Unicorn Store

Release: Friday, April 5, 2019 (Netflix)

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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.”

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Photo credits: 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

TBT: The Graduate (1967)

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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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