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Playing Catch-up, Part I: February & March

Now that I have that piece of crap out of the way, It's time to make good on my promise and play catch-up on all the movies I meant to review, but didn't because of culinary class and laziness.

About Last Night - Again, I love seeing a predominately black cast, and I wish there were a bit more of that in theaters. Last year's The Butler (which I loved) and The Best Man Holiday (which I didn't like) proved a cast of African-Americans can be a draw, as both films made over $100 million and $70 million in the states respectively. Unfortunately, unlike Best Man Holiday, where its saving grace was Terrence Howard's excellent comedic performance, there isn't much I can say positively for this battle of the sexes comedy. Danny (Michael Early) and Bernie (Kevin Hart) are two bachelors in present-day Los Angles. Danny's looking to rebound from a relationship which ended in disaster, whereas Bernie is a party-hard guy looking to score on a nightly basis. Both gents find their match in Debbie (Joy Bryant) and Joan (Regina Hall), two women looking for the same thing as their counterparts. This is an interesting setup, but the execution couldn't be more generic and unfunny. I've never been a fan of Hart as a comedian and here, he's at his most irritating, playing a second rate Barney Stinson, without any of the charm Neil Patrick Harris brought to the character on How I Met Your Mother. Even worse is Regina Hall trying to be just as irritating and obnoxious as Hart, and the results end up being stuck watching two characters who's segments we could care less about because they're so annoying to listen to. On the other side of the coin is the relationship between Debbie and Danny, which is just boring to watch. Bryant and Early play likable characters, but that doesn't excuse the screenwriter to give them bugger all to do, except have them go through the motions of a relationship that hits it's peak, then slowly fades away to the third act breakup. As a comedy, About Last Night is a complete failure because the comedic performers are annoying rather than humorous. As a date movie, the romance just feels stale and carries that 'been there, done that,' from the encounter and coupling, to the breakup and eventual reconciliation, and everything in between. Simply put, this movie just fails all-around. * star out of ****

The Wind Rises - At the end of the year, I will be surprised if this stunning piece of animation doesn't make my top 10 list of the best of 2014. It is said that this animated biographical drama will be the last feature by acclaimed visionary Hayao Miyazaki. If it is, then what a way to go out. Miyazaki's features usually touch on themes on environmental issues, war, greed, and growing up behind a backdrop of child-friendly animation, and this is no different: Jiro Horikoshi one day dreams of building airplanes that he sees in in dreams. In those dreams, he comes across Italian aeronautical pioneer Caproni, as the two share their dreams of planes that are used to lift up the imagination of the world, not have them used to create endless amounts of destruction and violence. Unfortunately for Jiro, he's living through the 1930's where the country is suffering economically, the government is giving way to a fascist dictatorship and the machine of a Second World War is in full-swing. Now, if the name Jiro is now sounding familiar to you, that's because he was the architect behind the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane that would target the U.S. Navy fleet in Pearl Harbor through bombs and the planes themselves. Caproni asks Jiro, "Which would you choose -  a world with pyramids, or a world without?" The question outlines a bittersweet truth about humanity: we will always take a pure creation, such as the airplane and the gift of aviation, and transform it into something crude and ugly where it's sole purpose is simply causing destruction and reigning chaos from the sky. Yet Jiro continues to create and design planes to see his dreams come to life because he wants to live in a world with airplanes, and one day, see them used for the benefit of mankind. The animation - from Jiro's rural upbringing, to the Great Kanto Earthquake and everything in between - is so painstakingly beautiful and artfully crafted, to the point where you'll just let your jaw-drop in awe. You don't mind that the film does drag on (especially the third act where Jiro shares a doomed romance with Naoko) because what is being witnessed on screen is a master artist crafting his final masterpiece. There might always be a Pixar, or a Dreamworks Animation Studios, but the world will never see an animator (or a filmmaker) like Miyazaki again. The Wind Rises joins Snow White, Bambi, The Lion King, WALL-E and even Spirited Away, as one of the greatest animated films of all time. **** stars out of ****

Nymphomaniac Vol. I - When I heard that cinematic provocateur Lars von Trier was making a sex drama wit actors supposedly fucking on film, I thought he had finally reached the deep end. In the brief time I've seen von Trier movies, he strikes me as a filmmaker, when really good, crafts intriguing and elegant art-house fare, such as the excellent Dancer in the Dark & Melancholia; and when he's not, you end up with infuriating crap like The Idiots and Anti-Christ. So I had no idea what kind of von Trier i'd be getting when I walked into Part I of his two-part sex drama. by the end, I was disappointed that it was the first part of the film. Who knew you could take the intricacies of fishing, musical theory, the Fibonacci sequence, etc, and have it all revert back to the art of sex and seduction? von Trier does all this, and it strangely adds up to something compelling, funny and extremely bold. Charlotte Gainsbough plays Joe, a self-described nymphomaniac, found beaten and alone on a cold winter's night. She is rescued by and older gentlemen (Stellan Skarsgard) and begins to recount her younger days of debauchery and lust. I should point out that the sex scenes (and yes, there's a smorgasbord of penetration, moaning, and full-frontal nudity from box sexes) aren't what you expect to be.The idea of pornographic material is to turn people on. This, in contrast, serves to show how Joe's endgame is only sexual gratification. She even says it herself, "Love is just lust, with jealousy added in." Throught this whirlwind of lust, characters come in and out of her life, including Christian Slater (in his best role in years) as Joe's father; Connie Nielson as her mother; and Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), with the latter being, of all her sexual encounters, the one person she has any feelings toward. Best of all is Uma Thurman as Mrs. H, who goes into hysterics confronting her husband and young Joe about his affair with her. If it sounds like I'm being vague during this review, it's because I am. This is one of those rare films I can't really describe in words, and it's one you'll have to see out and watch for yourself. That is, if you're offended by frank and graphic scenes of sexual content. And even then, you should still see it for the experience, because there's few filmmakers out there tackling the subject of sex and the hypocrisy of societies double-standards for men and women. *** 1/2 stars out of ****

The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson ceases to amaze me. In 2009, I though he scored a personal best with Fantastic Mr. Fox, a children's movie where he told a quirky, offbeat fable based on Roald Dahl's book on talking animals and greedy businessmen without treating kids like idiots. Then came Moonrise Kingdom in 2012 and I thought that was his funniest picture since The Life Aquatic; a film filled with memorable quotes ("I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about") and Anderson's trademark quirky humor over a backdrop of summer love between two kids made it all the more enjoyable to watch. And now comes his latest flick, The Grand Budapest Hotel, a crime-caper/whodunit comedy with an all-star cast (including Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson), stunning cinematography and a terrific comedic performance by Ralph Finnes, playing the top concierge Monsieur Gustave H. and a great performance by newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, the lobby boy and Gustave's apprentice. *** 1/2 stars out of ****


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