Studio 666

Release: Friday, February 25, 2022

👀 Theater

Written by: Jeff Buhler; Rebecca Hughes

Directed by: B.J. McDonnell

Starring: Dave Grohl; Taylor Hawkins; Pat Smear; Chris Shiflett, Nate Mendel; Rami Jaffee; Jeff Garlin; Will Forte; Whitney Cummings; Leslie Grossman; Jenna Ortega

 

 

**/*****

In Memory of Taylor Hawkins (1972 – 2022)

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl is a man possessed of more than musical talent in Studio 666, a gore-soaked, gleefully over-the-top horror comedy from director B.J. McDonnell, one in which the popular American rock band battles both creative droughts and supernatural forces during the recording of its tenth studio album.

With their obnoxious manager Jeremy (Jeff Garlin, one of the film’s few professional actors) breathing down their necks for the next hit, the Foos find themselves up against a wall as they brainstorm ideas for their landmark record. When they’re informed of a creepy old house in Encino, California, a sad-looking forties-era manor that has more than great acoustics going for it (and where the band put together its actual tenth album, 2021’s Medicine at Midnight), an optimistic Grohl jumps at the opportunity, enamored with the character of the place.

But as the band settles in the writer’s block hits hard and the typically ebullient musician starts to lose his cool, resorting to Youtube instructional videos and plagiarizing Lionel Richie all night long. Then he discovers a demo tape in the cellar, along with some other gubbins, and let’s just say things are never quite the same after that. As Grohl’s behavior deteriorates, a collective effort to complete a full-fledged record morphs into a nightmarish and one-sided obsession with finding an ending to a single song, a soul-sucking process that begins to tear the group apart figuratively and literally.

From electrocuted roadies and barbecued bandmates to decapitated delivery boys and mangled managers, this ridiculous horror-comedy makes sure you’ll remember the red syrupy stuff. Yet despite the former Nirvana drummer’s boundless supplies of energy and enthusiasm, Studio 666 fails to find a consistent rhythm with too many dead spots in the narrative where the camera just seems to roam the house, looking for something interesting to capture. Invariably the lightweight story meanders, leaving you with time to think about why John Carpenter’s score is more memorable than the music being produced by the actual musicians.

The writing doesn’t do the inexperienced actors many favors, either; drummer Taylor Hawkins, guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and keyboardist Rami Jaffee are predictably (dare I say acceptably) wooden in moments of high drama but surprisingly are also unconvincing during the quieter moments where they’re just hanging out, the band’s natural, time-tested camaraderie coming across more forced than it ought to. By contrast Grohl rocks pretty hard, his notorious perfectionism making him an ideal candidate for the role of Obsessive Compulsive Psycho, one that is part-trope, part-send-up of the trials and tribulations the band went through when putting together their official debut album, 1997’s The Colour and the Shape. 

Despite a nagging sense of unfulfilled potential, Studio 666 is a far cry from dire. Based on a story conceived by Grohl and written by Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes, this is a novelty film where you have no problem believing those involved had a blast making it, and occasionally that enthusiasm possesses us as well.

Killer riffs but where’s the soul?

Moral of the Story: Though Studio 666 couldn’t be much gorier, it could in many instances be funnier and more impactful. Diehard fans of the band however are going to have an easier time overlooking the things the movie does not do so well. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “You’re my favorite band after Coldplay!”

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

Together Together

Release: Friday, April 23, 2021 

👀 Theater

Written by: Nikole Beckwith

Directed by: Nikole Beckwith

Starring: Ed Helms; Patti Harrison

 

 

 

 

****/*****

More than an acting showcase for its two leads, Nikole Beckwith’s romantic comedy Together Together is a wonderfully subversive effort that reconfigures the way we look at intimate relationships and how they can be formed.

If not wholesale reinvention — structurally this is still beholden to a formula — her sophomore feature film, following 2015’s psychological drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania, proves there are still nooks and crannies to explore within an overcrowded genre rife with trite titles. Written and directed by Beckwith, the story tells of a pair of strangers brought closer together through the shared experience of a surrogate pregnancy and how they reconcile the ephemeral nature of their connection. So the movie builds from an already intriguing and specific place. When you add in the sensational performances from Ed Helms and transgender actor Patti Harrison, you have something pretty special.

The film’s penchant for surprising you begins with the characters. In a career-best performance Helms plays Matt, a 40-year-old app developer who wants to start a family but the pieces just haven’t come together. What reads on paper or might come across in another rom-com as a potential sad-sack is brought to life by Helms as an average Joe with an unyielding optimism that makes you gravitate to him quickly, warts and all. Matt is undeniably an awkward dude, but his bouts of overbearingness and invasiveness come from genuine caring and excitement. His confidence and sense of purpose separate the character somewhat from the archetypal drifter or forever bitter man-child. It’s the fact his search for fulfillment involves having offspring rather than hooking up that makes him a rare breed of male rom-com lead.

Similarly, the pregnancy does not define the woman. Matching the established funnyman stride-for-stride, and in many instances besting him, is Patti Harrison in her début lead role. As Anna, the relative newcomer brings an authenticity that seems effortless. She, a 26-year-old single woman working as a barista, is of an obviously different social sphere and, less obviously but more significantly, a different background than Matt. Her own past is marked by controversial decisions that have led to strained familial relationships. In contrast to Matt’s to-a-fault enthusiasm Anna is more enigmatic and downbeat, not morose or depressive but rather more emotionally conservative despite the chaos under the surface. She also has aspirations beyond helping Matt fulfill a dream, using the money she will make from the transaction to fund her college tuition.

While Beckwith’s story is most interested in the awkward tension between her two principles, she also has an eye on external factors, such as the social norms that compel outsiders to speculate, judge, assume and/or in some way push back against something they view as weird or even amoral. In supporting roles (not all of which are necessarily supportiveTogether Together features the likes of Fred Melamed (In A World. . .; A Serious Man) and Nora Dunn (Pineapple Express; Bruce Almighty) as Matt’s parents, the latter the most overt representation of disapproval. Tellingly, Anna’s parents never appear on screen.

Conspicuous meta commentary on infamous Hollywood perverts notwithstanding, this is a charitable movie that considers a lot of different perspectives, and those who aren’t necessarily supporting the team aren’t made out to be villainous. Others, if not fully-realized characters, are at least enjoyable to be around: Tig Notaro warmly plays a therapist who monitors the not-couple’s psychological and emotional progression across the weeks, while Sufe Bradshaw (Murder Mystery; VEEP) as an irritable technician and Julio Torres, in his first feature film appearance as Anna’s self-destructive coworker Jules, are here to kick the comedy factor up a few notches.

What’s impressive is the way Beckwith keeps the parameters of a more traditional romantic plot in place (the awkward dinner, the moving in together, the “break-up” and reconciliation) while never losing sight of the unique stakes. Rather than feeling like lazy checkpoints the tropes feel entirely plausible and, with the exception of a couple of overly quirky scenes, natural.

Delivered in three distinct acts turned appropriately into trimesters, Together Together opens with an interview as Matt vets Anna as a potential surrogate. These candid minutes are the first uncertain moves in what ends up becoming a complex, difficult and ultimately rewarding dance that the two characters engage in on a journey from strangers to something more than friends but less than lovers. The tricky part is not getting too emotionally attached. As it turns out, that might be even harder for us as viewers than it is for the participants.

We love Lamp.

Moral of the Story: Short, sweet, and as poignant as it can be funny, Together Together doesn’t set a new standard but it comes with a level of humanity that feels really rare in the genre. Even better, there is such great balance from a writing standpoint, neither character or their concerns overshadowing the other. Nikole Beckwith’s compassionate, sensitive direction is not to be taken for granted. Now streaming on Hulu. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in this moment when I’m feeling incredibly hopeful.”

Get a taste of the meet-awkward in the Official Trailer from Bleecker Street here! 

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

Black Widow

Release: Friday, July 9, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Starring: Scarlett Johansson; Florence Pugh; David Harbour; Rachel Weisz

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Timing is everything. This applies, painfully so, to Black Widow, a film that feels compromised in a way few Marvel movies have.

In her first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Machine director Cate Shortland finds herself in an incredibly difficult position. Twenty-four films deep into a shared universe that has now spun off multiple streaming shows, she is tasked with compressing both origins story and swan song into one entertaining package. Black Widow‘s out-of-sequence placement burdens the filmmaker with a number of difficult creative choices, most notably how much nuance she can bring to a story that ostensibly dives into the emotional interior of one of the foundational members of the Avengers.

Hey, at least they finally got the damn thing made. Scarlett Johansson* may have had to wait 11 years, 20 films and her own character’s killing off to earn what Robert Downey Jr. got three times in five years, Chris Hemsworth three in six and Chris Evans twice in three,** but the only resentment you sense from Natasha Romanoff in her eighth and likely final MCU appearance is reserved for Dreykov (Ray Winstone — Noah; The Departed), the Russian psycho who brainwashed and tortured her and her ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (a scene-stealing Florence Pugh) as young girls, along with countless others from all over the world, into becoming an army of perfect assassins.

A bittersweet prologue sets us all up for a rude awakening: a seemingly normal American family in 1995 Ohio is suddenly compelled to make a break for Cuba after being discovered as the Russian sleeper agents they actually are. ‘Father’ Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) have been keeping their ‘children’ Natasha (here played by Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) sheltered for as long as they can but a sad twist of fate shatters the illusion, the daughters separated and handed over to Dreykov and eventually sent to a nebulous place called the Red Room, a hovering fortress in the sky that could have been cribbed from a Pink Floyd concept album.

Cut to the present (which is still the past) and Natasha’s on the run from U.S. Secretary Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after giving him and his Sokovia Accords the one-finger salute. Her nomadic lifestyle in Norway is short-lived with the arrival of the mysterious mercenary Taskmaster, drawn to an item our hunkering-down hero is unwittingly in possession of. After a violent showdown on a bridge, Natasha escapes to Budapest, where another David Leitch-like round of punishingly awesome fight choreography awaits. Here, reunited with her former sis, Natasha discovers the true extent of Dreykov’s control and power, along with a possible solution to the problem.

Post-Budapest and the spy thriller dynamic evolves into more of a dysfunctional family team-up as the pair resolve to get the old gang back together in order to take down the brute who irrevocably changed them and free the other Black Widows from the same violent servitude. The process of course mandates that mom and dad also confront their own separate, lived-in realities and their culpability in this whole mess, leading to the film’s signature scene (awkward family reunion, anyone?) — an emotional catharsis for all involved. Turns out, reliving the “good old days” is tricky to do when the good old days are your own Tahiti (what a magical place).

Black Widow is a Phase 4 debutante that is much better when grounded instead of going for literally atmospheric, generic spectacle, with some of the quieter moments packing as much of a punch as the intense fight sequences. However, the timing of the whole thing magnifies certain issues. Eric Pearson’s screenplay is not compelling enough for a film this late in the game. And considering the hefty themes in which it traffics and the cast of characters at its disposal there is enough content here to make two films. Instead the exploration of trauma and disillusionment feels rushed and harried by the “Make it count!” business mentality governing its singular existence.

Ultimately the performances save this from total mediocrity. Johansson has kicked ass from her Bechdel Test-failing introduction in Iron Man 2 (2010) through to this bitterly short-lived end, saving her most somber performance for last. Yet even in her own movie she is to some degree playing second fiddle. That’s less of a problem when the reason is Florence Pugh, who might well be stretching her legs for her own MCU run. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take quite as long — in real time or otherwise — to get that going. 

* I am considering reviving the Scarlett Johansson Project. I feel bad leaving that one incomplete. Would anyone be interested in seeing more of those kinds of posts? Show of hands in the comments below, please!

** I do not include Captain America: Civil War in that list considering that is more of an ensemble film than a true stand-alone entry. But, sure, go ahead and add it. Even more to my point.

Comrades in harms.

Moral of the Story: An uncharacteristic end-zone fumble for MCU President and ball-cap enthusiast Kevin Feige, Black Widow feels rather shortchanged by the finite space into which it has been forced to exist. On one hand, you might look at the movie multitasking as both origins and send-off as a unique thing. I don’t know any other MCU installment that has had to do that. On the other, you can’t help but feel Natasha Romanoff deserved more than what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a hit single. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me, how did you keep your heart?” 

Check out the Final Trailer for Black Widow here!

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.forbes.com

Werewolves Within

Release: Friday, July 2, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Mishna Wolff

Directed by: Josh Ruben

Starring: Sam Richardson; Milana Vayntrub; Wayne Duvall; Rebecca Henderson

 

 

 

 

 

***/*****

A little niceness goes a long way in Werewolves Within, a new horror-comedy from director Josh Ruben and writer Mishna Wolff. That’s a very welcomed message right now, though not one I was expecting to take away from a werewolf-themed horror-comedy.

Werewolves Within is an oddball film with a big heart that mixes horror and comedy elements together pretty well, if not always smoothly. I’d say the mix is more like 60/40, in favor of the laughter. The story it tells is actually an adaption of a 2016 virtual reality game that requires participants to piece together clues to figure out who among them (i.e. the crazy townsfolk) is the literal wolf in human clothing. On screen the concept comes to life as an Agatha Christie murder mystery to be solved by the underdog squad of Parks & Rec, with maybe some assistance from the Trailer Park Boys. As such, the movie isn’t as interested in the werewolves (sorry, lycanthropes) and their mythology as it is in the human residents and the baggage they carry.

Set in the fictional Vermont village of Beaverfield, Werewolves Within follows friendly forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson — The Tomorrow War; VEEP) as he digs into the mystery surrounding some strange goings-on around the sleepy community. Having left his previous post behind due to some mishap, Finn appears on the scene as a nice guy who may be out of his depth but genuinely wants to help. However he’ll need some himself if he wants to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this cold and isolated place, with dead bodies turning up under porches and inexplicable damage done to town property.

The movie kicks off spiritedly as he meets his first friend in the local mail delivery person Cecily (Milana Vayntrub, a.k.a. AT&T’s spokesperson Lily). She happily agrees to show him (us) the town and its interesting assortment of characters. The ensuing cavalcade is pretty in-your-face weird: Trisha (Michaela Watkins) wants you to like her bar soap sculptures as much as she does while her hubby Pete (Michael Chernus) has a side hustle in being a creep. A block later or something town mechanics Gwen (Sarah Burns — Barry; I Love You, Man) and Marcus (George Basil) are having a very public, very verbally graphic spat, and soon after that we’re intruding upon Devon (Cheyenne Jackson) and his husband Joaquim (Harvey Guillén — What We Do in the Shadows – TV; The Internship) as they get their yoga on in their private studio.

Subtlety is not this movie’s strong suit. I fully admit I may be susceptible to some serious post-COVID cynicism — it’s going to happen with many a movie going forward, I’m sure — but let’s not forget how opportunistic Hollywood writers can be, either. The pandemic is the mother of all elephants in the room, and so it becomes difficult not to associate the supernatural threat and the panic and speculation it causes — “It’s a possum!” — with certain real-world traumas. Or the finger-pointing and spear-chucking of opinions as everyone huddles together at the Beaverfield Inn after a power outage as a simulation of the grenade-pin tension of our locked-down lives. Of course, not everything is symbolic but a lot of it feels that way.

We quickly learn that everyone in town has been on edge even before Finn arrived, not because of some clawed beast but due to a proposed oil pipeline that Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall), a big man with big pockets (and big guns) wants to run through the area. The development could bring the town much needed revenue, but it would also intrude upon national park land. His presence particularly bothers Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson), an environmentalist who lacks people skills in the extreme and has this knack for appearing out of nowhere. Their ideological differences form the destabilizing base upon which this fun but familiar whodunnit builds off of, with red herrings, red stains and rednecks all playing a part in the misdirection.

Fortunately, and I reiterate that this is technically an adaptation of a game, none of the Real World stuff is brought to bear in a particularly confrontational way. Werewolves Within is, for the most part, a laidback, low-stakes movie that is more interested in being silly than serious. This underdog tale may not make you howl with laughter or wince in horror but its entertainment value is surprisingly solid and positive, its characters deliciously unhinged. Less a battle of good and evil as it is one between kindness and mean-spiritedness.

That’s . . . uh, not kindling . . .

Moral of the Story: A whodunnit that goes through some growing pains to become a great deal of fun thanks to its OTT, zany characters. Plot-wise you’ve seen it before but there’s a surprising message of unity and compassion that I just was not expecting.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Well . . . the roads are effed and there’s something wrong with the generator.”

Peep the Official Trailer from IFC Films here!

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

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #4

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

As I mentioned in my opening comments on the first edition of The Marvelous Brie Larson (you can find that here) watching an actor you really like take on a character or be involved in a movie that, for whatever reason, doesn’t end up working for you can be an interesting experience in itself. I find myself in that very position with this fourth installment.

The movie I’ve decided to talk about this month, Unicorn Store (on Netflix), has the added bonus of being the directorial début of Brie Larson so, really, how could this feature go without it? We might debate the meaning of the movie’s underlying metaphor, or how well it’s served by the film’s super-flowery style but what’s undeniable is how much of a passion project this was for her. In an interview with IndieWire she describes Unicorn Store as “such a weird abstract portrait of myself. It feels like the most vulnerable I’ve been with this quirky, fun, lighthearted comedy.”

While Unicorn Store has always been a project associated with words like ‘quirky,’ ‘imaginative’ and ‘colorful,’ it hasn’t always been specifically a Larson-centric film. Circa 2012 Australian actress Rebel Wilson was cast as the lead and Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt; Cedar Rapids) was going to be the director. Larson had auditioned for a part but the production never got underway. An Oscar win for her dramatic turn in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (2015) changed her fortunes. She was approached by the right people at the right time to not only play the lead but direct something that would turn out to be more of a personal journey of discovery.

Brie Larson as Kit in Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Comedy/drama/fantasy

Premise: A woman named Kit receives a mysterious invitation that would fulfill her childhood dreams.

Character Background: Larson oscillates between gratingly infantile and winsome in the lead as Kit, an emotionally immature twenty-something who drops/fails out of art school and is forced to reassess her dreams of making it as an artist when she has to move back in with her parents. It’s a tricky balancing act that the seasoned actress for the most part pulls off, though there are moments when her acting feels a little forceful and stilted. Kit’s a millennial with a sense of entitlement, natch, but she’s also completely relatable in her fears of failure and disappointing the people she cares most about. I have to be completely honest and say this isn’t among my favorite performances of hers, but Larson always remains sincere in the role — one of the qualities about her acting that has always kept me coming back. She’s not quite as natural in this movie as she is in, say, Room or Short Term 12, but there’s a playfulness to this character that I really enjoyed.

Marvel at this Scene: 

This scene is not only an encapsulation of the awkwardness of Larson’s character (and the movie as a whole, actually), but it merges together perceptions in a brilliant (if cringe-inducing) way: the reality vs the fantasy. What we picture happening in our heads so often doesn’t work out that way in practice. Larson plays this off to great comedic effect. I love this scene. It’s so incredibly awkward.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

 


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Get Out

get-out-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele announces himself as a talent to keep an eye on with his surprisingly enlightening and even more entertaining directorial debut, the horror-comedy Get Out. His first try proves an early candidate for sleeper hit of the year, a film that manages to balance provocative themes, an interesting premise and a handful of solid performances in a way that’s rare even for seasoned filmmakers.

Get Out centers around a young mixed-race couple, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who visit the former’s parents for a weekend. While Rose feels they’ve reached that point in their relationship, Chris isn’t sure how her parents are going to respond to him being black. She hasn’t told them because she’s adamant the only thing he needs to worry about is how uncool they are.

When the two arrive, awkwardness wastes no time setting in. Rose’s father Dean (played by a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon who immediately sets out on a crusade to impress Chris with aggressive politeness and generally overcompensatory behavior. He takes “[his] man” on a tour of the house, making sure to let Chris know he’s not one of those ignorant types. After all, he has great appreciation for Jesse Owens and if he could, he would have voted for a third term for former President Obama.

His wife Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist whose hypnotherapy may not come free of charge but it sometimes does without patient consent. I’ve never really liked Catherine Keener, even while acknowledging the knack she has for portraying emotionally unstable weirdos. In Get Out her eccentricity functions as more than a character trait. Missy is actually more a plot device than a character, which isn’t nearly as disappointing as it sounds. Rose has a younger brother too, Caleb Landry Jones’ wild card Jeremy, whose domineering albeit brief presence threatens to undermine the film’s subtle strategizing. He’s a bit harder to take seriously.

As are the numerous black servants on the premises. They’re all so goofy they inadvertently become beacons of comedic relief rather than legitimate concerns. And this is the issue I have with the hybrid genre: knowing which reaction is appropriate can prove frustrating at best. Even if their behavior is intended to be funny, it’s not quite funny enough to be convincing in that way either. I chuckled at a couple of the interactions, particularly with maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), but felt bad when I did. It was awkward. Luckily there are other instances where the humor succeeds and actually enhances the experience — see Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ security guard friend, for example.

As Chris wanders the grounds snapping photos and asking seemingly innocuous questions of the staff, wafts of institutionalized racism become stronger. It has become evident Chris’ discomfort isn’t just personal. There’s a larger, more sinister dynamic at play, suggested by the servants’ unnatural mannerisms and body language. And the discomfort only grows as more of Rose’s family unexpectedly show up for the reunion she forgot to tell Chris about.

Peele, no stranger to skewering the politically correct in his successful and often controversial Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele (and whose co-host you can find starring alongside him in 2016’s hit action-comedy Keanu), has found a way to expand his observations about the American society in which we live today into a full-length feature presentation. And he does so without falling back on a blueprint that has treated him very well thus far. He also avoids overtly politicizing his message.

Get Out could have manifested as a series of skits all building toward some unifying theme. It could have been, like Logan to some degree, a specific jab at a specific American president putting into effect specific policies. Instead the fiction is broader, more immune to current political trends. Peele legitimizes his cause with insightful commentary and an effortlessly likable lead — a seriousness of purpose only moderately undercut by a few emotionally confused cues and a truth-revealing climax that doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the movie that preceded it.

Recommendation: Get Out is a movie that has gotten people talking. It’s going to be one of the surprise hits of the year and the hype is pretty much justified as Jordan Peele very clearly has his finger on the pulse of what not only the typical moviegoer wants to see in their movies, but that of film critics and skeptics as well.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Man, I told you not to go in that house.”

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 

Keeping Up with the Joneses

keeping-up-with-the-joneses-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 21, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Michael LeSieur

Directed by: Greg Mottola

For those who have been keeping track, Keeping Up with the Joneses is the second Zach Galifianakis film to be released in as many months, and it too is terrible. It too is a silly film, a very, very silly film. What’s worse is that the film’s chief sillyhead plays it painfully straight. That’s not silly; that’s just frustrating.

The level of entertainment found in this dumbed-down action-comedy is as disposable as a . . . oh, I don’t know, something that’s really disposable; the laughs number in the negatives; hot women kiss to the delight of male viewers and the annoyance of their female partners. I went to see this as part of an (in hindsight) ill-advised solo mission and I found that moment not so much provocative — I think that’s what director Greg Mottola (Superbad; Adventureland) was going for — as it was indicative of precisely the low-brow kind of fantasy it turns out to be.

The plot’s an old rusting bucket of cliches but it could have been fun: when two boring suburbanites, Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) suspect their new neighbors of not being who they say they are, they turn into paranoid peeping toms bent on figuring out what combination of ridiculous factors have not only afforded them a life of luxury and bliss but that has caused them to drift into the unsuspecting cul-de-sac in which the Gaffney’s proudly have plopped themselves down. Their neighbors, of course, are the Joneses. Say that with a smile on your face — we’re the Jonesesssss!

Tim Jones (played by Jon Hamm, whose name is far superior to that of his character) is a super-duper spy of some sort — could be CIA, could be NSA, could be Melissa McCarthy in another ridiculous, albeit more convincing get-up — and he lives a life of mystery with his wife Natalie (Gal Gadot), also a spy. The Joneses are everything the Gaffneys are not. The former seem exotic; the latter have been domesticated and have settled for the routine and the mundane. The Joneses know how to fire weapons in high-stress situations. The Gaffneys . . . do not. We imagine the Joneses having just, like, the best sex ever. When pressed, Karen admits to “getting it done fast before the kids come into the bedroom.”

The script is the main culprit behind the lack of engagement in Keeping Up with the Joneses. The fish-out-of-water adventure lacks not only intelligence but creativity. None of what Galifianakis does is really humorous; his take on the suburban dad isn’t offensive but it’s far from interesting while there’s nary a hint of Fisher’s brilliantly unhinged Stage 5 Clinger in Wedding Crashers. She looks great in a skin-tight dress though, and that’s clearly the bar she had to clear for the director. On the other side of the fence, Hamm and Gadot make for a reasonably compelling pair but they’re similarly constrained by the grade-school screenwriting. And though he’s often funny in other stuff, Patton Oswalt just looks bored as the Big Bad, some dude named ‘Scorpion.’

The entire time I was watching this I couldn’t shake the feeling that these talented actors were just playing nice. They were being charitable. Their performances often register a sense of fatigue and if not fatigue then indifference. And if people who get paid to pretend are pretending not to look unprofessional, I see no reason why I have to pretend like I’m actually having fun here. Although, it’s hard to resist smirking whenever you see Matt Walsh. So there’s that.

keeping-up-with-the-joneses

Recommendation: Massively disposable action comedy consistently wastes the talents of this cast and the time of everyone in attendance. Or, I guess not, since everyone in the theater I was in was laughing like hyenas. Clearly I was just the grinch, and I can’t get anything out of lightweight comedies these days. But come on, really? This was made by the same guy who made Superbad and Adventureland? Hmm . . . .

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “I was making a head start!” / “On your wife?!” 

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

Don’t Breathe

'Dont Breathe' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Fede Álvarez; Rodo Sayagues

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

Don’t Breathe, the sophomore effort from Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez, is what you’d get if you expanded into a full-length feature that scene from The Silence of the Lambs in which Buffalo Bill stalks a terrified Clarice Starling with night vision goggles while his prey helplessly fumbles around in the pitch black. This is, of course, to say that Don’t Breathe is relentlessly intense almost start to finish, marking it as one of the most effective thrillers to hit theaters this year.

In it, a trio of burglars are scraping together enough money so they can flee the dying suburbs of Detroit by looting homes and getting cash for valuable possessions pillaged. When they discover a rundown home belonging to a war vet rumored to be sitting on $300k in settlements from an accident that claimed the life of his daughter, they assume they’ve hit the jackpot. Especially when they figure out the dude is blind. But we all know what assuming does, don’t we?

Small-time crooks turn into big-time prey as they casually waltz into a trap thinking the job is a done deal. It is in this suffocating space of decrepitness and unpredictability where we more or less remain for the duration. We’re briefly (and just barely sufficiently) introduced to the gang in the opening twenty minutes, right before Álvarez flips the switch and plunges us all into the depths of a home invasion gone horribly wrong. Front-and-center is Jane Levy’s Rocky, who’s desperate to leave behind an abusive home for the sun-kissed beaches of Califor-ny-yay with her younger sister. Then there’s her main squeeze “Money” (Daniel Zovatto), a terribly nicknamed character who doesn’t at all make for a subtle metaphor or, quite frankly, a memorable character. Dylan Minnette rounds out the crew as the slightly more likable Alex.

It isn’t really their movie, though. Don’t Breathe inarguably belongs to a man and his dog. Stephen Lang plays The Blind Man, an unsuspectingly agile old git who can navigate the interior with his other, much keener senses — sound and touch, most notably — and who keeps a Rottweiler handy in case of such emergencies. (Puppy credits go to three separate, extremely well-trained animals, each getting their moment to shine. And I’m assuming their Cujo-like presence is what earns the film its horror label; otherwise that classification is something of a misnomer. Kind of like me calling these big boys ‘puppies.’) Indeed the kids become a lot more interesting once we see them forced into action against a trained killer — better make that plural — and pressured into taking drastic measures to ensure they not only escape with their lives but with the money as well.

Don’t Breathe simmers in a stew of sociological, economical and psychological ingredients. It’s a morality play involving characters whose chance for survival is perpetually undercut by their own actions. Greed, selfishness and desperation invariably imprison characters we weren’t ever supposed to “like” in this fortress, even magnetizing them to it. And it’s Lang’s full-on committal to a relatively silent role — in fact the best bits of the film languish in the choke of dead air — that simultaneously rebuffs the invaders and causes us, the anxious voyeurs, to question just what we would do in such a situation. Utterly compelling stuff.

Stephen Lang in 'Don't Breathe'

Recommendation: Think of it less as a true horror film and more of a thriller, the likes of which made me, personally, feel like I had chugged one too many cups of coffee. I watched my hand on the steering wheel as I drove home from my local theater. My knuckles were all jittery. What the fuck man. It’s just a movie. Granted, a very, very good one. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Trivia: Stephen Lang has a total of 13 lines of dialogue, the majority of which are reserved for the ending moments. 

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

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

'Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Jay Cohen; Brendan O’Brien

Directed by: Jake Szymanski

Have you saved the date for the Stangle wedding yet? There’s really no need if you don’t typically RSVP for the raunch, for the kind of testosterone-induced antics that invariably wind up with someone’s penis in something it should not be, good-looking women tripping on MDMA and frolicking with horses and a happy ending that materializes out of thin air. I’m not sure if I’m generalizing anymore.

The package looks a bit different because the title is long (though uncreative) and the cast and crew are mostly up-and-comers. We haven’t yet seen anything from director Jake Szymanski, who has a rather prolific short-film résumé that includes 2009’s Denise Richards’ Fun Bags. That’s a title that pretty much gives you everything you need to know about his feature debut, but even still he’s a fresh director with a lot of talent in front of the lens as well, so there is potential here.

After suffering through years of watching his sons make fools of themselves at every single family get-together, the alpha-Stangle, Burt (Stephen Root — bless this man), insists Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac “I’m impossibly photogenic” Efron) find themselves two nice girls to join them as dates to their sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard)’s upcoming wedding in Hawaii. So they put out an ad that eventually gets the attention of hard-partying girls Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick).

The story spends time getting us acquainted with both parties before eventually forcing worlds to collide in a perfectly contrived manner when Tatiana walks out into traffic, creating a scene that eventually introduces them to the boys who just so happen to be in the vicinity. Her recklessness is inspired by wanting to do something nice for her best friend Alice, who is still trying to recover from the fact her would-be husband literally said “I do . . . . not” at the altar.

While Kendrick — annoying as she is in this movie — is the beneficiary of some background development, we never really get to understand why Tatiana is the way she is. Plaza just seems to enjoy playing unreasonably skanky women these days. Since seeing her on Parks & Rec, I thought I was onto the next Kristen Wiig, queen of the deadpan. I’m not sure anymore if she’s playing them ironically or if these are characters Plaza really believes in, but . . . I guess if you have to skank it up, skank it up girl! I’ll still be a fan. God knows why. Maybe because she’s a dead ringer for an ex of mine. Maybe.

Meanwhile, boys will just be boys. Devine and Efron establish a terrific repartee that allows them to rise above every single opportunity Szymanski seizes to subdue them with endless clichés. They may not shift the needle of the narrative into territory worthy of any kind of further cultural, social or psychological/emotional discussion, but they are by far the best thing about a movie that relies heavily on the strength (translated in this case as charm) of its lead performers.

It certainly doesn’t bank on the novelty of its screenplay. Mike and Dave at best offers a surprisingly wholesome message about the importance of family and how they accept you for who you are, no matter how many weddings you turn into Project X. Having people that care about you, about your past, present and future is what matters more than getting your strange on. In a movie of its ilk, that’s a rarity, and why it ultimately won me over.

Mike and Dave

Recommendation: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates doesn’t so much subvert as it manages to balance raunchy comedy with a heartfelt message. Mike and Dave would make Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson proud.

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “Two hands! Pushing the pop! PUSHING THE POP!” 

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

New Cops

'New Cops' movie poster

Release: Monday, February 15, 2016 (online)

[YouTube]

Directed by: Timothy Morton

Timothy Morton’s New Cops has a cozy home-made feel to it and while the low overhead is certainly noticeable it doesn’t stop us from having a little bit of fun with these guys.

Morton’s latest, a project six years in the making, premiered on February 15 on NoBudge.com, a screening venue for independent film where a new short or feature film is added every Tuesday. The brainchild of independent actor and filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who has been running the show since 2011, NoBudge has become testament to what can be accomplished on practically zero-dollar budgets (hence the site title).

New Cops finds Morton playing a man in a funk, someone sleepwalking through his every day existence while experiencing bizarre yet fulfilling dreams every time he goes to sleep, where he enjoys the power and prestige that comes with being the President (of what exactly, I was never sure. Of the nation? Of a company? Does it matter?) One afternoon his friend Chet (Jimmy Kustes) shows up asking for a couch to crash on for a couple of days while a storm blows over at his house.

Soon enough Chet proves to be quite the nuisance as he tries to rope Tim into various schemes such as passing off neighborhood junk as usable on Craig’s List, and scamming fast food joints with expired coupons. If that wasn’t enough, it’s been several days since Tim has seen his girlfriend and he has not a clue as to her whereabouts, though he suspects she’s with another man. As his real world problems start to seep into his idealized existence, Tim is forced to take action in the only way he knows how: hire a private detective (David Maloney) to do the President’s dirty work.

New Cops, a title derived from a TV show Tim likes to watch, struggles to make a lot of sense. Given that its protagonist seems to spend more time in a dreamlike trance than out of one, I can let the lapses in logic and unexplained (or poorly conceived) developments slide. There is a lot of charm to the awkwardness and dialogue is largely improvised, giving conversations a natural flow, even if that flow is interrupted regularly by some jumpy editing.

Morton’s latest is a fun, creative slice of mumblecore cinema that explores the frustration of a man desperate to overcome self-esteem issues and it often does so to comic effect. It’s a strange adventure that interrogates the very nature and significance of our dreams.

Recommendation: While there are many issues I have with the film on a technical level, overall I think this is a fairly successful experiment that I have no trouble recommending to others who appreciate and actively support micro-budget independent cinema. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 52 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone.]

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