Cake

Jennifer Aniston has moved a long way from a decade on TV’s “Friends” and a seemingly unending string of bad romantic comedies.

In “Cake” she shows some serious acting chops. She wanted to be considered for an Oscar, but she wasn’t ready yet. Not the same year as Julianne Moore in “Still Alice.” However, as Claire, suffering from chronic pain, she’s asked to leave her support group in the first scene of the movie when she gives some wry support of her own to the suicide of a group member, Nina.

Aniston has scars on her face, greasy hair, no makeup, and doesn’t care what she’s wearing. She’s in pain, dammit. And she makes us feel it a bit too. There are soft groans instead of screams. There are grimaces. She lies down in a car because she can’t sit up.

She’s aided by her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barrazza), who knows the road trip to Tijuana isn’t aboveboard but takes her there anyway. She also knows she’s told to leave early one afternoon so Claire can have sex with the gardener. Silvana’s also the one saying the rosary at Claire’s hospital bed after she’s taken a fistful of painkillers.

Claire has nightmares and hallucinations involving dead Nina (Anna Kendrick), inducing her to join her in suicide. She finds Nina’s husband Roy (Sam Worthington) and befriends him and his 5-year-old son, maybe as a lifeline not to do the deed.

We find out gradually that a horrible accident left Claire in constant pain and killed her little boy, also destroying her marriage to Jason (Chris Messina) and her law career. Do we blame her for entertaining the end?

Aniston turns a corner in her career and does the best with a not-the-best script by Patrick Tobin. The cake idea comes from a wish from ghost Nina to be capable of baking a birthday cake for her little boy. So Claire has somebody bake one. Big deal. It led to a dumb title.

Jennifer Aniston, keep at it. Find better scripts and do this kind of acting. You’ve shown us something good.

Unbroken: Read The Book. See The Movie.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a 2010 non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling book Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001).

Unbroken is a biography of World War II hero Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic track star who survived a plane crash in the Pacific theater, spent 47 days drifting on a raft, and then survived more than two and a half years in three brutal Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

Louie as a child was a bit of a wise guy and a shoplifter. His older brother Pete decided to straighten him out by following in his track team footsteps. Soon Louie was beating his brother’s records and won a college scholarship, having set a world interscholastic record for the mile.

Not thinking he had a chance, the 19-year-old entered the 1936 Olympics in the 5000-meter race against a world record holder. He finished eighth, but his 56-second final lap caught Adolf Hitler’s attention, and he requested a meeting. Zamperini remembers that he shook his hand and said, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”

After the Olympics, Louie enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he set a national collegiate mile record of 4:08 minutes, becoming the “Torrance Tornado,” after his hometown.

Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 and became a bombardier. In May 1943 he was part of a search mission in a “lemon” of a plane that crashed into the ocean south of Oahu, killing eight of the eleven men aboard. The three survivors spent an unbelievable 47 days on two rubber rafts with no water and little food, capturing rainwater and small fish eaten raw. One of the three died after 33 days. On the 47th day they reached land in the Marshall Islands and were captured by the Japanese Navy.

They spent more than two more years, until August 1945, in three Japanese prisoner of war camps, severely beaten and mistreated. Zamperini was particularly singled out by prison guard Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe, a sadist who never ceased thinking up new punishments.

By definition, a movie cannot include as much background detail as a book. The author, Laura Hillenbrand, included an amazing amount of backstory in the book “Unbroken.” In the movie, directed by Angelina Jolie and written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, we don’t experience the story of Louie’s extended family (who received a mistaken Killed in Action message during the war), the love of the girls back home, the postwar challenges in the soldiers’ lives, and (thankfully) the details of what the prisoners experienced in the camps. So, as always, read the book first.

The movie was a success and received standing ovations at the New York Film Festival and from several movie audiences. It earned three Oscar nominations and grossed $15.59 million on its opening day (including previews), which is the third-biggest Christmas Day debut ever, and the fifth-biggest Christmas Day gross ever. It was voted one of the Top Ten Films of the Year by The American Film Institute.

The Numbers Station

This 2013 movie featured John Cusack as a CIA black ops agent who messed up badly enough to be assigned to the equivalent of Siberia — a secret American numbers station in the English countryside.

As a CIA operative, Emerson (Cusack) freezes when he’s sent to wipe out the father and daughter of a family. He can’t shoot the child. His boss can, and does, then realizes Emerson has to “get his head straight.” He’s sent to Suffolk, England, where he works in a bunker on a three-day schedule with Katherine, a civilian (Malin Åkerman). The numbers are codes used to send signals to CIA operatives.

The station comes under attack, and the team realizes their other three-day colleagues have not emerged from the station. One assassin is still inside.

The Numbers Station was not a successful film by any means. It could have been a crashing bore, but Cusack and Åkerman saved it from that fate. But it’s irresistible not to quote one scathing review: Justin Chang of Variety wrote, “This glum, juiceless spy thriller is unlikely to find an audience on any frequency.”

Did I keep watching it because it was a John Cusack movie? Maybe, although I’ve ripped his bad films out of the DVD player before. (Did anyone ever see 2002’s “Max?” The most awful John Cusack movie ever. Actually, I think I watched the whole thing. He was a friend of Hitler. It was truly strange.) No, The Numbers Station was pretty well written and directed.

Sometimes even a bomb is worth seeing.

Focus

Will Smith is a good choice to portray a con man. He’s likable, charming, and confident. In “Focus,” he describes himself as capable of being able to convince anyone of anything.

Early in the movie he demonstrates his ability at misdirection. Where’s that wallet? Where’d that watch go? As Nicky, he briefly explains to newbie Jess (Margot Robbie) the tricks of the trade. She wants to learn. And they get a lot closer than teacher and student.

It’s entertaining, but it’s not a great movie. (When was the last great Will Smith movie?) Twists and turns are fun, but when the audience sits there completely confused, that’s a script problem. And the confused audience tells their friends. That’s why Focus is not a big hit.

Smith and Robbie play well together. There’s a great scene with Law & Order’s B.D. Wong, a high roller who will bet on anything and drives Nicky farther than he usually would have gone.

If you go to see Focus, get there on time. Buy your popcorn in advance. Don’t leave to get another soda. You’ll miss too many twists.

And let’s hope Will Smith steps up his game.

Was Your Favorite TV Show Canceled?

The lists are out. We know there are some series finales, but others just hit the chopping block.

CANCELED OR ENDING:

On NBC:

A to Z
Allegiance
Bad Judge
Parenthood
Parks and Recreation

On Fox:
Gang Related
Glee
Gracepoint

Kitchen Nightmares
Utopia

On ABC:

Manhattan Love Story
Selfie

On CBS:

The Mentalist
The Millers
Reckless
Two and a Half Men
Unforgettable

And here are the titles of some newbies. Will they make it?

NOT YET PREMIERED:

On NBC:

Aquarius
Heroes: Reborn

Mr. Robinson

Odyssey

One Big Happy

On ABC:
Astronaut Wives Club
The Whispers

On Fox:
Bordertown
Wayward Pines
Weird Loners

On CW:
iZombie

The Messengers

 
Here’s a full schedule, including shows that have been renewed.

Secrets and Lies

The very ordinary title Secrets and Lies made me wonder whether this was a TV show based on the 1996 movie. But no, it’s an American whodunit based on an Australian show by the same name.

What’s not ordinary about Secrets and Lies, which premiered on ABC on Sunday, March 1, is that it’s not seen from the point of view of the detectives trying to solve a murder case. It’s seen from the point of view of the suspect. Did he or didn’t he?

Ben Crawford, a house painter, is jogging before dawn and encounters the body of a five-year-old neighbor, Tom Murphy, in the woods. We see Ben running screaming in the rain to his house to call for help. As the day goes on, we find him becoming a person of interest, media trucks surrounding his suburban Charlotte house, and everything going wrong – from neighbors thinking the worst to clients canceling painting jobs to police hounding him.

Here’s the good news. The show revolves around Ben, and he’s portrayed by Ryan Phillippe, an excellent actor as usual. His wife and two daughters are solid (an adoring younger one; a rebellious teenage angst-filled one who used to babysit for little Tom), and his beer-swilling best friend Dave (we’ll get there) is good at what he’s supposed to be. Here’s the bad news. The very strong character of Andrea Cornell, the police detective, is played by Juliette Lewis. With her hair back in a severe bun, she has two facial expressions: totally blank and a total snarl. (This is Juliette Lewis’s way of acting the tough guy.) We have to put up with Juliette Lewis for the run of the show.

Ben and his wife had a fight the previous night. She threw him out, so he went out with Dave (Dan Fogler) and got so hammered he remembers nothing. The reason for the predawn run was to clear his head and work off the booze. He found the child. The detective wants a DNA sample – to rule out people, or rule in people. It’s discovered he’s little Tom’s father from a one-night stand with his neighbor, Jess. (Oh, no wonder there are some troubles in Ben’s marriage…) And Jess’s husband Scott is a decorated military guy currently AWOL and very violent. Not such a boring suburb, is it.

Secrets and Lies goes on for a limited 10-episode run. It has already shared many in the two-part premiere.

The 2015 Oscars Got It Right

Just days before the February 22 Oscar telecast, the Best Picture category was a real horse race between Birdman and Boyhood. I would have liked a dark horse (just to keep the metaphor going) of The Theory of Everything, because that movie was really in my heart. But between the favored two, I was hugely disappointed in Boyhood. I absolutely wanted Birdman to be Best Picture.

The Oscars opened with a production number with host Neil Patrick Harris honoring “moving pictures.” He was joined by who-knew-she-was-a-great-singer Anna Kendrick, and Jack Black interrupted as a spoiler. It was great fun.

The earliest award, Supporting Actor, went to character actor J.K. Simmons for Whiplash. You also see him five times a day in Farmers Insurance commercials. This award, for this role in this movie, is his 38th. There are a lot of Film Critics and Journalists Associations Awards out there.

I’m not going to say a word about women’s fashion – just about men’s. I don’t care that you’re in California; it’s February. What’s with the white dinner jackets? Spring, summer and winter cruise wear for white jackets. (OK, OK, we’re breaking all the rules these days…) Kevin Hart looked awful. Jared Leto, please – light blue 70’s prom tuxedo with white shoes. But you’re Jared Leto. You can wear anything you want.

Patricia Arquette won Supporting Actress, as she had every previous award show. Patricia, you knew you’d win. Why not memorize something with feeling? Instead of reading names at top speed? Then you had a great effect demanding equality for every woman who ever gave birth and every taxpayer! A fantastic feminist moment! Build up to it with some feeling! (For instance, you could have listened to every speech Julianne Moore had given.)

In Memoriam is always a touching part of the evening. Meryl Streep started out with a quote from Joan Didion’s memoir: “A single person is missing from you, and the whole world is empty.” This time illustrated pictures were shown. Not all actors, all directors, all producers. There were two glaring problems. Joan Rivers and Elaine Stritch were left out. Twitter exploded. The Academy responded with a lame statement that they had room for only so many people, but that those two artists were included in Oscars.com. Not enough, Academy.

The nominated songs were all well performed and fairly moving, with the possible exception of “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie. That one was just for fun.

The last song performed was “Glory” from Selma. The performance, by John Legend and Common, received a standing ovation. Shortly afterwards, the winner of Best Song was announced. “Glory” written by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn – also known as John Legend and Common. Needless to say, that decision was a hit.

Along with “Selma” marking 50 years after Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, “The Sound of Music” hit theaters 50 years ago.

The Oscars did a tribute to “The Sound of Music,” complete with kids, songs, and – Lady Gaga?????

It was the most refined, understated, prom-dressed appearance we’ve ever seen from Lady Gaga. It’s not easy hitting Julie Andrews’ notes, but Gaga carried it off beautifully. With long, wavy blonde hair and a wispy white dress, you could almost picture 1960’s Julie Andrews – except for the tattoos on both arms. It was a beautiful moment when Julie Andrews came out, hugged “My Darling” and announced the next award. Maybe some people who didn’t already love Lady Gaga the way I do – do now.

Best Original Screenplay went to Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo for Birdman. It was just the first of three trips onstage for Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Best Adapted Screenplay went to Graham Moore for The Imitation Game. (Just an aside – this film also had my heart. In another year, this film could have swept. This year was exceptional, and it’s a crime that more awards didn’t go to this movie.) Young Graham Moore came up on stage and said, I’ll paraphrase – Here it is, I attempted suicide at 16 – I can’t believe I’m on this stage – this goes out to that kid who thinks she’s weird and different – stay weird and different – and when it’s your turn, and you’re on this stage, pass it on to the next person… Graham Moore brought down the house.

Best Director went to Alejandro González Iñárritu, having a fantastic time at the Oscars. He said he was wearing Michael Keaton’s tighty whities as a good luck charm.

Best Actress went to Julianne Moore for Still Alice. It was her masterpiece. She had read an article that winning an Oscar can make you live five years longer. She’s glad because her husband is younger than she is. She was eloquent about people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and thankful to those who worked with her on this movie.

Best Actor went to Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything. (I wanted him to win this Oscar the day I saw the movie. And I knew he would.) He said the award belonged to those people around the world battling ALS and to the Hawking family. He thanked his wife and announced that there was a fellow who soon would be sharing their apartment.

Best Picture went to Birdman. Alejandro González Iñárritu once more went to the stage, along with everyone from the movie. He made another speech, thanked Michael Keaton, who came up and said “Who am I kidding, I’m just glad to be here.”

I’m happy about the 2015 Oscars. (Did anyone notice, not once were they referred to as the Academy Awards?) The voters loved the ones I loved. Please go back on this site and read about Still Alice, Birdman, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything. It was a great year.

OK, Boyhood didn’t win Best Picture. Don’t be haters.

Let’s go to the movies.