Author

Michael Arbeiter
Staff editor Michael Arbeiter’s natural state of being can best be described as “mild panic attack.” His earliest memories of growing up in Queens, New York, involve nighttime conversations with a voice from his bedroom wall (the jury’s still out on what that was all about) and a love for classic television that spawned from the very first time he was allowed to watch “The Munsters.” Attending college at SUNY Binghamton, a 20-year-old Michael learned two things: that he could center his future on this love for TV and movies, and that dragons never actually existed — he was kind of late in the game on that one.
  • Review: 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' Is Stuffed with Bright Ideas, But Lacks in Character
    By: Michael Arbeiter Apr 02, 2014
    Marvel Studios Captain America: The Winter Soldier is filled — and I mean jam-packed — with genre-bending, action-heavy, sportily tense and relentlessly sinuous, sky-high-concept and maniacally bonkers stuff. Polygonal mayhem that aims, and impressively so, to top the Marvel lot in ideas, deconstructing every thriller staple from government corruption to talking computers to odd couple agents gone rogue. But oddly enough, the moment in the Cap sequel that I find most arresting several weeks after seeing the film is our peaceful reunion with Steve Rogers, trotting merrily around the Washington Monument as the sun rises on our nation's capital. The scene is shot from far overhead, a low pulse/high spirits Chris Evans reduced to a shapeless blur as he repeatedly (but politely!) laps fellow jogger and veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)... and yet it might be the closest we feel to Cap throughout the movie. The Winter Soldier has a lot to worry about in the delivery of its content. Managing a plot as ambitious and multifaceted as its own, with themes as grand as the scope of the American mentality — as represented by Steve Rogers, raised in the good old days of gee-golly-jingoism — it doesn't always have the faculties to devote to humanizing its central troupe. Cap isn't left hollow, but his battles with the dark cloud of contemporary skepticism play more like an intriguing Socratic discussion than an emotional arc. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, a character who ran circles around her Avengers co-players in flavor, feels a bit shortchanged in that department here (in her closest thing to a starring role yet, no less). Marvel Studios Mackie's Falcon, a regular joe who is roped into the calamity thanks largely to his willingness to chat with a fellow runner — a rare skill, honestly — is less of a problem. He doesn't have much to do, but he does it all well enough. Dynamic though he may be, Mackie keeps things bridled as Cap's ad-hoc sidekick, playing up the along-for-the-ride shtick rather than going full (or even half) superhero. We might want more from him, knowing just how fun he can be, but it's a sating dose. The real hunger is for more in the way of Black Widow, Cap, and — perhaps most of all — the titular villain. Still, these palpable holes pierce through a film that gets plenty right. As elegantly as Joe Johnston did the Spielberg thing back in 2011, Joe and Anthony Russo take on the ballots of post-innocence. They aren't afraid to get wild and weird, taking The Winter Soldier through valleys that feel unprecedented in superhero cinema. We're grateful for the invention here — for Robert Redford's buttoned-up Tom Clancy villain, for the directors' aggressive tunneling through a wide underworld of subterranean corruption, and especially for one scene in an army bunker that amounts to the most charmingly bats**t crazy reveal in any Marvel movie yet. We might be most grateful, though, for a new take on Nick Fury; here, the franchise gives Samuel L. Jackson his best material by a mile. But in the absence of definitive work done in our heroing couple, a pair rich in fibers but relegated to broad strokes and easy quips in this turn, most of it amounts to a fairly good spy thriller, not an ace-in-the-whole neo-superhero masterpiece... which, justly or otherwise, is what we've come to expect and demand from these things. 3/5 Follow @Michael Arbeiter | Follow @Hollywood_com
  • The 'How I Met Your Mother' Finale Broke Its Promise, And That's a Good Thing
    By: Michael Arbeiter Mar 31, 2014
    CBS A few seconds after the final episode of How I Met Your Mother came to a baffling close and commercials for some travesty starring James Van Der Beek began to roll, my roommate — longtime fan of the show and a fellow to whose slapping wrath I have fallen victim thanks to an ill-conceived bet made two years back — asked if I had “seen that one coming.” I hadn’t. Sure, I had read the theories. I had discussed them with friends and hostile Internet strangers. I had fostered a few in my recaps — Robin and Barney get divorced? Of course. The Mother dies? They all but told us that was going to happen! Ted and Robin get back together after Robin and Barney get divorced and The Mother dies? … Stranger things! — but something inside of me felt that How I Met Your Mother, for all its mind games and sleight of hand, couldn’t go that far. None of this would ever happen. So, familiar as I was with the possibilities, I was ethereally blindsided by the results of the finale: Barney and Robin got divorced. The Mother died. Ted and Robin, in the very final moments of the episode — following an hour that spanned 15 years, introduced Ted to professional bassist and blossoming philanthropist Tracy McConnell with whom he'd have two kids and (subsequently) a MacLaren’s wedding, and tossed Lily and Marshall a third child, plus one for a post-divorce Barney — wound up together. Or, at least, Ted hopped back on the prowl for his old flame. CBS I didn't know what to think. Had my roommate's subtle affirmation of the episode not been the first opinion I heard thereafter, I might have fallen into the oppositional camp, like the handful of friends with whom I'd then communicate through tweets, texts, Gchats, Facebook group messages — I swear, people only voluntarily contact me following controversial series finales — who all hated it. Truly. Viscerally. Carnally. Although there was diversity in the anti-finale rationale, I noticed a running theme: "This isn't what we were promised." Somehow, spiting its well-worn practice of duping its viewers — a practice dating back to the pilot, we might add, and spanning through huge series turns like Barney's relationship with Quinn, the death of Marshall's dad, Robin's faux-children — How I Met Your Mother had maintained many a viewer's trust that the story it "promised" it was telling was, in fact, the story it was telling. And to further highlight the peculiarity of this trust, we have to ask: was it ever really the show telling us that we were going to learn how Ted met the mother of his children, or simply Ted himself — a hopeless romantic who we knew from day one saw the world through a particularly thick, idealistic set of rose-colored glasses? CBS I can't fault the folks who held fast to this trust. Those who waited years for The Mother, grew attached to Cristin Milioti's bubbly ukulele player, and wanted to see Ted spend the rest of his life with her. My friends called Tracy "perfect" for Ted, and she sure as heck was. In fact, my primary critique of the finale is that I would have liked to see more of their time together over the 10 years between their union and her death. Time spent delighting in one another's company, raising in their kids, experiencing their shared love. Time that would have proved that Ted's refurbished yearning for Robin many years down the line wasn't an invalidation of The Mother, his quest to meet her, or the series that was ostensibly framed in her honor, but in fact just evidence for the simple fact: people love. People can fall so deeply in love, as Ted did with Robin, and then fall so deeply in love, as Ted did with Tracy... and then fall so deeply in love, as Ted did, again, with Robin. None of it detracts from that which came before, or expels the possibility of that which might come later on. Although Rosses and Rachels galore might have us believe otherwise, those lucky enough to be as wise as Ted's kids (and not as shortsighted as Ted, circa 2005 or 2030) will recognize that a true blue love story isn't... anything in particular. CBS That was Ted's mistake when we met him in '05. He had an idea of what love had to be: he saw it in Marshall and Lily, and feared its downfall in the likes of Barney, and hoped it might come to form between he and Robin. And it was Ted's mistake when we met him in '30. He thought that, having spent years devoted to Tracy — his wife, the mother of his children, the bearer of his umbrella — he couldn't possibly love another. Forget that, he convinced himself that he couldn't possibly have ever loved another before. Ted worked hard, despite the earnest truth so clear to viewers and his kinderlacht, to affirm that his years spent cherishing Robin were all just preparation for his meant to be. No woman — especially none that had come before Tracy, and especially one that would remain in his life after her passing — could mean as much to him as she did. But that doesn't have to be. It's sweet, in its way, and I can't really lament the idea of anyone championing anything that well-intentioned. But it's also sad. Ted, now alone, feels as though he deserves to stay that way, lest he betray the idea that he ever really loved Tracy. But his falling in love with Robin (I hesitate even to say falling back in love, since its a new journey altogether) doesn't make his love for Tracy any less the beauty that it was. For as long as we've known him, we've waited with Ted for his own run at the Lily and Marshall game. The inclusion of, and frequent references to, them as the commercial ideal for love has been an important staple in this show's mission to disrupt the propagation of such. Beside Lily and Marshall, we have Barney. The antithesis of their M.O. in every way, but whose own journeys with love wound up satisfying in no small form: in the finale, Barney found a different type of soul mate, true love, one-and-only: his daughter Ellie, whose addition gave the finale, and Barney's story, a special breath of warmth that I think even the detractors were fond of. She changed him. She filled the part of him that he had long known to be broken. Never in regards to Nora, Quinn, or even Robin have we seen Barney as whole as when he stared into the eyes of his newborn child for the first time and vowed to give her every single piece of himself for as long as he lived. CBS Though again, that is singular love. The sort we longtime TV junkies are comfortable with. Not the sort we saw befall Ted in the final moments, when he decided to cap his tale about his adoration for one woman with the decision to profess his adoration for another... something we should have been more prepared for, considering Tracy's own experience with losing her "soul mate," and subsequent decision (if you can even call it that) to pursue love in a refreshingly charming Mosby boy. Hell, even Robin and Barney's short-lived marriage can be tossed into the conversation. Barney affirms, in a fashion that I do not believe was meant for laughs nor as a defense mechanism by the often sardonic Mr. Stinson, that theirs was "a very successful marriage that only lasted three years." Who's to say that such a thing cannot be? Not all relationships are meant to last forever. But they might very well be meant just the same.  Admittedly, there are many imperfections to the ultimate delivery of the tale. As suggested above, we didn't really get to revel in the era of Ted and Tracy, which might well have been just what we needed to feel satisfied that their own story, one of abject importance, was given its due. To reiterate, Tracy was perfect for Ted. Too perfect, maybe. Too exemplary of the very idea of a "perfect match," to the end that her and Ted's relationship — and the "fate" that landed them together — might have undone the ultimate message of the show were we to spend any more time with them, and foster the idea that this sort of love should be championed above the rest. Call me weak, but I still can't help but wish we had seen a little more Mosby-McConnell magic. CBS The closing reveal might be used to defend this shortcoming; as this is a story told by a narrator waist-deep in a flourishing love for another woman, how can we expect him to focus so much attention on the wife he lost? Well, as is the entire point that How I Met Your Mother seems bent on making, one does not nullify another. The death of Tracy's lover back in 2005 didn't keep her from falling for Ted. Ted's boundless attempts at winning Robin's heart didn't stop him from loving Tracy. And the passing of Tracy years later wouldn't save Ted from his affections for that gun-lovin', Ghostbusters-quotin', daddy issues-havin' Canadian lass. So, really, we should have seen more of her, at the very least in this final hour. Because the show wants us to believe that Ted did indeed love Tracy, with all his heart. And, now, years later, does indeed love Robin. With all his heart. That's possible. That can happen. That is okay. So, to all detractors with whom I spoke, I have to concede: in the driving home of this message, How I Met Your Mother did not in fact deliver on its promise. Its promise, straight from the nuclear-powered mouth of a man whose maxims had been drawn from the idealized romance of Hollywood yore, was to give us something of that ilk. Something singular, indelible, incomparable, impossible. No, I'm not saying that "true love" is impossible. I'm saying that it is impossible for all of us to believe we will live out a carbon teleplay of the love that we've all seen in the shows and films that shape the young Teds of the world. That's not how it's going to be. That's not how it has to be. How I Met Your Mother very intentionally broke its promise in order to tell us something important: there is no one kind of true love story. CBS A very special thank you to all who stuck with me through the past few years of How I Met Your Mother recaps, to my pal Robbie for lending me his season DVDs (I will give them back someday, I promise), to Mike, Michelle, and Zach for riveting and diplomatic conversation, and to my roommate Matt... who still owes me three slaps. Follow @Michael Arbeiter| Follow @Hollywood_com
  • Director Daniel Carbone Discusses 'Hide Your Smiling Faces' a Different Kind of Coming-of-Age Film
    By: Michael Arbeiter Mar 29, 2014
    Tribeca Film via Everett Collection Inspired by a league of nontraditional coming-of-age movies, debut director Daniel Patrick Carbone imbued his masterful drama Hide Your Smiling Faces with an originality and emotional purity we don't often get to see on the big screen. The filmmaker discusses the creation of this personal story, drawn from his own life experiences, why it had to be his first feature, and what he hoped to say about life and death alike. I’m not a filmmaker, but I feel like there’s a lot of specific personal attachment that goes into your first movie. I was wondering if there was a reason that Hide Your Smiling Faces “needed” to be your first movie.  There’s the old adage that your first film is whatever age you are worth of pre-production. So this was like 26 years of pre-production, and your second movie is two or three years, or whatever. I think that’s true, and I think that’s why so many people’s first features are their most personal. And sometimes their strongest, because I think you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the movie made, not necessarily overthink things, and be the most honest filmmaker you can be at that point — before you get all these reviews, and you’re like, “Oh, maybe I should be changing this. Is this working? Is this not working?” Some of the films that were big inspirations for this movie, like Ratcatcher and George Washington and countless others, were those [directors’] first films. And a lot of them take place in their hometown or somewhere near their hometown, or a story based on their childhood. There’s a long line of these great first features that are very personal. I think this is, hopefully, my addition to that line of great films that I really like… it was my version of that film. In some ways, there was no other first feature I could have made. There weren’t scripts I was considering, or anything like that. I was just writing it, and once it was written, I was like, “Let’s make this.” I know that you’ve had personal experience with what happens in the film. How exactly did that shape you creatively? The thing is, the movie started out as being very autobiographical. The first scenes in the script were scenes that I would write just because I would remember this thing that happened to me when I was nine, or whatever. And I’d write it down. I don’t keep a journal or anything. My journal is writing a little script idea, or a two-page scene in script format that happened to me. Or that I wished had happened to me. Or that was some dramatized version of something my brother did once, or whatever. So, the script started as 10 or 15 little scenes, not totally connected — not even literally in the same document, just in the same folder of scenes about my childhood. And then as I continued to realize that these were part of a bigger thing, the theme of death and the theme of loss came up a lot. Obviously the two characters came up a lot. I said that maybe this was something bigger, maybe I should combine these — see what it’s like to read this scene and then this scene and then this scene. And that also influenced the structure of the film. I liked that I was writing it kind of from memory, but also enhancing it because you don’t necessarily need to stay true to it. I wasn’t making an autobiography. So, my neighbor, when I grew up, really did tie my dog to a cinderblock once. [Laughs] Because he kept going on his property. I didn’t go and retaliate, but I really wanted to. So, in my movie, the kids retaliate. So, it’s sort of being able to use your life as a seed, but then not being afraid to make a proper story out of it. The theme of death came up a lot. The event in the film that sort of starts the film off isn’t exactly something that happened. It’s sort of an amalgamation of times when somebody in my town died — somebody in my high school did pass away, my roommate in college did pass away. Not in the way that you see in the film, but in the same sort of suddenness of it. The unanswerable tragedy of it. The movie was more about having something happen that was similar to what happened to me and would set people off in the same way that I was set off. In this search for something that you’ll never really find an answer to. So, again, it’s not fully autobiographical, but it’s a movie that has events that happen that hopefully make the audience feel the way I did growing up. So, it’s autobiographical emotionally, you could say, but not actually beat for beat in the narrative. In a lot of Hollywood movies, there’s the tendency to go general in order to relate to the most amount of people — I think when you go specific, when you go really personal, is when it does have the best effect. But were you ever worried about that? “Just because something affected me in a specific way, that doesn’t mean…” I think you’re right. Some things are so universally relatable that they become kind of grey. There’s no specifics to it anymore. Everybody can to relate to trying to get into college! But that’s actually not that interesting. Because everybody relates to it, it’s not specific enough to raise an eyebrow and want to know more. I tried to balance the line... everything that happens in the film is very specific, but there’s also a lot of ambiguity to the spaces in between the scenes we’re watching. I didn’t want to say exactly what the aftermath of this accident was for the family or for the town or for the police investigation, or anything like that. By leaving the bigger things ambiguous, I think people fill in the gaps themselves. But the reason the want to fill in the gaps is because you’re giving them these super specific things that only someone who experienced it themselves or who heavily researched a place or who spent a lot of time in a place would know. And those are the things that I always respond to in a character and in a film. There’s the plot of the film, but then what does that person do when they’re alone? What does that person do before they go to bed? What does that person’s morning routine look like? And that’s when I feel like you get the most out of somebody. So this movie, you could argue, is a series of really specific moments in these kids’ lives that have some strong effect on them. But then everything else is left up to the audience. And they’ve all been kids before, and a lot of people grew up in a rural place like this. By giving them these little specifics and then leaving the bigger questions unanswered, they said, “Well, when me and my brother did something like that, my mom would have yelled at us.” I’ve had people tell me about scenes that aren’t even in the movie that they sort of invented. “Oh, the scene where they get yelled at by their parents for leaving.” That’s not a scene in the movie. It’s insinuated, because everybody’s had that experience. It’s sort of a balance of giving a lot of specifics, but also keeping it ambiguous enough that people can kind of put themselves in the world and remember what it was like to be that age. But to be honest, when I was writing, it wasn’t something I was thinking about. Maybe it was because I was naïve and I had never made a feature before, but I wasn’t writing to raise money, I knew I would make it for very little money and that I would probably be paying for it mostly myself. I wasn’t sending it out to production companies or producers or trying to build the biggest audience I could. I was just trying to make the best movie I thought I could. A lot of it is luck, I’ll be totally honest. Some experiments that ended up paying off. And now I know! Now when I read what people respond to and talk to people after the film, now I get maybe why the movie worked. But at the time, it wasn’t a totally conscious thing. It was the movie I wanted to make — “I’m not so interested in this, but I am very interested in this” — luckily, other people shared that opinion. Tribeca Film via Everett Collection Going back to what you said about the routines of these characters. I remember you mentioning that a lot of the dialogue and a lot of the scenes were sort of in the hands of the kids. I was wondering how much of these two characters specifically that you knew and that you had invented before the movie, or at script level? And how much of that changed when you cast the actors, or how much of the characters came originally from the two boys? Almost all of the scenes in the film are scenes in the script, but [the script was] always a skeleton. I knew what I wanted the movie to be, and I knew pretty much how I wanted it to start and end — but I wasn’t even totally sure about that. I knew that with a film like this, where the structure is very loose and almost a series of vignettes at times, that I’d be able to shoot everything I wanted to shoot and then also say, “Well, what if we start the movie here? That might color the rest of the movie if you see this first…” Because there isn’t a ton of chronological stuff in the film. [With the dialogue], I was trying to sort of remember how I talked when I was nine or when I was 14. That, to me, leads to the worst child performances, when they are trying to remember lines very specifically. They end up sounding like little adults, or they’re written so young that they end up sounding not as intelligent as they really are. So I knew that the dialogue specifically would be kind of thrown out the window. We’d always do a take with it, just so they knew what the scene was about. And every now and then there’s a line that does need to lead to some other line later, or something. So we said, “Be sure to say this one line, but other than that, do what you want to do. Here’s what the scene is about, here’s where you’re coming from, this is what you want to get out of him, etcetera.” We’d do my version, and then their version, and we’d usually end up somewhere in between, on take three or four. But I wanted to give them the ability to be creatively responsible for a lot of the movie. Especially for non-actors, I think they are not coming into it with the training that adults have, to be able to hit marks and turn to the camera, and always give them the best side of their face, and say these lines. I think sometimes it’s best to let kids be kids, and let them stumble on each other’s lines, and cut each other off, and don’t answer if you don’t want to answer. If you wouldn’t actually answer in real life, then don’t answer. If you do say words there, it’s going to sound weird. And if he’s bothering you in the scene, move away from him. If you want to put him in a headlock, put him in a headlock. So there’s a lot of stuff like that. Long story short, there was definitely a little arc that I knew we wanted to hit. I knew these scenes were going to be together, and this scene was going to be here, and I knew this scene needed to start with this... little details like [Ryan Jones] spraying the cut on his leg. Obviously that was pre-planned, it wasn’t a real cut, things like that. But a lot of the scenes, like the beginning and end of the movie, were just Ryan and Nate [Varnson] being Ryan and Nate. We would be off doing something else, some sort of film set nonsense, ordering lunch or something, and Ryan would be standing in the rain trying to catch raindrops in his mouth. And I would go, “That’s better than the scene I had written. Let’s go shoot that.” A lot of the most authentic moments in the film feel the way they do because they really were Ryan and Nate being themselves. Bored kids on a movie set. We’d throw them in costume quick and tell them to keep doing what they’re doing, and then we’d make a scene out of it. The script was done, but I knew that 75 percent was going to stay, and for the other 25 percent, I was hoping for these little happenings to occur. Luckily for the movie, they did. You said sometimes it was preferable when the boys didn’t say anything at all. Do you, as a fan of movies or as a filmmaker or as a writer, respond to nonverbal, or largely nonverbal performances in general? Yeah, I do. I don’t have any real insight into why. For me, I love Woody Allen films. I love films that are really smartly written, really fast dialogue, things like that. But I tend to respond best to film as a medium when it is mostly visual. Well, visual and audio, but not necessarily dialogue. I think when you watch two people talk — other than in a situation like this [interview], where it’s literally only talking — I think most communication is nonverbal. It’s physical, and it’s through body language. Or it’s through talking about other things, but the subtext of that dialogue is what [they are] really saying to each other. Films need dialogue, but I think less is more. I think when somebody does speak — like in real life, usually, when somebody finally does speak — it’s more meaningful when it carries a bunch of weight with it. Especially with young kids. Young boys don’t sit down and have heart to heart conversations. They communicate by beating the crap out of each other, and trying to have a power struggle. Or sometimes not being violent to your little brother is your way of being very nice to him. The whole way you judge emotions is totally skewed when you’re a young boy. Again, the thing that film can do that a lot of other artistic mediums can’t do is combine images and sound in this way. Dialogue, obviously, is needed and sometimes is just as valuable, but I think stories to me — the most compelling cinematic experiences, I’ll say — are when images and sound are combining and I do not necessarily have to follow dialogue. Maybe I just can’t handle three things at once. [Laughs] But some of my favorite films are mostly wordless, because they are more pure to what I think cinema was intended to be, in a way. Do you have examples? Stalker is one of my favorite films. Tarkovsky. There is a lot of dialogue at times, but it’s kind of this psychobabble and I think that’s kind of the point. But again, there are 20-minute spans of that film with nothing. 2001: A Space Odyssey. I could go on. I’ll send you a list. [Laughs] These films where I sort of get hypnotized by what I’m seeing and hearing, and I’m not necessarily following a narrative. A traditional narrative. I like characters in a place just being. I like having time to absorb the space and absorb the tone and the atmosphere of the film. And then I’ll take a little bit of plot. But once I’m in this new place, I like to be able to absorb. I think Tarkovsky does that really well. I mention Ratcatcher all the time. I mean, there is dialogue in that, but not as much as a traditional film. A lot of that is kids exploring. I kind of want to close with my big, obnoxious question. There are countless movies about death. Some would argue that every movie is about death. I was thinking about the movie Rabbit Hole before. That’s another movie about a very similar topic, but done in a very different way. And I like that movie a lot, but there are these big scenes of breakdowns and people talking out their thoughts. And I wanted to know if, with Hide Your Smiling Faces, there was something you were trying to say about cinematic depictions of death. To make a movie that handles death in a way you haven’t seen.  The death side, I was trying to say that the way kids respond, which sometimes is counterintuitive to the way an adult would respond in a situation, is not necessarily any more right or wrong. The adults in this film are not dealing with the situation any better, arguably. There’s the guy who is very religious — not a statement on religion necessarily, but that’s his way of dealing with it. The mother and father sort of take a back seat. They’re not sure what to do, so they become distant. The kids don’t cry, but they still feel... also, the title. You’re told to feel a certain way, society says this is the right way to grieve. But I don’t necessarily feel like that’s true. The movie is more about the idea of a right and wrong way to grieve, and how that is sort of a silly notion. How sometimes, with their raw instincts, are more honest than adults, who have been trained to feel a certain way when a certain event happens. Hide Your Smiling Faces is available in select theaters and on VOD now. Follow @Michael Arbeiter| Follow @Hollywood_com
  • Review: 'Cheap Thrills' Is Almost Very Interesting, Definitely Very Gross
    By: Michael Arbeiter Mar 28, 2014
    Drafthouse Films via Everett Collection There are a lot of ideas floating around in Cheap Thrills. They're interesting, they're dense, and they're fruitful endeavors for the world of psychological horror. But they are relegated to floating, never quite anchoring into any real conclusions or statements about their desperate, depraved subjects. We meet Craig (Pat Healy), a happily married father of one, on a particularly bad day: he loses his job, is slapped with an eviction notice, and — to top it all off — bumps into a pesky old chum (Ethan Embry) from his younger days. A fellow who Craig, a loser in his own right, judges for never having gone anywhere. As the high school buddies catch up, they are roped into the increasingly violent and grotesque high jinks of a pair of thrill-seeking strangers (David Koechner, giving an impressively haunting performance, and a nearly wordless Sara Paxton) with the promise of bright financial futures dangled in front of them. The men, each of thinning pride, gradually give way to monetary temptation as they play along in these treacherous mind games, the biggest mystery being if a limit to their desperation exists. Drafthouse Films via Everett Collection Although it's an intriguing venture, the sociological study stops at its thesis question. In truth, the movie's philosophical makeup can be summed up with the Klondike Bar slogan. Still, there is meat to be found: the bubbling lava underneath the crust of Craig and Vince's (Embry) long dormant friendship comes with a few humanistic ditties about breaking free from your past, and the pangs inherent in facing off with someone who knows the you that you've been trying to escape. But these ideas, too, aren't milked to their full potential. The only element of the film that does hit its promised summit: the grossness. Cheap Thrills does deliver, and then some, on the ick factor. It's not an abundance of gore or violence that does it, but the visceral, intimate nature with which the gore is handled. Everything is up close and personal, all pains really felt. If this is your bag, then Cheap Thrills will come through here. But psychologically, it does little more than present would-be interesting ideas. Fun in the set-up, occasionally thrilling in the delivery, but never particularly fulfilling in the conclusion.  2.5/5 Follow @Michael Arbeiter| Follow @Hollywood_com
  • Review: 'Hide Your Smiling Faces' Is a Tremendously Touching Story About Life, Death, and Dealing with Either
    By: Michael Arbeiter Mar 28, 2014
    Tribeca Film via Everett Collection It seems that the general mission statement of your usual coming-of-age drama is to take the lighter fare of growing up, all those moments that we took for granted until our wistful recollections years later, and pull back the curtain on just how important they always were. The first kisses, the first fights, the first sips of beer — these are the elements that have lined the genre since before American Graffiti and Breaking Away. But in earnest, there is no cookie cutter mold for the coming-of-age experience. Romance and high jinks could well take a backseat — or fall out of the picture altogether — when your childhood is shaped by something like the subject matter of Hide Your Smiling Faces, an altogether inviting and merciless picture about the sudden death of a young boy, and the aftermath as experienced by two of his close friends. Ostensibly, this is a movie about death. About what it means to lose a friend, a child, a neighbor. About what it means to understand, for the very first time, the idea of mortality, of impermanence, of loss. And through the often silent (though never to a fault) journeys of two brothers, young Tommy (Ryan Jones) and preteen Eric (Nathan Varnson), we see a version of "death" not often granted to the screen. Director Daniel Patrick Carbone doesn't seem too strained to avoid the theatrical, sewing weight and humanity into the every move, breath, and rare word ventured by the suffering boys. We're not treated to Rabbit Hole-esque diatribes or Oscar-friendly explosions in a movie whose subject matter might beckon the like. We're carted through an impressively effective journey inside the boys as they battle not only  their pain, but the inscrutable parameters set for their expression of it. Tribeca Film via Everett Collection But the struggles of Tommy and Eric aren't limited to the time frame of human grief. Just as coming-of-age movies that present kisses and fights as representative glimpses into an endless stretch of the human condition, the brothers' experience with death is a rock with which their road to maturity is paved. The tragedy brings to the forefront issues that won't fade over time: the stinging confusion inherent in figuring out how to feel, what to think, and what to show about everything. Scenes involving Tommy's own gateway into the kissing world, and Eric's sudden rift with a friend he thought he understood highlight just how expansive these themes are. They, in fact, might be the only permanent thing there is.  Even in its sincerity, Hide Your Smiling Faces doesn't fall shy of cinematic — shot in the beautiful New Jersey woodlands, we explore defunct bridges, silent dirt roads, and rotting old houses that feel impossibly lived in, courtesy of just how closely we are welcomed to the boys themselves. A story about life and death alike, Hide Your Smiling Faces handles both in a fashion you won't often see in film. In its tackling of the former — of growth and discovery — it is haunting, harsh, and sad. In the latter, it isn't afraid to access joy, hypocrisy, and beauty. On each side of its impossibly vast fence, Hide Your Smiling Faces gives us something touching, tremendous, and new. Merging the two, we wind up with something altogether beautiful. 4.5/5 Follow @Michael Arbeiter| Follow @Hollywood_com
  • Review: 'Noah' Is Bonkers and Bizarre in All the Right Ways
    By: Michael Arbeiter Mar 28, 2014
    Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection Here's a feat: taking what is likely the oldest, most well-known story in the world, and making a retelling feel inventive. Over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Darren Aronofsky's Noah takes many forms — Tolkien-esque fantasy, trippy psychological thriller, merciless dissection of the dark points of abject faith — never feeling too rigidly confined to the parameters of the familiar tale that we've all experienced in the form of bedtime stories, religious education lessons, and vegetable-laden cartoons. As many forms as the parable has taken over the past few thousand years, Aronofsky manages to find a few new takes. The director's thumbprint is branded boldly on Russell Crowe's Noah, a man who begins his journey as a simple pawn of God and evolves into a dimensional human as tortured as Natalie Portman's ballerina or Jared Leto's smack head. Noah's obsession and crisis: his faith. The peak of the righteous descendant of Seth (that's Adam and Eve's third son — the one who didn't die or bash his brother's head in with a rock), Noah is determined to carry out the heavenly mission imparted upon him via ambiguous, psychedelic visions. God wants him to do something — spoilers: build an ark — and he will do it. No matter what. No matter what it means to his family, to his lineage, to his fellow man, to the world. He's going to do it. No matter what. The depths to which Aronofsky explores this simple concept — the nature of unmitigated devotion — makes what we all knew as a simplistic A-to-B children's story so gripping. While the throughline is not a far cry from the themes explored in his previous works, the application of his Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan ideas in this movie does not feel like a rehashing. Experiencing such modern, humane ideas in biblical epic is, in fact, a thrill-ride. Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection Although Aronofsky accesses some highly guttural stuff inside of his title character, he lets whimsy and imagination take hold of the world outside of him. Jumping headfirst into the fantastical, the director lines his magical realm with rock monsters — "Watcher" angels encased in Earth-anchored prisons as punishment for their betrayal of God — and a variety of fauna that range in innovation from your traditional white dove to some kind of horned, scaled dog bastardization. But the most winning elements of Noah, and easily the most surprising, come when Aronofsky goes cosmic. He jumps beyond the literal to send us coursing through eons to watch the creation of God's universe, matter exploding from oblivion, a line of creatures evolving (in earnest) into one another as the planet progresses to the point at which we meet our tortured seafarer. Aronofsky's imagination, his aptitude as a cinematic magician, peak (not just in terms of the film, but in terms of his career) in these scenes. With all this propped against the stark humanity of his story — not just in terms of Crowe's existential spiral, but in character beats like grandfather Methuselah's relationship with the youngsters, in little Ham's playful teasing of his new rock monster pet — Aronofsky manages something we never could have anticipated from Noah. It's scientific, cathartic, humane. Impressively, this age-old tale, here, is new. And beyond that feat, it's a pretty winning spin. 4/5 Follow @Michael Arbeiter| Follow @Hollywood_com
  • 'How I Met Your Mother' Recap: Robin and Barney Get Married
    By: Michael Arbeiter Mar 25, 2014
    CBS On this week's episode of How I Met Your Mother, the second-to-last episode in the entire series, Robin Scherbatsky — Canadian-born newsanchor and former teen pop sensation, advocate of firearms, hockey, and dogs, and lifelong sufferer of chronic daddy issues — and Barney Stinson — Staten Island-raised corporate stooge (and secret government mole), lover of Scotch, magic, and laser tag, plausible sex addict and compulsive liar... and lifelong sufferer of chronic daddy issues — got married. Some of us thought it wouldn't happen (guilty). Some of us thought Robin might be better off on her own, pursuing a slew of career-oriented adventures like the lone wolf she is, perhaps finding love someplace else down the line... but with her parents (Ray Wise and Tracy Ullman) present, Patrice inscrutably by her side at the altar, and her sister presumably hidden among the crowd (I guess they couldn't get Lucy Hale away from the Pretty Little Liars set for two episodes this season), Robin tied the knot to the seedy, cartoonishly evil, secretly big hearted (at least that's what we're supposed to believe now) Barney. To say that we have mixed feelings would be an understatement. It's tough to "accept" the flaws we see in Barney as his screwed up presentation of affection when some of his vile behaviors do in fact seem incredibly deep seated. It seems like HIMYM boasts the relationship as a more colorful alternative to the Marshall/Lily perfection, but only one of the budding marriage's parties is wholly on board with its prickly, occasionally criminal nature. As much earnestness as we might see in Barney's devotion to his friends, we do think there's something missing in his devotion to his marriage. And we do, honestly, think Robin deserves better. But, hey, here's what we're getting. Robin and Barney got married, and likely will be forever. Ted said his final goodbye to his love for Robin this week, rejecting her  revelation that maybe the two of them should be together, affirming (in a fashion apparently charged more by guilt and fraternal responsibility than candid belief) that she and Barney love each other and belong together. But it wasn't Ted who set her on course, it was the still peskily unnamed Mother, who recommended that a panicked Robin take three deep breaths to calm herself and hear out Barney's refreshed set of vows — that he would always be honest with her. Not too shabby for a guy who just episodes ago proclaimed that he would never give up his passion for deceit. So now that their love story is wrapped, Marshall and Lily are back on track, we only have one thing left to see... and one week left until we see it. Follow @Michael Arbeiter // | Follow @Hollywood_com //
  • A Look Back at 'Girls' Season 3
    By: Michael Arbeiter Mar 24, 2014
    HBO Girls' third season has had many detractors, a few supporters, a moreover healthy slew of watchers, a large percentage therein of HBO Go password stealers, a ton of recappers, at least one psychoanalyzer, and some ambiguous number of folks interracting with the show in a wide variety of creative, progressive, and destructive ways. Personally, I loved it throughout — the light, the dark, the cynical, the humanistic, the sad, and the funny all worked for me, though not without some qualitative hiccups. Here's a quick look back at Lena Dunham's third year on HBO, and a quick assessment of where we've seen her take her characters over the past 12 weeks. WHEN THE SEASON STARTED OUT... We saw Hannah in an ostensibly happy, loving, and emotionally balanced relationship with Adam, who had moved in with her to resume their romance following last season's downward spiral for the pair (each had endured an explosive relapse — Hannah with OCD, Adam with alcoholism). Creatively, Hannah's eBook deal was coming together gratis of editor David Pressler-Goings, while Adam was struggling with rediscovering his own passions. Marnie was shattered over her recent breakup with Charlie, which was somehow sparked by the decision to collaborate on a homemade pizza. We found Jessa stuck in a drug rehab center upstate, making enemies galore as she accosted her fellow addicts for their "pedestrian" turmoils. Neither Shoshanna nor Ray were dealing with their breakup too well, the former burning the candle at both ends with a compulsive "life to the fullest" marathon and a drive to ace all her classes, and the latter sulking acerbically. AS THE SEASON PROGRESSED... After Pressler-Goings died suddenly, Hannah lost her book deal and was forced to take a day job writing advertorial at GQ (a place she immediately considers herself "too good for," but sticks with anyhow). Meanwhile, Adam opted to pursue his latent love for acting in a more serious way, throwing his old reservations out the window and actually going on auditions. We also got to meet Adam's sister Caroline, a flighty and manipulative lunatic who moved in with Hannah and Adam briefly (much to Adam's chagrin), aiming to drive them apart before Hannah kicked her out (also to Adam's chagrin). Marnie got a cat. She was still sad. Back in town, Jessa kicked drugs and got a painfully dull job at a baby clothing store. After running into Ray at Hannah's birthday, Shoshanna began to entertain renewed feelings for him. Her sexual and academic drives progressed. HBO AND THEN... Adam landed a role in a Broadway production of Major Barbara. As a result, Hannah began to worry (thanks to the cynical wisdom of Patti LuPone) that he would soon "outgrow" her. Marnie began a sexual relationship with Ray. She was still sad. Somehow, Jessa's sole rehab buddy Jasper tracked her down in New York City, courting her through a drug relapse and drumming up a ton of destructive patterns in the young woman. All of this added to Shoshanna's love- and school-related stress. Also, Elijah returned, in traditional form, and Adam made a theater pal named Desi who caught Marnie's eye. AND FINALLY... In this week's season finale, Hannah got accepted into a prestigious creative writing grad school program in Iowa, reigniting her own sense of self-worth after a multi-episode bout of diminished confidence. We saw Adam's Broadway debut! Although the audience seemed impressed by his performance, Adam considered the night a failure after he lost focus following Hannah's revelation that she might be moving to Iowa (which she told him just before showtime). The two had a tremendous fight, leaving their relationship in flux, but not robbing Hannah of her glee over being accepted into the aforesaid MFA program. Also, Caroline is back, and pregnant with Laird's (Hannah's oddball junkie neighbor) baby. Marnie fessed up to Shoshanna about her relationship with Ray, and finally kissed Desi... even after admitting that she has only been validating herself as a sexual object. Old habits die hard. Desi's girlfriend didn't have a ton of kind words for Marnie. Pretty much out of nowhere, Jessa helped her new employer, an elderly photographer, attempt suicide, only to call 911 at the last minute when the woman changed her mind. Not a good week for Shosh. In addition to the above news, she found out that she would not be graduating on time due to having failed one of her classes (thanks in large part to her adventurous escapades). She also hit Ray with the information that she wants him back, only to be calmly rejected. SO WHAT NOW? We predict we'll see Hannah relocate to Iowa and Adam sink into the world of theater (a for-the-cameras kiss from one of his castmates seemed like it could be hinting at the show's interest in pairing him with a new ladyfriend next season). We're not so sure about Marnie, though we'd like to see her access some new insight and focus herself on her own passions instead of her goal to satisfy and entrance men. Jessa? We have no idea, but that gal deserves a win. Thrown into a handful of whirlwinds this week alone, the graduation-obsessed Shosh might showcase her most explosive arc yet, having lost everything she wanted and believed in (at least that's how she'll have seen it). What are your predictions and hopes for next season? Follow @Michael Arbeiter // | Follow @Hollywood_com //
  • Review: 'Muppets Most Wanted' Is Confused About What Makes a Good Muppet Movie
    By: Michael Arbeiter Mar 21, 2014
    Disney I know, that headline is trouble. You're always treading dangerous ground when you insist on defining what makes a good this or the right kind of that, as if there is no room for change or improvement when it comes to classic properties. Of course there is — Jason Segel's 2011 Muppet film approached the concept from an entirely different direction. It didn't hit all of its marks, but it prevailed overall in its conceit: make a movie not about Muppets, but about Muppet fandom. But Muppets Most Wanted, in absence of a clear mission statement and fueled largely by the monetary glimmers of the sequel game (the film's opening number admits this outright), has fewer marks readily available to hit. Landing in the ambiguity between the classic Muppet adventure formula and Segel's post-modern Henson appreciation party, Most Wanted feels like a failure on both counts. It doesn't know which kind of movie it wants to, or should, be. So it doesn't really be anything. On the one hand, there's the half-cocked "get-the-band-back-together" through line, mimicking but not quite accomplishing the spirit of the 2011 picture. None of the Muppets are particularly likable or charming in this turn, and even fewer of them actually given anything to do. Kermit loses his s**t in the first act after a spat with Piggy and a barrage of insubordination from his troupe (provoked by the nefarious Dominic Badguy, Ricky Gervais), storms off in a huff, and gets swept up in a case of mistaken identity when his criminal doppelganger Constantine pulls the old switcheroo, landing Kermit in a Russian gulag. You'd think this would be a good opportunity for the second tier of Muppet favorites — Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, et al — to go on a search and rescue... but save for a very brief sequence at the tail end of this achingly long film, none of the other Muppets are giving anything to do. They just hem and haw and perform the occasional "Indoor Running of the Bulls" while Dominic and Constantine scheme, rob banks, and bicker. Disney Meanwhile, Kermit has some fun in prison — a far more endearing plot that sees him befriending the merry convicts, organizing a penitentiary revue, and even winning the heart of the vicious warden Nadia (Tina Fey). If only we could spend more time with real Kermit and less time with fake Kermit and his second banana Gervais, an effectively boring pair. On the other hand, though, there's the Muppet shtick that fans of The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island — and yes, The Muppet Show itself — will deem the movie's best material: CIA Agent Sam Eagle and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) hot on the trail of Constantine and Dominic. Here, we get a different type of Muppet movie entirely from what Segel and the A-plot in Most Wanted are opting: the old fashioned vaudeville act, with Sam standing as an independent entity from his googly-eyed brethren, on a goofy, musical prowl with Burrell that fuels the film with its best and most consistent chuckles. Their "Interrogation Song" number is outstanding, exemplifying the many talents of Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, who wrote all the music for this and the previous film. Unfortunately, Muppets Most Wanted isn't sure that it wants to be The Great Muppet Caper, beheld so stubbornly to its Segelian roots. There's a palpable compulsion to stick with this agonizingly self-aware, nostalgia-crazy, brimming-beacons-of-the-past-in-a-callous-today theme that doesn't work a fraction as well as it did in the 2011 film. Without a legitimate celebration of any of our favorite characters, how could it? With so much going on in this movie, and such a lengthy runtime at just under two hours, it's a sure sign of failure that we walk away feeling like we spent barely any time with the Muppets. 2.5/5 Follow @Michael Arbeiter | Follow @Hollywood_com
  • Review: Chicago's 'Divergent' Is a Lot Like Its Pizza: Overstuffed, Flavorless, and Bad for You
    By: Michael Arbeiter Mar 19, 2014
    Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection Beneath the many tiers of convoluted sci-fi world building that make up the skin of Divergent, there is what might pass for a simple and humane heart: the message that a person should be more than "just one thing." That the truly worthwhile among us won't fit so snugly into the rigid compartments instituted by society — both ours and that of Future Chicago — because "not fitting in," as it turns out, is actually a better gig. That in Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), we — the silent majority of outcasts — have a new idol to vocalize the values in being different. But it's really difficult to attach yourself to a character like Tris with writing this terrible. Although the parameters of her role would logically allow for enough personality, imagination, and good old fashioned chutzpah to make Tris a relatable human being, there is almost no personality to be found in the script's version of the hero. The entire Divergent world is lacking in this area, in fact. From the onset of her introductory voice-over (almost forgivable, because there might actually be no other way to introduce a society so cluelessly complicated), we can feel something lacking in the construction of the film's hero. Tris explains the nature of the five societal factions that exist in Future Chicago — Dauntless (the brave), Abnegation (the selfless), Erudite (the intelligent), and two others that don't really come into play, mentioning with a foreboding tone that those who don't belong to any faction are shunned by the world and cast to desolation (that's her, if you don't already know). But in these crucial opening minutes, Tris' exposition is as lifeless as it is brainless. Starting with Erudite, Tris fawns like an empty-headed child, "They know everything." A regrettably imbecilic line, but probably the peak of the character's nuance. From there, we get very little out of Tris, or any other of Divergent's citizens, that isn't cold, bloodless exposition and the action necessary to courier it to a sating box office end game. Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection No one in this story about "being yourself" feels at all like he or she has a self to be. Run through the gears of a world too insistently mechanical to evoke anything real (despite the generosity of its central "fitting in" conceit), the people end up flat, thin, and dry, never once uttering a line of dialogue that is in any way personal... or in any small way not tailored to the larger game of misguided set-up at play. Against this backdrop, a pronounced Tris Prior might have been doubly effective. But it's not some grand schematic on the part of director Neil Burger and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor to paint a gray world behind a glimmering hero. It's just an ostensible inability to draw anything human. There are a couple of reasons why we hesitate to call Tris a truly terrible character. The first is Woodley. With so little to work with, she is, admittedly, good. Her action carries weight, her tears beget ours, and we do actually root for her to come out okay. All of the charm we're accrediting to Tris is Woodley's doing, and we know from past turns that with a better script in her hands this rising star could do wonders. The second is that, in outline form, Tris might be the best YA heroine we've gotten lately. Her decisions stem from a drive for independence and personal fulfillment. True, her primarily relationship is with a brooding jock, the unfortunately named Four (Theo James), to whom she plays the eager therapist more than anything else. But she also has a somewhat empowering bond with her mother (Ashley Judd) and an admittedly under cooked but at the very least occasionally present rapport with faction-mate Christina (Zoe Kravitz). So... something. Without a real character in which to root these small victories, though, they amount to very little. Just additional slices of the soulless, joyless, mindless deep dish pie that is this movies. But Chicago's dystopian fiction fails the same way that its pizza does: over stuffed with empty calories and lacking any recognizable flavor. Follow @Michael Arbeiter | Follow @Hollywood_com