Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Release: Wednesday, June 16, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Tom O’Connor; Brandon Murphy; Phillip Murphy

Directed by: Patrick Hughes

Starring: Ryan Reynolds; Samuel L. Jackson; Salma Hayek; Antonio Banderas; Morgan Freeman

 

 

**/*****

Short review: Well, I’ve seen worse. But that’s not exactly the endorsement I was wanting to write. Not that I was necessarily expecting to come out of this thing with effusive praise, but I was also hoping it would be a lot of fun. Alas, those expectations were too high.

Misfiring like an over-adrenalized rookie, Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, the sequel to 2017’s quickly forgotten (but in the moment, reasonably diverting) action-comedy adventure The Hitman’s Bodyguard, is an attempt to build a family out of the odd-couple dynamic that made the first film enjoyable. Unfortunately this more inclusive adventure amounts to little more than an excuse to get Salma Hayek to scream as many swear words and to get kissy-kissy with on-screen partner Samuel L. Jackson as often as possible in 100 pretty cringe-inducing minutes.

I’m going to skip over the fact that Wife’s Bodyguard is a cliched sequel (the original was not exactly an original either) and move directly to the more glaring issue. Hopped up like a virgin on prom night, this movie has a problem of energy. For the first time, maybe ever, I’m going to complain about an action-comedy having too much of it. Hayek’s painfully OTT performance makes her an easy target, but she’s not the only one to bear blame. Returning as director, Patrick Hughes believes that in cranking up the crazy dial past 10 we’ll be able to more easily look past the uninspired and highly contrived machinations that once again pull hitman Darius Kincaid (Jackson) into erstwhile retired bodyguard Michael Bryce’s (Reynolds) life.

Following the events of the first film, Michael is being forced to reevaluate his life having lost his license to protect and now under orders by his amusingly unsympathetic therapist (Rebecca Front — The Aeronauts; Transformers: The Last Knight) to take a much-needed sabbatical. Travel the world, maybe. One of the better gags in the entire picture revolves around the rather inconvenient fact a normal person’s vacay destination could be a well-traveled bodyguard’s potential trigger. This turns out to be close to the height of intelligent joke delivery in the sequel, for much of what happens after Bryce invariably gets roped back in to the bloody game becomes increasingly farcical and reliant on tired jokes.

The pacing is frenetic and the direction clumsy, making the progression of the central threat from a minor inconvenience into a continent-spanning catastrophe harder to buy than it ought to be. Off seeing the world in the luscious Capri, Italy a hapless Michael Bryce runs smack into Sonia Kincaid (Hayek); or, rather, a part of her body that the movie is keen on you noticing constantly smacks into him amidst a bullet-storm. Before long we’re linking up with Interpol, represented by an over-acting Frank Grillo (Point Blank; Captain America: The Winter Soldier) who coerces Michael and the violence-prone love-birds to work together to bring down a Greek terrorist hell-bent on sending Europe back to the Stone Age through some dark magic/tech wizardry stuff.

I will eventually get around to saying something positive for this is not a total wash, but Wife’s Bodyguard also suffers for its villain — this time, the confused nationality bordering on cartoonish. Gary Oldman is a Londoner but can sell you on a brutish Belarusian dictator. I don’t know in what universe a Spanish accent passes for a Greek accent, but here’s Antonio Banderas playing a terrorist named Aristotle Papadopoulos, anyway. As it turns out, Mr. Papadopoulos and Sonia have some history, which of course presents a roadblock for our heroes. And while we’re on backstory stuff, Morgan Freeman reminds us of his ability to play on either side of morality, and is capable of being more than just a lovable, 100% trustworthy, esteemed expert of some kind or loving family member. He’s quite good here playing father (of a sort) to Ryan Reynolds — his intro another you can file under the column of memorable moments.

While pretty much everything about this follow-up is forceful, what remains natural and enjoyable is the love-hate relationship between Reynolds and Jackson. Third-wheeling alongside them is Hayek, whose characterization is both overly sexualized and overcompensatory in its crudeness. Beneath this unfortunate layer though lies a woman terrified of not living the life she wants. There’s poignance — and sweetness — in her desire to have a baby with her murderous sugardaddy and in Darius’ explanation as to what’s really going on in that department. Wife’s Bodyguard so often lacks for these quieter, more relatable moments that you end up holding on to them for all they’re worth when they do happen.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard wasn’t the caliber movie one expects to get sequelized but when you have bankable stars like Reynolds and Jackson all bets are off. It could have used one, sure, but it really needed to be better than this.

“This one time, at bodyguard camp . . .”

Moral of the Story: Man, if they just dialed down the slapstick-level comedy here Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard would be a movie I could more easily get along with. It is unfortunate that in this case a sequel just means “go bigger and crazier than last time,” and not in a Fast and the Furious kind of way, but rather in the performances — a decision that effectively turns already heightened characters into straight caricatures. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Now, get off my trash. You’re a stain on my legacy.”

Here’s the Official Trailer from IGN. All squeaky clean and green-band and everything! 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.movieinsider.com

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #5

Another new movie experience and another lesson learned. The one we have to talk about this month has become something of a cult classic since its release nearly two decades ago. I can see how it has earned that reputation. It’s a very well-made movie, a realistic take on teen alienation that comes with a prickly sense of humor. Unfortunately I cannot say I enjoyed it very much. In fact the first third of this movie was a constant struggle not to hit the Back button on my remote.

In the Pros column, the performances are outstanding. They absolutely do their job. It’s cool to have finally seen the first comic book adaptation Scarlett Johansson took part in. This is a different kind of comic than what audiences are accustomed to seeing her in today. Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World is a movie with a defiant personality. It’s (mostly) costume-less, leisurely paced and gleefully misanthropic. This cynical dramatic comedy is based on the 1995 serial (later turned into a graphic novel) by Daniel Clowes, whose collaboration on the screenplay surely helped the film pick up that Oscar nom. The movie is also notable for being the role that put a young Scarlett Johansson on the map. She celebrated her Sweet 16th after it came out.

Ghost World has, oh let’s see, a 92% critical score and an 84% positive audience response on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a movie about outsiders, but I’ve been left at the end feeling like one myself. That’s not to say I didn’t identify with anything the characters were saying or that I didn’t understand what the movie was doing. I was just put off by the aggressively nihilistic attitude. I found it a struggle to really care about what happened to any of these characters after a certain point.

Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: With only the plan of moving in together after high school, two unusually devious friends seek direction in life. As a mere gag, they respond to a man’s newspaper ad for a date, only to find it will greatly complicate their lives. (IMDb)

Character Background: Rebecca is best friends with Enid. They’re a pair of misfits who have had each other’s backs all through high school. Now staring at a wide open calendar, they find themselves listless and aimless. They may not have plans like all the losers bound for college but they’re going to make it a goal to mess with other people’s plans. Yes indeed, the opening minutes prove they aren’t really the gossipy type. Trash-talking is more their style and everyone is a target — the crippled, the elderly and possibly senile, struggling parents and fugly waiters.

To her credit, even from the beginning Rebecca comes across as the more mature one. She often pulls up short of the line Enid is willing to cross. You also get the sense Rebecca is more popular with boys. Yeah she’s pretty but moreover she’s more approachable; she isn’t constantly spitting venom. The movie is about how the two friends eventually drift apart over the course of the summer. We get a steady trickle of moments where Rebecca demonstrates a desire to move on, to change. To grow. Director Terry Zwigoff, a bundle of anxious nerves himself, observes all these changes in the most mundane of ways but there’s clearly a sense of stability in Rebecca that we do not find in Enid.

What she brings to the movie: confidence, the kind only working with the Coen brothers can provide. Coming on the heels of The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World you can almost consider Part Two in a two-act coming-out party for the young teenage actor. She pendulums from a clearly not-shy teen in a 50s noir to a disaffected teenager in a post-Kurt Cobain world. The sultry and seductive voice that defined her character in The Man Who Wasn’t There is traded out for an amusingly dry monotone that rarely raises above calm speaking voice. Her portrayal is nuanced and authentic and, at least for me, the most sympathetic of all the main characters.

In her own words: “Terry just let us be ourselves. He understood that he cast two people who had really good chemistry. We were kid actors who, by that point, had started to understand how to do our job and explore this kind of naturalism that the film required. I think that is what is so great about Ghost World, is that it captures these characters at this very specific point in their lives.”

Key Scene: when Enid goes to visit Becca at work is one of my favorite moments in the movie. It perfectly captures the soul-crushing nature of minimum wage jobs, while also subtly introducing the fracture that ends up becoming quite a rift between the two besties. (Also, while I may not have really liked Thora Birch’s character, the movie gets bonus points for this being the only identifiable costume in this comic book adaptation.)

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):  

***/*****


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Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of the Criterion Collection 

Jojo Rabbit

Release: Friday, November 8, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Taika Waititi

Directed by: Taika Waititi

New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi has always been the magic elixir to make things better.

Viago the vampire was one of my favorite characters in the frightfully funny comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2015). In 2017 he gave the MCU a whack of feisty, vibrant energy with Thor: Ragnarok. His goofy humor had the kind of impact that gets directors invited to do another one. He’ll release Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021. It’s also the mainstream breakthrough he needed to make his “anti-hate satire” possible, with Jojo Rabbit collecting dust on a shelf since 2011. If Ragnarok had not received the response that it did, all bets are off the ones cutting the checks would have confidence in the director pulling off a Nazi-bashing black comedy.

Loosely based on Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is an undeniably heartfelt movie about how love, compassion and optimism can be the tools in fighting against hatred and prejudice. Similarly, Waititi’s infectious spirit and cutting wit are his most powerful weapons in combatting the cliches of his story. The fact and manner in which he plays Adolf Hitler — as the childish, imaginary friend of our embattled pretend-Nazi Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) — is the defining characteristic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s certainly what gives the movie an edginess. He’s portrayed as a doofus with the maturity level to match the kid who thinks of the Führer as more mate than maniacal monster.

The native New Zealander is neither the first filmmaker to pair comedy with Nazism nor the first to receive flak for doing so. He is, however, the first filmmaker who identifies as a Polynesian Jew to not only don the ugly garb and horrendous hairstyle of the German dictator but to attempt to undermine his authority by playing him as a complete bozo. There are nuances to his performance that have been overlooked amidst the scathing criticism he’s faced by appearing to downplay the threat of Hitler. Au contraire, Waititi isn’t afraid of unleashing his character’s vitriol. As the story progresses his performance intensifies, becomes more bullying and scary.

Whether in front of the camera or behind it Waititi is conscious to balance the silly with the somber. There is persecution in Jojo Rabbit; however, this is not a movie about the Holocaust. Its scope is limited to what’s happening inside the head and the heart — the fundamentally warped psychology that enabled Hitler’s lapdogs to create systemic oppression that eventually culminated in one of the worst events in human history. If that’s not dark enough of a backdrop Waititi reminds us that children were not immune to Hitler’s hateful rhetoric. Yet he also gives us hope by suggesting that a child, unlike a world-weary adult whose beliefs are more ingrained, is not entirely beyond saving.

When the impressionable Jojo is confronted with a unique circumstance he’s forced to reconcile what he has been indoctrinated to believe with objective, observable reality. His mother Rosie — wonderfully played by Scarlett Johansson — is part of a quiet anti-Nazi uprising and has hidden a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls of their house. When he realizes he can’t spill the beans out of fear of being turned over to the SS — represented primarily by Stephen Merchant in a surprisingly scary capacity — he decides instead to use the intel he’s being fed by Elsa to create a pamphlet on how to identify “The Enemy.” After being dismissed from the Hitler Youth camp after a mishap with a grenade that left him slightly deformed, he will use this to impress his old pal Captain Klenzendorf — a weird role inhabited by Sam Rockwell, who plays the one-eyed Nazi as more bloke than baddie — as well as make himself feel as if he’s still involved in “the German cause.”

Naivety plays a big role in the movie. It’s the wrinkle that gives Jojo Rabbit‘s good-vs-evil trajectory more sophistication. The story is heartwarming and heartbreaking in almost equal measure, because you also look at Yorkie (Archie Yates), and wonder if his becoming a child soldier (albeit one who really has no business handling a rocket launcher) was really his fate. There are a lot of great performances in this time-worn tale of love ultimately triumphing over disproportionate evil. The real battleground in Waititi’s screenplay is not the inevitable blitz on the small town courtesy of the Allied Forces but rather the conversation between two youngsters on starkly opposite sides of a literal and metaphorical divide. The young actors are impressive with the way they trade barbs. It’s just unfortunate those heart-to-hearts come at the expense of McKenzie, who isn’t afforded anything approaching character growth and instead operates as a narrative device to make the could-be killer see the error of his ways.

Truth be told, Waititi loses a few battles along the way but ultimately wins the war. There are so many ways Jojo Rabbit could have gone wrong and probably would have gone wrong in the hands of a less capable and bold filmmaker. The big question surrounding his passion project (is this a passion project?) was whether he would be able to balance the disparate tones of drama and comedy in a story about Nazi Germany. I think he does that admirably.

“I think it’s best we Nazi each other right now . . .”

Recommendation: If you ask the chuckleheads sitting next to me in the theater who, on top of entering the movie ten minutes late, laughed at everything Taika Waititi said so loudly no one else in the room needed to, he’s absolutely the reason the movie is kind of a must-see, even if the story it tells is less interesting than the performances. Waititi = lovable. Hitler = not so much. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Now this is my kind of little boy’s bedroom . . .”

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Photo credits: Twitter; IMDb 

Unicorn Store

Release: Friday, April 5, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Samantha MacIntyre

Directed by: Brie Larson

Very much like a unicorn the directorial début of Brie Larson is a colorful curiosity. Unicorn Store reunites her with her Captain Marvel co-star, Samuel L. Jackson, albeit under entirely different circumstances. Instead of trying to prevent intergalactic war here we’re dealing with a millennial figuring out how she’s going to get out of her parents’ house and support herself. And, you know, support the unicorn that she’s about to get — the one she’s dreamed about owning since she was a kid.

Something you need to know about me before we move forward: I may not believe in unicorns but I’m a big believer in Brie Larson. I’ve loved her in most things I’ve seen her in. I also like to think I have a fairly high tolerance for quirky, “precious” indie movies. In 2015 Swiss Army Man rocketed to the top of my favorite movies, while Wes Anderson’s remained among my favorite filmmakers for some time. I’ve stuck by the Duplass brothers at their mumbliest and apparently on a good day I’ll even tolerate a Hipster Baumbach movie.

With all that said, I couldn’t really buy into the intentional absurdity of Unicorn Store. I lay most of the blame at the foot of Samantha MacIntyre, whose words have a touch as soft as a sledgehammer through glass. Hers is one of those overly affected screenplays that tries too hard to convince you it’s as quirky as its competitors (Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus is another film that springs to mind, though granted the characters in Unicorn Store are far less obnoxious). Here, just as in Magical Cactus, overt attempts to be different result in performances that feel something less than natural and a viewing experience that’s more grating than is necessary.

Larson pulls double duty as she not only directs but stars as Kit, the emotionally immature protagonist who starts the film failing/dropping out of art school and who for the longest time is convinced the only thing she’s succeeded at in life is disappointing her parents (an okay Bradley Whitford and an (intentionally?) annoying Joan Cusack). They work as camp counselors for troubled youth. Their eternal optimism is constantly offensive to Kit’s sensibilities. After a few nights of being back under her parents’ roof, mixing glasses of Cabernet with several shots of self-loathing, she stumbles into a boring routine at a soul-crushing(ly colorless) temp agency, a 9-5 which revolves around pushing buttons on a copier and having her own pushed by a creepy VP named Gary (Hamish Linklater — no relation to Richard).

While working on a marketing pitch for a vacuum cleaner for her Real World, real priggish bosses, Kit starts receiving mysterious invitations from an equally mysterious Store. Specifically, from a Salesman (Jackson) adamant he can provide Kit what she’s always dreamed of having. It’s in this weird, brightly decorated, strangely tailor-made space — it even has its own ice cream bar! — she learns that unicorns are not only real, they come with owner’s manuals. The presentation’s flamboyant but the details enclosed are written plainly in black and white.

They describe a binding contract that considers everything from the quality of the proposed living quarters, feeding and dietary habits, even the prospective owner’s financial and emotional stability. It’s all very complicated and considered. It’s apparently a responsibility, one that Kit must prove to the eccentric Salesman — and to herself — she’s capable of handling. As she commits gung-ho to her goal, she discovers she’ll need some help in completing one of the first basic requirements: providing adequate living conditions. That’s where hardware store hunk Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) comes in. Although Athie and Larson share a nice chemistry it’s hard not to question the logic behind this “relationship.”

Depending on your penchant for reading deep into things Unicorn Store is likely to leave you either underwhelmed or confused by its less-than-metaphorical denouement. You might just be indifferent to how literally it all plays out. It’s a movie perched on the edge of reality and fantasy, and it definitely has interesting ideas going on. Credit Larson’s reliable acting for the film’s few moments of poignancy. Yet as director, much like she’s written as the lead, she is often too forceful with her hand, too eager to rush seemingly important developments to nab the ending she thinks she’s due.

I shall call you ‘Thanos.’

Recommendation: Unicorn Store‘s an easier one to access if you’re a Brie Larson fan and you have a lot of patience for awkward, relentlessly self-deprecating millennials. If the word ‘Adulting’ doesn’t make you want to throw chairs. Believing in unicorns would be a plus, too. Of course the subject matter isn’t what’s off-putting. The narrative execution makes it hard to invest in the fantastical off-shoots of the real-world, and in this modern Peter Pan fairytale, not being able to believe is kind of a big problem. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “The most adult thing you can do is failing in what you really care about.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Rules Don’t Apply

rules-dont-apply-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Warren Beaty

Directed by: Warren Beaty

Toothaches. Internet trolls. Airport pat-downs. These are but a few things that grate on the nerves less than Warren Beaty’s new film.

In Rules Don’t Apply, an ambitious driver tries to make it with a devout Baptist and aspiring actress who in turn tries to make it with Howard Hughes. That’s THE Howard Hughes — aviator, film producer, and eccentric. Guess how that turns out? Really, really freaking annoying — that’s how. “O Lord in Heaven.” (Just to be clear, the religious overtones perpetuated throughout aren’t what make the film a chore to sit through, though they don’t really help.)

Beaty sort of applies the rules established by the Coen brothers in this off-beat, often bizarre and off-putting ‘romantic comedy.’ It has their comedic tastes written all over it, figuratively speaking. If it actually had been written by them, Rules Don’t Apply would surely have been better off. It’s farcical, at times to the point of slapstick and in many ways evokes the Coens’ most recent effort Hail, Caesar! IronicallyI considered that one of their lesser outputs despite its strengths, namely a nostalgia for the Golden Era of Hollywood. Beaty, serving as writer, director, co-producer and star, similarly pines for the days of the Big Studio System. In fact there is more romance in his lust for a paradise long since lost than in any of the character interactions.

In 1958 Marla Mabry (Lily Collins), a Bible-thumping beauty queen hailing from Virginia, is being escorted by Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), along with her uptight mother Lucy (Annette Bening), who has come along to help ensure her daughter doesn’t lose herself in the madness that is Hollywood. O Lord in Heaven. Frank, a chauffeur for Hughes’ many actresses, becomes Marla’s personal driver. He’s given explicit instructions to never get into a romantic affair with any contract actor working for Hughes, so of course that means he is about to get into a romantic affair with a contract actor working for Hughes. It is Matthew Broderick’s sole responsibility to keep reminding the youngster of company policy.

Broderick is but one of many tumbleweeds that wheel haphazardly, aimlessly, through the desolate wasteland of entertainment that this ultimately becomes: Ed Harris, Steve Coogan, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Paul Schneider and the aforementioned Annette Bening all feature but collectively must account for fewer screen minutes than the number of names I just rattled off. Hard to believe there were no other up-and-coming talents that could have fulfilled such bit parts. Hell of an egotistical move to feature so many accomplished thespians and give them a single line of dialogue at a dinner table, for example. Blink and you’ll miss Steve Coogan as Colonel Doesn’t Even Matter.

We are in a time when Hughes is not well. His increasingly erratic behavior is sending up all kinds of flags indicating he is neither fit to be running a company nor flying aircraft. Infamously the entrepreneur suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and pain as related to a plane crash that nearly killed him. He became reclusive and extremely difficult to work with. If there’s anything Rules does well, it’s in laying out the numerous eccentricities that made him a true enigma in his latter years. Much of the narrative is devoted to keeping Hughes in the shadows, the short-term effect of which manifests in Marla’s mother bailing for greener pastures while her daughter stays to see if something will come of it. The long term effect? Leave that to Ehrenreich’s loyal terrier.

If indicators of a good performance include how often a character gives you conniption fits, consider Beaty’s an Oscar-worthy submission. As an interminable two-hour running time plods ever onward his baffling behavior intensifies, notably in the third act — incidentally where all sense of narrative cohesion goes out the window. In some weird way Beaty’s performance is the glue that holds the flimsy bits together. Ehrenreich doesn’t fare quite as well. Frank has the personality of a brick, and his devotion to such a lunatic boggles the mind. Perhaps you, too, will find yourself shouting at the screen in an empty theater. Maybe even an occupied one. No one really comes out of this smelling like roses, but unfortunately Collins is saddled with one of the most thoroughly unconvincing character arcs I’ve seen in some time. I could go into spoilers but I’m so not interested. Suffice it to say, I think Beaty has misinterpreted what the expression ‘devout Baptist’ means.

The longer I sit on this, the more I’m convinced Beaty’s latest owes a great deal to Hail, Caesar! Substantively the two films are quite different — whereas Caesar delineated a day-in-the-life of a Hollywood studio fixer, Rules tackles a love triangle involving two people who really don’t belong together and a Hollywood luminary who uses the actress as a loophole to avoid being committed to an asylum, and thus losing his company. But if we’re talking the tangibles, the sorts of tricks the Coens used to obfuscate a fairly poor screenplay that lacked depth and any real meaning — ensemble casts, picturesque cinematography/iconic imagery — the two seem kindred spirits.

Beaty’s intentions are good. They’re also clear. Rules is another love letter to an era long passed. The man has crafted a picture with love and care, evidenced in the pastel sunsets he captures and the warm color palette that makes Beverly Hills glow in an ethereal light. And there’s something compelling about the way he presents Hughes as a very tragic character. But he’s no fun to be around, and his increasing prominence in the story makes the film very hard to like.

alden-ehrenreich-and-warren-beaty-in-rules-dont-apply

2-0Recommendation: Perhaps this is one of those cases where a film’s substance becomes so overwhelmingly unpleasant and ultimately forgettable that it obscures the product’s legitimate strengths. But the film also suffers from a dearth of issues from a filmmaking standpoint. Poor editing, terrible character development and a rather convoluted plot all work against it. Also, watch out for that 42% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Just saying . . .

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “You’re an exception. The rules don’t apply to you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Café Society

'Cafe Society' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 15, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Woody Allen

Directed by: Woody Allen

I think I’ve cashed in the last of my goodwill towards all things Woody Allen by checking out Café Society, yet another movie about New York, being Jewish and being young, dumb and hopelessly lovesick. The weight of Allen’s neuroticism has become crushing in the present tense. The novelty of his vaguely pervy sentimentality wore off years ago, and while we may find ourselves surrounded by familiar scenery here, the days of Manhattan and Annie Hall have all but disappeared in the rearview.

It’s not that I have ignored that unwritten rule of avoiding a film you know you’re not going to like from the word ‘go;’ I have for the most part enjoyed spending time in Allen’s hyper-self-conscious little fantasies but it’s apparent now that fantasy is all the man is and will ever be about, be it his directorial touch or his shady real-life persona. Semantics, really. Some just leave it at ‘pervert’ or ‘creep’ and if I ended up feeling uncomfortable for Kristen Stewart that must mean I agree to some extent with those labels as well. I mean, it’s Kristen Stewart.

I am, however, disappointed I ignored a personal rule: Stay away from anything Woody Allen that looks suspect, regardless of whom he has talked into working with him. The problem with Café Society isn’t one of objective quality. The film is stunning to behold, set in two of America’s most famous cities and lensed with a certain verve you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Vittorio Storaro’s seductive soft focus and brilliant color palette perpetuate Allen’s love for The Big Apple and the effervescent glow makes Los Angeles look like a place we would all like to live someday. That’s an impressive feat.

The cast is equally effective in seducing: beyond the gimmick of casting Adventureland‘s stoned-in-love Jesse Eisenberg and the aforementioned Stewart, we get a stuffy Steve Carell as an obnoxious L.A. agent named Phil Stern. He so happens to be the uncle of Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) who is looking to get his foot in the door in 1930s Hollywood. Corey Stoll plays Bobby’s brother Ben, a New York gangster with an affinity for burying his enemies in fresh concrete (that’s actually pretty funny). Blake Lively is lovely as Veronica, Bobby’s bride-to-be, while Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin revel in their roles as the quintessentially bickering, old-country Jewish couple. Oy vey, they’re so cliché.

There’s little to complain about when it comes to the film’s technical aspects. Instead Café Society‘s simple themes — finding a partner who will complement you in every aspect of life; being unable to escape your past — suffers from having lived a life thrice. There’s nothing to experience here that you haven’t in countless entries into Allen’s extensive filmography, which is to say that we have probably seen this movie in various incarnations no fewer than 20 times. No filmmaker can be that prolific and that consistently groundbreaking. Not even visionaries like Georges Méliès, who belongs to that oh-so-prestigious club of directors with 200+ titles to their name.

I know, I know. It’s a little extreme to be associating a pioneer like Méliès with someone like Allen but bear with me. The point is, his harping on budding romance has become passé and his creative funk continues in this latest excuse to pad a résumé. Eisenberg is a fresh-faced youngster in Hollywood who has taken up an off-the-cuff offer from his uncle to do odd jobs for him in exchange for the opportunity to make valuable connections. Along the way he falls for the cute secretary, Vonnie (Stewart) and is smitten by her lack of pretense. Trouble is, she’s currently seeing another, much older man and things are both serious and seriously complicated.

Heartbroken and disillusioned, he heads back to New York where he helps his older thug brother run a high-class nightclub that attracts many a wealthy douchebag politician and various nameless sycophants. It is here Bobby is introduced to Lively’s Veronica, with whom he casually jokes about having the same name as his ex. Well, joking is a strong word in a Woody Allen movie. It’s more like, he lusts after her because of the similarity. They soon marry and even have a child. But is life with Veronica (Vonnie 2.0) everything Bobby wants? The past comes back to haunt him when Vonnie 1.0 stumbles into his club one random evening. Of all the night clubs on all the city blocks in Manhattan, why did she have to choose this one?

Very little of Café Society feels like it’s designed to burrow in the longterm memory.  This is particularly offensive when we’ve had stronger characters and more compelling plot lines to follow in Allen’s back catalogue alone. Modern Allen is a flaccid Allen. He seems to get off on repeating himself. ‘Café Society’ is both a term used to describe the crowds that gather at various trendy clubs as well as the name of a specific club started up by Barney Josephson in 1938 in the New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village, today infamous for being one of the most expensive places to live in the States.

There’s one other theme apparent, an age-old lamenting over how people change over time. I can’t get into the nitty-gritty of that without ruining the movie for those still waiting to take this all in, but suffice it to say I find that talking point ironic. The more things change the more they stay the same. It’s certainly true of a director who mistakes quantity for quality. There’s very little romantic about doing the same things over and over again for decades.

Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell in 'Cafe Society'

Recommendation: Tedious fluff piece. Café Society represents more of the same from Woody Allen: annoying characters complaining about their love lives all while trying to find an inspiration for changing themselves for the better. I can’t say this movie is generic but it probably will be for those who have an appreciation for earlier Allen. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart prove they do have good chemistry together though, so at least there is that. And the movie is an absolute delight from a visual standpoint. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy director.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Daddy’s Home

Daddy's Home movie poster

Release: Christmas Day 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Sean Anders; Brian Burns; John Morris

Directed by: Sean Anders

Will Ferrell may not yet be suffering late-stage DeNiro, but if he’s not careful he can still emasculate his career if he keeps up the habit of portraying people who get off on being abused by everyone else in the movie. He needs to go back to playing the egomaniac, his nice guy schtick just isn’t working.

In Daddy’s Home, the experiment to see whether Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg truly have chemistry or if The Other Guys was just a one-time thing, he plays the hapless (and almost hopeless) Brad Whitaker, a stepdad who really, really enjoys parenting. I suppose the suburban household remains one of the few domains his comedic antics haven’t yet targeted. Satirically speaking, the subject seems fitting; there’s something about the mundanity of parenting and living in a four-bedroom house, surrounded by a white picket fence that offers itself up to parody. And no, this isn’t me being sarcastic.

The movie is about Brad fighting for the right to be called ‘dad’ by his children. His domain is threatened when their biological father, a motorcycle-riding alpha male named Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg) — only a few letter changes away from being a Moron — suddenly reappears in their lives when he comes to visit them and his ex-wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) for a week.

As expected, a game of one-upmanship ensues, beginning with Dusty trying to win his children over with bedtime stories of heroics and a crisp $20 bill. Not to be outdone, Brad springs an impromptu Christmas upon the family. One of the gifts is a pony for his stepdaughter. Before long, Dusty’s taking off his shirt and doing one-handed pull-ups in the garage (fuck yeah bro, you totally win the Chiseled Abs award).

The nadir of this protracted pissing contest occurs when Brad clocks a cheerleader in the head with a basketball at the Lakers game, to which he takes the whole family assuming he finally has the upper hand. Unfortunately, he doesn’t factor in Dusty’s popularity, a privilege that grants the kids some face time with Kobe Bryant. Brad has seemingly overstepped a line and is temporarily booted from his own home. Le weep.

Brad Whitaker, who is introduced immediately as a man who has struggled with infertility after a freak accident at a doctor’s office some years ago, represents Ferrell at his most self-deprecating. It’s the epitome of a comedian softening in his older age. Ferrell’s less animated and more straight-laced in his portrayal of a suburbanite stepdad trying to do right by his family. It’s a role that simply doesn’t fit. Unfortunately his awkwardness isn’t the full extent of the issues with Anders’ latest.

Disregarding the mean-spirited nature of the comedyDaddy’s Home also commits a genre-specific cardinal sin: it just ain’t that funny. Thomas Haden Church, as Ferrell’s boss at the Panda radio station, is absurdly annoying. Hannibal Buress has good comedic timing but is stuck with a character that offers precisely nothing of value. Linda Cardellini drowns in a pool of testosterone. And are the kids being spoiled twerps supposed to be some kind of commentary on modern consumerist behavior? Probably not, this movie isn’t that ambitious.

Good news is, Wahlberg, ever the American inamorato, continues being immune to enmity, even when his character is specifically written to incur it. He’s Ferrell’s opposite in every way, a guy we’re meant to be rooting against. Or, someone from whom maybe . . . just maybe, Brad could learn something as two different parenting styles — one a caring, loving presence and the other a total ghost — clash in a comedy that seems to think it’s humorous to debase a human being because of his inability to reproduce.

It’s a minor victory that Wahlberg and Ferrell work well together in their second collaboration, but I’m still not really laughing.

Recommendation: It’s a comedy with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in it, but the stars of the film are much easier to find than the comedy. The Other Guys is the superior outing, even though it’s not exactly comedy of the year either. Nonetheless, and somewhat strangely, the two have an easy chemistry that makes looking forward to their next project together more exciting than it probably should be. Here’s to hoping no more potential goes wasted.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “I’m a hot habenero pepper right now.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Night Before

The Night Before movie poster

Release: Friday, November 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Levine; Kyle Hunter; Ariel Shaffir; Evan Goldberg

Directed by: Jonathan Levine

I was enjoying, for the most part, the latest incarnation of the Seth Rogen and Friends Show, finding myself more than a little amused by their storming of New York City in an effort to live it up one last time this Christmas Eve; finding comfort once more in the familiarity of their crassness and the simplicity of the mission: let’s get wasted and have a blast, maybe even learn a thing or two about each other in the process. (Yes, people actually get paid millions to do this.)

Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, Jason Mantzoukas shows up, dressed as one of two drunken Santa Clauses and wipes the smile from my face. This I don’t call a Christmas miracle. This I call a threat to a movie’s enjoyability. Seriously, this guy is the worst. Is this his talent, being a buzz kill? If the name’s not familiar, you’re either lucky or you haven’t caught many episodes of The League. In which case you are also lucky. Mantzoukas doesn’t appear for long in The Night Before but apparently it’s enough to cause me to go off on a rant about how much I dislike the characters he plays.

Where’s my egg nog? Ahh, there it is. Right. Now we can actually talk about the film.

It’s no secret Seth Rogen isn’t a man of great range. A few weeks ago he managed to impress me with his dramatic turn as Steve Wozniak in Danny Boyle’s intriguing examination of the late Apple CEO and he also played it somewhat straight as Ira Wright, an up-and-coming comedian in Judd Apatow’s underrated Funny People. However, nine times out of ten you know what you are going to get in a film bearing his name prominently on the poster.

The Night Before, in which he plays Isaac, a mild-mannered (when sober) thirty-something, is the long-lost lovechild of This is the End and Knocked Up. It’s a film that knows when the party should stop and embrace important life events like childrearing, relationship-building and aggressive product placing. While it will never be as good as vintage Rogen-inspired raucousness — I refer to the likes of Pineapple Express and Superbad — this collection of Yuletide yucks offers a suitably raunchy alternative to the saccharine stories about family and togetherness we’re about to be hit with in the coming weeks.

We’re introduced to Isaac and his buddies Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) via a cringe-inducing voiceover that plays upon the titular poem, explaining how Ethan had lost both parents several Christmases ago and has since spent the holiday with his pals. Despite the support, he has found himself stuck in a rut while constantly running into obstacles in his personal and professional life. He’s no longer with his girl Diana (Lizzy Kaplan) and he works odd jobs, most recently as a miserable little elf.

The others take it upon themselves to make this Christmas the best one ever, as Chris’ NFL career is starting to take off and he finds himself with less time to spend hanging out, consumed ever more by social media and the associated vainglory. Betsy (Jillian Bell) hands her hubby (Rogen) a bag of drugs before they hit the town, reassuring him he’s earned himself a night of recklessness before properly settling down. Say no more, we know where this is all going. Mostly.

Along the way we bump lines, ingest psilocybin by the ounce, hallucinate in a manger, buy pot from Michael Shannon (can this guy do any wrong?), take relationship advice from Miley Cyrus, play some Goldeneye (yes, on N64!), promote Red Bull and even find time to reconcile past and present tensions in a subway car. All of this farce ultimately leads us to the Nutcracker party, the party anyone who’s anyone finds themselves at after midnight on Christmas Eve. That includes Ethan’s ex, which means you know the guy is bound for redemption sooner or later.

The Night Before settles on tried-and-true Rogen/Goldberg formula, simultaneously  mocking and embracing the spirit of Christmas by developing a none-too-surprisingly wholesome bromance between a never-more-stoned Rogen and his cronies. ‘Tis the season to be giggling uncontrollably, although I couldn’t call you a grinch if you wanted to take a pass on this hit.

JGL is a Wrecking Ball with Miley Cyrus in 'The Night Before'

Recommendation: The Night Before doesn’t rank amongst Rogen’s best but it’s a perfectly satisfying blend of juvenile humor and sight gags as well as heartfelt relationship building. (Interestingly it manifests as only the second time Evan Goldberg wrote a script without Rogen.) Save for a few questionable cameo appearances, this still manages to offer the quota of amusing supporting roles and it is nice to see Rogen reunited with Gordon-Levitt.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You have been such a Rock throughout this whole pregnancy. You are like my Dwayne Johnson.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.movie-torrents.net

TBT: The Graduate (1967)

new tbt logo

For the second pick of November ’15 we’re going back to what has been referred to me time and again as a classic. A coming-of-ager to end all coming-of-age films. It’s Dustin Hoffman’s second big screen appearance, one that officially opened up the doors to a promising and diverse career, one that I am ashamed to admit I have experienced precious little of. My world has been rocked today as I have learned that 1) Dustin Hoffman, and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways, has been around much longer than I had thought he had been; and 2) I hadn’t planned this at all, but this TBT is in a way commemorative. Today marks one year since the sudden and tragic passing of the much-acclaimed director of 

Today’s food for thought: The Graduate.

'The Graduate' movie poster

Worrying about the future since: December 22, 1967

[Netflix]

An idle mind is the devil’s playground, some Philippians once decreed. Given that, I had an entire sandbox and an assortment of twisty slides to go down thinking about all of the dirty things I could be doing instead of watching this incredibly annoying movie. This character (yes, that’s right, the graduate) doesn’t do anything the entire movie but complain about upper middle-class white male privilege. “Oh no, my life is going in no direction in particular. Guess I’ll go float on a raft in the middle of my pool for the rest of the summer.”

A solid basis for a Kevin Smith movie. Let’s just watch Dustin Hoffman look really good for an hour and 40 minutes in a sun-tinged pool in some swanky house in Burbank. Or wherever the location was. I do find it kind of ironic: I have drifted for much of my post-collegiate life (because I’m no good at making actual, important decisions). I’m middle-class . . . maybe not upper-middle-class but I’ve been fortunate. Where are the cameras? Oh yeah, that’s right, I think out loud, snapping back to reality.

Two things, one probably more important than the other: 1) I’m not an attractive, young movie star and 2) I’m not an attractive, young movie star who gets his bones jumped by Anne Bancroft. See? I’m telling you, this is a movie about privilege.

The Graduate is supposed to be this whole quirky, kinky romantic thing involving Hoffman’s Ben Braddock and a family friend, the lovely but pathetically insecure Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft). The film is hardly romantic and it certainly isn’t charming. Although it does tick the quirky and kinky boxes. It all starts when she asks Ben to drive her home after a welcome home party in Ben’s honor.

Things get a bit awkward as Ben suddenly finds himself alone with her in her room as she undresses. But they won’t do the dirty here — no, they end up getting a room in a hotel where apparently all manners of trysts and assignations occur. This is where we get that iconic shot of Bancroft’s crossed legs in the foreground, with a smitten Ben Braddock lingering in the background, hands in his pockets. Perhaps if Ben weren’t such an incorrigible stiff — I mean that in the least sexual way possible — this movie would be over a heck of a lot sooner, saving me and anyone else who can’t buy into whatever charm Hoffman’s supposedly laying on in his second big screen performance from another 80-some-odd minutes of flaccid comedy.

Complications arise when Ben’s parents set him up on a date with the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), much to Mrs. Robinson’s disapproval. She hates the thought of Ben going for someone his own age. (Yeah, what a pervert.) When Ben eventually falls in love with Elaine, following a rough first date during which he attempts to distance himself from her at the behest of her mother, all bets are off that Ben’s once quiet life will continue as normal.

Early in the film a family friend encourages the young man to live a little, to enjoy himself just for awhile before he settles down. That was actually Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) who gave him that advice. Ergo, anything comical about The Graduate stems less from performances and situation as it does from our omniscient vantage point. We know everything and the poor husband knows nothing. I saw more disdain for living than pleasure in embracing life’s unpredictability. Less comedy and more pent-up sexual frustration. The Graduate is all about the latter; I’m not so sure about the former. I suppose one thing that was pretty amusing was how adamant Ben was in ensuring Mrs. Robinson he isn’t a virgin.

More mysterious than how this film has garnered such popularity is Hoffman’s awkward, wooden performance. The goal is to exude that post-graduation malaise but his delivery doesn’t seem very assured. Not to mention, being a womanizer first and a stalker second doesn’t really speak to my experience. And I doubt I’m alone. I’m also not a saint, but if The Graduate is supposed to be a commentary on that awkward ‘next step’ after college — his insufferable parents would like it very much if he attended graduate school; after all, what were those four years of undergrad for anyway? — it’s painting anyone who hasn’t had a life plan in broad strokes and in a pretty ugly color.

Setting aside thematic content, The Graduate just isn’t that creative. It assesses the budding relationship between Ben and Elaine as they continue finding common ground, while an ever envious Mrs. Robinson goes out of her way to make life exceedingly difficult for Ben. It’s another tale of home-wrecking and heartbreaking. The malleability of a young man’s happiness: if he can’t get this, then he’ll settle for that. If not that, then something else. Ben, in the latter half of the film, goes into full-on creeper mode, seeking out Elaine after a major reveal causes her to move out of her parents’ house and back to college, where she apparently is now with some other guy. And while the conclusion ends on a curiously ambiguous note, it’s not wholly unpredictable. The whole damn thing has been about indecision.

All of this ho-ing and hum-ing is set to the tune of a fairly inspired Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, which is one of a few things I’ll take from this movie and cherish. The film is brilliantly scored. So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Seems other people will love you more than you will know. Just . . . not . . . me.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in 'The Graduate'

Recommendation: If you like your movies testing your every last nerve, you might try out The Graduate. Yeah, it’s an early Dustin Hoffman performance but I didn’t find it a great one. A coming of age movie with almost no wisdom to impart, I have to say I am massively underwhelmed by this thing. 

Rated: PG 

Running Time: 106 mins.

TBTrivia: In Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft’s first encounter in the hotel room, Bancroft did not know that Hoffman was going to grab her breast. Hoffman decided offscreen to do it, because it reminded him of schoolboys trying to nonchalantly grab girls’ breasts in the hall by pretending to put their jackets on. When Hoffman did it onscreen, director Mike Nichols began laughing loudly offscreen. Hoffman began to laugh as well, so rather than stop the scene, he turned away from the camera and walked to the wall. Hoffman banged his head on the wall, trying to stop laughing, and Nichols thought it was so funny, he left it in.

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While We’re Young

while_were_young

Release: Friday, March 27, 2015

[Theater]

Written by:  Noah Baumbach

Directed by: Noah Baumbach 

As the tagline suggests, life never gets old but can the same be said for aggressively hipster, disingenuous characters and convoluted stories?

Noah Baumbach is a director I should have written off already. What I’ve been able to gather through only two films (this and 2013’s Frances Ha) is that he’s all about some hipster shit. From what I understand, his back catalog has this tendency to be a bit off-putting. If he weren’t such a brilliant writer with observations so keen on actually making me think people really can reinvent themselves from the inside out — that’s much cornier now that I say it out loud (let’s face it: most movies fail to change us in any way that’s discernible) — I probably would have given up.

Baumbach’s talent for plucking characters and situations from reality and surrounding them in a cinematic environment is on display in While We’re Young. So is his penchant for working with difficult-to-like personalities. I have to get over that. I really do. It’s either that, or I don’t have to. I could go on eager to embrace only that which makes me comfortable and engages on all levels, pretending that the world exists for my sensitivities. I’m an idealist and it kind of sucks. That goes far beyond selecting what films appeal to me and what do not. I’m a little like Ben Stiller’s documentarian Josh who demands purity and absolute truth in the films he makes. (Me, lacking his film-making ambition.)

Currently he’s in the middle of a big project and is having great difficulty keeping it going. Josh has strung together a rather paltry career as a documentary filmmaker and now he finds himself, along with wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), in the throes of middle-age as the New York couple are seeing friends all around them growing up with their own children, an experience that Josh and Cornelia have longed to share in but haven’t been able to due to infertility. That’s something of a private matter, so where does this concern us, exactly? While We’re Young begins as an evaluation of a couple finding a surprising amount of joy in their childless adult lives, but Baumbach has grander aspirations than suggesting all people who have kids eventually lose themselves to parenting duties.

Josh finishes up another of his lectures at the local college and comes across a young couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who take an immediate interest in his approach to film. They insist he and Cornelia join them for dinner. Quickly Josh and Cornelia become infatuated with the way these twentysomethings seem to be “so engaged” in everything and anything around them. They have youth on their side, sure, but soon it’s an entire lifestyle that convinces the documentarian and his producer wife they’ve been hanging out with the wrong people for awhile now.

It’s a matter of time and a few awkward scenes before they are miming Jamie and Darby’s nonchalance, shedding everything about themselves save for their few well-earned wrinkles and grey hairs. Stiller looks less silly in a pair of thick-framed glasses and a fedora than Watts does taking up hip-hop dance classes with Darby, unable to disengage the twerk wherever she is for the remainder of the film. (I’ve never been able to describe Watts as a particularly convincing actress and here she really hit some alarm buttons.)

The foursome’s lives are further intertwined when Josh, who has always preferred working by himself, eventually caves and allows Jamie to help steer his long-struggling documentary in the right direction. ‘Right’ is an extremely subjective term, as it becomes clear Jamie is more in it for being able to work his way up the ladder of prestige and success, while Josh merely wants to put out a good story, an important one. Granted, when you listen to him explain his ambition, don’t blame yourself for struggling to stay awake. I certainly don’t. While We’re Young frustratingly finds success in sending up the generational gap that exists between our principal actors while simultaneously detaching us from them with an overindulgence of technical talk about the medium of documentary film and Josh’s convoluted ideas.

As such, a final showdown (that shouldn’t really feel like a final showdown) that occurs between the idealist and opportunist behind the scenes of an award ceremony where Cornelia’s successful father (Charles Grodin) is accepting the top prize for documentary filmmaking, comes across forced and a tad goofy given all the dramatic set-up. Cornelia’s father has been at the center of Jamie’s attention for sometime. Is this why he has been interested in Josh’s work this whole time? It really doesn’t matter; we’ve tuned out for the most part and are awaiting this mid-life crisis to end.

So as I was saying, is it all the hipsters’ fault for While We’re Young not striking a match and lighting the cinematic world on fire? Of course . . . not. It’s a film that astutely observes the pains of life in its many forms — in this case, the advantages and pitfalls of aging and of youth, and how the process of discovery often is more important than the results we find in the end. But the film is unfocused and yes, okay, is made longer by characters that are tough to identify with. The latter is rendered harder to ignore when the former is the larger issue.

ben-stiller-and-adam-driver-in-while-were-young

2-5Recommendation: These characters and these lifestyles and these interests are certainly not my cup of tea. Maybe I’m not qualified to write a recommendation for this thing, but I did find a lot to like here. There are a number of excellently crafted and funny scenes but these feel scattershot and overwhelmed by a sea of mediocre ones. Stiller and Watts make a convincing couple, with emphasis on the former. Driver and Seyfried are excellent at the hipster thing. And Baumbach excels at nailing some truths here. It’s a decent outing, give it a go if you’re a fan of his previous work.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “I remember when this song was just considered bad . . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com