Author

Jenni Miller
Jenni Miller has been writing for fun and profit since the age of six. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College several years later, she dove into the wild world of online media — just before the dot com crash. She's interviewed everyone from Mike Leigh to The Lizardman, traversed the tundra of Park City, visited movie sets, and reviewed too many movies, books, and video games to count. Jenni was the senior editor of Premiere.com and has contributed to a variety of outlets, from classy joints like VanityFair.com and GQ.com to, well, other sites. She is planning to write a book (or at least a short story) about the weirdos who go to see movies on opening day, herself included.
  • Playing for Keeps Review
    By: Jenni Miller Dec 07, 2012
    Playing for Keeps is the kind of movie that broadcasts its message and even its ending from the very trailer. There are plenty of movies where the end is apparent — Lincoln for instance. The pleasure is getting there. But in Playing for Keeps there is little pleasure found in connecting the dots. Even though it only runs 106 minutes it feels much much longer. Gerard Butler plays George a former soccer player whose career is in the toilet moves to Virginia to be nearer to his son and ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel). There he reluctantly takes on the responsibility of coaching his son's soccer team. It would be impossible not to know that our dashing but irresponsible absentee dad will reconnect with his sensible ex before she marries her square fiancee. In the interim George sleeps with all the horny divorced ladies who swoon over his talent for working with kids. There are no real consequences; anything that could possibly go wrong doesn't. There are so many guns waiting to go off that Chekhov would pull his own beard out. Playing for Keeps is a souped up Lifetime movie except there's no over-the-top drama just one or two shots of Gerard Butler shirtless and sex that's merely implied and alluded to. At one point I wondered if (okay hoped that maybe) a character would perhaps have a car accident and die because they were upset and driving in the rain. No nothing that exciting and silly could happen. Playing for Keeps is so by-the-numbers that it's almost offensive. What does work in the movie's favor is the touch — just a touch — of chemistry between its leads. Even though there are 15 years between them in real life they've attempted to meet halfway by putting highlights in Butler's hair and dying Biel's dark brown and dressing her in casual suburban mom clothes. Still there's a little something between them that makes their sappy scenes together a little touching. That grin works on her after all these years for a reason. The rest of the ensemble — Judy Greer Catherine Zeta-Jones Uma Thurman and Dennis Quaid — are wildly uneven though not necessarily miscast. A more fleshed-out script would have allowed the characters some dimension and given the movie at least a little more bite despite the rote premise. Greer as a naturally weird sense of humor but her character is left flailing as a newly divorced soccer mom who gets her groove back with George. Zeta-Jones is a sexy possibly dangerous soccer mom who helps George snag a professional opportunity but her character is ultimately harmless. Quaid is supposed to be some sort of jealous sleazy drunk rich guy who would be the type to pull a gun on someone but doesn't and Thurman as his wife comes on like a dippy rich housewife instead of channeling the biting bad ass-itude we know she's capable of. As a character George is confusing; it's as if he doesn't even want to sleep with all of the soccer moms but they're just throwing themselves at him and he's hapless to stop them. It's gross and doesn't even fulfill the movie's underlying promise which is to give its target audience a good dose of Harlequin-style romance with Gerard Butler. Guess those soccer shorts will just have to do.
  • Killing Them Softly Review
    By: Jenni Miller Nov 27, 2012
    Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio Wes Anderson and Bill Murray or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm. Of course Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again. Unfortunately for them Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable his glasses mirror-slick and his hands steady. His technique is of course to kill his victims "softly " from a distance. "It's so embarrassing " he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle like Mickey (James Gandolfini) a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. "There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking " he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground. The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator later as president) on TV but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through it's obvious and by the end overbearing especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. "America's not a country it's a business. Now f**king pay me " he tells Jenkins's Driver in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta. Dominik has only made three films but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper but for now it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience.
  • Rise of the Guardians Review
    By: Jenni Miller Nov 20, 2012
    It's easy to be cynical about holiday movies or even the holidays themselves. Rise of the Guardians simply won't let you though even if you don't partake in Christmas or Easter. Without getting too highfalutin the stars of Guardians have more in common with pagan myths than the craven cash-grabs we associate with Judeo-Christian holidays. What's more North (aka Santa voiced by Alec Baldwin) and Bunny (as in Easter voiced by Hugh Jackman) are joined by more universal figures like Tooth (as in Fairy voiced by Isla Fisher) the Sandman Jack Frost (Chris Pine) and Pitch (aka the Boogeyman voiced by Jude Law). Overseeing it all is the silent Man in the Moon who gives the Guardians their directions. Jack Frost wants to be believed in and seen by children as much as he wants to understand where he came from. When he's called to help the Guardians protect the world from Pitch he's hesitant to join but the possibility of being believed in and recovering his memories is too great to pass up. When Pitch succeeds in giving boys and girls bad dreams they stop believing in the Guardians which in turn threatens their existence. Nothing is worse than not being believed in. They also get some help from one open-minded little dude named Jamie (Dakota Goyo) who is a big believer in the unknown. (A little detour in the story with Jamie's little sister is freaking adorable.) The characters are fabulous and no small part of what makes the movie work. Based on The Guardians of Childhood books by William Joyce and adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote the excellent Rabbit Hole) Guardians stands out because the story isn't wedded to any one mythology. North is a big Russian with tattooed forearms and his real helpers are yetis — yet another mythic creature. Bunny is more of a wild hare with an Aussie attitude and his inner sanctum is lush and green calling to mind the fertility rituals originally associated with spring. Tooth is a fantastic hummingbird woman who has an army of beautiful tiny hummingbird ladies who travel around the world to collect lost teeth. The teeth contain memories so they're treasured by Tooth and her Baby Teeth as her helpers are called. Sandy is silent and communicates through symbols that appear over his head formed from his own sand; he's funny but also laid-back as you'd want the creature doling out dreams to be. Jack Frost is a mischievous cute young guy with anime hair who loves snowball fights and snow days and Pitch is a sour Brit who sends out awful but beautiful black stallions made of sparkly dust to put fear in the hearts of children. It's a visually stunning experience making full use of 3D; famous cinematographer Roger Deakins acted as a visual consultant as he did on animated films like WALL*E How to Train Your Dragon and Rango. Alexandre Desplat's score is evocative without being overbearing or manipulative. The writing is funny without being too self-referential and the only pop culture reference I caught was to Crocodile Dundee. Frankly it's hard to find fault with Rise of the Guardians. Maybe they could have included Hanukkah Harry?
  • Red Dawn Review
    By: Jenni Miller Nov 19, 2012
    The world is full of questionable remakes movies that are typically referred to as "critic-proof " but some are simply audience-proof. The 2012 remake of Red Dawn is one such film. There is no reason on earth for this film to exist. The original which starred Patrick Swayze Jennifer Grey and Charlie Sheen as teens fighting Soviet invaders and their allies is not an untouchable bastion of political relevance or even good filmmaking. That's not the issue. The problem with this remake is not just its relevance or lack thereof but it's just dumb. South Park has more insight into today's political landscape — and is funnier and smarter — than this mess while Team America: World Police has more exciting action. In case you forgot the actors in that movie are all puppets. The team behind the 2012 Red Dawn cared so very little for their subject that the original script cast the bad guys as Chinese a choice that later had to be changed to North Korea lest overseas governments and perhaps more importantly audiences would take offense. (Let's not forget that the most dismal action films earn the majority of their box office bucks overseas which is apparently reason enough for studios to greenlight them.) The xenophobic Red Menace of the '80s has no place in 2012 cinema and what's more simply switching one Asian people for another and changing their flags and other insignia (as well as the very scarce dialogue) in post-production is simply flabbergasting. It would be laughable if it wasn't so irresponsible. The only real standout is Chris Hemsworth whose action star status is motivation enough for studios to dust off old movies and try to fast track them. (Red Dawn wrapped in 2009 and got lost in the shuffle of studio bankruptcy.) It feels almost unfair to pick on the cast of the movie who try to do the best they can with a dismal script and direction. Josh Peck plays Hemsworth's onscreen brother an unlikely pairing with Peck looking more like his stoner character from The Wackness. It's easy to see that all of the actors from Josh Hutcherson of The Hunger Games to Adrianne Palicki of Friday Night Lights signed on to boost careers on the rise. It's as embarrassing to watch them go through the motions as one might imagine it is for them to be associated with Red Dawn now. Sure these plucky kids are trying to save America! from invading forces but it is so hard to care. If this is the best we have to offer please take it.
  • Silent Hill: Revelation Review
    By: Jenni Miller Oct 26, 2012
    Silent Hill: Revelation 3D has a lot of things working against it from the get go. It's based on a video game franchise that debuted in 1999 has been milked for sequels ever since (the current total of Silent Hill games is nine) and the movie itself is a sequel to the disappointingly dumb 2006 film directed by Christophe Gans. What's more the bitter aftertaste of Resident Evil: Retribution is still lingering in the mouths of survival horror movie/gamers and although they have entirely different plots and take place in totally different universes that's not necessarily enough to take the edge off for weary viewers. It would take a dazzling director with a stellar cast and a first-rate script to overcome those sorts of obstacles and Silent Hill doesn't have any of those things. Writer/director Michael J. Bassett is obviously fond of both video games and horror (his previous movies include Solomon Kane and Deathwatch) the cast is decent with some exceptions and the script… well it's better than Resident Evil. If anything we can give Bassett credit for his enthusiasm. You really can't win when you try and make a video game movie no matter how many hours you spent playing Doom as a teen. Whether that's at the hands of the studios or the creative teams themselves isn't clear; it's simply a nut that hasn't been cracked yet. The good news is that you don't really need a grasp on the video game or previous movie's narrative to follow the Revelation's plot. Harry (Sean Bean) has been lying to his daughter Heather (Adelaide Clemens) for a very long time. He's convinced her that her dreams about a terrible place called Silent Hill are the longstanding effects of a car crash that killed her mother and that they have to move around and take on new identities all the time because he killed a prowler in self-defense. Heather has other problems like the occasional hallucinations about a terrible alternate universe that's populated by monsters and industrial junk and flickering lights. One minute she'll be doing something normal and then suddenly the walls are burning down to the rafters and something with a butt for a face is shambling towards her. It's a raw deal. Heather's first day at her new school is not that great; she meets a cute guy named Vincent (Kit Harington) who wants to be buddies but she makes it clear she's pretty bad ass and not one to pal around since she'll just be leaving town again anyway. When she comes home from school her dad has disappeared and the living room is a huge mess. If she wasn't clear on what to do next someone used his blood to write "COME TO SILENT HILL" on the wall with a funky sigil next to it which matches this weird object she's had since she was little. Luckily Vincent has a car and more than a few troubling secrets of his own underneath those glossy brown curls. He offers to drive her and off they go. Typical chitchat between them is about the nature of reality and dreams and Vincent's batty grandfather who's locked up in an insane asylum. This is where things get really convoluted. Silent Hill is indeed a terrible place where ash falls from the sky during the day and horrible things come out to menace any townsperson dumb enough to be out at night. It's an eerie world that comes close to the truly terrifying Silent Hill games on occasion. After a while though it's mostly just Heather and occasionally Vincent running around in what seems like mazes of rusty bloody walls with the occasional gruesome monster popping out to halfheartedly menace them. There's a dash of The Wicker Man here with the requisite creepy sacrificial cult and some Hellraiser-esque torture thrown in but it stops short of being a full-blown Clive Barker nightmare. There is some gore and disturbing images but the choice to use practical effects for almost all of the monsters is far more impressive in theory. Those monsters look okay from afar but rubbery up close whereas the only CGI monster is an impressive spidery thing made up of doll parts. The use of strobe lights and other effects is absolutely maddening especially in conjunction with the 3D which is mostly used for cheap gimmicks like splashing blood at the viewer. There's something oddly satisfying about the way that the movie follows the trajectory of a video game; it's even laid out like a video game universe with different goals and bosses at each location. The problem is that what is believable or acceptable in a video game doesn't necessarily translate to a movie — in a game you're busy solving puzzles and killing monsters and it's easier to overlook kitchen-sink plots. Even though the movie doesn't completely hew to the game's story it's got the same mentality that more is better when it's really just more. And the more that's piled on the more ridiculous it gets. When everything is at a fever pitch that kind of weirdness becomes a baseline and nothing is shocking. Unlike in the games there's just one ending no matter how you play it.
  • Chasing Mavericks Review
    By: Jenni Miller Oct 26, 2012
    Chasing Mavericks is one of those hoary "based on a true story" movies that borders on hagiography. It's a fictionalized take on the early life of surfing wunderkind Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston) and his attempt with the help of his mentor Frosty (Gerard Butler) to conquer the giant waves known as "mavericks." Although the beaches of North California and their crashing waves are gorgeous the story and the acting don't hold water. Chasing Mavericks is more interested in showing Moriarity to be a hero than an actual person and the movie suffers for it in the end. Weston plays Moriarity as a 15-year-old and although Weston is still in his early twenties he looks disconcertingly older. The tan make-up doesn't help and neither does his hollow performance which is mostly just him looking wide-eyed and earnest. He's not given much to work with the challenges he has to overcome not given much weight at all. Moriarity's dad left when he was a kid and his mom (Elisabeth Shue) is often drunk and can't keep a job. This could have been an interesting development — Jay has to take care of her and loan her money and lives in what looks like a cubbyhole in the living room — but it's given short shrift. The movie Moriarity patiently does her laundry and wakes her up for work instead of what a normal 15-year-old would do which would probably include at the very least some choice four letter words or acting out. Although his mentoring at the hands of Butler's Frosty does explore some of Jay's pain and fears he's not particularly affected by anything. He just shakes it all off like a shaggy dog who's spent a day at the beach. Other plot developments are equally toothless and without any real consequence. He has a bully who verbally taunts him but eventually respects him. His best friend is either doing or selling drugs given his shady goings-on and wads of dough in his pocket. Moriarity holds a torch for his childhood friend Kim (Leven Rambin) who is apparently embarrassed to be seen with him but even she isn't all that bad. It's like an after-school special that runs for 105 minutes (but feels much longer). His crusty mentor Frosty is supposed to be a damaged man whose passion for surfing trumps everything even it seems supporting his family. At one point it's clear he's lied to his wife about going to do construction work but she just sort of shrugs it off. Brenda (Abigail Spencer) knows Frosty's love for the ocean and how it heals him from past tragedies so she mostly tolerates his behavior aside from a few sharp remarks. As his voiceover indicates (delivered by Butler with an accent that goes in and out) these "Children of the Tides" are simply drawn to the ocean even if it kills them. The passion trumps all as it surely did in the life of the real Jay Moriarity. The footage of the men surfing is the centerpiece of the story which is probably why everything else feels like an afterthought. Even this is uneven though. Some of it is obviously Butler and Weston — Butler was injured on the set while filming a surfing scene — but the faraway shots don't really match up. It's not clear if this is archival footage or if it's just poorly edited and filmed. A few scenes in the movie look startlingly different all cloudy grays with Butler haggard and thinner and although it could be just a really ham-handed way to visually indicate grief this interlude looks like it's from an entirely different movie. A perk of Chasing Mavericks is its "alternative" music soundtrack that is immediately recognizable and surprisingly on point with songs from Mazzy Star Matthew Sweet and the Butthole Surfers popping up at appropriate times. While surely the people involved in making the film are dedicated to preserving Jay's memory and inspiring others it's hard to take it seriously or be emotionally moved by such a blatantly unblemished portrayal. Real tributes show that grit and shortcomings of their subjects as much as why they're heroes.
  • Here Comes the Boom Review
    By: Jenni Miller Oct 11, 2012
    Kevin James seems like an essentially likable guy a quality that's been the cornerstone of his career. A few years ago he halfheartedly tried to break out of the King of Queens schlub-with-hot-wife mold in Ron Howard's The Dilemma with poor results. His latest Here Comes the Boom feels like James' second attempt to quit that Queens pigeonholing. James plays Scott Voss a surly 42-year-old biology teacher who rides a motorcycle to school and is always butting heads with the principal mostly because he's a crappy teacher. He was Teacher of the Year 10 years ago but now he barely deigns to look up from the sports page during class to answer his best student's question. On the other hand Marty (Henry Winkler) is the kind of music teacher who buys old instruments to fix up for his less fortunate students. School budget cuts mean that Marty and his program will be the first to go so Scott figures that if they raise $48K they'll save Marty's job and the program. (It also bears mentioning that Marty really needs his job because he just found out his wife is pregnant.) After a convoluted series of events Scott decides MMA fighting is the best way to raise that money because even if you lose you still get a lot of dough. (You also get the crap kicked out of you but hey he wrestled in college… 20 years ago.) Along the way Scott's enthusiasm for teaching and life itself is invigorated by regularly getting his butt handed to him by slick-muscled monsters in rickety fighting rings. His joie de vivre is infectious; it even gets his sneering students involved in biology! And it might win over the hot nurse at school Bella who spends most of the movie gently rebuffing his dogged advances. (Bella is played by Salma Hayek because you knew there was going to be an extraordinarily beautiful woman to be James's love interest right?) Almost every joke in Boom falls flat even though some of them would read funny on paper. Watching Henry Winkler try to pump up an MMA audience for Kevin James is tantamount to watching Fonzie waterski over a shark for 105 minutes straight. As for James his rhythm and delivery is attuned to sitcom writing where you have to cram in your epiphanies between commercials and there's an accented pause after every throwaway one-liner. When we first see Scott zipping through the streets on his motorcycle I had hope that maybe this would be a different sort of role for James who we root for because of his big brown Labrador eyes but there's not much to Scott or his adventures that demands attention. Bas Rutten plays Niko a former MMA fighter from Holland that Scott teaches in a citizenship class that trains Scott for his fights. Rutten who is actually a former MMA fighter from Holland seems to be having fun as a freaky gym trainer who teaches everything from yoga to spin class. He's got a glint in his eye that makes me want to see him onscreen with Udo Kier in a Lars von Trier movie. After a while though even Rutten's manic performance begins to grate. Boom is full of the laziest sort of writing where Scott's best student Malia (Charice) is an Asian immigrant who learned to speak English through music and that's why music programs and teachers like Marty are so important and worth all the sprains dislocated shoulders and projectile vomiting. Every moment that will figure into the story later like the look on Bella's face when she sees Scott dancing jauntily on his desk to entertain his science students lands with a thud. There's not a whole lot to say about director Frank Coraci's work here; the sports scenes are serviceable but everything else is fairly flat and static. Boom is a bizarre hybrid of the MMA-flavored family drama Warrior and every high school teacher movie ever made from Mr. Holland's Opus and Dead Poets Society to last month's Won't Back Down. The lack of any sort of developed family dynamics or fleshed-out characters makes it impossible to connect with Boom on the same level as viewers did with Warrior and the MMA fight scenes aren't nearly beefy enough to make up for what the movie lacks in humor subtlety realism or authenticity.
  • Wuthering Heights Review
    By: Jenni Miller Oct 04, 2012
    Wuthering Heights is an incredible experience director Andrea Arnold having taken the Emily Brontë novel and turned it on its head in her typically nervy bold style. There's little dialogue it's shot using available natural light and like her previous film Fish Tank stars an unknown actor whose presence commands every scene. There is moping on the moors in Wuthering Heights but the muddy meditative experience that has almost nothing in common with its predecessors. There's no romantically brooding Olivier or pillow-lipped Tom Hardy here; this is not an experience for teen girls to swoon over. As children Catherine and Heathcliff are odd playmates. Once Mr. Earnshaw dies and Catherine's older brother Hindley takes over the household Heathcliff's life changes drastically for the worse. He's physically and verbally abused and banished to the barn to sleep with the "other animals." It's clear that this is a brand-new nearly incomprehensible world for Healthcliff and it's impossible to not feel empathy for him especially during an aborted attempted at baptizing him. As a teen his relationship with Catherine is magical despite (or because?) how much he risks to just play in the mud with her. An ominous indicator of their lifelong relationship is that she doesn't grasp why her playmate isn't as free as she is to do what she wants. She's sorry that Heathcliff gets beaten for ditching work to play with her but that doesn't stop her from encouraging him. As children they romp like puppies with just a hint of their budding sexuality; they're pure selfish id. In many ways neither of them outgrow this selfishness. Even when she's married and pregnant Catherine feels Heathcliff betrayed her by leaving. Heathcliff's ruthlessness in his pursuit of revenge is equally childish; we see him torturing dogs that mirrors the actions of Hindley's grubby-faced neglected child. Is it nature or nurture? Is Hindley's child learning by watching the adults around him or should we believe the natural tendency of children is this utterly careless cruelty? Whichever it is there's no doubt that Heathcliff's disavowal of the past and insistence of living in the present — "There's only now " he tells her — has nothing to do with Buddhist mindfulness but a total disregard for how his actions affect others. His initial plan included suicide but this seems much more interesting. Howson's performance as an adult Heathcliff is remarkable. He's not a sympathetic character — no one is in this film. Although it's not clear whether or not Arnold was specifically looking to cast a person of color for the role of Heathcliff the fact that Howson is black adds an extra layer of complexity to the drama. In the book he's described in such a way that indicates at the very least his ethnic background isn't white but Arnold ups the ante by putting a racial epithet in Hindley's mouth. This drives home the idea of Heathcliff's outsider status; it makes his "otherness" visible. There's something gentle in Heathcliff's face that belies the nearly sociopathic anger within. When he first seduces Catherine's sister-in-law Isabella as part of his revenge on Catherine it's erotic in a way that makes the viewer complicit in Isabella's eventual destruction. (This serves as an interesting foil to Fish Tank and its ethically troubling but arousing sex scenes with Michael Fassbender and Katie Jarvis.) As the adult Catherine Kaya Scodelario puts in a good performance. Her Catherine looks angelic but is all hard angles underneath those lacy flounces. She is the wild shrieking woman to Heathcliff's cold silence and when she is finally quiet it's only because she's succumbed to the furor of their lifelong struggle. Throughout Wuthering Heights we are put in Heathcliff's shoes. We see Catherine through his eyes and we understand what it feels like to ride on a horse behind her with her hair whipping in our face and the warm flank under our fingers. We are immersed in this sensual experience of being Heathcliff thanks to the magic of Robbie Ryan's cinematography. (Ryan has worked as a cinematographer on all of Arnold's films including her Oscar-winning short Wasp.) The handheld camera work is intense and occasionally nauseating but its immediacy is crucial to the film. Using available light occasionally works against it as some scenes are so dark it's hard to tell what's actually happening. Wuthering Heights gives rise to an internal debate. If it was edited down more with less lingering shots of bugs crawling across leaves or birds twinned in the sky as obvious metaphors for Heathcliff and Catherine it would be an entirely different experience. Would it be better maybe more enjoyable easier to sit through? Or is that beside the point? Andrea Arnold's talent lies in pushing the viewer past their normal boundaries of what's romantic or beautiful. In Arnold's world a mother and daughter dancing in a kitchen to "Life's a Bitch" by Nas is as loving and joyful as Heathcliff's frenzied attempts to unearth Catherine's coffin. You either decide you're all in or you're not.
  • The Paperboy Review
    By: Jenni Miller Oct 02, 2012
    It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.) Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll." The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it. The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back. It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
  • Won't Back Down Review
    By: Jenni Miller Sep 26, 2012
    Won't Back Down is as strident and willfully heart-plucking as you'd expect from a movie about two mothers from different socio-economic backgrounds who want to change the broken school system. Maggie Gyllenhaal is as charming as ever as Jamie Fitzpatrick a single mom working two jobs who has a punky plucky look about her. (We should note her visible tattoos lack of a college education and financial struggles as a marker of a wild and free past that she now regrets or even worse doesn't regret at all.) Her equally adorable daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is dyslexic and the public school she's at Adams is full of zombie-fied teachers who fail upwards or just plain phone it in. Jamie can't afford sending Malia to the private school that was starting to help her and all the teachers at her new school are like "Whatever my shift ends at 3 PM see ya!" because of unions. Their only hope is a charter school with a few precious slots open. (The charter school's headmaster is played by Ving Rhames so you know he gets s**t done.) Of course Malia doesn't snag a spot there despite her mom's aforementioned pluck and cute prayers to "foxy lady luck." When Jamie sees Nona Roberts (Viola Davis) one of the teachers from her daughter's school at a lottery for a charter school Jamie corners her. She tries to get Malia transferred to Nona's class but that doesn't work. Why she does this isn't clear since we saw Nona's class at the beginning and Nona was one of those teachers phoning it in; none of her students are paying attention to her as she drones on and who could blame them? They don't care that she's actually a highly educated woman who was once fired up about education and changing lives and all that inspired by her late mom's work as a teacher and her students' lifelong love. But whatever that doesn't work either and with her can-do attitude Jamie stumbles upon the "Pennsylvania Fail-Safe Act." Won't Back Down relies on the Fail-Safe Act as its hook which is problematic because while it is based on "parent trigger laws " it's also sort of made up. This makes things especially confusing since "Won't Back Down" is basically a call to arms for parents to take charge of their children's schooling and the movie oversimplifies a complicated matter. As someone who isn't a parent isn't involved in any sort of labor movement and is barely privy to the trials and tribulations of my friends who are teachers (even one who used to work at a charter school) even I know that this movie is a big flashing neon sign of a message about how great charter schools are. Although it touches on how it's more complex than that through the character of the hot hippie teacher love interest Michael (Oscar Isaac) the characters who are in support of or belong to the teachers' union are generally vilified. It is perhaps worth mentioning that production company Walden Media was also involved in the documentary Waiting for Superman which highlighted the struggles of a few families hoping to get their kids into charter schools. We can assume that whatever "actual events" this movie is based on didn't include a cute single mom with a can-do attitude and a teacher who suddenly finds her joie de vivre once again by osmosis. Everything is as on the nose as the theme song by Tom Petty. This is to say nothing of the uninspired direction which relies heavily on dark grays and blue tones at the beginning to denote how depressing and hopeless everything is and eventually turns to rosier tones as things begin to come together. The music is equally overbearing. As if we didn't get it "Norma Rae" is even invoked. Won't Back Down wastes a very talented cast on a story that has no real arc as any possible question the viewer might have about the story is answered by the very title. They won't back down. Maggie Gyllenhaal won't back down. Viola Davis won't back down. Oscar Isaac wants to back down but is way too smitten to stick to his pro-labor stance. Even Holly Hunter an executive-type teachers' union person who waxes philosophical about how much unions meant to her family eventually backs down. And Rosie Perez as a fellow frustrated teacher? You guessed it. While it's clear that the filmmaking team behind Won't Back Down care a great deal about a crucial issue facing America today dumbing down something so complex for mass consumption is not the way to fix anything. And it's certainly not a way to make a good movie.