Movie Review: “We Are Your Friends”

Starring
Zac Efron, Emily Ratajkowski, Wes Bentley, Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer, Jon Bernthal
Director
Max Joseph

For the first third of the movie, “We Are Your Friends” suffers from the exact same problem as its protagonist: it’s trying to combine too many disparate ideas, and is a disjointed mess. When it (thankfully) jettisons the “Entourage” angle of the story, along with the Denis Leary-narrated Ford F 150-style graphics (yep, every word spoken appears on screen, multiple characters do it, and it never works), the movie finally finds its, ahem, rhythm. It turns out, “We Are Your Friends” is “Magic Mike” with turntables, right down to the party scenes oozing with so much potential disease transmission that I wanted a shot of penicillin afterwards, and I’m allergic to penicillin.

Cole (Zac Efron) is an aspiring DJ, playing early sets in the club that his friends promote in exchange for cash, free drinks and, if they play their cards right, women. One night, he opens for popular DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), and the two wind up partying together. James sees Cole’s potential, and pushes him to come up with a track that will make his name, offering him excellent advice (and free studio time) on how he can find his voice. Cole is grateful for all of this, but it does not stop him from developing feelings for James’ much younger, live-in romantic assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), even though he knows it could jeopardize his best shot at getting to the next level. Cole is also starting to realize how unambitious his friends are, but struggles with cutting the ties.

Emily Ratajkowski has been a model since she was 14 years old, so she’s presumably seen and heard it all, but even she had to have paused for a second or two when director and co-screenwriter Max Joseph may or may not have said to her, “I’m going to shoot a couple of slow-mo bits of you dancing, and the camera is going to be focused on nothing but your rack. You’re cool with that, right?” Clearly, she was cool with that, as the scenes are here (said rack received similar attention in “Gone Girl”), but it has to be disheartening as an actress when you’re trying to build a body of work, and the director spends a substantial amount of time not focusing on your face.

One of the things “We Are Your Friends” gets right is that most kids going out into the world, especially ones that have to fend for themselves right out of high school (the audience only meets one of the boys’ parents, so they are presumably on their own), are hopelessly naïve. Any adult can anticipate 90% of the film’s plot, because they’ve been there before. Cole, on the other hand, hasn’t been there before, and Efron does a nice job of portraying that lack of experience. Unfortunately, what that makes this film is the story of a kid making mistake after mistake until he figures it out. Even the party scenes have a sadness to them, as Cole and his mates remain those immature dopes who take unspeakable jobs for cash (working for a very well-cast Jon Bernthal) so they can continue Living the Lifestyle. They’re pathetic, and that’s the point, but they’re still pathetic.

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Movie Review: “Mistress America”

Starring
Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus
Director
Noah Baumbach

Real-life couple Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig clearly enjoy working together, but their films are far from enjoyable. The pair’s first collaboration, 2012’s “Frances Ha,” was a painfully obtuse look at self-entitled millennials living in New York City, and although “Mistress America” isn’t as bad, it covers a lot of the same ground while forcing yet another group of mostly unlikable characters down the audience’s throat. Last year, Baumbach directed a movie about a similar subject (“While We’re Young”) without Gerwig’s involvement, and the reason that film was such a success is because it skewered the faux-intellectual hipster crowd from the outside looking in. The problem with “Mistress America,” however, is that its main characters are just like the people Baumbach so effectively mocked in his previous outing; they’re great comic fodder, but they don’t make for very endearing company.

Lola Kirke stars as Tracy Fishko, a lonely college freshman at Barnard College with high hopes of being accepted into the school’s exclusive literary magazine. She hasn’t had much luck making friends, save for fellow wannabe writer Tony (Matthew Shear), so her mother suggests that she get in touch with her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), who lives in the city. Brooke is more than happy to take the impressionable Tracy under her wing, and after a night on the town together, the two become inseparable. Tracy idolizes Brooke, using her wild social life as inspiration for a new short story, while Brooke loves that someone so intelligent could look up to her. But when Brooke’s latest business endeavor, a terribly conceived restaurant/hair salon/community center, loses one of its key investors, she brings Tracy with her to Connecticut to convince some wealthy college friends – former boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) and frenemy Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) – to bail her out.

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Movie Review: “Z for Zachariah”

Starring
Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director
Craig Zobel

Director Craig Zobel’s last feature film, 2012’s “Compliance,” was more than a little divisive. Nobody dismissed the quality of the filmmaking or the convincing performances, but the focus was on the story itself, which left audiences asking, “Why would someone do this?” But that was the point. What pushes people to make questionable decisions, ones that they didn’t think they were capable of making? Zobel’s newest movie, “Z for Zachariah,” poses a similar question, amongst many others in this deceptively simple post-apocalyptic tale.

The film is set in a near-future dystopia where most of humanity is gone. One of the survivors, Ann (Margot Robbie), lives on her father’s farm, managing to get by. She lives a fairly simple, lonely life, but that all changes when she meets Dr. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Though the man of science’s views clash with her religious beliefs, they soon develop a deep bond – one that’s interrupted by the arrival of another survivor named Caleb (Chris Pine). As they spend time together, Ann becomes torn between the two men, but this story is about much more than a love triangle.

As a love triangle, though, it’s quite challenging and brutal. There’s a scene where Dr. Loomis catches Caleb and Ann in a small moment of intimacy, and the way Ejiofor silently reacts in this scene is painful to watch. “Z for Zachariah” is a film that often plays its cards close to its chest. The biblical subtext is clear – Caleb is the snake that enters the Garden of Eden and temps Ann to sin – but it never calls too much attention to itself. A conversation about science vs. religion is secondary to the lead characters’ struggles.

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Blu Tuesday: The Walking Dead, Aloha and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season”

WHAT: After escaping from Terminus, Rick Grimes and Co. find refuge in a rundown church as they’re hunted by their cannibalistic captives. But when Beth (Emily Kinney) is kidnapped amidst all the chaos, and Daryl (Norman Reedus) discovers that she’s being held hostage by another group of survivors in downtown Atlanta, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) assembles a team to rescue her, while the others investigate Eugene’s promise of a cure in Washington, D.C.

WHY: AMC’s habit of splitting each season of “The Walking Dead” into two halves has never been very popular among fans, but it actually worked pretty well with Season Five, because the first eight episodes are jam-packed with so much story that you need a break in between just to process everything. Though the hospital subplot is a completely new creation for the series, the rest of the season covers a lot of familiar ground from its pre-existing source material. Of course, with each new storyline comes plenty of new characters, and the show does a remarkably good job of juggling its large cast to keep everyone happy. The show’s most popular characters – Andrew Lincoln’s Rick, Norman Reedus’ Daryl and Melissa McBride’s Carol – are front and center as expected, and each actor delivers excellent work, but Emily Kinney (who gets perhaps the best sendoff arc yet) and newcomers Tovah Feldshuh and Ross Marquand also shine in supporting roles. Veteran cast members like Lauren Cohen are shoved to the sidelines as a result, but that’s all part of being on a show like “The Walking Dead,” which is just as much an ensemble piece as “Game of Thrones.” Though Season Five isn’t without its flaws (the handling of fan favorite Tyrese is especially poor), thanks to some great writing and interesting new dynamics among the core group, it’s easily one of the best, if not the best, seasons to date.

EXTRAS: In addition to cast and crew audio commentaries on six episodes, there are “Inside ‘The Walking Dead’” and “The Making of ‘The Walking Dead’” mini-featurettes for every episode, a behind-the-scenes look at constructing the Alexandria set, a pair of video diaries with actors Michael Cudlitz and Josh McDermitt, deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Aloha”

WHAT: Military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs – Honolulu, Hawaii – to help billionaire communications mogul Carson Welch (Bill Murray) launch his latest satellite into space. Along the way, Brian reconnects with a former love (Rachel McAdams) who may not completely be over him, while falling hard for the spirited Air Force watchdog (Emma Stone) assigned to babysit him during his stay.

WHY: Cameron Crowe’s latest film came under a lot of fire following its release in theaters – some deserved and some not so much. Although it’s understandable why people would be upset over the supposed whitewashing casting of Emma Stone as mixed-race jet fighter Alison Ng, the whole point of her overeager character is that she desperately wants to be accepted by the islanders as one of their own (constantly informing people that she’s one-quarter Hawaiian) despite not really looking the part. The fact that so much attention was placed on this controversy is remarkable, because “Aloha” is such a complete disaster that there was plenty of other ammunition to choose from. For starters, the movie is all over the place, polluted with weird subplots that aren’t fully explained, an awkward love triangle that goes nowhere, and characters who are so poorly developed that you still don’t know what their purpose is to the story when it’s over. The cast looks just as confused most of the time, with Stone the only actor who comes away with any sort of dignity intact. “Aloha” isn’t the first time that Crowe has made a bad film, but this is easily his worst and most embarrassing failure yet.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with writer/director Cameron Crowe, a feature-length making-of documentary titled “The Untitled Hawaii Project,” an alternate opening and ending, four featurettes, a gag reel and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Lodi’s Markus Wine Co. home of unique and delicious wines

I recently spent several days in the Lodi wine-growing region of California as the guest of the Lodi Winegrowers. Over four days, the group I was with took a deep dive into all things Lodi. We visited wineries, vineyard sites and had lunch at the home of a couple who own a terrific winery. The overall variety of wines we tasted was stunning in its diversity, both in terms of grapes utilized as well as styles they were made in. One wine brand in particular that stuck out for me is Markus Wine Co.

markus_1

This project is part of Borra Vineyards. There are a few distinct differences between them, the biggest being that while the Borra wines are produced from fruit grown on the family’s own vineyards, the wines from Markus Wine Co. are made from sourced fruit. Winemaker Markus Niggli looks for great vineyards in the region and crafts wines in a fresh, modern style. We tasted Markus’ wines at the Mokelumne Glen Vineyard, one of his sources for fruit. The family that owns this vineyard and grows the fruit is dedicated entirely to German varietals. They carefully tend a broad array of grapes and sell them to artists like Markus who use them to craft lovely wines loaded with character. Markus also works with a nearby artist to create labels that merge imagery that brings to mind a place from his past, with the spot the grapes are sourced. Three of his wines really stood out for me. The fruit for all of these is from Mokelumne Glen Vineyards.

Markus Wine Co. 2014 Nativo ($19)

This wine is a blend of Kerner (75 percent), Riesling (19 percent) and Bacchus (6 percent). Fermentation took place over 10 days in stainless steel utilizing native yeast. It was aged in-tank for five months prior to bottling. Granny Smith apple aromas dominate the nose. The refreshing palate is studded with appealing flavors such as honeysuckle and white peach. Bits of sweetness emerge on the finish, which shows lemon zest and wet limestone characteristics. Firm, racy acid keeps everything in check. If you want to blow away your wine-loving friends, bring a few bottles of this gem with you, and they’ll be in awe of your wine-selecting abilities.

Markus Wine Co. Nuvola ($19)

This selection is entirely Gewürztraminer. All of the fruit was hand-harvested. Fermentation took place in stainless steel over 10 days using native yeast. It was aged in stainless for five months prior to bottling. Apricot and lychee fruit aromas dominate the welcoming nose. Hints of savory herb lead the palate. They’re joined by copious amounts of stone fruit, lemon zest, minerals and a touch of orchard fruit. The long finish is layered with continued fruit, spice, minerals and crisp acid. This is a lovely and singular expression of Gewürztraminer loaded with charm.

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Markus Wine Co. 2013 Nimmo ($22)

This offering is a blend of Kerner (69 percent), Gewürztraminer (11 percent), Riesling (10 percent) and Bacchus (10 percent). Fermentation took place in a combination of stainless steel and barrel over seven days. Barrel aging occurred over nine months in a combination of French and American oak; 60 percent of them were new. Hints of smoke lead the nose here. The body has some nice weight and heft to it. Lychee, pineapple and lemon curd are all in play. There is a viscosity and mineral-driven nature to the mouthfeel which dances alongside a core of tart green apple notes and spice. The finish is crisp, long and refreshing. All of these elements come together to make this a remarkably appealing wine. This is one of those wines I had trouble putting down.

Lodi California has some truly exciting things going on for wine lovers. Projects like Markus Wine Co. are really setting a new standard. These are remarkably well-priced wines, produced from grapes one might not expect to find in Lodi. Of huge importance, of course, is the fact that they are exceptionally delicious, well-made wines that stand apart from the pack. The wines of Markus Niggli, along with those of quite a few other artisanal family producers in Lodi, are worth a special effort to seek out. Spend your money on these; they will make your tongue do a happy dance.

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