May Blindspot: What About Bob? (1991)

Release: Friday, May 17, 1991

[YouTube]

Written by: Tom Schulman

Directed by: Frank Oz

Given the career Frank Oz has been able to enjoy over the span of some 40 years, a gentle comedy like What About Bob? tends to get lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame, because it’s quite funny. Wholesome in that 1990s PG-comedy kind of way; sentimental in the same.

Oz has directed Steve Martin twice and he’s kicked it with DeNiro once, so his collaboration with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss isn’t some crazy cosmic event. He’s put in the work to get here, having helped launch Jim Henson’s career in the early going with his development of both Sesame Street and The Muppets. He also curiously remade The Stepford Wives and brought chaos upon a British family in his 2007 farcical comedy Death at a Funeral. But his behind-the-scenes work didn’t become the stuff of cinematic legend until Henson repaid the favor by turning down the part of Yoda in Star Wars, recommending George Lucas cast his friend instead. And history, the rest is.

By comparison What About Bob? feels like a rather modest achievement. Modest, but not insignificant. It’s a film whose fixation upon mental health was taboo then and is, sadly, taboo now. It tries to define what sound mental health is through an exploration of an unorthodox relationship between Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss), an accomplished psychotherapist, and his high-maintenance, multi-phobic client, a neurotic New Yorker named Bob Wiley (Murray). Of course, that’s not to suggest this is a thorough interrogation of perpetually un-PC subject matter as what unfolds aims for entertainment rather than the provocation of thought and discussion. Think of it more as a friendly PSA urging us to be more tolerant of others’ quirks and mannerisms, regardless of whether they’re clinically diagnosable traits.

Dead Poets Society screenwriter Tom Schulman’s work is simply but effectively constructed, the farcical events forcing the pair of well-matched leads into comically and diametrically opposed character arcs, with Murray slowly regaining his dignity and Dreyfuss steadily going mad over the course of a fleeting hour and forty minutes. Murray is an ideal spokesperson for the quirky and off-kilter. Ostensibly, he’s bringing nothing new to his role, but that’s ironically what this overly familiar movie needs. It needs Bill Murray being Bill Murray. When Bob is first pawned off by his former counsel and onto Dr. Marvin, the actor’s eccentricities embrace you as a warm hug from a grandparent.

Meanwhile, Dreyfuss arguably outshines his costar in doing the dirty work, exuding a level of self-absorption that makes him an easy target. He comes across cold and clinical, a puffed-up, red-faced bureaucrat who cares not so much about the hippocratic oath (or maybe even his family) as he does earning more accolades and climbing further up the career ladder. Dreyfuss’s performance is outstanding, a controlled caricature of professional hubris that so perfectly culminates with a man drooling in a wheelchair.

The plot remains obvious and more than a little contrived in parts — it’s really difficult to believe a man as neurotic as Bob would actually board a public bus for New Hampshire, but we acknowledge the plot must move along somehow. You tend to get over those sorts of things, because there’s a lot of it to go round, and while the film relies mighty heavily on its star power, it’s frequent pit stopping into cliché is justified.

Dr. Marvin learns the hard way that “I’m on vacation” is a foreign concept to his oddball client. The story proper gets underway when Bob manages to track his impatient doctor down in his New Hampshire hideaway and begins the process of integrating himself into the family. Compounding Dr. Marvin’s discombobulation is the rapidly growing divide between himself and his family. He can’t comprehend the fact his wife Fay (Julie Hagerty) and children, Anna (Kathryn Erbe) and Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), have taken a liking to this possible sociopath. Bob, who has justified his sudden appearance as him taking some of Dr. Marvin’s advice to heart (“take a vacation from your problems”), is viewed by the majority as the fun-loving drunk uncle rather than a pest who needs to be flushed out.

With all due respect to Murray, the genius that he is (and Bob is certifiably a great character), the schadenfreude that comes with Dreyfuss’ energetic, unhinged performance simply makes this experience what it is — granted, something of an echo of the trials endured by Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles four years earlier. In that film, a similarly obnoxious but well-meaning northerner effectively infiltrated the personal life of a gruff stranger, often to his own detriment, and ever-so-occasionally to surprisingly poignant effect. However, where that film truly satisfied with the way John Candy was able to finally win the other guy over, What About Bob? clumsily tries to contrive that same feeling in the final few seconds.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: With two outstanding performances from Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, What About Bob? becomes something I can easily suggest to viewers who are looking for another solid, perhaps overlooked Bill Murray comedy from the early ’90s. Funny, heartwarming, ultimately predictable but definitely worthwhile. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Shit-eating son of a bitch! Bastard, douchebag, twat, numb-nuts, dickhead, BITCH!” [Editors note: I love the MPAA ratings of the ’90s.]

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 

The Founder

the-founder-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 20, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Siegel 

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Michael Keaton is such a good actor he will make you feel bad for McDonald’s. Not the McDonald’s of today, mind you, who never honors your request for no pickles, but the quaint San Bernardino burger stand run by the McDonalds brothers, the place that always got it right.

On a philosophical level the movie intrigues because it challenges today’s status quo, it makes us wonder if McDonald’s was always destined to be the soulless corporate machine it has ultimately become. Sure, it’s a little sentimental for the good old days and a twee sequence breaking down the logistics of the assembly line-style serving platform verges on romanticizing that which is decidedly not romantic, but The Founder also genuinely earns your attention and does well to entertain the notion of what could have been had Ray Kroc (Keaton) never happened.

For Maurice ‘Mac’ (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), fate comes in the form of a 50-something-year-old milkshake machine salesman who sees their one-off restaurant as a potential gateway to the future. Having no luck selling his own product, Ray finds himself making the trip out to southern California when he receives an order for six of his machines, thinking there must be a mistake. In his experience no restaurant has been busy enough to justify more than a couple.

What he finds in San Bernardino is what Dick affectionately calls a “symphony of efficiency” — a system capable of delivering fresh, delicious beef patties and just-salted-enough potato cut fries to the masses in a way that conveniences both the customer and the business. After taking a quick tour of their facilities, Ray becomes convinced the brothers have the potential to revolutionize the way friends, families, even entire communities eat. Humbled by their ability to merely run an operation after having survived The Great Depression, the brothers are very wary of change.

Nevertheless, the very next day Ray is back with new gusto. He’s done with milkshake machines, now imploring his new friends to expand their operations nationwide. What he sees now are dollar signs, not Golden Arches. Profit, not product. A cultural revolution as opposed to a social gathering. In an impassioned speech, Ray encourages the brothers to see what he sees, a restaurant as a symbol of national pride: “Courthouses. Churches. Arches . . .”

Plot mechanics notwithstanding, The Founder plays out in often surprising and dramatic fashion. We have a trio of stellar performances to thank, as Lynch and Offerman lend a naivety to the McDonalds that makes them easy to like even if such qualities ultimately must be faulted on some level. The true star, naturally, is Keaton, who seems to be channeling a little Daniel Plainview into his mightily unflattering portrayal of an entrepreneur. Keaton makes it easy to believe this is a man who would sooner kick a kid’s lemonade stand down and tell them it was poorly constructed than pay the 50 cents for a cup and walk away all smiles.

The Founder is so fascinating to watch because Ray Kroc is fascinating. He is both an angel and the Grim Reaper and whether you root for him or want him to fall flat on his face is immaterial. His transformation from a nobody into an industry icon is as insidious as it is compelling. This is a man who made things happen, an immovable object moved only by his own dogged determination. There’s an objective reality to what he accomplished and impressively that is not lost even as we endure scene after scene of him gutting the already gutless, those who lack both the emotional and financial wherewithal to save themselves from ruination.

It’s a testament to the power of good storytelling that of all the things that make you sick at the end of The Founder, greasy food isn’t one of them.

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4-0Recommendation: A movie about how far McDonald’s has come in 50+ years, now that sounds like a recipe for cheesy product placement and insanely fattening sentimentality. But John Lee Hancock’s film is actually, legitimately entertaining and surprisingly revelatory and far from the commercial advertisement it could have become. You should go see it to have a better understanding of where we are today and to see an absolute stunner of a performance from Michael “I’m having a nice little career resurgence of my own” Keaton. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “I want a divorce.”

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 

Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Scott Derrickson; Jon Spaihts; C. Robert Cargill 

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Benedict Cumberbatch’s introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is far from inauspicious, but Doctor Strange falls short of being the prodigy its parents want so badly for it to be, though not for a lack of trying with shaky hands.

Strangely, what proves to be yet another underwhelming, formulaic and contrived origin story ultimately becomes an acceptable reality because inventive special effects rule the day. This is such a sumptiously visual feast the story all but becomes an afterthought. It’s The Deadpool Effect: some movies are just going to get a pass because somehow, whether through mixed tapes, sorcery or outrageous Ryan Reynoldsry, the enjoyability factor supersedes substance. Cumberbatch slips into the superhero role like he’s been here before, turning in an excellent performance that will be, if anything, the big takeaway from this particular chapter in the MCU. He’ll be the torch that will light this story through forthcoming installments.

It’s either that or the Inception-on-steroids visual gimmickry that takes our lowly three-dimensional existence and flips it, twists it, inverts it and then manipulates it back into a shape approximate to what was there before. In Doctor Strange you’ll experience a multitude of physical and even psychological paradoxes as you break the planes of multidimensional existence and pass through portals to other worlds (or just other parts of our world). Perhaps no other movie this year or in the last several have made such a conscientious effort to make the viewer feel like they’re hallucinating most of what they’re witnessing. Go ahead, rub your eyes. It’s really happening.

The story, the fall from grace of Tony Stark Md. Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange, isn’t particularly exciting but I suppose it’s one worth investigating here. An egomaniacal surgeon who regularly performs miracles on the operating table, his world is flipped upside down one night when he is involved in a bad car accident and becomes a patient in the very hospital he has stood tall in for years. A complicated emergency surgery follows, something that Strange doesn’t take altogether very well. In the ensuing fall out, he shuns emotional support provided by former lover and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (an under-used Rachel McAdams) after attempts to receive experimental surgery fail. Too arrogant to accept there are other ways in which he can help people, Strange sets off for Kathmandu to seek the help of a mystic who lives there.

A hop, skip and jump later we’re in the slums of Nepal, sifting through an altogether unfamiliar environment. The backdrop suggests humble new beginnings, but it’ll take some time for Strange himself to become humbled. His arrogance follows him everywhere, even inside the walls of the Kamar-Taj, a secret compound that could have been lifted right out of the Matrix training program. Rather than a dojo for Neo to learn how to control his mind, it’s one in which Strange will learn to drop everything he knows to be true and to embrace the realm of sorcery and magic. Tilda Swinton, beautifully androgynous in the role as The Ancient One, is his reckoning.

The Sorcerer Supreme shows the doctor that indeed other dimensions exist — realms that Earth is shielded from thanks to the tireless efforts of sorcerers stationed at the three sanctums found in London, New York and Hong Kong. But she’s not prepared to train Strange because his cocksureness reminds her of a former Master who had gone rogue. That Master is none other than Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who became seduced with the idea of eternal life offered by Dormammu (voiced by Cumberbatch), a supreme being concealed in the bowels of the Dark Dimension. Kaecilius manifests as the film’s chief antagonist, with whom Strange finds himself interacting if not entirely too prematurely.

And that’s largely the film’s problem: it is in too much of a hurry to get to the goods. Much of this transformation, while rewarding in the sense that this is much like returning to the mindfuck Neo experienced when he took the red pill, is designed to provide the easiest, most agreeable payoffs. Like much of Marvel’s cinematic property. Here, though, the psychological, philosophical and mystical elements lend themselves to a much more high-brow kind of cerebral experience. Once more the cutting edge of creativity is blunted by writing-by-committee: witty one-liners attempt to provide levity but end up more distracting and pandering, the training montage is almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and the villain is maddeningly mediocre, though the talented Danish actor makes him worth watching more so than he probably deserves.

Notable stand-out performances help elevate the pedestrian narrative considerably. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo is an idealist with an intense and complicated relationship with The Ancient One who is the first to accept Doctor Strange into the ranks. Then there’s the film’s second Benedict, Benedict Wong who plays . . . Wong. I’m actually not kidding. He is a source of stoicism and loyalty, acting as the full-bodied keeper of the Kamar-Taj and chief librarian, after the former librarian is, um, relieved of his duties. And Mikkelsen resonates in the role of a man hell-bent on immortality. He convincingly argues he is not out for the destruction of mankind but rather the continuation of it, albeit via some pretty questionable methods.

We’re 14 movies deep into the MCU and yet Doctor Strange never seems to work as hard as it should, overly reliant on the strength of the visual component to carry the burden. (Okay, and Cumberbatch, lest I forget to state the obvious. He’s great.) This particular film, directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister; The Day the Earth Stood Still) is an axiom in the sense that modern cinema is trending the more visual route rather than the intellectual. Like DeadpoolDoctor Strange never succumbs to mediocrity, but it’s just barely above that threshold. The familiarity of everything we go through makes the title Doctor Not-So-Strange-Actually-He’s-Quite-Normal feel more appropriate.

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Recommendation: Don’t get me wrong, Doctor Strange is a lot of fun, but when it comes to introducing another of its obscure characters, Marvel seems far too satisfied with outfitting them with overly familiar clothes. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain . . . “

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 

Masterminds

masterminds-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 30, 2016 

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Bowman; Hubbel Palmer; Emily Spivey

Directed by: Jared Hess

Masterminds didn’t need to be masterfully made to be effective, but a little discipline could have gone a long way.

Directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite; Nacho Libre), the film is a comedic dramatization of the October 1997 Loomis Fargo bank robbery that took place in Charlotte, North Carolina. The story made national headlines when an employee made off with $17.3 million from the bank’s vault, making it at the time the second-largest cash heist in American history, second only to a Jacksonville, Florida incident seven months prior in which the same bank lost $18.8 million to the driver of an armored vehicle transporting the cash. Not a great year for Loomis Fargo, admittedly.

The details of the heist seem ripe for the tabloids, or even a solid comedic outing. Hess adopts the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction angle by going balls-out on the zaniness and slapstick elements, employing star Zach Galifianakis‘ trademark gooberisms to often irritating effect. Masterminds is a film stuck on one setting and it never demonstrates aspirations to become something more . . . not even important, but watchable. A collaborative screenplay is only ever interested in puerile jokes, making fun of “simple Southern folk” and accommodating Galifianakis and his weirdness.

David Scott Ghantt (Galifianakis) is the focus of this southern-fried farce. He’s a loyal employee of his local bank although quite the simpleton. He has a crush on a girl he works with, a Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig) who suddenly quits her job because it sucks, basically. She falls in with a rough crowd and cozies up to the bad news Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), who has this idea to take that branch for all it’s worth. Good thing Kelly happens to know someone on the inside that she can manipulate/seduce into pulling it all off.

Masterminds is aggressively unfunny. Having absolutely no faith that the sheer absurdity of the actual circumstances will do much of the work for them, the filmmakers overcompensate, aiming for the lowest common denominator as loud farts, sweaty redneck culture and Wiig’s cleavage become major talking points. Galifianakis tries his best to make us empathize with David but he can’t. And he doesn’t get much help from the rest of the ensemble, as Wiig looks bored, Owen Wilson is still just Owen Wilson, and Jason Sudeikis and Kate McKinnon lay two distinctly rotten eggs — the former playing the world’s worst hitman and the latter David’s psychotic country bumpkin fiancée. (If you somehow make it through the film’s opening 10 minutes or so, you might as well stay. McKinnon features prominently here and she’s the worst part of the film.)

You’d think with Wilson’s casting there’d be an element of Bottle Rocket to proceedings in this heist film, but sadly that film with made-up characters feels more authentic than this one based upon real individuals. What we have here are caricatures who shout dumb things, make weird noises and enthusiastically check off items from a master list presumably titled ‘Things Everyone Who Has Never Lived There Hates About the South.’ The movie doesn’t mean to offend but it does when the whole thing is just so inept.

Recommendation: Offensively low joke-to-laugh ratios can be found in Masterminds, an ill-advisedly goofy recreation of a bizarre real-world bank heist. If you have love for any of the actors in this movie, I have to say you should try and keep that love going by outright skipping this turkey. A deep-fried, southern turkey covered in about as many stereotypes as you can think of. Zach Galifianakis is only as good as the material he works with, so here I have to say he’s actually pretty awful.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “Katie Candy Cane . . . is she a stripper?”

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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.” 

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 

Anomalisa

'Anomalisa' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman; Duke Johnson

Someone please give Michael Stone a hug. I’m starting an online petition to see if we can get Michael Stone just one good hug, because he really, really, really, really, really needs one. Either him or writer-director Charlie Kaufman, I’m not sure who needs it more. Anomalisa is perhaps the slowest trek through misery and loneliness he has yet made, and that’s even keeping in mind 2008’s Synecdoche, New York.

Very much like that epic slog, Kaufman’s latest, an experiment in stop-motion that feels very much overdue considering his offbeat and peculiar sensibilities seem tailor made for the style, is almost too cold to handle let alone enjoy. But it is something to admire and admire I did; I just wish I could put my arms around the thing and connect with it on the level Kaufman clearly wanted me to. The misanthropy is one thing; I can handle misanthropic characters. I often eagerly embrace them and go on to love them. It’s the monotony that really killed my enthusiasm over this technical achievement.

Michael (David Thewlis) is a successful customer service agent whose latest book ‘How May I Help You Help Them?’ has just been published. He’s traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a motivational speech to other service agents looking to boost their careers. At the same time he’s promoting the new book and . . . searching for a way out of his current marriage and domestic life, both of which have whittled his zest for life down to the bone. He becomes smitten by a woman he meets that is somehow “different” than everyone else — meaning, she’s the only other supporting character not voiced by Tom Noonan. (He is credited simply with the responsibility of voicing Everyone Else.)

Michael’s staying at the Fregoli Hotel. It’s a swanky joint whose odd name isn’t meant to merely induce giggles (although it is a pretty funny word); ‘fregoli’ is actually a social anxiety/disorder in which the sufferer sees everyone around them as the same person, voice and all. Michael seems to be experiencing that very delusion but it’s not clear at first whether this is just how this guy views Cincinnati — after all he already scoffs at the lesser intelligence of anyone else who happens to be in the room with him — or whether he’s suffering the effects of a psychological condition that’s gone untreated far too long — something he himself ponders often.

Anomalisa confines itself almost entirely within the walls of this hotel. The limited setting is successful in inducing boredom and cabin fever. We watch as Michael shuffles around, utterly disconnected from the world and disinterested in doing much beyond finding some ice cubes to put into a glass and make a drink. That scene takes approximately ten minutes to eventuate. After this he shuffles around some more, grumbling over the introductory remarks in his speech notes. The shuffling takes us on a tour of the Fregoli and its many oddities, including, but not limited to the hotel manager himself. (Again, Tom Noonan. Tom Noonan everywhere.) He also gets obsessed with tracking down old acquaintances that either turn out to be painfully awkward, generally unpleasant episodes or wild goose chases. All this running around while annoyingly doing nothing eventually introduces us and Michael to two adoring fans, a couple of local girls who somehow find the author a very interesting man.

One girl, a chatty blonde who is more outspoken than her considerably stranger and more socially awkward friend Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is saddled with, you guessed right, a man’s voice. Leigh Lisa stands out for her unique voice and face in a sea of sameness. Her demeanor is strange but beguiling, at least it is to Michael. To us she comes across a kind of simpleton with a knack for contributing to the film’s quota of depressing introspective soliloquies. Also, her voice eventually starts breaking into that of Tom Noonan. Nothing good ever seems to last.

Aha! We have struck a nerve. Temporary constructs like one-night stands are radically misconstrued for representing the start of something new, something fresh. Poor Michael can’t figure out how to even start spelling ‘h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s’ let alone experience it. Anomalisa is an exercise in wallowing in self-pity despite its billing as a dramatic comedy; Michael’s stuck-in-a-rut attitude feels more suffocating and hopeless than The Lobster‘s persecution of single folk. It’s certainly more uncomfortable. It bears all the hallmarks of a Kaufman think-piece, one that delves far beneath the surface of the kinds of conversations a great many screenwriters offer up. There’s no denying Anomalisa is uniquely his. But the lack of interesting material feels unfamiliar.

Michael, torn between leaving his family behind for a fresh new start and a responsibility to his son . . . oh wait, yeah that’s right. He doesn’t really seem to care about that either as he can barely muster the interest to speak with him on the phone for longer than five minutes. Yeah, forget this guy man. And almost everything about this really tedious, beautiful, boring, complex, ultimately off-putting experience.

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'Anomalisa'

Recommendation: “The most human film of the year,” maybe. But the most entertaining? Hardly. Charlie Kaufman has built a reputation for being a tough filmmaker to embrace and Anomalisa is just another solid example. It’s a film for the Kaufman purists I think. Unless you are a glutton for punishment and enjoy sitting through true downers, I have to say give this one the old swerve if you’re the least bit skeptical on the filmmaker. Damn. I really wanted to like this, too. So I’m kicking it an extra slice for the technical marvel that it really is. The stop motion is incredible, truly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”

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

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

Café Society

'Cafe Society' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 15, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Woody Allen

Directed by: Woody Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell in 'Cafe Society'

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

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

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

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

Deathgasm

'Deathgasm' movie poster

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jason Lei Howden

Directed by: Jason Lei Howden

Visual effects artist Jason Lei Howden’s blood-splattered horror-comedy debut may operate within some fairly limited confines but budgetary constraints seemingly have no effect on the creativity of his project and its metal-as-f**k attitude.

So you come to expect a few things with a title like Deathgasm. Those who can’t handle copious amounts of red syrup blood, here’s your exit door. Don’t let it hit you on the way out. Three-parts grindhouse gore-fest, one-part supernatural thriller with just a sprinkling of awkward humor to keep a narrative of grossness lubricated just enough, this New Zealand-produced film is, yes, absolutely ridiculous. It is so over-the-top violent I don’t know where to begin.

Let’s start at the beginning. Set in the fictional sleepy town of Greypoint, Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) is forced to move in with his religious fanatic uncle and bullying cousin after his mother is carted off to an asylum. His dad’s dead. Life is miserable for Brodie, even at school. His friends, much like himself, are clinging to the fringes of high school society and so he often finds himself diving into music to escape the humdrum of his every day existence, while keeping an eye on the cute girl, Medina (Kimberley Crossman), of course. Also of course: she is the girlfriend of none other than Brodie’s cousin.

One of the positives in Brodie’s life is the local record store. There he happens to come across Zakk (James Blake), whose unconditional love for violent-sounding but ultimately galvanizing death metal is evidenced by his all-black attire. The two decide to pour their mutual love for music into forming a band that Zakk will christen ‘DEATHGASM.’ All capital letters, because that’s f-ing metal man. One day Zakk talks Brodie into breaking-and-entering into an abandoned-looking home rumored to be where metal legend Rikki Daggers (Stephen Ure, looking somewhat more human than he did in his contributions to both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises) still lives.

It’s here where they come into possession of some sheet music that’s simultaneously being protected by Daggers and coveted by a local cult. Soon enough the metalheads, along with dorksters Dion (Sam Berkley) and Giles (Daniel Cresswell), are experiencing first-hand the power of the music they’ve just stumbled upon. If played, what’s on the page will summon demons from the underworld. They rock out, and sure enough the world as they know it becomes overtaken by bloodthirsty creatures. The biggest problem though, is that they’re being targeted by the very cult that was originally after that sheet music.

Here’s where I should probably make mention of how much more bloodthirsty Howden is, his direction spinning off into some crazy territory where once-living humans turn into ghouls that meet some very, very messy fates. One guy gets his face removed by a belt sander. Another accepts a chainsaw where the sun don’t shine. Gorehounds and metalheads are sure to come together to champion the film for its sweet, sweet brutality and unapologetically cheesy escapist frills. The movie is pretty goddamn metal. It’s also, sadly, too sloppy for it’s own good.

Everything boils down to a confidence issue. Brodie is still learning how to jam like a bonafide rockstar and he wants to be with Medina (but only because she showed an interest first). When push comes to shove, will he be able to send those pesky demon bastards back to where they belong? Will his playing save the girl before it’s too late? Okay so I admit I just made the premise sound worse in writing but in execution there’s a lot to like, even if you just can’t avoid addressing what’s painfully obvious: learning how to play the right chords at the right moment makes for a kinda lame horror finale.

And that’s certainly not the only weak spot; half-baked logic abounds when it comes to how they plan on solving the issue (which I won’t spoil) and the usual wooden performances. And perhaps most surprising of all, there’s actually not a great deal of music. Deathgasm holds so much potential to be better, and I’ll even forgive it for it’s occasional shameless elitism (see how Brodie and Zakk introduce themselves to one another for a prime example). It’s all too easy to lay out all of the ways in which this film is just . . . plain . . . silly, but let’s not overthink things too much. Let’s take it for what it is: pretty bloody fun.

deathgasm-2

Recommendation: Bonafide guilty pleasure material, Deathgasm doesn’t quite capitalize on its whacky premise but it’s worth a watch for genre fans and it might even entice anyone who calls themselves “not much of a metal fan” because they believe they’re communicating with the Devil through their music — just to see these kids do literally just that. If you want certain stereotypes confirmed in a suitably twisted and hilarious fashion, this is totally your jam. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Three AM Pacific . . . or three AM Eastern time? Do demons recognize daylight savings?” 

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.ilgiornodeglizombi.wordpress.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!” 

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 

Special Correspondents

'Special Correspondents' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Ricky Gervais

Directed by: Ricky Gervais 

I’m suspicious of any movie that literally ends with the line “This is like the end of a movie.” While exemplary of the meta flavor of comedy that’s been en vogue since at least the mid-2000s, that line is also symptomatic of a bigger issue: the movie it’s stuck in is atrocious.

Sure, that’s pretty brutal. But what’s more brutal is the thought that, should I hold my tongue, I might just bite it off and swallow. How is Ricky Gervais’ most recent palavering, the media-jabbing comedy Special Correspondents, this unfunny? Disregard the pedigree of pure comedy behind the camera and the script, how can a movie be this devoid of logic, coherence, entertainment value and, oh yeah did I mention logic? One of the ways you can get there I suppose is by concocting the following nonsense:

A radio journalist (Eric Bana) and his technician (Gervais) fake their coverage of a war erupting in Ecuador by hiding in the loft of a restaurant adjacent to the very station they work at in Manhattan. They can see through concealed windows they’re even on the same floor as their offices. This is as opposed to actually traveling abroad to do their jobs. Are they just feckless, ethically challenged professionals looking for a fancy way to get fired? Gervais doesn’t think that big. No, his character just accidentally throws their passports away. Proving at the very least they are unburdened by the weight of journalistic integrity and basic human morality, the pair feign a serious news report that ultimately culminates in a nationwide fundraising effort in the name of the two radio guys who went suddenly missing behind borders.

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross claims — and bear with me here for a second — that most people, as they go through the grieving process, deny first and will eventually come to accept later. But in trying to process the immense pile of fuckery that has been put before me, I think the mission is far more do-able if we work backwards through the Five Stages. First, let’s address how inane a concept Special Correspondents is working with. The absurdity and lack of forethought, the sheer number of loopholes and contrivances that are needed to make the story work is difficult to accept, even by Gervaisian standards. So difficult, in fact, it’s impossible. The constant provocation of the suspension of disbelief is alarmingly thin cover for a director who doesn’t know how to tell a story.

Moving on past acceptance — which likely won’t be reached but let’s go with this anyway — we arrive at depression. This is actually dually appropriate given Gervais’ character is somewhat of a depressed mope whose marriage to the pretty awful Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) is a sham, and it’s depressing how bad Bana is in his role. Overacting as though his first day on the job, Bana’s Frank is either yelling incoherently at Gervais’ bumbling, nervous Ian or he’s generally being an ass just to be an ass. There’s a modicum of refreshment in watching the roles reverse, as Gervais goes nice and his co-star hams it up like John Ratzenberger in Toy Story. Most depressing of all, the movie turns Farmiga, a highly likable actress, into a gold-digging shrew of a woman absolutely devoid of redeeming qualities.

Bargaining. What can we bargain with here, then? I’ll concede that Special Correspondents strikes the right tone for what Gervais is going for: it’s as silly as the plot is ridiculous. Supporting turns from America Ferrara and Raúl Castillo as a pair of hospitable Latino immigrants help perpetuate the willy-nilly, carefree zippity-doo-dah. How do these two exactly expect this all to work out — like it did for Orson Welles? Will they become the heroes of their own fiction? I’m also willing to bargain with folks who think I’m dwelling too much on logical cohesion. Fair enough, I probably am. After all, it’s just comedy.

The talent that’s theoretically on display is enough to make a reasonable person who doesn’t throw away passports by mistake assume Special Correspondents delivers the laughs in spades. Barring some amusing exchanges between the two — basically whenever Ian does something Frank doesn’t like — the film is a poor effort on that front as well.  If you’re seeking Gervais’ raging Britishness (or that signature laugh) you’ll be left out in the cold. That’s enough to make me angry, and one step closer to fully cycling through this very difficult, very unusual grieving process. Someone help, because I know what comes next.

There’s some sort of socio-political commentary pasted in here about how we, the blind sheep of the American populace, form these relationships with the media and hang on their every word. Overreaction is an epidemic in a plugged-in society and David Fincher was brilliantly attuned to that in his recent Gone Girl adaptation. Of course it wasn’t really funny then, nor is it in other cinematic treatments of these curious societal habits of ours. But Gervais is simply not making any accurate statement about society, about the way media deals with hot button topics like securing American troops and journalists in peril. His is not a movie made to wake you up but rather to dumb you down. To not be aware of its massively underachieving status is to be in a true state of denial.

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Recommendation: Painfully inadequate on all fronts, the only real laughs inspired by the misguided, nonsensical plot and awkward direction, Special Correspondents suggests that perhaps the mouthy Brit should apply his talents to other areas — like in resurrecting David Brent. Why not stick with acting? I’m hoping there’s more to him that I can discover beyond his Office personality, because I like the guy and want to get the taste of this one out of my mouth as soon as possible.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “It’s quiet. Too quiet. In the sky, combat helicopters stop. An explosion rings out. My own technician has another near-miss. A bullet flies *inches* above his head. Lucky for him he’s so short, or he’d most certainly be dead by now. This is Frank Bonneville, Q63.5 News.”

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