This ‘Cake’ is Stale ; ‘Black Sea’ is Gripping, Smart and Thrilling

Movie Review – ‘Cake’

The acerbic, hilarious Claire Simmons becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group.

Rating: R (for language, substance abuse and brief sexuality)


Directed By: Daniel Barnz

Written By: Patrick Tobin

Runtime: 1 hr. 38 min.
Review Jennifer Aniston has never looked worse or been better in ‘Cake’

Jennifer Aniston’s appearance may be notable in ‘Cake,’ but it’s a painfully good performance that stands out.

For Claire, the privileged and seemingly friendless Angeleno whom Jennifer Aniston plays in “Cake,” physical pain has become not just a torment but an organizing principle. It defines her dependence on prescription drugs and on the housekeeper who watches over her with equal parts maternal compassion and unexpressed exasperation. Pain becomes Claire’s strategy for keeping most everyone at arm’s length.

Where “Cake” taps into something fresh is in the relationship between Claire (Jennifer Aniston) and her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), whose caretaking extends beyond the well-appointed hilltop home to Claire herself.

Since the indie drama’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, much has been made of the star’s deglammed, emphatically vanity-free performance in which she forgoes makeup and sports drab hair. But that’s not what places her work here among her strongest screen performances. As an accident victim whose nearly every move is excruciating, Aniston lends the role an impressively agonized physicality and brings ace timing to the screenplay’s welcome gallows humor.

It’s a letdown that the film itself, written by Patrick Tobin and directed by Daniel Barnz, doesn’t take half the chances its leading lady does and is content to paddle around the shallows rather than plunge into the deep end.

In the opening sequence, Claire’s stinging honesty gets her ejected from a support group for people with chronic pain. (An excellent Felicity Huffman is the blinkered-by-dogma leader.) Claire’s refusal to buy into the therapy-speak of “closure,” presented in all its sappy ineffectuality, makes her a fascinating and potentially heroic figure. But it becomes increasingly clear that the movie wants to position her mordant sensibility as a problem to be solved.

For the audience, the ostensible problem requiring solution is the matter of Claire’s pain and aloneness: What caused the scars on her face and body, and why did she and her still-concerned husband (Chris Messina) separate? The film’s episodic progress teases out these questions in a series of encounters, but the dots are connected well before the intended revelations, which rest on a hackneyed setup.

Leave off the make up. Smack a fake scar on her. Let her moan and groan. Voila! She’s up for a Golden Globe. What a waste of a nomination. I am soo tired of her, too. Yawn.

Where “Cake” taps into something fresh is in the relationship between Claire and her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), whose caretaking extends beyond the well-appointed hilltop home to Claire herself. Silvana drives Claire to appointments and more spontaneous destinations, like the Tijuana pharmacy where Claire restocks the pills she pops ’round the clock.

Barraza, of “Babel,” provides a lovely low-key turn as Silvana, and though the depiction of the women’s imbalanced relationship ultimately falls back on sentimentality, it’s also a lived-in glimpse of contemporary Los Angeles that matches the movie’s visual scheme. Tobin and Barnz eye the class distinctions between employer and employee with clear-eyed sensitivity. Claire may bark orders at Silvana, but in a well-played scene she helps her save face with a couple of snobs.

In Aniston’s nuanced portrayal, Claire’s essential compassion is never in doubt. The burning question is whether she wants to get better and, more to the point, whether she wants to live. In a series of fantasy sequences, the ghost of an acquaintance who committed suicide (Anna Kendrick) urges Claire toward self-destruction. In the quotidian sphere, Claire confronts questions of life and death through an affecting shorthand with the dead woman’s widower (an understated Sam Worthington).

Against the odds, the ghostly intrusions work because they resonate as Claire’s inner dialogue. They’re far more believable than the sudden appearance of a man who might be considered the story’s villain (William H. Macy). He might also inspire sympathy, but the misguided scene registers as nothing more than a script contrivance.

As “Cake” devolves into familiar territory concerning grieving, it loses its specificity and drive — if not Aniston’s acerbity — and goes soft. It’s as if the filmmakers are reaching for the closure that, so understandably, galled Claire at the outset.


black sea

Movie Review – ‘Black Sea’


A suspenseful adventure thriller directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Macdonald, centering on a rogue submarine captain (two-time Academy Award nominee Jude Law) who pulls together a misfit crew to go after a sunken treasure rumored to be lost in the depths of the Black Sea. As greed and desperation take control onboard their claustrophobic vessel, the increasing uncertainty of the mission causes the men to turn on each other to fight for their own survival. (C) Focus

Rating: R (for language throughout, some graphic images and violence)

Genre: Drama , Action & Adventure , Mystery & Suspense

Directed By: Kevin Macdonald

Runtime: 1 hr. 55 min.
‘Black Sea’ Review: Jude Law’s Submarine Salvage Thriller Rises to the Occasion
By James Rocchi

Claustrophobic, tense and playing out as a global economy variation on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” set in the cold, crushing depths of the ocean, director Kevin MacDonald‘s “Black Sea” will have any thrillseekers in the theater clutching their armrest and shivering with imagined terrors.

Jude Law, with a short growth of stubble and a low growl of an accent, stars as Robinson, a Navy veteran who, in his first scene, is being fired after over a decade with a shipping company. Drinks with other similarly-discharged old coworkers lead to a discussion of rumors, legends and tales about a sunken German U-Boat, laden with Russian gold that was sent by Stalin to Hitler in the 1940s as a last-ditch attempt to appease the Führer right before the Nazis invaded the USSR.

Surveying his grim prospects (“They want me flippin’ burgers,” he growls at one point), Robinson hatches a plan to find a financier, acquire an old sub, assemble a English-Russian team of mariners, divers and experts, and sneak under the Russian fleet to make off with the wartime treasure.

As other films have taught us, Robinson’s challenge isn’t in enduring the quest for the treasure as much as surviving what will happen if he acquires it. The expedition’s backer sends along a crony, Daniels (Scoot McNairy, essentially channeling Paul Reiser in “Aliens”), and Robinson shanghais young Tobin (Bobby Schoenfeld) into the crew, but grizzled veterans like short-tempered diver Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”) and the lanky, smiling Reynolds (Michael Smiley, “A Field in England,” “Black Mirror”) make up the rest of the group.

BS1As soon as Robinson promises all parties equal shares, though, things start getting tense; once at the bottom of the ocean in a rusty surplus Russian sub, they go bad swiftly and all at once. From his beginnings as a documentarian, Macdonald has always been a director whose films, from ‘The Last King of Scotland” to “How I Live Now,” are shaped as much by his intelligence as by the camera lens. Written by Dennis Kelly (the soon-to-be-remade “Utopia”), “Black Sea” stays not only surprising but also tough, with Law’s Robinson becoming more and more obsessed with the prize as the risks become greater and greater.

A film like this could be have easily been torpedoed (sorry) by skimpy or shoddy technical work, but Macdonald’s crew delivers excellence. The sound design and editing — so important in the quiet depths of the cruel ocean — is phenomenal, with cinematographer Christopher Ross nicely meshing the cramped, red-lit interiors of the sub with the effects team’s shots of the colossal sub surrounded by an infinitely larger ocean.

Technique is one thing, and feeling another; let it also be noted that all the performers are excellent here as well. Whether it’s the new faces and character actors among the Russian crew or I-know-that-guy veterans like Mendelsohn, McNairy and Smiley, all the characters convey a sense of being under pressure and aware of the calculus that more dead crew members mean a bigger payout to the survivors.

It would be one thing if “Black Sea” just delivered thrills and calamities and challenges to survive; fortunately, Macdonald lets us into the fears below the fears, the insecurities behind the concerns of immediate peril. There’s a lot of heavy-metal action in “Black Sea,” but it’s the frail flesh-and-blood mortals inside the steel shell of their sub that makes what happens matter. Gripping, smart and genuinely thrilling, “Black Sea” elevates itself above most other thrillers by how wisely and well it brings you down to the depths alongside its crew.

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