HOME AGAIN (2017)

September 6, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s just get this out of the way upfront. There is a proven and established market for mindless fluff designed to allow women to laugh at the messes created by “real life” relationships, careers, and parenting. In fact, first time writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is merely continuing the traditions set by her bloodline. She is the daughter of filmmakers Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer who shared an Oscar screenwriting nomination for PRIVATE BENJAMIN (1980), and collaborated on other Romantic-Comedies such as FATHER OF THE BRIDE (I and II), and BABY BOOM (1987). Rom-Coms exist to bring some balance to the universe of Comic Book film adaptations for fan boys. It is possible to have quality filmmaking on both sides … no matter how rare it seems.

Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon stars as Alice Kinney. It’s her 40th birthday, and she’s a chipper lady recently separated from her music industry husband (Michael Sheen) and moved with their two daughters (Lola Flanery, Eden Grace Redfield) from New York to Los Angeles. Alice is in full “starting over” mode, including kicking off a new home decorating business. During a drunken birthday celebration with her friends, Alice hooks up with a younger man. The next morning, Alice’s mom (Candice Bergen) invites Harry (the young man played by Pico Anderson) and his two buddies (Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky – all 3 are budding filmmakers) to move into Alice’s house. What follows is a maybe/maybe not romance between Harry and Alice, a bonding between the fellows and Alice’s daughters, new business struggles for Alice, the sudden return to the scene of Alice’s husband, and an endless stream of movie-making meetings for the 3 guys.

That’s a recap of the story, but it doesn’t address the real issue. For years, we have been hearing that the good-old-boy Hollywood network needed to back more female-centric projects: movies about women, movies directed by women, movies written by women, movies produced by women. Well this one has ALL of that, and yet I can only imagine the outrage if a man had written/directed/produced this exact film. Let’s discuss.

Alice is positioned as a “brave” and “strong” woman for moving her kids across the country and starting over. What allows this woman to be so courageous? Well see, she is the daughter of a deceased filmmaker who had a successful career and left her a multi-million dollar California estate … conveniently, one with a guest house for the three young men to live in. And who in their right mind, and with two young daughters, would invite three total strangers to move in – especially the night after – even if one of them looks to be yanked right out of an Abercrombie ad? There is also Alice’s interaction with her first client (played by Lake Bell). Despite despicable treatment from the rich lady, Alice doesn’t stand her ground until yet another drunken bout of liquid courage occurs. The two daughters are smart and cute, but there is an obvious shortage of daily parenting happening here – the daughters seem to show up only when a dose of precociousness is required. The scenes with Alice and her estranged husband are appropriately awkward, but the communication seems hokey … at least until we witness true hokeyness in the cartoonish exchanges between the (now) four gentlemen. In fact, all male characters are written as cartoons, which we might view as “getting even” with the many times female characters were poorly written; however, since the female lead here is just as unreal, that theory doesn’t hold.

The paint-by-numbers approach carries through as we check all the boxes: cute kids, a pet dog, apologetic ex, hunky new suitor, no financial hardships, loads of delightful dialogue, Ms. Witherspoon flashing more facial contortions than Jim Carrey at his peak, at least two cheesy musical montages, a mad dash to the kid’s play/recital/game, and even the cherry on top … a Carole King song at the end. In a year with so many wonderful female-centric films, this one is difficult to comprehend – except that maybe, given who her parents are, perhaps Ms. Meyers-Shyer is actually the beneficiary of that good old boy network of which we’ve heard tell.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE BIG SICK (2017)

June 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us who tend to avoid Hollywood Romantic Comedies honestly have nothing against them in theory (no really, it’s true). The problems with the genre stem from (years of) cringe-inducing clichés, story structure re-treads, and inane dialogue – all of which is usually accompanied by acting that comes across as significantly short of believable. So when a rom-com (like this one) hits the silver screen and it provides emotionally dramatic moments, organically generated laughter, and multiple characters that we genuinely care about … expect the accolades to start flowing.

Real life husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and Emily Gordon have collaborated on the script; an autobiographical re-telling of the saga known as the beginning of their relationship. It’s a story that starts simply enough with a meet-cute in a Chicago comedy club where Pakistani-American Kumail is performing his stand-up routine (in between Uber-driving shifts), and Emily is in the audience firing off some mild heckling which progresses to flirting and then … well, activity that leads to both saying “this can’t happen again”.

Director Michael Showalter continues to prove that he doesn’t mind breaking the mold for relationship movies. Hello, My Name is Doris was one of last year’s more creative films in this genre, and now Showalter has taken another step forward with this true life script. Kumail plays himself, and rather than a larger-than-life presence, he comes across as exactly life size. Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan) plays Emily. The two actors are believable together (and apart) and allow us to buy in to them as a couple – and as not a couple. Their relationship shines a spotlight on religious and cultural challenges, and family pressures that those from a traditional Muslim family carry. For some, moving to the U.S. doesn’t override religious and cultural traditions such as arranged marriages and preferred professions. The script addresses this beautifully and without pulling punches – although some humor does help.

The supporting cast is excellent and plays a substantial role in the story, especially as Emily (Kazan) lay quite ill in the hospital. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play her parents, and deliver an emotional wallop, even while dealing with their own marital issues – one of which allows Romano and Kumail to bond a bit. Kumail’s parents are played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, while his brother is played by Adeel Akhtar. They each capture the shock and disappointment that follows when Kumail seems to choose Emily over the family. Since this is a rare multi-dimensional script where characters can’t just be labeled “boyfriend” or “best friend”, Kumail’s cohorts at the comedy club are played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, and David Alan Grier – each bringing more depth to the story.

Expect the best giraffe and 9/11 jokes you’ve likely ever heard, but mostly rejoice in the graceful balance between life and death, comedy found in daily life, and the real relationship struggles. It’s not even the first coma-centric romantic-comedy (While You Were Sleeping, 1995), but here, the human feelings on screen remind us that most decisions in life are complex, and we all make mistakes of the heart. Kumail is caught in “no man’s land” between family obligations and his own identity. Hopefully life hasn’t stuck you in Kumail’s spot – hanging out in the hospital waiting room with the parents of your ex as she lay comatose down the hall as you slowly come to realize that she’s the girl of your dreams (and your parents’ nightmare). It may not sound like the makings of a traditional rom-com, but that’s what makes it so exceptional.

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BAND AID (2017)

June 1, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Where words fail, music speaks.” Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote those words more than 150 years ago, and he surely never imagined a 21st century California couple would prove true the adage. Zoe Lister-Jones (a regular on TV’s “Whitney”) has been acting regularly since 2004, and this is her first “all in” film project where she is writer/director/producer/lead actress. Her talent as a writer is evident in a topic assumed close to her heart: thirty-something angst.

Ms. Lister-Jones stars as Anna, a disenchanted Uber driver who is married to super slobby slacker Ben played by Adam Pally (Slow Learners, 2015). These two seem perfectly matched – or would be, if not for the constant bickering over anything and everything. Before you assume this is a remake of the ultra-depressing Revolutionary Road (2008), please note that the two leads are incredibly funny people and masters of witty one-liners. They make marital squabbles quite entertaining, once they decide to form a band with the sole purpose of singing their arguments.

Admittedly, it’s a shaky premise, but these two manage to pull it off with help from neighbor/drummer/sex addict “Weird Dave” (Fred Armisen). Along the way, they take shots at their friends’ exuberance over babies, the Holocaust, a kid named ISIS, pizza, dirty dishes, a mousetrap, sex, drugs, and art. They even bring levity to a marriage counseling scene featuring Retta (“Parks and Recreation”).

Just as impressive as the humor is how the film balances the drama associated with lingering depression tied to the trauma of a miscarriage. This and the couple’s inability to communicate their emotions are what drive their marital challenges. For a short time, the ‘argument music’ seems to improve their relationship, but it’s obvious that the real issue must be dealt with. Enter Ben’s mom (Susie Essman), whose only scene serves the purpose of explaining women to Ben and all the dumb guys in the audience.

There are actually quite a few familiar faces (many with ties to “Life in Pieces”) that appear in only one or two scenes: Chris D’Elia, Ravi Patel, the aforementioned Retta, Majandra Delfino, Jesse Williams, Colin Hanks, Brooklyn Decker, Erinn Hayes, Jamie Chung, Hannah Simone, and Angelique Cabral. These quick hit scenes serve as a dose of reality, as “moments” are what make up life … even if many interactions are “crazy” (D’Elia) or creepy (Williams).

The film was well received at Sundance, and it immediately marks Zoe Lister-Jones as a filmmaker to watch. Her comedic presence is a rarity, and is complimented nicely by her musical talent, and her willingness to hit serious topics head-on. Here, she offers a woman’s perspective on having kids, being questioned about having kids, and traditional women’s roles within society and marriage. Her inspired observations (a spontaneous jam session at the kid’s birthday party) are a welcome addition to today’s cinema, while also offering a west coast contrast to east coast indie film.

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UNLEASHED (2017)

April 29, 2017

USA Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Quirky is an overused word to describe far too many offbeat independent movies and unconventional actors. However, sometimes no better word exists, and that’s exactly the situation with writer/director Finn Taylor’s latest. A full moon cosmic event results in a collision between astronomy and astrology, and just like that … Emma’s faithful pet dog and cat are transformed into hunky human boyfriend material.

Adding to the high level of quirk (in the role of Emma) is the extraordinarily multi-talented Kate Micucci (“Garfunkel and Oates”) – an actress, comedian, writer, musician and artist. Plus, she is just so darn likeable and nice! In fact, “nice” may be the only challenger to quirky in how best to describe this film. Sure it’s cute and sweet and delightful, but above all, it’s a nice movie whose nice characters will leave you with a nice feeling.

Steve Howey and Justin Chatwin (both from “Shameless”) are spot on in their portrayals of Sam and Diego – the humanized dog and cat, respectively. Howey and his bleach blonde hair and boundless energy capture the devoted pooch, while Chatwin is downright hilarious with his feline tendencies that attract a public following. Given much leeway with the roles, we never lose sight of their original connection to love-lost Emma.

While the premise may offend some (though nothing else in the film will), the humor stems from this being a woman’s fantasy. Her beloved pets, with full knowledge of her likes and dislikes, and with blind commitment, take on beautiful male human form without losing the lovable pet traits. What more could a women-done-wrong desire? It’s also quite a scathing commentary on modern day dating, with the ne’er-do-well Luke (Josh Brener, “Silicon Valley”) contrasted to the too-nice Carl (Sean Astin). Hana Mae Lee (Pitch Perfect) is Emma’s spunky best bud and co-worker, and Illeana Douglas plays their boss.

There are some terrific Bay Area film locations utilized, and the music is so perfectly matched that we find ourselves saying “of course” as each new song pops up. Filmmaker Taylor certainly could have gone a bit harsher with the commentary and humor, but let’s enjoy this quirk for what it is … a really nice time.

watch the trailer:

http://themovieunleashed.com/?page_id=12

 

 


TUMBLEDOWN (2016)

February 10, 2016

tumbledown Greetings again from the darkness. If I find myself three minutes into a movie and have already executed a couple of eye-rolls, any hopes for a decent little Romantic-Comedy-Drama would ordinarily be dashed. However, having Rebecca Hall’s character narrate her writing efforts as she taps away on the keyboard, actually does serve the story. The first feature from director Sean Mewshaw and his screenwriting wife Desiree Van Til takes advantage of a beautiful setting, a slew of contrasts, and some heartfelt music to keep us interested in how things plays out.

Ms. Hall plays Hannah, the grieving young widow who has stashed herself away in a lakefront cabin located in the rural Maine community in which she was raised. Her grief remains burdensome some two years after the tragic death of her husband Hunter Miles – a folk singer whose only album (and subsequent death) created a public mystique and a defensiveness on the part of Hannah to protect and control his legacy.

As a Ph.D from Brown, periodic contributor to the local newspaper, and soul mate of Hunter, Hannah undertakes the writing of his biography in the shadow of the studio monument that continues to expand with trinkets left at his gravesite by a cult of fans paying respect. Griffin Dunne plays her friend and owner of the local bookstore and publisher of the newspaper. His less than enthusiastic critique of her early pages of the biography correspond with the vigorous pursuit by a Hofstra Pop Culture Professor with a book publishing deal who wants to make Hunter a key element of his new project.

Jason Sudeikis plays Andrew, and his fast-talking big city mannerisms don’t initially mesh so well with the hyper-sensitive and protective grieving widow. The two spar like brother and sister, and the initial adversarial relationship means only one thing in the movie world … romance is in the air. Fortunately, the focus on telling the story of Hunter acts as a form of grief therapy for Hannah and a bit of redemption of spirit for Andrew. Of course, the path to enlightenment is not simple for either. Hannah’s “friend with benefits” is a hunky local power company worker played by Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”), and Andrew’s big city music industry girlfriend is played by Dianna Agron (“Glee”).  But as you would expect, the biggest obstacle faced by the two leads is their own stubbornness.

We learn the most about Andrew and Hannah when they are around others. An Easter luncheon with Hannah’s family is especially insightful. Her parents are played by Blythe Danner and Richard Masur, and as viewers we long for more scenes featuring these two characters (and terrific actors). We sense that these parents see right through Andrew and Hannah. Can Hannah let down her guard so that she can move on with life? Can Andrew quell his ambition so that the emotional connection takes place?

Beautifully shot (with British Columbia substituting for Maine), the aspect of nature plays a role in contrasting country girl with city boy, and it’s the accidental discovery of a long lost song that highlights the stark difference in motives … while also being the impetus for change. Hunter’s original music is heard throughout the film, and it’s actually Damien Jurado whose singing and songwriting add an element of intrigue and realism. Hannah, as narrator, states “In the middle, we feel like it’s never going to end.” While that may be true for many romance movies, the filmmakers here avoid the “too cute” moments that spoil most in this genre … and impressively overcome those early eye-rolls.

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SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE (2015)

September 9, 2015

sleeping with other people Greetings again from the darkness. In 1989, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally hit theatres, and many described it as an updated/contemporary version of Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall.  It’s been 26 years since Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan debated whether guys and girls could be “just” friends, and now writer/director Leslye Headland shows us that same debate continues to this day.

Jason Sudekis (“Saturday Night Live”, Horrible Bosses) stars as Jake, and Alison Brie (“Mad Men”, “Community”) stars as Lainey. These two characters meet in college and promptly lose their virginity to each other. (It takes a little imagination to accept these two thirty-somethings as college kids) Twelve years later, they meet again by happenstance at a meeting for sex addicts. It turns out, Jake’s biggest phobia is related to commitment, and he’s a womanizer who has mastered the break-up (yep, he slept with your sister).  Lainey’s issue is commitment as well, only it’s her misplaced commitment to a married doctor (Adam Scott) instead of her boyfriend (Adam Brody) that causes problems.

Jake and Lainey quickly pick up their legendary (in their own mind) repartee, and it becomes a friendship comprised of rapid-fire one-liners. Yes, I used the F-word to describe their relationship. To protect their platonic bond, they go to the extreme of creating a safe word as an admission/warning if one is feeling overly amorous towards the other … it’s like a fire hose to extinguish any thoughts not related to being a good buddy.

While Sudekis and Brie are both talented and likeable, it’s the outdated pop culture references that create such an out-of-place feeling for the viewer. How many thirty-somethings these days reference Bobby Fischer, Anne Sullivan and Madame Butterfly during conversation? And the “Pontiac Aztec” line may be the best line in the movie, but how likely is it to resonate with most audience members?  There is certainly no shortage of dialogue committed to laughs, but so much of it seems out of step with the young adults it’s clearly targeting.

The obvious comparisons/tributes to When Harry Met Sally come in the form of the split screen during a text conversation (in contrast to Harry and Sally’s phone chats), and the uncomfortable scene featuring a glass tea bottle is the answer to Sally’s infamous diner scene. What’s lacking is the intellect and heart so prevalent in the 1989 film. It may be contemporary, but it’s missing any subtlety or nuance. Perhaps that’s the influence of Producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, both who specialize in laughs over nuance.

Additional support work is provided by Amanda Peet, as Jake’s boss and love interest; and Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, the married couple trying hard to help while delivering the film’s best and funniest scenes (the closing credits – wow!). Also contributing are Natasha Lyonne, Margarita Levieva, and Katherine Waterston (as the doctor’s wife).

Though they deliver some easy laughs (a good thing), if this movie and Amy Schumer’s recent Trainwreck are accurate social observations of the times, it’s difficult to have much hope for modern day relationships (not a good thing).

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SLOW LEARNERS (2015)

August 19, 2015

slow learners Greetings again from the darkness. One of the staples of Romantic Comedies is that the two key players are the only ones who don’t realize they are “right” for each other. This is often accomplished through one of two methods: either two characters who “despise” each other, or as characters who are “just good friends”. This little film manages to blend those two approaches … and make us laugh in the process.

The first 15 or 20 minutes of the film are packed with very sharp comedy writing and acting. Adam Pally (“Happy Endings”) plays Jeff, and Sarah Burns (“Enlightened”) plays Anne. These two misfit adults get along very well together both as co-workers and friends who quote literature at (not to) each other. Anne’s opening visit to the doctor (played by Peter Grosz of Sonic ad fame) is outright hilarious, while Adam’s book club features some real zingers from Bobby Moynihan, Gil Ozeri, and Reid Scott (“Veep”).

It’s not until Jeff and Anne make a pact to change their public personas in an effort to be “cool” and more attractive to the opposite sex that the film takes kind of a nasty – well at least unlikable – turn. Becoming alcoholic d-bags does help them experience a summer of wild escapades, but predictably, neither is especially happy. Anne picks up pointers from some trashy reality TV show called “Prisoners of Love” … a knock-off of “The Bachelor” that deals with convicts and the women who would love them.

Adding to the comedic elements are quick scenes with Cecily Strong, Catherine Reitman (daughter of Ivan) and Kate Flannery, along with a couple of sequences with Jeff’s parents (Kevin Dunn, Marceline Hugot). More interactions with the parents would have been a welcome respite from the extended d-baggery of Jeff and Anne.

Mr. Pally is a master of the deadpan delivery, while Ms. Burns can best be described as a Kristen Wiig starter kit (that’s a compliment). Co-directors Don Argott and Sheena Joyce, and co-writers Matt Serword and Peter Swords lost sight of what delivered such a strong beginning for the film, and instead focused on reminding us to “embrace the darkness” and to “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken”. Good lessons indeed, but maybe not the comedy gold mine that was expected.

watch the trailer: