in the film are completely vapid and serve no real purpose. The females in the brothel are like trophies until Billy goes out of his mind in the beginning of the film; while Julian's escort/pet, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), is merely a pretty face, subjected to bitter insults from his mom (and, in some regard, from him as well). None of this is necessary; it only enhances the film's overall resentment toward every character.

A poor attempt to shock audiences makes ONLY GOD FORGIVES a crushing disappointment. Too much attention is spent freaking us out and not enough on building a foundation for any of the characters, especially Julian, who greatly needs a point of view (the scenes with his mother offer insight into his character but his stifled reaction only propels him toward misguided violence, painting him as a basic neanderthal). Gosling needed much more to work with.

Though Thomas is barely recognizable in the film with a crazy blonde weave a la The Real Housewives, her arresting performance--the film's only one--isn't enough to rescue the film from its own collapse. Here's hoping Refn's next one redeems him.

Rating: D (* out of *****)

ONLY GOD FORGIVES opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. Watch the trailer below:

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Steve McQueen Takes On The Star-Studded Slavery Narrative, '12 YEARS A SLAVE' (Trailer)

For those of you who pulled out every last strand of hair in your head (like I did) when Shame was completely disregarded at last year's Oscars may be rest able to rest with the assurance that director Steve McQueen's latest film, a slave narrative, may be exactly the Academy's cup of tea. 

Amid a saturated list of oppression dramas over the last few years comes 12 YEARS A SLAVE, a sweeping, star-studded drama that should at least catapult its main star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, to the level of stardom he deserves. Read a synopsis of the film is after the jump:

12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on an incredible true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender) as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) forever alters his life.”

You may remember that Fassbender starred in McQueen's Shame (and also his 2008 film, Hunger), so it's clear that McQueen--like many other filmmakers before him--has a muse. Hey, if if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? It will certainly be amazing to see Fassbender's transformation into a lead antagonist--something I don't believe we've ever seen from him, really (unless you count Prometheus).

Other A-listers among the cast include Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Sarah Paulson, Quvenzhané Wallis, Alfre Woodard and Michael Kenneth Williams. So, needless to say, this has been a highly anticipated movie that folks have been clamoring to see. From the trailer alone, the film looks like it was breathtakingly shot and certainly well acted. But we'll have to brace ourselves until we're able to watch it. I can only hope it offers a different spin on the genre that we have become all too comfortable with seeing a lot lately (the synopsis sounds like it does, and McQueen hasn't disappointed us yet).

Check out the trailer, which dropped last night:


12 YEARS A SLAVE is in theaters December 26th.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tom Hanks And Emma Thompson Channel Walt Disney And P.L. Travers In The First Trailer For 'SAVING MR. BANKS'

I have to say, I preferred this project back when I thought it was going to be a Walt Disney biopic. But no, it looks to be a narrative on the making of Mary Poppins....who wants that? 

I kid, I kid....(kinda). But since I was one of those kids who never really got around to watching the adored classic, the premise of SAVING MR. BANKS doesn't appeal to me as much as it might to others. Tom Hanks stars as the iconic Walt Disney who meets Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and is determined to turn to her popular children's story into a time-honored Hollywood movie (no matter how reluctant she is). 

More on the plot below:

When Travers travels from London to Hollywood in 1961 to finally discuss Disney’s desire to bring her beloved character to the motion picture screen (a quest he began in the 1940s as a promise to his two daughters), Disney meets a prim, uncompromising sexagenarian not only suspect of the impresario’s concept for the film, but a woman struggling with her own past. During her stay in California, Travers’ reflects back on her childhood in 1906 Australia, a trying time for her family which not only molded her aspirations to write, but one that also inspired the characters in her 1934 book.

None more so than the one person whom she loved and admired more than any other—her caring father, Travers Goff, a tormented banker who, before his untimely death that same year, instills the youngster with both affection and enlightenment (and would be the muse for the story’s patriarch, Mr. Banks, the sole character that the famous nanny comes to aide). While reluctant to grant Disney the film rights, Travers comes to realize that the acclaimed Hollywood storyteller has his own motives for wanting to make the film—which, like the author, hints at the relationship he shared with his own father in the early 20th Century Midwest.

Although the cast, which includes Colin Farrell (as Travers Goff), Paul Giamatti and Rachel Griffiths, is impressive, I can't say I'm all that jazzed to see the film. Perhaps it's the bitter memories of last year's film about the making of a film, Hitchcock? Let's hope SAVING MR. BANKS is better than that. 

Director John Lee Hancock, who helmed The Blind Side and The Alamo is behind the movie, which was penned by TV's "Terra Nova" creator, Kelly Marcel (who's also said to be writing the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey movie). That's quite a pairing, eh?

Check out the new trailer after the jump and feel free to share your comments.

SAVING MR. BANKS opens in theaters December 13th. 

Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana and Woody Harrelson Emerge In The First Few Images From 'OUT OF THE FURNACE'

You may remember last year's post about writer/director Scott Cooper's (Crazy Heart) independent drama with a big cast titled OUT OF THE FURNACE.

Relativity Media has just released a few images from the film featuring some of the cast--Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana and Woody Harrelson-- which I've provided for you below. Before you get to that, here is a recap of the synopsis:

"...a drama about fate, circumstance, and redemption. Russell (Bale) and his younger brother (Affleck) live in the economically depressed Rust Belt, and have always dreamed of escaping and finding better lives. But when a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in prison, his brother is lured into one of the most violent and ruthless crime rings in the Northeast—a mistake that will almost cost him everything. Once released, Russell must chose between his own freedom, or risk it all to seek justice for his brother."

They're not particularly enticing images, but Woody Harrelson always makes me smile. How about you? OUT OF THE FURNACE now has a release date of December 6th. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Josh Brolin Is Out For Blood In The New Trailer for 'OLDBOY,' Directed By Spike Lee

After last year's Red Hook Summer left a bad taste in my mouth, I have been eagerly awaiting the return of the greatness of director Spike Lee. Judging by the brand new trailer of his upcoming film, OLDBOY, it looks like he may have returned to form.

The film, which at its announcement over a year ago began ruffling a few feathers of those who regard the now ten-year-old original film (helmed by Chan-wook Park) a classic, seems to channel Lee's previous crime drama, Inside Man, as it updates Park's version. So it's clear Lee took the project seriously, even assembling an impressive cast of actors, including Josh Brolin, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley and Elizabeth Olsen.

If you're unfamiliar with the original film (which is available on Netflix instant, in case you have an account), you probably don't need that much insight to Lee's film. But here's the official synopsis anyway:

OLDBOY follows the story of an advertising executive (Josh Brolin) who is kidnapped and held hostage for 20 years in solitary confinement without any indication of his captor's motive. When he is inexplicably released, he embarks on an obsessive mission to discover who orchestrated his bizarre and torturous punishment only to find he is still trapped in a web of conspiracy and torment. His quest for revenge leads him into an ill-fated relationship with a young social worker (Elizabeth Olsen) and ultimately to an illusive man (Sharlto Copley) who allegedly holds the key to his salvation.

Brace yourself for the red band trailer for the manic revenge drama, OLDBOY, which hits theaters October 25th:

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Kevin Hart Proves He's Here To Stay With 'LET ME EXPLAIN'

If you're like me, then concert movies aren't really your thing. Why pay $14 (the outrageous NYC price) for a movie ticket when you should just be able to watch your favorite recording artist or comedian bust a move or curse uninhibitedly  for one hour on an appropriate cable TV channel?

Trust me, I get it. But, for those of you who are just catching on to the talent of Kevin Hart from his supporting roles in This Is The End and Think Like a Man, you may want to cough up the extra bucks for his stand-up comedy film KEVIN HART: LET ME EXPLAIN. Because, like so many other comedians-turned-movie-stars (including the Chris Rock), the stage is his bread and butter. This film is a chance to prove to any of his critics that this pint-sized funnyman is here to stay.

Hart, who also executive produced the project, begins the film acknowledging his new superstardom while also trying to address all the rumors that have come along with his celebrity status ("Is it true that you don't mess with dark skinned girls anymore?") and the accusations ("You ain't nothin' but a local ass bitch!"). In a clever, roughly 20-minute intro similar to the fake documentary-style format of his TV-show, "The Real Husbands of Hollywood," Hart invites his fans--both those in the movie and those watching it--to his premiere party at a club somewhere in New York City where we he is pestered, ridiculed, and hardly celebrated. During this segment, we realize that while Hart has shot up the Hollywood ladder in a matter of what seems like a year, he is still the same ole pint-size quipster still trying to gain respect.

And that's just where LET ME EXPLAIN comes in. He brings his fans--and his haters--to a sold-out
event at Madison Square Garden (taped live last year, with 30,000 people in attendance) where he proves that he's not just a guy who just happens to be funny, but a talented comedian/actor who appreciates where he comes from just as much as he appreciates where he is now. Hart's stand-up is more suggestive than raunchy, wickedly hilarious and dripping with self-deprecation with almost every joke--from his son who thinks he's Spider-Man to being a world-renowned quipster who owns up to his past infidelity with his ex-wife ("Women may be crazy sometimes, but 99% of the time they are absolutely right. But as men we LIVE for that 1%") .

With the audience (including Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson notably spotted) almost in tears from laughter, it's clear that Hart himself is having fun with it (even cracking himself up at times).  By the end of the show/film, we learn that Hart is in fact living his dream, yet we still all know that he can only go up from here.

Rating: A

KEVIN HART: LET ME EXPLAIN is now playing.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

(Review) FRUITVALE STATION Is One Of The Most Palpable And Gut-Wrenching Films Of The Year

You've probably seen the news stories. They often read a little something like this: "An unarmed African-American man was shot and killed by a police officer...who thought the victim was reaching for a weapon..." Sadly, these articles have become a blurred mix of maddening details that may have reached a boiling point in America and now on social media. First time feature writer/director Ryan Coogler attempts to capture an intimate look at the real-life case of 22-year-old Oakland resident Oscar Grant III in FRUITVALE STATION.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Oscar, a young father to a four-year-old daughter with girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). After two previous stints in jail for various felonies, including a drug conviction, he is determined to turn his life around and make a better future for his family and himself. But on January 1st 2009, his life is tragically cut short when he is fatally shot by a transit police officer after a disturbance on the train at the Fruitvale Station metro stop in Oakland, California.

The officer, Johannes Mehserle (whose name was changed in the movie to Officer Ingram and is played by Chad Michael Murray) reportedly claimed he mistook his gun for a taser. The exchange between Oscar and his friends, who were also detained, and the cops and the shooting were all caught on video by several  passengers on board the stopped train, some of whom claim the shooting was racially-charged and that Oscar tried to placate the situation. Mehserle was charged for involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in jail. He was released after serving eleven months.

Despite the intense climate during which it arrives, in the midst of the much discussed trial of Florida teen Trayvon Martin and the scrutiny of New York City's "stop and frisk" program, among countless other cases, FRUITVALE STATION moves beyond the racial politics to show who Oscar was as a person, not just a nameless victim. Though Coogler opens the film with the shocking real-life video of the murder scene, which is sure to rouse many emotions from the audience, he offers the audience a glimpse of Oscar in the hours leading up to his death--his relationship with his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). Despite the affective performances from all, it becomes clear that Coogler's focus in the first 2/3 of the film is to present Oscar as a man who was loved by all and had no enemies (aside from the one foe whose unexplained feud with Oscar continued after they were both out of prison).

This becomes tiresome after a while, especially once we get to the needless scene featuring Oscar rescuing a stray dog that had been ran over. There's no reason to continually send the message that Oscar's impending death was unjustified because he was a nice person. He could have been a less beloved person whose death would have still been unjustified. The recurrent scenes just come off forced and unnecessary.

But where the film is most powerful is not when we see Oscar being the best boyfriend/dad/brother/friend/son ever; it's during scenes with Jordan by himself and contemplating Oscar's destiny. They're made more palpable when they're juxtaposed with the flashback scenes of Oscar in prison and obviously embittered with himself and his mom (whose visit inspired a particularly moving scene). With the film's independent feel, these scenes come off particularly authentic and accessible.

You can truly sense how Jordan took the character and made him someone who wasn't perfect and acknowledged that about himself. He knew that the struggle to be an ideal anything was an ongoing battle he was desperately afraid to lose. It is Jordan's mesmerizing performance that made Oscar's untimely death that much more gut-wrenching to watch, despite knowing how and when it happens. Oscar is a conflicted character, which makes his story most interesting to watch. We as an audience deserve to see that complexity conveyed on screen. Through Jordan's performance, we can see that Oscar was on the cusp of possibly becoming something great right before his ambition was halted completely.

While FRUITVALE STATION is elevated by Jordan's portrayal, the supporting cast, whose characters surround Oscar even during his most internal struggles, is also magnetic to watch. Diaz is absolutely heartbreaking as the young mother and frustrated but loyal girlfriend to Oscar. She delivers a hardened approach to each aspect of her character in a way that is familiar and very authentic. You as an audience member will want to embrace her, especially during the tragic final moments in the film. Even though Diaz is rarely ever in a scene without Jordan, her depiction of Sophina allows her to stand out.

Similarly, Spencer captures Wanda's vulnerability in a role that lets her to showcase her talent as an actress in a way we haven't seen before. Burdened by the recognizable concern for her son and about her own life (of which we don't get a thorough view, but we are able to discern its weight from Spencer's performance), Wanda becomes more than a grieving mother of the victim, more than simply a tearful face in the crowd of mourners; she is Oscar's rock and we watch her lose him. It is an honest and devastating performance.

FRUITVALE STATION may not be a perfect movie but is very effective and harrowing to watch at times--not only during the vital last 30 minutes of the film, when the drama culminates, but also during the prior part of the movie, which in spite of its insistent nature makes the ending that much more crushing. No matter what your sentiment is about the case, or how close you feel to the situation, it's impossible to not be moved to tears by the time the closing credits begin to roll up the screen.

Rating: A- (**** out of *****)

FRUITVALE STATION hits select theaters on July 12th and opens nationwide on July 26th. To find out when it's coming to your area, click here.

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