Rules Don’t Apply

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Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Warren Beaty

Directed by: Warren Beaty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

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

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

War Dogs

'War Dogs' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Todd Phillips; Stephen Chin; Jason Smilovic

Directed by: Todd Phillips

The unbelievability factor really works in War Dogs‘ favor. It has given a director of outrageous comedies and indeterminate skill considerable leverage. It has given actors who like playing jackasses free range to be themselves and we would never know the difference because this true story is ridiculous to begin with. For blind devotees of Todd Phillips getting to know the actual truth is not as important as having an approximated version of it delivered in an amusing and crass way.

See, there’s one thing you kind of have to be in order to enjoy movies made by The Guy Who Brought You The Hangover: you have to be easy to please. You need to be unapologetically so. Take the guy who sat behind me and to my right, for example: this man(-child) laughed at damn well every line that came out of Jonah Hill’s mouth. To this satisfied customer, Phillips could not put a foot wrong. You need to be in that mindset if you are to get the intended amount of entertainment out of War Dogs, a dramatic comedy about how two dopes wind up landing a $300 million arms-dealing contract with the American government.

Despite much of the film being heavily fictionalized — the drive through The Triangle of Death and that pit-stop in Fallujah, yeah that never happened . . . although I bet that towel falling off that rich client’s ass did — this bumpy ride across foreign borders and into legal gray areas becomes a pretty good watch. I mean, a lot of this stuff really happened and you just can’t help but become curious as to how and when their ultimate downfall begins. Maybe it’s when they violated the American arms embargo against the Chinese by repackaging 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition — 42-year-old, substandard Chinese bullets to be more accurate. Maybe it’s the fact they forgot to get their boys paid for those efforts. Maybe it’s that both of them — high school buddies Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) — really were just money-hungry douchebags utterly deserving of the stigma attached to their line of work.

Yes, I think it’s that last one, a sense of fatalism, that makes War Dogs entertaining on any level. The peace of mind knowing that no matter what sequences of success-building and montages of money-stockpiling are put in front of us these unlikable, completely out-of-their-depth numbskulls are going to get their comeuppance. Phillips works pretty hard at steering us in another direction though, and yet there is a surprising amount of fun to be had while it lasts. Of course, the whole thing’s rigged with many of his unimaginative storytelling methods, like the lazy voiceover provided by Teller and highly interruptive chaptered segments with cutesy titles like ‘God Bless Dick Cheney’s America’ and ‘That Sounds Illegal.’

His film is based upon a Rolling Stone article later expanded for a novel based on the rise to prominence of Efraim’s start-up company AEY, which would eventually become a major weapons supplier for the Department of Defense. Ultimately AEY totalled $200 million in contracts dealing in ammunition and assault rifles, amongst other weapons, and its demise inspired the government to reevaluate how they would secure contracts for the future. (In other words, gone were the days of hiring stoners to do the dirty work. Fucking pot heads, man.)

Hill and Teller provide an easy repartee that won’t be difficult to find in other, albeit more traditional, stoner comedies. Even if Hill is now typically a decade older in real life than the characters he chooses, he’s still believable as a 21-year-old arms-dealer (or is that gun-runner?) because . . . well, that freedom to believe whatever you want rule as I mentioned above. Believe all of it or believe none of it (both of which would be too extreme of a reaction in my opinion). Teller has gone back to playing less interesting individuals. All he gets to do is set a bad example for husbands and new fathers everywhere. He becomes the guy who has to explain his lies to his wife when the story needs some tension.

Very little about War Dogs‘ presentation or execution strikes you as incendiary but the source material is so outlandish you’d be forgiven for thinking Phillips wanted to make this just for the opportunity to blow certain aspects out of proportion. Casting regular collaborator Bradley Cooper as a shady intermediary named Henry Girard counts as proof. We didn’t need another famous face in the mix but seeing Cooper appear in a war film that’s very, very un-American Sniper is more than a little amusing. I cackled like a hyena* when he states that he’s “not a bad man, but sometimes [he] asks [him]self what a bad man would do.” I’m not sure if I was supposed to, but I did. I felt like my friend in the row behind me there. It took me until the very end of the film, but finally I felt my money had been decently spent.

I guess what I’m saying is that despite my problems with Phillips’ generic brand — though it must be said generic isn’t the same as incompetent, lest we forget things like Old School and yes, The Hangover, two genuinely great comedies — if you give him the right material to run with anything is possible. You might have a really good time if you can let go of preconceived notions for long enough.

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in 'War Dogs'

Recommendation: Further confirmation of Todd Phillips’ unspectacular vision as a filmmaker, War Dogs pursues an outrageous true story with the kind of attitude and conviction fans of his should expect. It’s a passable comedy made more intriguing by the facts, and another good, if loud and obnoxious, performance from Jonah Hill. Not a film you probably want to spend money on if righteous anti-war sentiment is what you seek. And I suppose that’s one more credit to the film: a lack of political lean grounds it somewhat close to neutral. Like Hill’s Efraim says, think of it not as pro- (or anti-) war, but pro-money-making.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “We drive through all triangles . . . including your mom’s.” 

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

Everybody Wants Some!!

'Everybody Wants Some' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Linklater

Directed by: Richard Linklater

All right, all right, all right — so it’s been over twenty years since Matthew McConaughey brilliantly repurposed those famous Doors lyrics, and it might seem a little suspect that director Richard Linklater would take another trip like this down memory lane, in 2016. Has he run out of ideas? How will he find a way to crowbar some long-lost cousin of David Wooderson in to the story? How close was he to leaving the project titled Dazed and Confused 2? Naturally, a project like this raises more than a few questions.

Those concerns all but disappear without notice like a Saturday morning hangover when, after only a few opening scenes, we find ourselves jettisoned back to the days of disco, coke (well, here it’s replaced by a wealth of weed) and, of course, the Walkman. Part of the deal here is remaining open-minded about developing another love affair with a different decade but the same director, and if you’re able to do that you’ll find there was indeed room for one more of these in his catalog. Everybody Wants Some!! may have to wait some time before it gains cult status, but then, so did all those hazy high school hijinks.

Rather than focusing on the culmination of another semester wherein the best and the worst of seniors and their underclassmen alike are brought out, Linklater inverts the time table and builds toward the first day. The story follows a collegiate baseball team through the final weekend of summer, centering on a new pitcher named Jake (Blake Jenner), one of the most talented players at his high school, who finds himself navigating this unfamiliar, deeper pool of talent and competitiveness. Meanwhile he and his teammates negotiate, and largely embrace, the various social stigmas attached to being a college athlete.

Once again Linklater gathers together a cast of relative unknowns to help keep the distraction of celebrity status to a minimum. There’s the mustachioed and most-likely-to-go-pro McReynolds (Taylor Hoechlin); Roper the ladykiller (Ryan Guzman); stoner Willoughby (Wyatt Russell); faux-philosopher Finnegan (Glen Powell); Plummer (Temple Baker) . . . who’s just kinda there; Jay (Justin Street), who’s a total psycho and the team’s current pitcher; the gregarious Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), who also kindly takes on the task of orienting freshmen to the team; Beuter (Will Brittain), a good-old boy with the southern-fried accent; and Nesbit (Austin Amelio), an upper-classman burnout with a passion for the game. There are others as well but this is the core.

They’re wholly believable as an actual college baseball team, and if not that then their perpetual involvement in shenanigans establishes them as the next best frat house behind Delta Tau Chi. It helps that the performances are uniformly fantastic — energetic and naturalistic. There’s genuine camaraderie between them, especially once the movie shifts into its second third, where the boys start figuring out what everyone is all about. On the female side, there are far fewer stand-outs — Everybody Wants Some!! is likely to struggle to pass the Bechdel Test — but Zoey Deutch as Beverly, a theater major Jake finds cute, anchors the film in slightly more romantic territory with her warmth and optimistic outlook on life.

The love child of Animal House and Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s baseball-themed bacchanalia feels like a long lost relic, a film made years ago that’s only now being rescued from the clutches of development hell and resuscitated for audiences too young to appreciate how far out Linklater’s paean to the ’70s really was. It’s a fleeting watch, and it’s not for the narrative-minded. The story boils down to a team learning to gel before the grind of spring training locks them back into regiments and routines. From start to finish this is a raucous party atmosphere and it might be harder to identify with a group of extroverted athletes than say, a cross-section of high school broken down into its many cliques.

Nevertheless, Linklater has once again managed to tease out intensely strong feelings of nostalgia and bittersweetness by stuffing so much into these precious last days of summer. The film, despite itself, is a study of maturity and accepting responsibility. Kids turning into adults is as inevitable as waking up one morning in these houses to find crude drawings all over your face.  Everybody Wants Some!! is about finding your place in a larger group, about figuring out what you can contribute. Find out what matters most to you. That’s true of college but it’s most poignant when you consider the vaster pool of possibilities outside of school.

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Recommendation: A gentle nudge in the direction of some of our glory days, Everybody Wants Some!! functions as a highly amusing diversion (even if it’s not outright hilarious). A game cast combines with a mise en scène that brilliantly pays tribute to the fashion and social etiquette of a decade long since passed. Perhaps it’s best not to make comparisons, but this one’s kinda hard not to recommend to those who fell in love with the director’s previous efforts. Baseball fans might be disappointed to learn how little ball is actually played, however. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “I’m too philosophical for this shit!”

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

Winnebago Man

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Release: Friday, July 9, 2010

[Hulu]

If you don’t know who Jack Rebney is, first of all — shame on you. Second of all, shame on you. And third of all, good news: it won’t be hard for you to find out who that is. A quick YouTube browsing will instantly pull up a five-ish minute video clip that made the guy an overnight internet sensation.

To some degree, we are all searching for it for ourselves — a way to earn attention from more than just one person at a time, a way to build an audience. We celebrate our daily lives through Facebook, Twitter, blogs and a whole host of other social media platforms. Whether its pictures we take, photos we share and comment on, or things we write or create we are more often doing things to make our presence known and felt in some way, shape or form. Existing and socializing in a place that doesn’t really regard the construct of rules and limits — the fruit is just there for us, for the taking.

But what happens when we do something that unintentionally brings unwanted attention to us? Do we recognize it, or embrace it? Would you?

If you think that the tables would turn, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to learn that the subject of both the much-celebrated ‘World’s Angriest Man’ video clip and the documentary Winnebago Man wanted to get as far away as possible from the marks he unwittingly (and obscenely) left behind five years ago.

Unfortunately for Rebney he left quite some impressionable marks, inadvertently and deeply ingraining his name in the ragged cultural fabric that is YouTube and the like. Though it wasn’t the original concept, a sensationally humorous video compiled of a single day’s worth of outtakes created the impression that Rebney had just had the worst day of his life on the job. He was henceforth Googled as ‘the World’s Angriest Man.’

In the years immediately following the viral video, director Ben Steinbauer became determined to locate the man and ask him necessarily sensitive questions in an effort to gauge how this particular internet ‘celebrity’ was faring. Though it’s not exactly clear whether Steinbauer initially did this to form a larger study of all internet sensations who we never see or hear from again, or whether he had an interest in meeting this one particular guy — the results that Steinbauer found are undeniable. The video has had at least some impact on the way the man has led his life afterward, and in that way, it confirms the theory that one man’s entertainment is another man’s suffering.

Rebney has since secluded himself to the top of a mountain in northern California, and initially presents himself as a kind, soft-spoken man, a night-and-day difference from his (other) on-camera personality. As the documentary continues, Steinbauer’s first visit with Rebney turns out to be a bit of a false impression and it becomes clear later that the former salesman and journalist has his own agenda. Understandably, he didn’t want to be remembered for the video he’s featured in, and wishes to set the record straight with Ben and company. Fascinatingly, the grouch was once a mainstream news reporter who, having grown tired of that racket, switched to auto sales where he remained until the video surfaced.

Winnebago Man is both an experiment and a hoax. It is experimental in that we are given the same perspective as the young director. We often stand alongside the director as he chats with this eccentric older man. Most of the time the director knows about as much as we do on the subject and what is filmed is being filmed without rehearsal. The events contained within lack much of a set-up; there’s a sense of invasion of personal privacy in our wanting to keep watching, our need to get closer to finding out who this guy really is.

So how is it a hoax? At the same time we are wanting to know more,  it’s this same quest for knowledge that will destroy the illusion that existed when we didn’t know him as anything more than a foul-mouthed, fly-hating, accoutrement-mispronouncing salesman. Going behind-the-scenes, as it were, created a real connection to this person, and we no longer can afford to look at him as that guy who said f**k a whole lot in 30 seconds. Dressed in a suit. And sweating. Because here’s the kicker: Jack Rebney’s an actual human being. . . with actual opinions on issues more significant than his ability to swear up a storm. That’s how he’d like to be remembered, and he’s going to let everyone know that.

Perhaps inadvertently as well, Steinbauer gave Rebney a platform from which he could voice his concerns on matters such as the way Dick Cheney had bankrupted America or that the existence of Wal-Mart is a complete disgrace, among other things. With these bits and pieces we now see him as a real person and not just some blustery, cantankerous personality captured in less than five minutes of videotape. He may still be funny in his vehement anger towards Congress, but that illusion is indeed gone. Steinbaeur even convinces him to attend a screening of the famous clips at a Found Footage Festival in San Francisco, where he will learn to embrace his ‘fans.’ For the second time an illusion is shattered. This time it’s for the source himself, who has now been confronted with the reality of his situation. Somewhat charmingly, he can only awkwardly speculate as to what his appearance at this festival really means, as well as to what it means to the people he once thought were wayward, misled individuals.

Whether or not you feel like it’s a big deal that a camera crew went to certain lengths to track down the R.V. salesman isn’t as important as the fact that this viewing experience exists. Since you can easily find the entire documentary online and download or stream it for your viewing pleasure whenever you like, consider it all coming together full circle. There is. . . no escape. . .

. . .neither from goddamn jackass flies nor from the sensationalized world.

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3-5Recommendation: As enlightening as it is entertaining, Winnebago Man is a well-crafted documentary that ruminates on the state of socializing on the internet and the long-term effects that video has on their subjects. For anyone who has not seen the footage yet of the swearing salesman, you are likely not the target audience for this documentary as I believe you have been actively avoiding this stuff for awhile (you’re not to blame). If you have never heard of this documentary, I sincerely recommend that you give it your attention sometime.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 85 mins.

Quoted: “When I say it, and listen to myself babbling, that’s really the human condition, is it not? Right there, in simple terms, what we’re doing is we’re. . .we’re facing an enormous amount of adversity and it seems disastrous that we don’t let ourselves say what we really feel, what we truly feel. And I’m happy to say that I take some degree of pride in the fact that when I’m faced with that, and when I’m faced with it today I say exactly what is on my mind.”

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