The Tender Bar

Release: Friday, December 17, 2021 (limited)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: William Monahan

Directed by: George Clooney

Starring: Ben Affleck; Tye Sheridan; Daniel Ranieri; Lily Rabe; Max Martini; Christopher Lloyd; Briana Middleton

Distributor: Amazon Studios

 

 

**/*****

Movies about aspiring writers too often come across mawkish and cheesy. It’s almost a condition, something that just comes with the territory and which the likable but cliché The Tender Bar doesn’t do enough to defend against.

Orange County set on the East Coast, more specifically Long Island, The Tender Bar is a coming-of-age drama based on the memoir written by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and journalist J.R. Moehringer. Filtered through thick accents and an unabashedly sentimental lens, it charts his path from humble upbringings to Yale University and a bit beyond, exploring the influence that his family had on shaping his dream. Yet for all its good intentions and stretches of excellent acting, it’s a strange feeling to sit through something as banal as what we get here, considering the talent both in front of and behind the camera and the Oscar-winning pedigree of screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed).

While it’s certainly not the latter’s best effort — the dialogue is often corny, most of it unfortunately spouted by Ron Livingston in his Wonder Years-like voice-over — this is more about George Clooney phoning it in as director, failing to girder Moehringer’s memoir with a compelling cinematic treatment. If this were your introduction to the subject (as it was for me) you might come away shrugging the whole thing off as inconsequential. Moehringer is an accomplished writer but the hackneyed presentation doesn’t make him seem very interesting.

About the only distinction The Tender Bar has is a terrific performance from Ben Affleck, who becomes the role model J.R.’s biological father never was interested in playing, particularly in his childhood. He plays Uncle Charlie, a stabilizing force in the chaotic house into which young J.R. (introducing Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (Lily Rabe) are flung at the movie’s open. He’s also the bartender at The Dickens, a little hole-in-the-wall where dozens of books line the shelves alongside the booze. It’s here where J.R. spends much of his time, sipping Coca-Cola and inhaling life advice from his sleeper-genius uncle, whose own murky career goals belie the clarity of his wisdom.

The movie’s other asset is Max Martini who provides the antithesis to Affleck’s charm and warmth. As J.R.’s father, a radio deejay only referred to as “The Voice,” he doesn’t appear for long but enough to leave a bruise. The inevitable confrontation between him and his upward-trending son (now Tye Sheridan — amiable if unremarkable), although patently predictable given Clooney’s strict adherence to formula, lends tension to a story where most obstacles are cleared without effort. And if not effortlessly cleared, needlessly repeated — Briana Middleton’s appearance as a love interest does nothing to advance the story, only to remind of the elitism that swirls at the Ivy League level.

The condescension J.R. experiences here is what we feel throughout much of the story. The Tender Bar is pleasant enough but also basic. Like its subject and his needing to know what his initials stand for, it’s constantly searching for an identity of its own.

You’re the greatest inspiration in my life, bar none

Moral of the Story: Though sometimes too schmaltzy, The Tender Bar has occasional moments of affecting character work, especially between Affleck and the young Ranieri. But he gets along famously with both actors, and it’s that dynamic I’d recommend more than anything else here. Without trying to sound snobby, it’s just not a particularly deep movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I want to be a writer, but I suck.”

“Well, when you suck at writing, that’s when you become a journalist.”

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Captain Marvel

Release: Friday, March 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck; Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Directed by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck

Captain Marvel figures to be a significant piece in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, acting as both a standalone origins story and a precursor to Jon Favreau’s standard-setting Iron Man; ipso facto it predates the entire MCU. That’s a pretty bold decision considering how much we are preoccupied with the present and the future of our favorite characters. Unfortunately the story this film tells isn’t quite so bold, the awkward way it ties into the overarching saga arguably a distraction more than it is an exciting talking point. Yet by force of personality Captain Marvel overcomes its weaknesses, and there is no denying the Avengers will be adding another nuke to their already impressive arsenal.

Unbeknownst to me, Captain Marvel is a generic name that actually refers to several characters, the very first appearing in 1967 as Captain Mar-Vell, a male (albeit an alien) military officer sent to our humble corner of the universe to spy on us and who, having grown sympathetic to the plight of mankind, ultimately switched allegiances, becoming a protector of Earth and a traitor to his own race. Multiple incarnations followed, with the character’s gender constantly changing (e.g. Phyla-Vell was female while Khn’nr and others were male) — justified by the episodic nature of comics and their need and ability to adapt.

That brings us to Carol Danvers, a half-human, half-alien super-being whose specific powers — supersonic flight, incredible strength, an ability to control and manipulate energy forms — identify her as one of the most powerful figures in the Marvel realm. As such, she wins the lottery to become the first female subject of a Marvel movie, its 21st overall. Captain Marvel is a reliably entertaining chapter that balances humor with heartache, becoming just as much about the struggle to find her real identity as it is about her discovering her powers and how she decides to wield them. It may not be winning many points in the original storytelling department, but it does have a winning cast of characters, fronted by Brie Larson and a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg and provided depth by the likes of Ben Mendelsohn, British actress Lashana Lynch . . . and one Hala of a cat.

Directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known heretofore for indie fare like It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Sugar, keep their story pretty earthbound with only a few signature scenes sending us beyond our atmosphere. In terms of scale, it’s surely a bigger deal than Ant-Man, but if Guardians of the Galaxy gave us a tour of the cosmic town, Captain Marvel barely introduces us to our next-door neighbors. The relative intimacy certainly feels appropriate since the human side of the story manifests as a journey inward, into the heart and mind of a character unsure of herself. The superhero plot meanwhile draws elements from the Kree-Skrull War comic book storyline, setting up an intergalactic war between two alien races wherein we innocent earthlings get caught in the middle and need Captain Marvel to come to our defense.

Captain Marvel opens on an alien world known as Hala, the galactic capital of the Kree Empire. A young woman named Vers is awakening from a nightmare involving some older woman who looks a lot like Annette Bening, but that’s impossible since this kind of material is several fathoms beneath an actress of her caliber. But upon closer inspection I confirmed it is indeed Bening, playing a mystical figure referred to as the Supreme Intelligence, to whom Vers is sent at the behest of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is concerned about Vers’ inability to control her emotions. The Supreme Intelligence doubles down on that cautionary advice before sending the pair on a dangerous mission to rescue an undercover operative on a distant planet overrun by the enemy Skrulls. Naturally the mission goes awry when the team gets ambushed and Vers becomes separated from Yon-Rogg and her other Starforce colleagues, the former crash-landing on some scrap pile known as C-53 (a.k.a. Earth). Even worse, she’s a fish out of water in mid-90s L.A. and if fashion is anything to go by, it isn’t exactly our species’ finest hour (luckily she didn’t crash land a decade earlier).

Vers is soon intercepted by a couple of serious-looking, suit-wearing gentlemen who work for an agency whose name should never have been provided in this film for continuity’s sake. A two-eyed Nick Fury and a Just For Men advocate in young Phil Coulson witness something extraordinary when a Skrull invader crashes the scene. Because the Skrulls have this ability to change their appearance, identifying friend from foe becomes problematic, with a notable alien named Talos taking the form of Fury’s higher-up and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Keller (Mendelsohn) and another impersonating Agent Coulson. After shaking this shape-shifting shit off Fury, at the direction of Talos the predictable script, leads Vers to a U.S. Air Force Base place of thematic relevance where she finds clues to her past life — photographic evidence of her as a pilot and news clippings presuming her dead after a disastrous testing of an experimental new engine designed by a Dr. Wendy Lawson (played by Spoiler Spoilerson).

She also learns she had a close friend in Maria Rambeau (Lynch), an important link in the ole’ jogging-the-memory chain (not to mention in the realm of the MCU at large — her daughter Monica, played by an instantly lovable Akira Akbar, ostensibly set to play yet another version of Captain Marvel in the sequel — Ms. Marvel, perhaps?). The scene at the house in Louisiana is among the film’s best, the emotion that comes pouring out here no doubt a result of the indie flavor the directing tandem have brought to this much bigger project. Whether it is Lynch describing what it feels like to see her bestie return from the dead — hence the longevity of the MCU,  the human cost of being in the superhero biz has always been handled in an interesting way — or Mendelsohn getting a really juicy character whose intentions are not what they first seem, Captain Marvel soars in these more grounded moments.

Even as the action takes a turn for the surprisingly cooperative, the character work is ultimately what saves Captain Marvel from its own Negative Zone of mediocrity. While the action sequences are worthy of the big screen treatment they aren’t as integral to the personality of the film as Larson is in the title role. At one time considered too young to play the part of an Air Force pilot (this was before the filmmakers double-checked with members of the American Air Force who confirmed it is possible for a 26-year-old to be so accomplished), Larson acquits herself with the utmost confidence, maturing from reckless and unpredictable to every bit the noble warrior hero she so advertises her people as to her de facto partner in Agent Fury.

Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers is by far Larson’s most high-profile role to date and while the plight of the superhero is unfamiliar territory for someone who has developed herself through such intimate human dramas as Room and Short Term 12, you wouldn’t know it based on her confidence and how much fun she’s having here. And sorry to break it to the basement dwelling trolls who review-bombed her new movie, a perma-smile does not for a natural performance make. I personally don’t need to see someone smiling through every damn frame of the movie to know they’re enjoying themselves, or to know what this material and this role means to them.

What is this thing called The Oregon Trail?

Recommendation: While I didn’t think Captain Marvel is a game-changer — save for the first earthly encounter with the Skrulls the action scenes are pretty forgettable — it certainly has its strengths, namely the lead character and the friends she ends up making along the way. It might go without saying for most of these Important Marvel Movies but considering the way this one was seemingly preordained to fail by insecure men before it even opened, it really seems that ignoring the internet has never been more crucial in allowing you to experience the film on your own terms. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “You know anything about a lady blowing up a Blockbuster? Witnesses say she was dressed for laser tag.”

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Now You See Me 2

'Now You See Me 2' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ed Solomon; Pete Chiarelli

Directed by: Jon M. Chu

The implausible Now You See Me sequel — yes, this is a thing — is a magic trick you can see right through from the very beginning. For all the entertainment it seeks to provide, the film delivers an equal dose of numbing visual effects that do nothing but obscure any theoretical cinematic magic wand-shaking under the blinding lights of confused, contrived, utterly lazy storytelling.

Three of the Four Horsemen are back. And no, not from vacation. Well, it was kind of like a vacation. Since the events of the first, the pompous pranksters — J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) — have gone into hiding after exposing the unethical business practices of one Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and fleecing him out of millions of his own easy-earned cash. (Much like director Jon M. Chu has done to us, minus the whole money coming easy part). Isla Fisher’s Henley Reeves, seemingly jaded by the realities of becoming part of the global underground society of illusionists called The Eye, is nowhere to be found. She’s better off.

Uninspired tale finds the group once more answering the call of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who, now firmly in control of his puppets (remember that twist?), has this big spectacle planned out during which they’ll expose a tech wizard’s . . . unethical tech-ing practices, some bloke named Owen Case (Ben Lamb), who in no short order becomes nothing more than target practice when it’s learned that the film’s actual villain is Daniel Radcliffe’s even bigger tech geek Walter Mabry.

What does Mabry have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked, because it gives me the opportunity to rave over the next rabbit Now You See Me 2 tries to pull out of its hat. Turns out, Merritt has an evil twin named Chase who works for Mabry, and in one of many underwhelming action sequences he manages to capture the Horsemen and take them to Mabry’s lair (muahaha!), where they’re informed of a high-risk but high-reward job, likely the trickiest task they will have ever pulled off. Do they have a choice? In an exchange that confesses the depths of this film’s Oscar-baiting screenplay, the Horsemen are told they either “do this or die.” Well, I don’t know about you but I’m inspired.

In the meantime, Mabry’s been busy trying to bring about the downfall of the Horsemen from afar, hijacking the aforementioned show by letting the public know that, hey, yeah, remember how Jack Wilder died? Well, he didn’t really. Also, Rhodes is a two-faced cop and is working with the Horsemen. Be outraged, people. Be very outraged. As a result, Agent Rhodes suddenly becomes Agent Rogues when he and the rest of the magicians find themselves scrapping to clear their name all while trying to eliminate the threat of Mabry.

It’s not exactly the most original conceit, but this new globetrotting adventure could have spawned a genuinely exciting mystery thriller if put in the right hands. Co-writers Ed Solomon and Pete Chiarelli were not those hands. Their story, one that at least adheres to the spirit of reckless abandon established in the original, leans entirely on the magic of post-production tinkering, and with Chu’s terribly flat direction further promoting contrivance and convenience, Now You See Me 2 quickly wears out its welcome.

Not helping matters is a runtime that eclipses two hours and a couple of surprisingly annoying performances from Lizzy Caplan, who plays Fisher’s “replacement” Lulu May — because there has to be a Horsewoman, obviously — and one half of Harrelson’s performance as the evil twin Chase. ‘Harrelson’ and ‘annoying’ don’t seem like they belong in the same sentence but then again the guy is a consummate actor. He really can do and be anything. As to Caplan, someone should have taken away the fourteenth Red Bull she was guzzling before stepping on set. This is way too much team spirit for a movie not named Bring It On.

More irksome than Harrelson’s sinister side and Caplan’s insufferably peppy presence is the film’s knack for reducing living legends like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to cardboard cutouts. Neither Caine convinces he’s this bad of a dude nor Freeman of his ever-complicated backstory. You could defend this as an exercise in allowing actors to have some genuine fun while collecting another paycheck. There’s no shame in putting together a supergroup of talent like this for a bit of escapist entertainment but Caine and Freeman couldn’t look more bored.

Now You See Me 2 pulls gimmicks and cheap tricks left and right in its quest to prove editing can on its own sustain a story. The approach suggests the filmmakers think audiences won’t know the difference between ‘real’ magic and clever camerawork. It’s actually pretty insulting.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.48.20 PM

Recommendation: Eyeballs, get ready to roll. Now You See Me 2 takes the worst tendencies of its predecessor and magnifies them. I can handle cheesy films, and NYSM2 is certainly cheesy but it’s more problematic in terms of convincing us that what’s happening in front of us is real. The irony of that is pretty hard to reconcile. This is the epitome of surface gloss hiding no real depth. With that in mind I can’t recommend watching this one to anyone who felt the first one was kind of silly. What follows is much sillier. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “Hell will look like a day at the spa once I’m through with the Four Horseman.” / “You had me at ‘Hell.'”

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

Keanu

'Keanu' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele; Alex Rubens

Directed by: Peter Atencio

The Cat in the Hat. Garfield. Sylvester. Mewtwo. Mr. Bigglesworth. Shere Khan. These are but a few of the world’s most famous felines. You can go ahead and add Keanu to this prestigious list, because he’s the best thing about a full-length movie that’s kinda-sorta-but-not-really-at-all about him.

The mischievous duo behind Comedy Central’s Key and Peele find themselves comfortably making the transition to the big screen, but unfortunately they’ve missed an opportunity to make a memorable entrance in this painfully hit-and-miss comedy that sees two schlubs turning thug under some seriously contrived circumstances. I suppose, yeah, you could say they were under duress, but . . .

The (mis)adventure begins when a kitten shows up on Rell (Peele)’s doorstep. He has traveled from afar, barely escaping with the fur on his back from a violent confrontation at a drug processing facility deep in the city. Rell, reeling after a bad break-up, takes an immediate liking to the cat and believes it will help him feel better. He names his new friend Keanu. Meanwhile, his uptight cousin Clarence (Key) is seeing his wife off for a weekend getaway with a mutual friend played by the always untrustworthy Rob Huebel.

Unbeknownst to them, the cat actually belongs to a powerful thug named Cheddar (Method Man) to whom the notorious Allentown boys — the ones involved in the aforementioned firefight and who are also played by Key and Peele — are indebted as they track down the precious fur-ball. The Allentown boys are bloodthirsty goons straight out of a Rob Zombie nightmare and will stop at nothing until they get what they’re after. These freaks are the shameless beneficiaries of Abby O’Sullivan’s fantastic costuming and make-up.

Rell takes Clarence to see the new Liam Neeson movie to try and get Clarence out of his house and to spend some “bro time,” as was suggested by his wife. They get back only to find Rell’s place has been ransacked and Keanu’s missing. Rell’s next-door neighbor/weed guy Hulka (Will Forte, sporting some awesome dreads) of course didn’t see nothin’. The hunt for Keanu eventually leads the cousins into Cheddar’s lair, a blown-out night club poignantly christened HPV, where they also find the cat, now repping a gold chain and black doo-rag. Rell, barely able to hide his outrage over the kitten-napping, snaps and declares he and Clarence are the Allentown boys and that they’d be willing to do one favor for Cheddar in exchange for ownership of the cat.

And so the rest of the film is just allowed to happen . . . somehow. It’s a parody of the Gangster Experience that flits between cringe-worthy and chuckle-inducing, its many farcical developments amounting to a parlay of good fortune that simply endures too long. And it’s so not about the cat, either. Keanu’s closer to a meowing macguffin than a functional character in a plot designed to bait animal rights activists into protesting the comedic duo’s next event. (Fear not: no animals were harmed during the making of this film.)

It’s not as if Key and Peele was the most reliable source of saucy satire but when it was good, it could really strike a nerve. In the feature film setting, however, their inconsistency is magnified tenfold and there are some very bare patches as the writers milk the faux-gangster premise for all its worth. The scene at Anna Faris‘ house drags on for what feels like an eternity as we’re forced to watch Rell (now operating under his thug alias ‘Tectonic’) and Clarence (a.k.a. ‘Shark Tank’) bluff their way through the drug deal they agreed to.

There are moments where their deadpan charm pierces like the sun through the thick clouds of uninspired writing — Key and Peele themselves aren’t the problem with their movie. In fact it’s their camaraderie that is able to pull us through Keanu‘s least compelling moments, and why I enjoyed it more than I probably should have.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 8.04.58 PM

Recommendation: Keanu mirrors the hit-and-miss nature of Key and Peele. Although there is a caveat to that: devoted fans are likely to not take as much issue as those who are less familiar with their schtick. That said, the premise as a whole still feels like a wasted opportunity to do something memorable with an animal that’s not only this photogenic but well-trained. This cat has a bright acting future ahead of him. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “We’re in the market for a gangster pet.”

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

Comet

Release: Friday, December 5, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Sam Esmail

Directed by: Sam Esmail

Comet can pretend it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event but the stars shone so much brighter in the universes it has been melded by, spectacular constructs like the intricate and heartrending Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer.

Bearing the heartbreak of the former while resembling more of the latter’s narrative nonlinearity and sophistication, Comet isn’t exactly a bad film when comparisons to romantic dramas of that ilk occur so naturally. It’s just unfortunate there isn’t much beyond a different cast that distinguishes Sam Esmail’s work. Of course, the case could be made that his film pays homage but where exactly does one draw the line between dedication and duplication? A few colorful, creative scene transitions beautified by special effects don’t quite cut it for this cynic reviewer. Oh, and the film is supposed to be set within a parallel universe. Although a bit hokey, that angle is one I can work with.

Prior to what is purported to be a spectacular meteorological event, Dell (Justin Long) bumps into the beautiful Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) as they wait in a line to access a park that will provide the ideal vantage point. Caught up in one of his verbalized streams of consciousness stating his lack of faith in humanity, as only a character played by Long can, Dell is saved from being hit by a passing car by the new girl. He spends the remainder of this evening pining after her, lamenting the fact she’s already spoken for by some guy who happens to look good but quite clearly has no personality. He decides the meteor shower can wait until he’s finished his stalking.

Comet then jettisons us out of this present tense and into another, one somewhere in the near future (this film covers a six-year period), where the two are now an intimate couple. Times haven’t changed so much as the dynamic of Long and Rossum’s interactions. We’re privy to heated arguments, weird phone calls, insults stemming from two people slipping out of love and into something more akin to hostility. Resentment. Chain smoking cigarettes becomes a motif. And Long’s character doesn’t become much more likable, though he is certainly interesting. This is probably one of his better performances, though it’s veiled behind pretentiousness and petulance. Conversely Rossum magnetizes with her quick wit and hipster glasses.

Then the narrative shifts yet again, sending us back into a place where things were more romantic. The story constantly moves and changes, with almost every scene introducing a different phase in the relationship. And the process is far from chronological. That the film manages to maintain our interest at all stems from an incisive, brutally honest script that lays bare all the faults — some of which are all too apparent and others that are created through the simple but terrifying passage of time — of a relationship that seems to have been contrived from the very beginning. Who shakes hands to formally kick off a relationship? Who does that?

Apparently this couple. Comet would be a memorable picture but — at the risk of repeating myself — it’s far too reminiscent of Tom and Summer’s experiences together and the slide into their own private oblivion. Whereas 500 Days of Summer justified its experimentation with practical structure (“500 days” prepared us for the inevitable) Comet seems to just drag on and on, never seeming to settle on a pattern or even pretending like one would make any difference. It’s a shame because the performances are strong, the cinematography gorgeous and emotions do run high. Truly, it’s difficult at times to believe Rossum is in fact not in a real relationship with Long but the director himself. (I’m sorry, was that a spoiler?)

Comet has its moments of brilliance but it’s a true challenge shaking the feeling of déjà vu. Of course, there are worse fates for a film steeped in a generally predictable and melodramatic genre.

Recommendation: Visually dazzling and capably performed, it’s frustratingly difficult to ignore Comet‘s contrived nature. For great performances from its two stars, I do recommend a viewing. But be advised, you probably should have a high tolerance for Justin Long. He tested my patience at times and there’s a good chance he will yours. Emmy Rossum is a newcomer to me and she’s a delight. I’d recommend it more for what she puts forth actually.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “Why does it feel so impossible to let you go? It’s an addiction, you know. That’s all it is. It’s a biochemical addiction. It’s so stupid. If you think about it relationships are totally narcissistic. Basically, you’re just looking for someone who’ll love you as much as you love yourself. That’s all it is.”

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