GRANDMA (2015)

September 3, 2015

grandma Greetings again from the darkness. Perhaps your mental picture of a grandma is the familiar form of a Norman Rockwell painting … a sweet, bespectacled little lady baking pies or knitting booties or kicking back in a rocking chair as the grandkids romp around her. If so, Lily Tomlin will jolt you into reality with her performance in this latest from writer/director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie).

The film kicks off with Elle (Ms. Tomlin) breaking up with her much younger girlfriend (Judy Greer). As with many relationship break-ups, the tone shifts quickly with an increase in ‘let’s talk about it’. Elle tosses out “You’re a footnote” as a zinger that quickly ends any hope of reconciliation. It’s an uncomfortable opening scene that aptly sets the stage for what we are going to witness over the rest of the movie … Elle has lived quite a life, but has been unable to move on since the death of her long time companion – a recurring subject throughout.

The six segments of the film are titled: Endings, Ink, Apes, The Ogre, Kids, Dragonflies. Don’t expect those descriptions to help you guess the direction of the film. Instead, it plays out like a road trip through Elle’s past … albeit with a very contemporary feel. See, her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at the house asking to borrow $600 for an abortion. Despite her career as a poet of some notoriety, Elle is tapped out at the moment. So the two of them set out in Elle’s 1955 Dodge Royal (Ms. Tomlin’s real life car), and proceed to visit people (and hit them up for cash) who have played a role in Elle’s most interesting life.

During this journey – which all happens during a single day – the ladies cross paths with Sage’s clueless boyfriend (a miscast Nat Woolf), a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox) who owes Elle the money she lent for enhancement, a small business owner (the final appearance of the late Elizabeth Pena) who is a bit more tough-minded than Elle gives her credit for, a long ago ex-husband of Elle’s (the best performance from Sam Elliott in years) who still carries heartbreak , and most bombastic of all, Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mom – a workaholic, no non-sense, Type A professional (played with vigor by Marcia Gay Harden).

Much will be made of the film treating Sage’s decision so matter-of-factly, but it makes for nice contrast to Juno, where the decision to abort an unwanted pregnancy is abruptly reversed when she’s told the baby has fingernails. This movie even offers a tip of the cap to that scene (bravo Sarah Burns), but is never preachy or heavy-handed in its dealing with Sage. It’s a young girl in a real life situation, and she is depending on her dysfunctional family to provide financial and moral support.

One might describe this as an arthouse movie with wider appeal. Lily Tomlin makes this a must-see, as do Julia Garner and Sam Elliott.  Some will avoid it due to the abortion topic, but this is much more a story of three strong women who are related to each other – even if they don’t always relate to each other.

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THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED (2015)

September 3, 2015

transporter Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood loves the sequel, spin-off, and re-boot because the required level of creativity drops significantly when the characters, ideas and audience already exist. This “safe” approach to filmmaking doesn’t work so well when the franchise heavily depends on a particular actor. You might be able to find a new Superman (that cape absorbs much of the burden), but it’s much riskier to replace Jason Statham in the role that led to his breakout in 2002.

Game of Thrones” fans (and no one else) will recognize Ed Skrein. He left that hit series to take on this starring role as the skilled driver Frank Martin, who never changes a deal and always delivers the goods (and beats the crap out of people, and destroys fleets of police cars). Late in this film, we do notice that Mr. Skrein must have quietly lifted some GOT props, as one of the more preposterous fight scenes features Viking-type weaponry aboard a multi-million dollar yacht. For most films, that would easily rank as the clear jump the shark moment, but director Camille Delamarre seems to have no regulator on his appetite for outlandish stunts and scenes.

Mr. Skrein is very clearly one fit young man. However, his slipping into Statham’s driver’s seat leaves a void in charm and street cred. We never buy into his ability to go up against nasty Russian mobsters, though he does strikes the necessary fashion poses in scenes with the four rebellious prostitutes … led by Anna (Loan Chabanol). Unfortunately, Ms. Chabanol’s character looks like a knock-off of Gina Gershon and is performed at the level of Ms. Gershon’s Showgirls co-star Elizabeth Berkley (insert groan and dread here).

The highlights of the film are Ray Stevenson, who plays Frank’s dad; the French Riviera locale; and the over-the-top action and stunt sequences – many with (I choose to believe) purposefully humorous touches. Mr. Stevenson furnishes the only personal charm and wit, while also being easily the most interesting character – one we wish we knew more about. The France backdrop is not utilized to its fullest, but there are enough beautiful shots that prevent us from ever feeling ‘soundstage syndrome’. As for the action sequences, two of the most fun include a jet bridge and jet ski … unrelated, but both elicit audience reactions. If the airport scene isn’t quite far-fetched enough for you, perhaps this sequence will impress you: girl gets shot, nearly bleeds to death, is saved by spider-webs, joins in threesome.

There is an ongoing attempt to tie this to “The Three Musketeers” story, but the gag mostly falls flat, as does most of the story. And by “story”, it’s defined here as: car chases, big booms, fight scenes, fancy clothes, sex scenes, car crashes (the effects of car chases), wigs as disguises, dance club girl-on-girl kisses, gun shots, fancy yacht and private jet. One thing that stands out … all of the female characters are prostitutes, albeit victims of sex-trafficking by the Russians. It’s their plan for revenge that drives the story – moreso than the actual driver (of the title). Luc Besson was behind the first three Transporter movies, and he co-wrote and produced this latest. He clearly loves the character, as he has already announced plans for the 5th and 6th entries into the franchise.  One may assume that I’ll park elsewhere.

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BEFORE WE GO (2015)

September 3, 2015

Before we go Greetings again from the darkness. Many people (not me) were (and still are) enthralled by Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight). Because of this, it’s not shocking that a very similar type story would be set on the streets of New York City. However, you might be surprised to learn that Captain America himself, actor Chris Evans, has taken this on as his directorial debut.

Mr. Evans also stars alongside Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness), as they saunter their way through the city during the late night and early morning hours. In a borderline meet-cute opening, Nick (Evans) is tooting his trumpet in Grand Central Station when a frazzled Brooke (Eve) goes sprinting by and drops her cell phone. Brooke, of course, misses her train and Nick returns the phone fragments to her. He learns her purse was stolen and she lacks cash, credit and ID. Being a gentleman, he offers to help.

The cynic in me couldn’t help but wonder how helpful this gentleman would have been had the stressed out woman not been a world class beauty. Seriously, why do the all-night wanderers look like Chris Evans and Alice Eve, or Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy? Why don’t they ever look like those people on the “Wal-Mart” YouTube videos?

The film unfolds like a road trip movie … although it all takes place within a few city blocks. Each little segment is like a vignette, attached with string to the overall goal of getting Brooke back to her New Haven home before her husband arrives. See, both of our heroes are running from emotional and relationship turmoil … Brooke is avoiding a confrontation with her less-than-perfect husband, while Nick wants to/doesn’t want to see his 6 years ago girlfriend (Emma Fitzpatrick). He came to the city for the trumpet audition of his life, but his internal battle is over whether to see his old flame … all while subtlety trying to win over Brooke. Yep, it’s as lame and ridiculous as it sounds.

A brief stop for a psychic reading is a highlight, if for no other reason than we get relief from the flirting, fighting, and philosophizing of Brooke and Nick in the form of veteran actor John Cullum – a little bit psychic and a little bit elder wisdom. The film does have a nice look to it – the city alternates between dreamy, dangerous and hardcore. Unfortunately, the overused shaky-cam has a negative impact on many intimate scenes, and prevents us from enjoying the colors, lights and textures of the city. Editing out the sprinkled profanities would make this an easy fit for Hallmark or the Lifetime channel. It’s harmless enough, just not as charming or romantic as it tries to be.

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A WALK IN THE WOODS (2015)

September 2, 2015

a walk in the woods Greetings again from the darkness. Bill Bryson is a terrific and prolific writer known over the last thirty years for his books on travel, science and language. His comedic and witty approach makes his work accessible to even casual readers, yet somehow this is the first of his books to receive the Hollywood movie treatment. Envisioned in 1998 as the third collaboration between Robert Redford and Paul Newman (who died in 2008), there is even a scene reminiscent of Butch and Sundance pondering a cliff side jump/fall. This final version instead teams Mr. Redford with a grizzled Nick Nolte.

Redford stars as Bryson (aged about 30 years over the novel) who has had a successful writing career and has a quite comfortable life with his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and their family. His problem is that he hasn’t written anything new in years, save the Forewords for the books of other writers. He is feeling unsettled and almost spontaneously decides to hike the Appalachian Trail (more than 2000 miles). His wife is as supportive as you might guess … she laughs at him, begs him not to go, provides documentation of the dangers (bears, bacteria, bludgeoning), and finally agrees only if he can persuade someone to go with him.

Enter Mr. Nolte as Katz, an estranged friend from years ago, who may or may not be on the run from law enforcement. We do know he is overweight, a recovering alcoholic, quite horny (for a man in his 70’s), and in a point that matters little … was not actually invited by Bryson to go on the trip.

What follows is senior citizen slapstick (a new sub-genre for my gray cinema category). The tone is extremely light-hearted … in the mode of The Bucket List, Grumpy Old Men, and “The Odd Couple”. Some of the scenery is breathtaking, but mostly we get face-offs between the intellectual and thoughtful Bryson, and the slovenly horndog Katz. Director Ken Kwapis is best known for his TV comedy work on “The Office”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, and “The Larry Sanders Show”. Redford and Nolte are (very) old pros who handle the material and surface humor with ease. Nolte brings such a physicality to his performance that it left this viewer wondering if he was really that talented or (hopefully not) that frighteningly out of shape. Either way, it works.

Additional support work comes in quick spurts in the form of Nick Offerman as an REI salesman, Mary Steenburgen as a motel owner, Susan McPhail as a memorable Beulah, and motor-mouthed (and funny) fellow hiker Kristen Schaal whose character would have most hikers hoping for a bear attack.

The film is clearly aimed at a very narrow group of movie goers, and it’s likely that group will be pleased with what they see on screen. The philosophical aspects of the book are mostly glossed over here, and for hiking in the mountains, there is an obvious lack of edginess. The objective is laughs, not deep thought. Objective achieved.

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MISTRESS AMERICA (2015)

August 27, 2015

mistress america Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Noah Baumbach has quite the track record of human nature commentary with his films: The Squid and the Whale (2005), Greenberg (2010), and Frances Ha (2012). The conversations he writes on the page are somehow at once both realistic and stagey when they reach the big screen. It’s like his characters speak the way we think, rather than the way we actually talk outloud … and this makes for some awkward scenes. Awkward, but no less insightful.

Mr. Baumbach’s real life partner, co-writer and lead actress Greta Gerwig stars as Brooke, an eternally optimistic just-turned-30 New Yorker who is never without a new idea, but unfortunately lacks the follow-through gene. Prior to meeting Brooke, we are introduced to her soon-to-be step-sister Tracy (Lola Kirke, who was so memorable in Gone Girl). Tracy is a misfit college freshman who quickly latches on to the much more exciting life of Brooke, and sees her as a combination mentor and limitless source of material for her short stories.

The first part of the film allows us to get a real feel for both Tracy and Brooke, but it’s the change of pace that occurs when the setting hits a house in the wealthy area of Connecticut that is most startling. This portion is a modern day screwball comedy in the mold of Hawks and Sturges. The conversation cadence throughout the film is offbeat, but it’s here that the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue pacing really pushes the viewer to keep up. Some of the funniest lines aren’t the dominant ones in a scene, forcing us to juggle overlapping characters and sub-plots. It’s really quite fun … and showcases some nice support work from Michael Chernus, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones.

Even the “slower” first segment has some stellar writing including an explanation of “X” in Algebra tutoring, and a college freshman coming to grips with what makes a writer (it’s not the looks). Baumbach and Gerwig have a knack for creating whiney people who talk (incessantly) their way through the process of assembling pieces of the universe. Some might call this the painful process of maturity, but it seems to also include learning the difference between acting happy, real happiness, and acceptance of one’s life.

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DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer:

 


NO ESCAPE (2015)

August 25, 2015

no escape Greetings again from the darkness. An effective thriller must either put real people smack dab in the middle of believable peril or facilitate the suspension of disbelief. This latest from writer/director John Erick Dowdle (co-written with his brother Drew Dowdle) takes bits of each of those approaches and provides a pretty intense ride … despite the mostly nonsensical happenings.

We pick up Owen Wilson and his family while on an a transatlantic flight to his new job in some unnamed Asian country that we later learn is just a couple miles down river from the Vietnam border. Not long after their arrival, the generic Prime Minister of this unnamed country is assassinated. The rebel forces responsible for the coup were evidently motivated by the political ploy of Owen’s company, and they aim to kill him.

Lake Bell plays Owen’s wife, and the two of them spend most of the movie on the run together while protecting their two young daughters. Ahh yes, the daughters. While watching this, it made me think that the writers must not be parents, as the kids’ reactions to this extraordinarily dangerous situation involves excessive whimpering combined with whining for food. Anyone without kids will certainly not want any after watching this.

One of the family’s earliest escape sequences involves leaping from one rooftop to another, and all I could think of was how fortunate that this was not a typical American family who, shall we say, struggles with the effects of a fast food diet. In addition to the long jump, Owen Wilson takes over the record for best on screen child toss … an underappreciated cinematic category.

The writers do deserve credit for understanding that Owen and his little family were insufficient to hold our attention for the full run, so they threw in a bizarre super agent played by Pierce Brosnan … or Liam Neeson, or Bruce Willis, or maybe Chuck Norris. No, no – it really was Pierce Brosnan. Action sequences appear spontaneously with Brosnan’s character, as do the funniest lines … and the Kenny Rogers taxi company.

There do seem to be some conflicting story lines. On one hand the big Western corporation is cast as the villain who cares only to capitalize on the local citizens, yet on the other hand, we as viewers are supposed to root for the cute white family as they run from the rebels. Perhaps this is over-thinking … something the filmmakers won’t be accused of.

Most movie lovers enjoy a thriller that creates tension, and there is no shortage of intensity here. Just don’t expect to buy into everything you see.

watch the trailer:

 


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