T2 TRAINSPOTTING (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sequels are big business in Hollywood these days. In fact, it’s not unusual for sequels to be announced even before the premiere of the first! At the other end of the spectrum we have cult films which carry the added pressure of not disappointing (or worse) their rabid fan base. Such is the case with Trainspotting from 1996. So the big question is … can the much anticipated follow up generate the frenetic pace and enjoyable discomfort of the first?

Director Danny Boyle (and his Oscar from Slumdog Millionaire) is back at the helm, and re-joining him is writer John Hodge who is once again working with the main characters from Irvine Welsh’s source novels. Of course what has the fans excited is the reunion of Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton, Ewen Bremner as Spud, Jonny Lee Miller as Sick Boy Simon, and Robert Carlyle as Begbie. Despite high expectations and fear of disappointment, it’s difficult to imagine the fans not having a blast with this second go round. Sure, the boys are a bit older – but to say they are much wiser, would be stretching things farther than these off-kilter blokes already do.

For reasons never really made clear, Mark returns to face the fellows he left high and dry some twenty years ago. Perhaps it’s guilt and he accepts that he deserves a good ass-kicking, or perhaps he simply realized he didn’t belong anywhere else. Simon has an attractive new partner named Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), who seems to be the one generating whatever income the couple has. Spud is still struggling mightily with his addiction, while Begbie is planning a quite painful escape from prison.

The reunions happen separately and slowly throughout the film, and each carries its own awkwardness. These guys are all similar to the guys we know, yet nobody’s quite the same. It’s not until near the end when all four share a scene. However, getting to that point involves everything we could hope for: flashbacks, quirky camera angles, flash-cut edits, familiar music blasting, and exaggerated sound effects … in other words, all of the style from the original (only with a higher budget).

Also making return appearances are Kelly McDonald as Diane (only one scene), novelist Irvine Welsh (this time buying stolen goods from Begbie), and the always great Shirley Henderson as Gail, whose single line of dialogue is pitch perfect. It’s nice that Ewen Bremner gets such an interesting and unexpected path in this sequel, and we can’t help but smile at director Boyle’s tributes to David Bowie, Stanley Kubrick, and of course, his original Trainspotting. You may ask why and in what form, but it’s clear all four main characters have decided to “choose life”. The next cult favorite up for sequel treatment is 1982’s Blade Runner, which likely faces an even more challenging journey to satisfy fans from 35 years ago.

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CHIPS (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a Hollywood self-congratulatory world that considers sequels, reboots and remakes as creative projects; and imitation as the most sincere form of flattery … not to mention the safest hedged bet … it’s not in the least surprising that we now have a film version of “CHiPs”, a lightweight and popular TV show that ran from 1977 through 1983. What should be surprising is that a studio entrusted Dax Shepard with the ultimate slash role of Director/Writer/Producer/Actor for this contemporary version.

Of course, as with film versions of “21 Jump Street” and “Starsky and Hutch”, the target audience isn’t really those who watched the original TV series, but rather the group of big-spending millennials who seem to thrive on raunchy humor, while placing minimal value on a coherent or interesting story. Buddy cop films that blend tense drama, wise-cracking partners and eye-widening action have long been popular, with the jewel of the genre being Lethal Weapon. This latest entry does nothing to threaten the now 30 year reign of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Dax Shepard stars in his own film as Jon Baker, now reinvented as a former X-games motorcycle champ who is attempting to save his long-fizzled marriage by becoming a cop. The rookie’s partner is undercover FBI Agent Frank “Ponch” Poncherello played by Michael Pena. Each has their own personal issues: Jon is addicted to prescription painkillers, and Ponch struggles to control certain urges … and unfortunately for viewers, the two spend an inordinate amount of time discussing these issues.

The crime wave they are attempting to bust involves a corrupt cop. Seeing that Vincent D’Onofrio is in the cast immediately takes away any mystery about the bad guy’s identity, but were there any doubt, the film exposes him in the first action sequence. After that comes the onslaught of verbal sparring, explosions, gunplay and one especially gory moment.

With Dax Shepard at the helm, we understand going in that the raunchy humor faucet will be fully open. Topics covered in one-liners, gags and recurring themes include: homophobia, sexting, masturbating, bowel movements, marriage therapy, d**k jokes, prescription drugs, paparazzi, and yoga pants. But seriously, how many “eating a**” jokes does one movie need? It’s a topic that goes from uncomfortable to unnecessary pretty quickly.

Cars and bikes are vital here, though it seems that the motorcycle stunts could have been jazzed up a bit, and we certainly expected more cameos than the mandatory one near the end. The original series thrived on being ‘tongue in cheek’, and Mr. Shepard’s version brings new meaning to the phrase. The opening credits state “The California Highway Patrol does not endorse this film. At all.” It’s an understandable stance.

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TABLE 19 (2017)

March 3, 2017

table-19 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound) takes the approach that many wedding guests would prefer – he skips the wedding and heads straight to the reception. Another wise move by the filmmaker is assembling a very talented ensemble of funny folks. This cast proves they can wring a laugh from dialogue and moments that would probably otherwise not elicit much of an audience reaction. Instead, the full house on this evening had quite boisterous responses on numerous occasions.

The initial set-up drags a bit as we are introduced to the characters that will soon enough populate Table 19 at the reception. Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel bellhop) is Renzo, the longing for love (or anything similar) high schooler who might be a bit too close to his mother (voiced by the great Margo Martindale). Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are the Kepp’s, a mostly unhappily married couple who own and run a diner together. June Squibb is Jo, the bride’s long-forgotten nanny who sees and knows more than most. Stephen Merchant plays the outcast nephew/cousin who has been recently released from his prison sentence for white collar crime. Lastly we have Anna Kendrick as Eloise, the fired maid of honor and former girlfriend of the bride’s brother (Wyatt Russell), who also happens to be the best man and now dating the new maid of honor.

This is the island of misfit wedding guests known as Table 19, and purposefully placed in the back corner as far as possible from the family and favored guests. Of course we know immediately that this Team Reject will unite for some uplifting purpose at some point, and the movie improves immediately once that goal has been revealed. Comedic timing in a group setting can often come across on screen as forced, and it’s a tribute to the cast that these characters come across as human and real.

Make no mistake though, this is Anna Kendrick’s movie. She plays Eloise as we would imagine Anna Kendrick in this real life situation. Sure, a wedding reception is low-hanging fruit for comedy, but it’s the third act where Ms. Kendrick’s talent really shines. Comedy drawn from emotional pain is the most fulfilling because we’ve all been there. The melodrama that creeps in is pretty predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good time. The scenes with Ms. Kendrick and Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some!, and Kurt and Goldie’s son) are the best, and it leaves us wishing for more attention to both.

Don’t worry, the film features the required wedding cake mishap, a flirtatious wedding crasher (Thomas Cocquerel) and a drunken mother of the bride singing karaoke to Etta James’ “At Last”. It’s designed to be a crowd-pleaser, and mostly succeeds with a nice blend of silly, cute, and emotional tugs.

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DYING LAUGHING (2017, doc)

February 24, 2017

dying-laughing Greetings again from the darkness. We all want to be funny. Making people laugh allows for an immediate connection … plus it just feels good to make someone else happy. Co-directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood show us the dark side (or at least the backside) of comedy through a series of black and white filmed interviews with dozens of stand-up comedians. In this age of political correctness, Chris Rock explains that there is only one group who says what they want to say: stand-up comedians.

It plays not so much as “how to become a comedian”, but rather a therapy session for those who already are. It’s loosely structured into segments that provide very specific insight and real life stories on: the first time on stage, life on the road, dealing with hecklers, the devastation of bombing, how to connect with an audience, and what it’s like to be “on” or really kill it.

The list of participants is too long to list here, but includes such stalwarts as the aforementioned Mr. Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Lewis, Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, Billy Connolly, and Dave Attell. Those at the top of their profession open up about what it takes and how they made it. Think “Take a Parent to School Day”, without the societal filter or peer pressure. These folks spend most of their waking hours looking outward for material, but here they are generous enough to look inward so that we might better understand their craft.

A diverse cross-section of comedians provide examples of racism, sexism and most any other ism. There is also the admission that a need/desire for acceptance exists pretty much across the profession. The struggles and challenges make up the experience which is vital to the growth and survival of a comedian … and maybe even what strands of sanity they possess. We hear stories of writing and re-writing jokes over and over again for years, before finally hitting on the right wording and delivery. We learn Smartphones often contain pages of notes on ideas and partial jokes, and that pain on stage often leads to a better act.

Jerry Seinfeld produced a documentary in 2002 entitled Comedian, and it dealt with the rigors of honing the act in front of audiences, and when combined with this project, we are reminded that comedy is at its best when it is about SOMETHING (fertile ground these days) … and that every comedian gets knocked down – but then gets up again (tip of the cap to Chumbawamba). The film is dedicated to the late Garry Shandling (who also appears in the film) and leaves us with the thought that “the laugh is your reward as a comedian”. And that’s pretty sweet.

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TONI ERDMANN (2016, Germany)

February 8, 2017

toni-erdmann Greetings again from the darkness. A list of the best German movies of all time would likely feature very few comedies. It’s not a country or culture that tends to laugh much at its history (for good reason) or itself. A case could be made that this latest little gem from writer/director Maren Ade belongs on such a list, and although it features several laugh out loud moments, whether it should be labeled a comedy is certainly worthy of debate.

Winfried (Peter Simonischeck) has been a mostly absentee dad, but now he is deservedly concerned about his daughter’s well being. He is intent on trying to get Ines (Sandra Huller) to let go of her uptight, high stress corporate persona and enjoy life a bit. It’s the kind of advice only those who have really lived can rightfully offer up … though you’ve likely never seen advice administered in such a creative and cringe-inducing manner.

Winfried’s alter-ego is Toni Erdman, a shaggy wig and false teeth wearing goofball who manages to insert himself into the most inconvenient and awkward moments for Ines and her business. His pranks are designed to illustrate just how ridiculous the workaholic treadmill is and how little joy accompanies such a work-a-day life.

Having been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, it’s easy to crown this as the frontrunner in the category. Ines’ birthday party shines a new light on the phrase “birthday suit”, and that sequence alone might have generated more laughter than I heard in a theatre all year. Yet despite the laughs and Toni’s shenanigans (and there are many), at its core, this is a film about loneliness and the emptiness of life without happiness. Perhaps you could call it a philosophical comedy, but it’s downright chilling to see the raw emotion of Ines as she belts out Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”, or finally strips herself (literally) of all pretense.

NOTE: it was recently announced that Jack Nicholson will come out of retirement and join Kristen Wiig in an American remake. As exciting as that seems, don’t let it stop you from seeing this original.

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THE COMEDIAN (2017)

February 2, 2017

the-comedian Greetings again from the darkness. It’s often seemed as if Robert DeNiro existed in two unrelated cinematic worlds. He’s a 7 time Oscar nominee and 2 time winner (The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull) renowned for his dramatic work, while also seemingly intent on proving he’s as funny as he thinks he is. His work in Analyze This, Analyze That, and the Fockers franchise takes “playing against type” to an extreme. This latest is his return, 35 years after The King of Comedy, to playing a stand-up comedian.

Of course Jackie Burke (DeNiro) is no regular comedian. He’s pushing 70 years old, has anger issues, no close friends, a strained relationship with his brother (Danny DeVito) and agent (Edie Falco), and fights his popular legacy as “Eddie” from a decades-ago popular sitcom. He strives to be recognized not as Eddie, but as Jackie Burke, the king of insult comics.

That anger lands him in community service where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) who is also serving her time. It’s kind of creepy to watch the 30 years older dude hit on her, but it’s explained away by her ‘daddy issues’ with Harvey Keitel. Of course, DeNiro and Keitel have a natural rhythm (that spans 5 decades of working together), but it’s really DeNiro and Mann who have the best scenes (outside of the unnecessary romantic interlude). Ms. Mann is especially fun to watch and brings a sense of realism to a film that’s mostly lacking.

Taylor Hackford directs a script written by a blend of 4 writers: a Producer of Fight Club, a standup comedian, an Oscar nominee for The Fisher King, and a writer best known for the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a weird mix that explains the periodic flashes of genius and the overall mismatched parts.

There are no shortage of familiar faces that pop up, including Billy Crystal, Lois Smith, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, and Gilbert Gottfried. Patti LuPone is enjoyable in her role as DeVito’s wife and Jackie Burke-hater. It’s nice to see Charles Grodin in a Midnight Run reunion with DeNiro, and Cloris Leachman proves that comedy kills in her brief time on screen.

Although there is a more cutesy humor segment at a retirement center when Burke leads the residents through a make-shift version of “Makin’ Poopie” set to the rhythm of “Makin’ Whoopie”, anyone seeing this should be braced for raunchy humor. Lots of raunchy humor. Jackie Burke is an insult comedian in the vein of Don Rickles, only he adds a dash of Jim Norton and Amy Schumer. With all the uncomfortable laughs, it might best be described as that rare film genre – blue humor for the blue hairs.

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GOLD (2017)

January 26, 2017

gold Greetings again from the darkness. What is your dream worth? Would you sell it? How much would it take? Kenny Wells is a dreamer. Sure, he is a third generation mining prospector, but he’d rather tell you the story of his grandfather and those mules than actually dig in the dirt himself. In fact, talking is what he does best (and most often). It’s the first film from director Stephen Gaghan since his 2005 Syriana, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. This time he collaborates with writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman to deliver a blend of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with a dash of The Big Short and American Hustle.

Matthew McConaughey is nearly over-the-top in his portrayal of Kenny Wells, a prospector with the spirit of a wildcatter. This isn’t ‘sexiest man alive’ McConaughey, but rather ghastly Matthew. Balding dome, protruding gut, and hillbilly teeth … it’s all there wrapped in a sweaty cheap suit and accessorized with booze and cigarettes. The actor seems to relish the role.

The story kicks off in 1981 Reno, showing Kenny as an eager to please son to his distinguished father played by Craig T Nelson. Flash forward to 1988 and Kenny’s struggling through the recession in an effort to keep his dad’s company alive. His loyal employees work the phones from the musty cocktail lounge where Kenny’s girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) waits tables.

Billed as “inspired by true events”, Kenny goes to great extremes to meet up with legendary geologist and miner Mike Acosta (played by Edgar Ramirez). These two need each other and team up to sniff out a gold mine down the river in Indonesia. What follows is despair, desperation, malaria, elation, big investment bankers, a hostile takeover attempt, political maneuverings, heartbreak, pride, and a surprising twist. It’s a wild ride and doesn’t always take you where you assume it’s headed.

The supporting cast includes Corey Stoll and Bill Camp as part of the Wall Street investment group, Stacy Keach as a supporter and investor of Wells, Toby Kebbell as an FBI agent, and Rachael Taylor as a contrast to Bryce Dallas Howard’s working class character. Also appearing is Bruce Greenwood as the king of the prospector hill and featuring an awful accent that adds to the borderline cartoon feel of some scenes.

Hope and greed could be viewed as a disease, but for Kenny Wells, we are urged to believe it’s all about the dream. What’s left if you sell off that dream? Instead, if you aren’t part of the fraud, maybe you live for that moment on stage when they present you the Golden Pick Axe award, and you finally believe your father would respect you. Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse collaborate on an included song, which somehow fit in with the string of 1980’s music that plays throughout. The rapid and numerous changes of direction will keep you entertained, though we do wonder how much truth from the Bre-X scandal was actually used, and how much was just a chance for McConaughey to go all out.

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