Studio 666

Release: Friday, February 25, 2022

👀 Theater

Written by: Jeff Buhler; Rebecca Hughes

Directed by: B.J. McDonnell

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

 

 

**/*****

In Memory of Taylor Hawkins (1972 – 2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killer riffs but where’s the soul?

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

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

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 Laundromat

Release: Friday, September 27, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Scott Z. Burns

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

The Laundromat is a new film from Steven Soderbergh that tries to make you mad at the world in a way that will remind you most of Adam McKay’s The Big Short.     Stylistically the two are nearly identical. They both use big casts, sardonic humor and some creative narrative stunts (fourth-wall breaks, eye-popping visualizations) to increase the entertainment value. It’s the subject of the filmmakers’ rage that differs, with Soderbergh shaking his fists not at Wall Street but rather Mossack Fonseca, a massive offshore financial services provider.

Strangely, The Laundromat actually enraged me whereas The Big Short struggled to even engage me. I’m prepared to admit this could well be actor favoritism on my part and nothing to do with the subject matter itself. Because let me tell you, few things in life get me more excited than the prospect of reviewing a movie about tax fraud and evasion . . . excuse me, “avoidance.” So let’s just call it the Meryl Streep Factor — that woman makes everything better, more interesting. Of course she is not the whole deal here but she is a significant piece of this complicated puzzle. She also plays multiple characters, which is fun but perhaps a little on the gimmicky side.

The Laundromat is a pretty hefty undertaking. Writer Scott Z. Burns simplifies by using title cards prefacing the major concepts — chapters that break down into groups of winners and losers, the have’s and the have not’s, or in the language of the movie, “wolves” and “sheep.” To help navigate the viewer through its labyrinthian concepts and relationships the screenplay inserts the unscrupulous lawyers as narrators, with Gary Oldman sporting a sketchy German accent as the founder Jürgen Mossack and Antonio Banderas as his partner, Ramón Fonseca. As they pull you aside to explain how this all works and how they got away with it, they also serve as primary antagonists within the story, interacting with a number of supporting characters and generally playing the anti-Robin Hoods, taking money from the desperate and redirecting it through networks to help the rich become super-rich.

Here’s where Meryl Streep comes in. Her most important (and least gimmicky) role is the meek and mild-mannered Ellen Martin. She’s widowed when a pleasure boat she and her husband take on scenic Lake George capsizes. Ellen, though a fictional creation, is critical because she actually provides a face to the big-picture victims, something The Big Short did not do — at least not explicitly. She attempts to collect damages from the boating company only to discover the reinsurance company they went through no longer exists (technically it’s been bought out by another, bigger company — a trust to a shell owned by Mossack Fonseca). Following the bread crumbs leads Ellen on a wild goose chase to the Caribbean. And those who have answers, like trust manager Malchus Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), go to lengths to physically avoid contact.

The ensuing storylines making up this triptych involve individuals who are harder to sympathize with, yet they, like Ellen, provide flesh-and-blood consequences to a lot of cold-hearted schemery and technical mumbo-jumbo that can become overwhelming and numbing to the layperson. As Soderbergh’s direction expands the seriousness of the situations escalate, the wealth of cash and resources more vast, the real-world treachery more difficult to stomach. All throughout Oldman and Banderas are terrific twisting the knife in each subsequent episode of people getting screwed over.

Simone (Jessica Allain), the daughter of a Nigerian billionaire, faces a moral dilemma when she comes home to her palatial L.A. mansion to find her father having an affair with her roommate and (former) bestie, and is bribed with $20 million to keep quiet. Surprise, surprise: When she visits Mossack in Panama to cash in, the shares in her daddy’s company are worthless. The third vignette is a dramatization of the ill-fated negotiations between English businessman Neil Haywood (here portrayed by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Maywood) and Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), a wealthy Chinese businesswoman with connections to the CPC. Maywood learns the hard way what the corrupt will do to keep their secrets safe. It’s a sobering scene, even if it is only tangential to the overriding themes. Oldman sits in a car and outside the story, callously telling us how sometimes it can be our own ambition that screws us over.

The Laundromat is made possible in the advent of the 2016 mass data leak known as the Panama Papers, some 11 million documents that blew the roof open on Mossack Fonseca’s operations. Journalists connected a vast web of fake agencies from all over the globe, implicating the lawyers in dealings with everyone from morally corrupt white-collar criminals to murderous thugs. In one of the many meta-moments Banderas, on behalf of Soderbergh, makes it clear that if they had it their way none of this information would be getting out. Not that it matters all that much; the pair spent a total of three months behind bars. Mossack Fonseca may have been one of the biggest culprits of money laundering on an international scale — they operated on behalf of some 300,000 companies — but they’re not the only ones benefiting from tax havens and hiding behind complicated legalese.

The Laundromat ends with a bizarre and theatrical PSA wherein Soderbergh drops the curtains on his own production. The final frames are comparably more stone-faced serious. We can debate the sincerity of this gesture because I’m sure some will feel it is disingenuous to have famous, wealthy actors soliloquizing on the urgent need for tax law reform and the morality of holding shady corporations more accountable. They are, however, very skilled performers who are perfectly in sync with Soderbergh’s brand of stylish, creative storytelling. He has a lot on his agenda with The Laundromat, and given the complexities of his 2000 drug drama Traffic, he feels more suited to this material than the guy most associated with the antics of Will Ferrell. Perhaps it was the director more than it was the cast that kept me engaged throughout.

Mossack and Go-fuck-yaself

Recommendation: The Laundromat is a very complicated, dense film with industry jargon abounding and a lot of characters involved. Fans of Steven Soderbergh are urged to give it a shot. Those who are better qualified than me to talk about factual accuracy, please feel free to weigh in in the comments below. I felt enlightened by this, but I’m sure some things have been lost in translation while trying to provide a reasonable explanation as to why it worked for me while The Big Short did not. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “Bad is such a big word for being such a small word . . .”

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 

Nebraska

nebraska_xlg

Release: Friday, November 15, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

“Back in my day, sonny, black-and-white films were all we had. You had no idea if it meant a film was going to be good or not. But you always knew that corn was going to be.”

With Nebraska being the great Alexander Payne’s follow-up to The Descendants — a gorgeous film which happened to snag an Oscar trophy for Best Screenplay in 2012 — it’s natural to assume it will be a product of the utmost quality. That’s a safe assumption to make, by the way, because this 2013 effort from the Nebraska-born director — one that provides a beautiful yet somber cross-section of life in the corn belt — is, for the lack of a better word, brilliant.

Every film has its own rubric for how it shall be remembered. No matter how effective or ineffective these are, there’s always going to be that one element that sticks out like a sore thumb, the one thing that the overwhelming majority of filmgoers will remember about their experience. Some works like to boast their visual effects (what’s that one movie that Alfonso Cuarón just did. . .I hear it was a good one), while others tout their A-list cast as if it were a banquet of performances on which worldwide audiences shall feast (American Hustle; Out of the Furnace; Lee Daniels’ The Butler being some of the prime examples this year). Others still bank on the strength of their screenplay to achieve a desired effect. In these cases, the talent of the cast can range from questionable to award-winning, but ultimately the performances will fall second place to the story at hand as characters function more as chess pieces on a massive game board (The Hobbit, anyone?).

While films certainly will have great strength in other areas — the second installment in the Hunger Games franchise is a great example of a strong cast executing a spectacular story (even if it’s not an entirely original one) — at the end of the day, one element tends to outweigh the rest, becoming the take-away, ultimate last impression. Especially when talking about the casual movie goer. In the case of Nebraska, while it’s no journey to Mt. Doom or Battle Royale, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern)’s mission to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize money of one million dollars in any way possible is very much a moving story that uses actors who don’t necessarily jump off the screen but are perfect fits for the narrative at hand.

Never before has sleepytown U.S.A. seen such excitement. When Woody comes rolling through Hawthorne, Nebraska on his way to collecting what he thinks are his earned winnings via some random sweepstakes, he finds himself quickly becoming the talk of the town. Old friends, family members and neighbors alike come out of the woodwork to “congratulate” Woody on this news. Fortunately his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) reflect our concerns about his delusion. However, after seeing his father on multiple occasions walking dangerously down busy roads in an attempt to reach his destination on foot, David reluctantly drives the fragile, stolid man to Nebraska, fully aware this is a wild goose chase. In an attempt to divert Woody’s attention for just a brief bit, he stalls in Hawthorne and the family has a big get-together, mostly to see Woody. Considering his deteriorating mental and physical state, David has no clue how long his old man will be around for and figures a family reunion could end this obsession with the sweepstakes coupon.

It is in this ever-eroding town, a culture that is ingeniously enhanced by Payne’s decision to shoot in grayscale, where the problems begin to arise. It’s one thing for Kate, David and Ross to be concerned (read: frustrated) by Woody’s ignorance here, but quite another for an entire town to be let in on the secret. Despite David’s best efforts to keep it quiet, the least perceptive viewer should realize that it’s a matter of inevitability before everyone knows about Woody’s sudden good fortune.

The story is deceivingly complex, and equally so enriched with humanity. While the primary thread is about Woody trying to get his cash, this is more importantly a study of a way of life in the American mid-west that seems to be on the verge of extinction. In multiple beautifully captured shots, one can sense the dust and cobwebs climbing up and over everything, burying underneath it a longstanding history of humbled tradition, one that prides itself on its dedication to manual labor and small-town mom-and-pop business. Obviously, corn is a priority. But that’s not what the big picture is here. What’s more startling than anything is how much these places seem to have fallen by the wayside with the advent of technology in the 21st Century. This is a film set in present day, but it could just as easily have been set in the 1960s; the forties. There’s something about Payne’s choice of location that is timeless — not in the romantic sense, per se, but more so in the dog-with-three-legs kind of way.

But that last paragraph is more extrapolation than anything else. What really runs deep is the journey to discover what makes the Grant family tick.

In a place where gossip spreads like wildfire due to a lack of other avenues of entertainment, the biggest challenge facing the Grants concerns the town’s potential reaction to what we all might assume is the reality of his situation: he’s not a millionaire. He’s just a sad, confused man, desperate to cling on to something, anything in his last years. In the process of getting to Lincoln, there is so much to be discovered about the relationships between father and son, between wife and husband, and perhaps most troublingly, that of the one between Woody and his friends. . .namely, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), a man he enlisted in the Korean War with.

Payne continues to refine his ability to balance gloom-and-doom with comedy in this Bruce Dern-led drama. This film brings tears to the eye as effortlessly as it wrings laughter from a deadpan script. A great deal of the comedy stems from Squibb’s disproval of her husband, but these moments never feel anything less than genuine. The same can be said about the particularly low moments. There is heart ache abound in this low-key drama about the true despair of aging and the importance of family. At the end of the day, Nebraska is one great example of a film relying on the strength and authenticity of its storytelling. Audiences are going to latch on to many aspects of this movie (the performances are truly excellent), but in this case, the most resonant aspect is the crushing blow to the ego that lotteries and sweepstakes provide more often than not. The money (especially the lack thereof) doesn’t necessarily make the man.

nebraska-2

4-5Recommendation: While it helps to be a follower of the Alexander Payne school of film, Nebraska is a thoroughly well-made film that deserves a wider audience than it’s getting. Quiet, unassuming and surprisingly emotional (surprising, given the setting), the story of Woody Grant is extremely touching. One of this reviewer’s favorites of 2013 to be sure. Go see it.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “C’mon, have a beer with your old man. Be somebody.”

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