Year 3, Film #19 (Total #469)

THE PLOT: An entry-level employee at a powerful corporation finds himself occupying a corner office, but at a dangerous price: he must spy on his boss’s old mentor to secure for him a multi-billion dollar advantage.

THE GOOD: One of the only things that Paranoia has going for it is a very minimal level of action and suspense. Basically, you can watch this film all the way through and keep a certain level of attention focused on it. Not your complete attention in some places as the film has many flaws which I’ll uncover, but more than enough to keep you satisfied. In other words, there’s enough happening in front of you that you don’t need to resort to your phone every five minutes to keep yourself occupied.

This action and suspense is some of your typical chases, explosions, and whatnot combined with that probing question of what’s going to happen next (although the answer is usually easy to predict). An element that I found interesting however was being held in suspense to see if the film would get better. As I’ve alluded to already, this film is nowhere near perfect. But it’s not bad enough to be a bad film. There’s a small part of you that’s rooting for some switch to be flipped, some major twist revealed that you could never see coming to redeem the film. Unfortunately that never comes, but the fact of the matter is this anticipation, this hope for a better film, actually provides a good amount of entertainment. If you’re like me, you’ll give some things the benefit of the doubt and overlook others and being an ok film at best helps you to overlook those things.

THE BAD: The simplest explanation of Paranoia is that it’s simply not good. It’s unoriginal characters and a story that feels like a cookie-cutter template in more ways than one. Not only did the rivalry between Nick Wyatt (Gary Oldman) and his ex-mentor Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford) bring forth memories about Steve Jobs and Apple (they’re designing phones, they’re quite ruthless, “great artists steal”, etc.), but the whole premise of infiltrating another company to steal trade secrets has been done many times in multiple variations.

Paranoia could be classified as a heist film or a thriller, but it’s really neither of those things. It’s just a faded image of those genres aspiring to be more than it is. The heist part — Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth) stealing trade secrets from Eikon — is very lackluster and anti-climatic. The thriller part — all the technical babble, hacking, and spying — is also sub par. We never really get a sense of what’s going on or a feeling of urgency when things happen. Every once and a while there will be a chase or some action sequence (which I mentioned provides a brief moment of entertainment), but you never feel connected with these characters or feel the magnitude of what’s going on.

The characters don’t help you grasp the enormity of what’s going on either. You can tell them apart and each has their own distinct characteristics, but much of what you learn about these characters is surface-level. You never really get the chance to understand or relate to the characters. One great example is with Goddard who lost his son, and Cassidy who lost his mother. These are very emotional events in both their lives and when introduced to us, it seems like the key into who these characters are. But all we end up getting is one or two minutes explaining that they lost their respective loved ones and how it was a tragedy. No emotion to it whatsoever, no big revelations that impact the story down the road. It’s just presented to you and then left.

THE TAKEAWAY: Paranoia has some action and some suspense, but most of the film is just waiting and hoping it will turn out better than it does. The story and characters don’t go anywhere and for the most part are unoriginal ideas that have been repurposed with a new coat of paint. 

THE RATING: 2 out of 5

Vanilla Sky

Year 3, Film #18 (Total #468)

THE PLOT: A successful publisher finds his life taking a turn for the surreal after a car accident with a jaded lover.

THE GOOD: If there’s one thing that Vanilla Sky doesn’t lack, it’s ambition. This film is very different from the other two Cameron Crowe films I’ve seen (We Bought a Zoo and Jerry Maguire and in a few very distinct and good ways, the biggest of which being the mystery that shrouds this film.

Mystery is a word I think of as positive, as opposed to confusion which I think of as negative, both of which embody Vanilla Sky. For the mystery part, Crowe sets us up right off the bat. The opening scene to the film shows David Aames (Tom Cruise) getting ready for the day and then driving along a deserted New York City in the heart of Times Square. Something is obviously not right and you can sense that even before David does. This is mystery: forcing us to ask questions and think about what we are seeing. It preps our minds and thinking for something unexpected and something that will require us to figure it out.

The big mystery is figuring out what is going on; what is real. We follow David, a big-shot executive who inherited his father’s company after his passing, who has all you could dream of. He’s successful, has money, friends, love; the whole nine-yards. But then some things start to slip away and he starts having weird dreams that encroach on his real life and we can no longer easily distinguish reality from dream. As a whole, this is set up well and is executed throughout with the help of some clever editing (although it can add to the confusion, more in a bit) and cinematography.

THE BAD: But much of the film, including the mystery elements, are shrouded in confusion. If mystery is forcing us to ask questions, confusion is failing to answer them, or rather provide hints at what the answers are. It’s not disappointing that we don’t get any answers (the ending does provide some answers, but even those are still cryptic), it’s that the answers we do get seem to be out of left field and make little sense. The film doesn’t need to set up a Hansel and Gretel trail of breadcrumbs to show us the way, but the ending needs to, at a bare minimum, make some sense in retrospect.

Mysteries work best when you can’t predict what will happen next, but when you do see what happens, you kick yourself that you couldn’t see it being set up all along. Vanilla Sky doesn’t have that. When you see the ending, you just sit there with a blank stare on your face because nothing you saw beforehand really relates to the big reveal. A few lightbulbs go off — the biggest one being about a certain timing and switch that occurs — but it doesn’t feel like some big craftsmanship where things were in motion from frame one. Instead, it feels like some patchwork solution thrown together at the end to make everything that happened earlier make some modicum of sense.

THE TAKEAWAY: Vanilla Sky starts off strong and builds up anticipation for what seems to be a very intriguing mystery that will have you puzzling over what is real and what is a dream. However, very quickly we discover that the puzzling we’re doing just causes annoyance and frustration that no clues, hints, or answers are given until the absolute end. By that point, the mystery becomes confusion and we’re left wondering what on Earth we just watching. It does provide some entertainment, but you have to plow your way through a lot of nonsense to get there.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5

We Bought a Zoo

Year 3, Film #17 (Total #467)

THE PLOT: Set in Southern California, a father moves his young family to the countryside to renovate and re-open a struggling zoo.

THE GOOD: Above all things, We Bought a Zoo is a feel-good movie. Every once and a while you just want to watch a film to bring a smile to your face or lighten up your mood after a bad day and this is a film that can do that. Cameron Crowe (who also directed Jerry Maguire) displays his talents here quite openly. He establishes the characters well, provides context for the main conflict, and includes just enough fighting to ensure the ending is knocked out of the park with positive thoughts.

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is the guiding light to this movie as the new owner of a local zoo. He’s now in charge of tens of species of animals and a handful of support staff, something that’s entirely new to him, and it’s his job to make sure everything runs in working order. That’s very much Damon’s job in the film as well; he helps set up the other characters to reach their full potential. And while no singular character really steals the show in this film, it’s truly a team effort in every sense of the phrase, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), the seven-year old daughter of Benjamin hits a solid ten on the cuteness/adorableness factor. She does what every little child does best and that is speak her mind. While Benjamin might be making all the decisions and be the owner, it’s Rosie who influences her father with that smile, carefree attitude, and kindness just as she does to you the viewer.

The story itself is also a very basic feel-good plot. Benjamin looses his wife and then buys a zoo to try and help his children and go on another adventure for himself to take his mind off his loss. The zoo has it’s fair share of problems as does his son Dylan (Colin Ford) who constantly is getting into trouble as he tries to cope with his mother’s passing. It has the right amounts of happiness, sadness, and hope, in the right order, to equal a satisfying and positive ending. I can guarantee that at least some part of this film will bring a smile to your face.

THE BAD: While the film does succeed at its intended purpose and is an effective feel-good movie, there really isn’t much else going for it. As I said, besides Rosie, there really is no standout performance amongst the cast. There is a wonderful scene between Benjamin and Dylan a little more than halfway through the film that really stuck out, but other than that, the film feels forgettable. I don’t feel like this film will stick with me for long after I post this review. Not being memorable doesn’t make this a bad film, but if you think about any of your favorite films, all of them probably evoke some sort of memory that you can recall from watching it. We Bought a Zoo provides a temporary entertainment fix, but fails to hit the long-term mark of greatness.

An area that could use a bit more focus in particular is the backstory element to the film. There’s a lot of effort put in to try and explain what the Mee’s mother was like and the effect she had on them all. It’s definitely a necessary part to the film because it provides the basis for much of our emotional investment but some parts seemed to have been half-assed. Benjamin’s brother Duncan’s (Thomas Haden Church) involvement bordered on pointless. He provided some comedic relief and was always fun to watch, but his main reason seemed to be for keeping Benjamin on track and making sure he did something his wife would be proud of. Instead, he came off as a bit arrogant and self-centered, which provided those laughs, but also detracted from the emotions surrounding the wife. Some more of the stories about the mother like the one Benjamin tells at the end about how they met could have also been very beneficial.

THE TAKEAWAY: We Bought a Zoo is a great film to watch on a rainy day or whenever you’re feeling in the dumps. It’s a sure way to bring a smile on your face and feel good about yourself as you watch Benjamin take control of his life and find that 20 seconds of courage to follow his heart and do what is right. This film may not have the lasting power as all classic films do and have it’s fair share of issues, but not all films need to be like that. Every once and a while you need a film for a specific moment, not one to add to your all-time favorites list, and We Bought a Zoo is exactly that film. Because, why not?

THE RATING: 3 out of 5

The Ghost Writer

Year 3, Film #16 (Total #416)

THE PLOT: A ghostwriter hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister uncovers secrets that put his own life in jeopardy.

THE GOOD: The Ghost Writer is filled with mysteries and twists that you don’t see coming. You readily anticipate something major to happen at the end, especially given that the entire film is masked in ominous and foreboding music and cinematography, but there’s really no evidence that helps you reach the conclusion before it happens. It’s masterfully crafted in such a way that keeps you intrigued and engaged along the way while also feeding a certain level of apathy. This gets more into the little I disliked about the film, but there’s also a positive spin to it as well.

Both writing and acting, led by Ewan McGregor who plays the unnamed ghost writer and Pierce Brosnan who plays ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang, have this duality to them. This duality of suspicion leads to the feelings of apathy I mentioned. The positive aspect to this apathy is that it helps lull you into this false sense of security. You begin to expect that nothing substantial will really happen and the big reveal that’s coming will turn out to be lackluster. By breeding this indifference towards the story and characters, it makes the ending that much more potent when all the pieces come together because you had been set up for something much less.

Going back to a strong positive, there’s also the simplicity to The Ghost Writer. There’s a large, overarching political aspect to this film that apparently is commentary on former Prime Minister Tony Blair and/or a commentary on the War on Terror in general, but I didn’t pay attention to that. Instead, I paid attention to the film as entertainment and saw a much simpler, quiet film. It all takes place on Martha’s Vineyard (which I visited a few weeks before seeing this film and therefore was overjoyed when I saw familiar landmarks) with a few exceptions (the opening scene in London, a brief detour to mainland Massachusetts) and there, mostly in Adam Lang’s house. I’ve mentioned before how I’m a fan of single-setting films and The Ghost Writer is another great example why. By taking place mostly in a single-setting, you can focus more of your attention on smaller details rather than having to worry about bigger-picture details like orienting yourself as to where you are and what this new place has to do with everything else. And having this ability to focus on small details is crucial to The Ghost Writer and comes into play with the big twist at the end.

THE BAD: While the apathy that comes from this film is positive in that doesn’t help get your hopes up for a big ending, it also does some damage too. While McGregor and Brosnan do a great job at playing their respective characters, there isn’t much to their characters that makes you care for them. They help move the story along and in a few cases (like when the writer, McGregor, is beat up) we do feel for them, but for the most part, they could be somebody else entirely and achieve the same goal. It’s not to say they’re horrible characters with no depth or development throughout the film, it’s just to say, they’re at a bare minimum with nothing to make them exceptional.

THE TAKEAWAY: The Ghost Writer may seem quiet and feel like not much is actually going on at times, but director Roman Polanski (of Chinatown fame, amongst others) uses this to his advantage to craft a thriller full of many surprises. The simplicity helps you focus on smaller clues, which, combined with decreased expectations, leads to a big reveal at the end that you can’t see coming.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

The Sopranos: Season 6

Year 3, Show #1, Season #6 (Total Shows—1, Total Seasons—6)

THE PLOT: Tony Soprano faces a myriad of new crises at home, at work, and from the law… leading the New Jersey mob boss to doubt the allegiances of many of those closest to him.

THE GOOD: Watching the final season of a television show always means much more than just that season; it encompasses the entirety of the show. While you can focus on individual story lines that pertain to just season six, the final season of The Sopranos also has the retrospective aspect to consider as well. All-in-all though, this final season is a good representation of what made The Sopranos such an entertaining and successful show, not to mention having what is considered one of the best endings in TV history.

The Sopranos has always had a level of uncertainty about the show that I never really recognized until now. My big focus for previous seasons has been on the family and how that was (and is) the most important part of the show, but the uncertainty element is probably even more important. One of the biggest plot points and characters I haven’t really mentioned at all is that of Tony’s (James Gandolfini) therapist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) who Tony sees originally because he suffers from depression and has panic attacks. It becomes evident though by this final season that the therapy isn’t included necessarily for medical reasons, it’s main purpose is to cast a more human light on Tony and his actions in the mafia. The therapy sessions serve as our window into his thoughts which in turn cause us to relate and feel for the objectively bad things going on (murder, robbery, extortion, etc.).

But what really struck me about this final season is, to use the word again, uncertainty. I don’t mean this in terms of twists or shocking revelations that come at the end. I mean it in more of an ongoing sense. Sure, there are some big twists and unexpected occurrences at the end (including a large tally of deaths), but it’s more about what’s next. A recurring theme in The Sopranos is that we don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens. There’s a lot of split-second decisions like Janice (Aida Turturro) killing Richie Aprile (David Proval) in season two, Furio’s (Federico Castelluccio) departure in season four, and Christopher’s (Michael Imperioli) decision about his fiancé Adrianna (Drea de Matteo) among others (most including deaths).

Many people complain about open-ended shows and not tying up all the loose ends of various plot points and The Sopranos is a big offender in that regard. I was surprised with the amount of hints in the finale, “Made in America”, which at least gave a direction for several story lines that I thought creator David Chase had just forgot about, the biggest of which being the FBI investigation which all but stopped after season four. In addition to the FBI, there’s also many questions as to what’s going to happen to AJ and Meadow with their futures and relationships, what’s going to happen to the crew now that many of their big capos are dead, and countless other loose ends.

While we don’t get definitive answers, we do get quite a few clues for the likely directions that will unfold afterwards. And this goes back to the uncertainty element. One of the reasons there was a lot of initial backlash to the end (which I won’t spoil here, but you’ve probably heard about it before) is that it leaves this uncertainty; it doesn’t tell you what happened and what will happen. It leaves it not so much open to interpretation, but open to the imagination. Having the benefit of knowing how the show ended helps me to see the pure genius behind David Chase’s decision. The ending says that it’s not the end of the story, just the end of the show we’re watching. We’ve seen the parts we were meant to see starting with Tony as a capo and ending with him as the boss, a family that has matured, and many faces that have come and gone. Much more happened before we tuned in and much more will happened after the last of the credits rolled in “Made in America”. Just as it is in life, the future is uncertain and stories have to end eventually. With The Sopranos, we don’t find out everything that happens and there are plenty of nitpicks that could probably fill a large book. But that’s the nature of the show, and it’s something that becomes very apparent in this final season.

THE BAD: Aside from some of the loose ends and open-endedness that I mentioned before, there really aren’t any outstanding problems with this last season. Part One (season six was split in two parts, of twelve and nine episodes, airing in 2006 and 2007) was criticized for Vito Spatafore’s (Joseph R. Gannascoli) story of needing to go into hiding because it was revealed he was gay. I don’t think it’s one of the best character developments the show had, but it was still great to watch. Vito hiding in New Hampshire did take away a bit from the show, but it was the consequences that unfolded back in New Jersey that has me questioning why this was criticized. Both the direct (how to deal with the Vito problem) and indirect (what happened after the Vito problem in Part Two) consequences were quite substantial and were much more far-reaching than just simply having johnny cakes in a diner.

THE TAKEAWAY: Back in season one, I mentioned how The Sopranos is often regarded as one of the best television shows of all time. Now having completed the series, I can concur with that statement. While I won’t go so far as to say The Sopranos is my favorite show of all time, it definitely ranks among my top ten, possibly top five; the reasons why are both similar and different.

As I’ve mentioned time and again, the three characteristics that make The Sopranos unique are the characters, the mafia, and the Italian-American lifestyle. While the first two may seem quite general (characters especially), they still remain unique to this show. Pick any of my favorite television shows, the first thing I’ll remember are the characters. You see so much of them it’s like they become your friends and family and when you finish a show, it’s upsetting because you don’t get to see them anymore. So while saying this show has great characters might seem like a cop out, if you’ve seen the show you know how hard it is to say goodbye to people like Tony, Carmela, Paulie, Sal, the the countless others that make this show what it is.

It’s the third characteristic I listed, the Italian-American lifestyle, that makes my pick for this different. Most if not all of the other shows I consider my favorites (Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica have to be top two) are much more appealing. They have action and visual candy to bring you in and keep you hooked in what I would consider a blockbuster way. Both these shows have much more depth and thought to them than a standard blow-‘em-up summer blockbuster the numbs the brain, but they have a certain level of that easy entertainment to reel you in. The Sopranos for the most part lacks that. Yes there’s plenty of murders, violence, and other action-packed mayhem that occurs, but it’s used in short bursts rather than in a sustained way. What really got me hooked and made The Sopranos so special for me was seeing many of the things that took place in my family happen on the screen. Everything the characters said and did, from how they said things like proscuitto and mozzarella, traditional Sunday dinners, yelling as a form of normal communication, and gravy for pasta (not calling it tomato sauce), not only made the show authentic and feel extremely genuine, but it appeal to me at a much more personal level than stories like a chemistry teacher cooking crystal meth or the annihilation of the human race ever could.

The Sopranos may appeal to you for different reasons or even not at all. It is without a doubt the most graphic and violent television show I’ve ever watched (even more than Game of Thrones) and can be uncomfortable at times. But behind all of this is sheer power to move you to places you’ve never seen before. It also served as the foundation for shows like Breaking Bad to follow in its footsteps and is responsible for the renaissance in TV that we’re seeing today. Many great reasons to watch the whole show, and season six is a particularly great ending to a wonderful series.

THE RATING: 5 out of 5

The Sopranos: Season 5

Year 3, Show #1, Season #5 (Total Shows—1, Total Seasons—5)

THE PLOT: A separated Tony and Carmela negotiate family and money issues. Meanwhile, Tony’s reunion with paroled cousin Tony Blundetto may endanger his alliance with Johnny Sack; and Adriana gets in deeper with the Feds.

THE GOOD: For pretty much every season of The Sopranos so far I’ve been saying how it’s all a big setup for some big reveal that’s going to come. Most of the time there is some resolution in the finale followed by a cliffhanger that gets you pumped for next season (as any good show should do). But a running complaint of mine that I never really vocalized was how the payoffs seemed to be too small, and too few and far between. You only get the last two episodes for exciting stuff, the rest of the season is pretty much lots of filler to prep you for the end.

In season five though, things start to change. This season was much more about outcomes than it was about setup. Sure, there was still of lot of that preparation for bigger happenings (see: the FBI), but we also got a lot more action and results early on this season. A big part of this is probably due to the influx of new faces, fresh out of jail. We get to meet Feech La Manna (Robert Loggia) and Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi), two made men who’ve been in prison since the 1980s (along with a few smaller characters). While new characters have been introduced constantly throughout the show, they’ve almost always lacked the extra energy. Even people like Richie Aprile in season two or Ralph Cifaretto in season three — who were both major characters and commanded a lot of screen time — didn’t have the same effect Feech and Tony B. have in this season. 

And it’s weird, because neither of these two characters would rank anywhere near the top of my favorite characters list. But while they may not be my favorite characters, they brought something that had been deteriorating for a while: a sense of direction and purpose. The big thrill of watching The Sopranos has always been the experience more so than the overarching story. You get to see the life of the New Jersey mafia, and while that does bring along certain inherent dramas, the only real logical end game is being arrested or killed. Season five opens that thinking up and get’s you wondering, “What if there was more? What happens when the status quo is disrupted?”

The status quo isn’t just disrupted by the introduction of some new people though. All of our surviving friends return for more great memories and interesting developments. We see Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Carmela go through their divorce proceedings, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) getting wonderful news, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and his fiancé Adriana (Drea de Matteo) getting some not so great news, and rising tensions between the New Jersey and New York families after some deals go awry.

THE BAD: But while some big payoffs start to happen, there’s also several notable disappearances that occur this season. And I don’t mean that as a euphemism. The biggest example is the FBI investigation into the Sopranos. It’s been going on since the beginning of the show and after a big increase last season, was surprisingly absent from season five. Yeah, some of the detectives made a few appearances, and a few more people turned informant, but for a long while it felt like the FBI vanished. It wasn’t until the finale when they came in with all the troops that they made their presence known.

The other example of being strung along is Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese). He’s at least seen in half the episodes, but he’s very much slipping away. The worst part is, that even though his importance is slipping, the show is still trying to force him upon us by making him go senile and oblivious to half of what he says. If he’s no longer that important, make him more of a minor character like Tony Soprano’s kids. Both Meadow and Anthony Jr. appear in more episodes, but their roles are secondary to the effect they have on their father.

THE TAKEAWAY: Season five takes The Sopranos from a show that’s fun to watch solely for being like a documentary (albeit highly fictionalized), to one that has many more goals and purposes along the way. This season isn’t like the rest which set you up for eleven episodes and then deliver the conflict and resolution in the last two; there more rewards scattered throughout the season. It not only makes it much easier and more fun to watch the whole time, but the big payoffs that still remain at the end are even bigger. It doesn’t hit quite the high that season three did due to some false starts and pointless directions of focus, but it does bring the show back around to what really matters: family. Family, and the things you do to protect it.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Let’s Be Cops

Year 3, Film #15 (Total #465)

THE PLOT: Two struggling pals dress as police officers for a costume party and become neighborhood sensations. But when these newly-minted “heroes” get tangled in a real life web of mobsters and dirty detectives, they must put their fake badges on the line.

THE GOOD: If the amount of laughter that escaped me is any indication of how good this film is, Let’s Be Cops rates pretty high. There were some truly hilarious, and horrifically gross (funny gross), moments that had the entire audience laughing hysterically. And another good sign for the film is that the good jokes weren’t wasted in the trailer; there were plenty more filling the film from beginning to end for sustained comedy.

Going into the film I was expecting it to be stupid humor and sure enough, that’s what I received. There was a couple minute warmup period to acquire the taste, but once the film really got rolling, it was just like watching any other comedy. Sure there was a fair share of negative aspects to the film which I’ll get into in a second, but most of the time you’re too busy laughing to pay any attention to the bad parts. Even for the negatives that are ingrained into the story and are inescapable — like the fact that the situation they’re placed in is totally improbable — they feel secondary to the film because the comedy trumps it. And while I’m sure not everyone is a fan of this stupid humor that mostly consists of acting immature, sex jokes, drugs, and racial stereotypes (it can be a bit much at times, the store robbery with the naked criminal is a prime example), I do think that everyone can find something to laugh about in Let’s Be Cops.

One area that I keep going back and forth over is a key ingredient to the film and it’s humor: the two main characters Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans, Jr.). Their chemistry and friendship together drives much of the film although they are aided later on by Officer Segars (Rob Riggle) and Pupa (Keegan-Michael Key). The good part of this chemistry is that at many time it doesn’t feel like they’re acting. It just feels like all improv and they’re making most of it up as they go along with the side benefit of actual structure from a script that is often looked over when improv takes over. Let’s Be Cops has the best of both worlds in that sense of a regular scripted film that feels spontaneous.

THE BAD: The downside to the chemistry between Ryan and Justin is that it feels exactly like Johnson and Wayans’ characters on the TV show New Girl. While that doesn’t have to necessarily be bad it nonetheless is the wrong fit for this film. Ryan is the character who doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life, loves to put himself in ridiculous situations, and is pretty much the exemplar of a frat-bro (just like Nick on New Girl). Justin is the shy guy who has a job, but isn’t really happy with it and never wants to try anything new (a little different than Coach on New Girl, but still very similar). This dynamic between them works on the TV show but fails in Let’s Be Cops because the whole premise of impersonating cops requires a full-on commitment from all parties involved. Justin always wimps out, never wants to do any of the cop activities, and after confirming impersonating cops is indeed illegal five minutes after they start, he begs Ryan to stop.

Now having this scared character breeding doubt is funny for a while and it’s even funnier when Ryan inevitably forces him to do the stupid and funny stuff against his will. But by a half-hour into the film, it gets boring, repetitive, and annoying. Justin is supposed to be funny and make us laugh, not make us roll our eyes after he backs out of something scary for the millionth time (surprise, surprise). A little bit of this at the beginning is fine, and actually welcome, because it’s what helps us get past the suspension of disbelief at this ridiculous premise. But once we get past that, not wanting to participate in the hijinks and the shenanigans becomes irritating and actually stops laughs and replaces that with frustration.

THE TAKEAWAY: Despite the annoyance that the chemistry between main characters Ryan and Justin can bring, their friendship also helps bring a health dose of laughs. The premise is ridiculous and stupid and the story (about some gang trafficking weapons, money, and other contraband using local businesses to help conceal it) might even top a Transformers film in terms of absurdity, but it does deliver in terms of laughs. In fact, Let’s Be Cops is probably my second favorite comedy this summer (behind Cuban Fury and in front of 22 Jump Street and A Million Ways to Die in the West, just squeaking ahead of 22 Jump Street). Granted, stupid humor might not be for everyone, but if you enjoy the trailer, you’ll really enjoy the entire film.

Let’s Be Cops opens in theaters tomorrow, Wednesday August 13, 2014.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

The Big Chill

Year 3, Film #14 (Total #464)

THE PLOT: A group of seven former college friends gather for a weekend reunion at a South Carolina winter house after the funeral of one of their friends.

THE GOOD: For a film that doesn’t really go anywhere, The Big Chill still manages to get a little something through. The seven college friends are staying in the same house for the weekend and use it as an opportunity to catch up and mend many their relationships, many of which have broken over the years. As I’ve mentioned many times before, some of my favorite films are those with minimal locations that the characters are just thrown in to and The Big Chill is a good, semi-counter example to that. I’ll get into why I mostly dislike this film in a bit, but while the seven-character, one-location setup provided the source for many of these dislikes, it also served as much of the enjoyable parts as well.

What The Big Chill does very well is show a bunch of friends (at varying states of closeness) all together. Not all films need a driving plot with an end goal to reach, some films are just enjoyable to see the journey to an unspecified end point. Much like Drinking Buddies was a great representation of relationships in the present day (2014), The Big Chill seems to be a great representation of what things were like back then (1983). Sometimes it’s just fun to see a different way of living come to life and compare it to your own life.

THE BAD: However, where The Big Chill goes wrong is that if feels like there should be a purpose instead of just watching the journey. Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is the journalist who seems like he’s going to exploit the weekend for his own benefit by writing an article about it, Harold (Kevin Kline) has the whole thing with his company being acquired soon, Sarah (Glenn Close) seems to be suffering from a depression deeper than just the passing of their friend Alex, and Nick (William Hurt) seems to be a wildcard who we never really find out where he’s coming from or what he’s going to do.

There’s all these character traits and possible plot points that are introduced and presented to us in the beginning of the film which make them out to seem important. But by the end, these are all but forgotten and we’re left with this group of friends talking to each other about what life was like back in college and how it isn’t the same anymore. Yes, that’s a great area to explore and could make a great film, but The Big Chill doesn’t provide enough insight into these character to make it work. It feels like it’s going to be a more traditional film with some big twist at the end about how one of these friends did something completely unexpected and shocking. But instead, we get the introspective reflection piece that we aren’t primed for.

Another element that is vital to this film is the editing. Editing probably plays one of the biggest roles in this film and has one of the hardest jobs because there are seven characters that we have to be introduced to, and then follow throughout the hour and forty minute runtime. The editing on this film (done by Carol Littleton) was so important that we even covered it in one of my editing classes last semester. And while I would agree that technically, the film is edited well on a scene-by-scene basis, when looked at as a whole it doesn’t stand up as well.

The scene we analyzed in particular was the opening montage where you see Sarah answer the phone call informing her of Alex’s death. After that, we see each of the seven college friends receiving the news and making their way to South Carolina for the funeral with “I Heart it Through the Grapevine” playing in the background. This montage is masterfully edited in many ways. Intercut with the friends preparing for the funeral, we see a body being dressed, first by male hands, then by female hands. The impression is that it’s a guy dressing himself, and then a woman dressing him, like a wife or girlfriend would do. At the end of the montage, we realize it’s Alex’s dead body being prepared for the coffin. With the shots of the friends, each is fairly brief, probably no more than ten or twenty seconds each. But with each of the seven people we’re provided a clue as to what kind of a person they are. Nick for example is driving a Porsche and popping pills, Meg (Mary Kay Place) is by herself in a fancy office, and Sam (Tom Berenger) is in first class on an airplane with several cocktails in front of him and a stewardess approaching him with a copy of a magazine with his face on the cover.

But while this opening montage (and a few others later on in the film) do a great job at compressing a bunch of information into small, digestible pieces, it didn’t really seem to stick or even matter in the long run. It’s one thing to do a great montage that convey all the little tiny details that I mentioned and alluded to above, but you also have to drive home some key points, like a character’s name. Halfway through the film, a couple of the friends were having a conversation about their time in college and I couldn’t follow along because I didn’t know who was who. It’s great to know that there’s a TV star among them and to get that from seeing him in first class on a plane, but if I don’t know his name is Sam, that doesn’t really help me when someone else is talking about him.

THE TAKEAWAY: The Big Chill provides a great look at a group of seven friends all dealing with grief and being together for the first time in years. However, the film feels like it has a greater purpose/direction than just being with these characters for a weekend but fails to deliver on it. And while there’s some great montage editing in small chunks, the overall editing of the film leaves question marks that could easily be fixed.

THE RATING: 2 out of 5

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Year 3, Film #13 (Total #463)

THE PLOT: In late 1950s New York, Tom Ripley, a young underachiever, is sent to Italy to retrieve a rich and spoiled millionaire playboy, named Dickie Greenleaf. But when the errand fails, Ripley takes extreme measures.

THE GOOD: The Talented Mr. Ripley packs quite a mysterious punch and always keeps you guessing, not only as to what will happen next, but who these characters are, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) in particular. Ripley’s entire existence seems to be predicated on a lie and yet, he’s surprisingly open with us at the beginning of the film. He’s sent by Mr. Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) to go bring his son Dickie (Jude Law) back from Italy. When Tom meets Dickie for the first time he’s asked what is he good at to which Tom responds, “forgery, lying, and impersonation.” The moment Tom spoke this line, I knew I was hooked.

It’s this line that sets up the rest of the film and your expectations. When Tom is still in New York City we see him lie a few times, but they seem harmless enough; little white lies. But after boarding the ship to Europe we begin to see an ulterior motive. Tom isn’t quite who he makes himself out to be. He starts trying to mimic Dickie and match his style (forgery and impersonation) while also becoming good friends with his fiancé Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). All the while, we just sit there with questions rising. What is Tom’s end game, what does he want to accomplish, and if he does succeed, how will he cover his tracks? There’s numerous times where it seems like we get a revealing clue — playing chess in the bathroom — or there’s a kink in the plan — Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — but we always keep moving forward as Tom keeps digging himself deeper and deeper into the lies he’s constructing. Pretty soon, we start losing track of the which lies he told to whom and how all the pieces fit together. That is, until a series of twists change the puzzle completely and everything starts falling into place. By the end, we start to see the big picture and the purpose of all the Tom has done, before we’re left with one final (unexpected) twist in the final scene.

THE BAD: While this film is a great mystery and keeps you guessing and engaged throughout, it’s missing a great foundation on which to build off of. I mentioned the brief time we spent with Tom in New York City where he meets Mr. Greenleaf. These one or two scenes do play a vital role by giving us a meaningful reason for why Tom goes to Italy and how he’s connected with Dickie. But what the film does not do is provide a good reason for why Tom is the way he is. How did he become so good at lying and deception? Did he ever try to pull any scams in the United States or was he getting by just as the hotel attendant? Where does he come from and did he plan this trip and create a run-in with Mr. Greenleaf?

This is a fantastic film and a great mystery that does its job well. But the entire time I spent wondering about how it was all possible. Obviously we see Tom Ripley is good at forgery, lying, and impersonation, and for most of the time we just go with it. But my suspension of disbelief wasn’t complete and there was always that question nagging at the back of my mind: how did Tom start doing this? This provides a mystery in-and-of-itself, one that I’m not sure an answer to would make the film better. But the problem needs to at least be acknowledged to let us know that it was thought about. As the film plays out it feels like a forgotten detail, an annoying detail, rather than another chink to Tom Ripley’s mysterious suit of armor shielding his deepest thoughts, desires, and feelings.

THE TAKEAWAY: The Talented Mr. Ripley is an intriguing mystery where Tom Ripley wanders around deceiving everyone he comes in contact with. It’s an entertaining ride that has you constantly asking questions and trying to guess what Ripley’s goal and purpose is, with twists and reveals that are mostly unexpected and unpredictable. However, the film fails to answer one question from the very beginning which then nags at you the rest of the time: who is Tom Ripley?

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

The Sopranos: Season 4

Year 3, Show #1, Season #4 (Total Shows—1, Total Seasons—4)

THE PLOT: With Paulie in jail, Christopher becomes acting capo. Junior faces a RICO trial while Tony finds that the recession affects his businesses. Meanwhile, Furio catches Carmela’s eye, and Janice sets her sights on Bobby.

THE GOOD: By this point, it’s season four of The Sopranos and it doesn’t make much sense for me to keep reiterating the three main components as to what makes this show so consistently great: the characters, the inside look at a New Jersey crime family, and the idiosyncrasies of an Italian-American family. All three remain just as detailed and authentic as they have in the past three seasons. Instead of beating that horse to death, I’m going to focus on some other elements that made season four entertaining to watch.

For TV shows so far, I’ve refrained from focusing too much on a singular episode, but in season four, “Whitecaps”, the season finale, demands special recognition. It is easily my favorite episode of the series so far (it’s listed as numbers 3 and 4 on Entertainment Weekly and TIME’s lists) and it really stands out from all the others for one scene in particular. The amount of raw emotion that both Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) are able to express is stunning. For four seasons now we’ve seen Tony go on his many escapades with his goumares (mistresses) and Carmela sit back with very little to say, or do, in response. There was that almost affair between Carmela and Father Intintola (Paul Schulze) in season one, and between her and the wallpaper guy in season two, and couple of small fights between her and Tony, but nothing really substantial, and nothing ever went anywhere. In “Whitecaps”, this animosity Carmela has been brooding towards her husband finally reaches a boiling point and we get four plus years of repressed rage and frustration.

I know it’s always hard to tell someone just to stick with a show because it shows promise, or that something will happen eventually. Many people, rightly so, want something tangible each season that they can sink their teeth into, follow, and react to along the way. While The Sopranos does have a lot to offer in terms of tangible elements of entertainment, both season one and now season four fall into the other category: wait long enough and something good might eventually happen. Season one proved to be a solid building block for the seasons that followed and also provided many interesting conclusions at its finale. Season four is a bit different though. The whole first part of this season regresses back from the steps forward the show made, back to wandering around for ten episodes. But I can truthfully say, that it’s all worth it to see everything come to a close in “Whitecaps”. This season finale is what I was alway expecting this show to be like and finally answers several nagging story lines that had been building for four seasons. Again, I know it’s hard to hear that everything will turn out good in the end, but “Whitecaps” is the epitome of this show so far and it’s worth trudging through the first twelve episodes this season just to get to the finale.

THE BAD: Season three has been the only one to receive a perfect rating so far and my reasoning for that was because they chose to focus on family. Family means much more to The Sopranos than just the fact that it’s about the mafia (often referred to as a family). Family is a quality and theme that’s inherent to this show and is really at the heart of what makes it so great. However, season four seemed to take the complete opposite approach to that and instead focused on business and money. For the first three seasons, there was always the presence of those two, more so as the show went on and we started seeing the effects of several of the mafia’s operations. But in season four, business and money are the primary focuses to the detriment of the good parts to the show.

Artie’s (John Ventimiglia) foray into the business, the HUD scam, and real estate ventures among others are all interesting, but they don’t really give us a better look into the characters individually or as a collective. Contrast this with the one business venture that was done right this season: Pie-O-My, a racing horse that Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) buys. The horse isn’t just about making money. Yes, as far as the horse is concerned, that is its purpose, but for us, the horse brings about certain changes in Tony, Ralph, and other members of the family. The horse means more to the show than just a bottom line. Because of the horse, we see more of Tony’s loving and caring side while also seeing the ruthlessness that can drive him to do horrible things at the same time. Things like this are missing from the HUD scam which cousin Brian Cammarata (Matthew Del Negro) introduces through speculation or any of the other ventures that are part of season four.

The whole issue about the lack of money because of the recession (the early 2000s one) and Tony needing to hide the money from Carmela also detracted from this season. While this did end up playing a role in the wonderful “Whitecaps” finale, the amount of unnecessary attention it received really hurt the show. It’s not the focus on the money issues that was the problem with this season, but it was the disconnect between the problems and what was done about them. With both the ventures I mentioned before and Carmela’s worries about not having enough money, the problems are both valid and are interesting to watch unfold. By separating it from the outcomes though (things like the fight in “Whitecaps”, bringing cousin Brian on board to help with family finances, and the sit-downs with Carmine Lupertazzi (Tony Lip) in New York) the result seems unintentional and mistaken. You do have enough information to connect the dots and make sense of what does go on in season four, but it’s so roundabout that it removes any entertainment value from it. This isn’t about some mystery that’s fun to think about and try to solve yourself; this is about making easy connections for the mundane occurrences so that we don’t have to divert our attention from more important issues.

THE TAKEAWAY: Season four of The Sopranos takes a few steps backward, losing it’s focus on family to instead divert our attention to money and business ventures. It makes most of the season painful to watch because most events seem pointless and add very little to the characters or the show. However, the season finale “Whitecaps” negates most of that ill-will and is really the epitome of the show. It brings several long-running pieces to a breaking point and the result is the most explosive, emotional, and all-around jaw dropping episodes of the series so far.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5