FLOWER (2018)

March 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite being early in her career, actress Zoey Deutch has often been the highlight of her film projects. Although that sounds like a good thing, in her case it speaks not just to her talent, but also the quality of those choices. Her father is director Howard Deutch and her mother is Lea Thompson, so her industry bloodlines run deep. Her eyes and smile are truly luminescent on the big screen, where she comes across as a natural. It’s now time for her take control of her career. Muck like this latest make us question whether she is a next level talent.

Director Max Winkler (son of Henry “The Fonz” Winkler) co-wrote the script with Matt Spicer (a terrific INGRID GOES WEST) and Alex McAuley, and they are fortunate to have such talent as Ms. Deutch, Kathryn Hahn and Adam Scott. A profane, voyeuristic exercise in disturbed behavior becomes something nearly watchable when these three and newcomer Joey Morgan are on screen.

Ms. Deutch plays Erica, a motor-mouthed (in more ways than one) force of nature teenager whose ‘BJ’s for Dad’s bail’ involves seducing older men and then extorting money from them after Erica’s posse catches them on camera. Oh, and she keeps a sketch book of her victims … no, not their faces. The fundraising approach to springing her dad from jail is difficult to accept, but Deutch sells it as best she can. Her mother (Kathryn Hahn) is desperately trying to build a relationship with Bob (Tim Heidecker), whose son Luke (Joey Morgan) is being released after a lengthy rehab stint for pills.

Luke is a hefty young man who finds solace in food and little else. He and Erica could keep multiple therapists busy for years. His problems are exacerbated by an improper school incident involving Will Gordon, a teacher played by Adam Scott. Coincidentally, this same teacher has been labeled “Old Hot Guy” by Erica and her friends at the bowling alley. Once she learns about Luke’s history with the pedophile, Erica plots an evil revenge. You can probably imagine where it goes from there.

Those same eyes and smile mentioned in my first paragraph even light up when Erica describes herself as “the d*** whisperer”. It’s this kind of moment that finds us hoping Ms. Deutch and her agent quickly learn to distinguish between edgy indie project and trashy script not likely to lead to more work. This is an uncomfortable movie to watch, but not in the way where we walk out feeling enlightened. The title does deserve applause because even the scratchiest and toughest flower has a delicate side.

watch the trailer:


BLACK MASS (2015)

September 19, 2015

black mass Greetings again from the darkness. Movie goers tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to Johnny Depp – big fans or denigrators. Whichever side of the line you fall, there are few actors who can claim such a diverse career of on screen characters ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape; from Donnie Brasco to Captain Jack Sparrow; from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd; and from John Dillinger to Tonto. Depp now turns his talents towards one of the most unsympathetic real life characters imaginable … South Boston’s infamous crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) proves yet again that he is an actor’s director, rather than a visual technician or story addict. In this adaptation of the book from “Boston Globe” reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Cooper has Depp and Joel Edgerton as his two leads, and an incredibly deep supporting cast that provide the look and feel for this period piece dramatizing the crime and corruption during Bulger’s reign.

When one thinks of the memorable kingpins of crime/gangster movies, those that come to mind include Michael Corleone (The Godfather movies), Tony Montana (Scarface), Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas), and Frank Costello (The Departed). The Costello character was supposedly partially inspired by Bulger. What made each of these characters fascinating to watch was the insight we were given into the psychological make-up of each and the inner-workings of their organization.  And that’s the disappointment of Cooper’s film.

For the Whitey Bulger story, there are two distinct directions to explore: the building of Bulger’s criminal empire, or the motivation of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) as he juggled his job and relationship with Bulger. Unfortunately, the approach here is to show a hand full of cold-blooded murders to prove Bulger’s management style, and a few FBI meetings that show the obvious uncertainty within the agency. Rather than a muddled mash-up, a more interesting movie would have chosen a path and dug in deeply.

Despite the story issues, it is fun to watch how Depp and Edgerton tackle their roles. Under heavy make-up (wrinkles, receding hairline, hillbilly teeth, and crazy contact lenses), Depp becomes the intimidating force of Whitey Bulger. Just as impressive is Edgerton as Agent Connolly, as we witness the Southie neighborhood boys all grown up, but still playing cops and robbers … and it remains difficult to tell who the good guys from the bad. Edgerton’s cockiness and strutting capture the ego and ambition necessary for a federal agent to bend so many rules. In fact, despite the vastly different approaches, it’s not entirely clear which of these two fellows possesses the greatest ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother who became a State Senator. We get very few scenes featuring the brothers, and in fact, Cumberbath’s best scenes are instead shared with Edgerton. It’s difficult not to chuckle at their first meeting in a restaurant as we watch a Brit and Aussie talk it out with south Boston accents. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott play Edgerton’s fellow FBI agents, while Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (especially good) and W Earl Brown make terrific Bulger crew members. Peter Sarsgaard leaves quite the impression as a doped-up associate, while Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple provide the film’s minimal female presence. Corey Stoll storms onto the screen as a Federal Prosecutor who is not amused by the relationship between Connolly and Bulger, but this movie belongs to Depp and Edgerton.

The concern is that any viewer not already familiar with the Whitey Bulger story may find the story not overly interesting, despite the terrific performances. Fortunately, this viewer was mesmerized by last year’s exceptional documentary entitled Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger … a must see for anyone who wants full details into the Bulger reign of crime and terror, as well as his 20 years on the lam.

watch the trailer:

 


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).

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE OVERNIGHT (2015)

June 27, 2015

overnight Greetings again from the darkness. For kindergartners, making friends is as easy as a bag of gummy worms on the playground. For adults, it’s a bit more complicated.  According to writer/director Patrick Brice (Creep, 2015) making adult friends can involve rectum paintings and penis prosthetics … at least after a lot of wine and too many bong hits.  While this is not my wheelhouse for humor, it’s clearly a bold cinematic step and pushes the boundaries even further than other recent Duplass Brothers projects (they are Producers here).

Emily (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Adam Scott) have recently moved to L.A. from Seattle with their young son. Emily and Alex are good parents, good people, and a solid couple – except for some sexual incompatibility. While at the park, their son (and his gummy worms) befriends the son of Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), one of the endless oddballs that populate L.A. Kurt charms Emily and Alex into visiting his home for an adult dinner party/kid playdate.

Greeted at the door of the mansion by Kurt’s French wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche), Emily and Alex are clearly wooed by the worldliness and sophistication of their new friends. Kurt is a bit of a renaissance man and he and Charlotte also appear to be a solid couple … though as the evening unfolds, we soon enough discover their own sexual incompatibility. And therein lies the core and conflict of the film – relationship dynamics impacted by sexual tension explored through raunchy humor.

It’s interesting to compare Brice’s film with Paul Mazursky’s 1969 Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and analyze the cultural and cinematic differences brought on by the 46 year difference. What was shocking then, is nothing compared to what this film has us believe that most young adult couples are struggling with now. Emily and Alex spend the evening exploring their boundaries as individuals and as a couple, while being softly pushed by the more adventurous Kurt and Charlotte. Were it not so raunchy, the theme would be more interesting … though significantly less appealing at the box office.

All four lead actors are strong, but Schwartzman and Scott handle the more challenging roles with aplomb. Given my preferences, I could have used a safe word on a couple of occasions, but the real test will be whether audiences find the film a bold step forward, or whether it is judged to be shock for shock’s sake.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)

December 15, 2013

mitty1 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. In the moment, daydreams can feel like real life. Such is the existence of Walter Mitty, the milquetoast main character of James Thurber’s 1939 “New Yorker” short story. This is no remake of Danny Kaye’s 1947 movie, and thank goodness for that … no one wants to see Ben Stiller singing and dancing. Mr. Stiller not only takes on the role of the zoned out Mitty, but he also directs.

mitty4 Walter is a quiet, photo lab geek at Life Magazine, the long time publication that is closing its doors. Of course, in real life, those doors closed years ago, but the magazine name makes for the perfect contradiction to Mitty’s humdrum existence. The transition team is in place led by the snide, bearded corporate presence of Adam Scott. Photographer extraordinaire Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) has delivered the perfect shot for the final cover. Only one problem: Walter has misplaced the negative (yes, O’Connell still shoots on FILM).

This gaffe leads Walter to cross paths with a co-worker played by Kristen Wiig, whom he has secretly admired both across the office and by staring at her eHarmony profile online. Their investigative work leads Walter on the first real journey of his life. He even breaks free of the family stranglehold of his mom (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) and gets a pep talk and well timed boost from Patton Oswalt.

mitty2 Walter’s expedition leads him to Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas, and Afghanistan by way of Yemen. He also encounters a wild helicopter pilot and ride, sharks, an erupting volcano, drinking beer from giant glass boots, a sad and aggressive Karoke singer, and takes an accelerated ride via skateboard. Rather than changing Walter, these experiences just bring out a lust for life that was previously only flashed through his periods of fantasy zone outs.

The acting is very strong in this one, and that comes from a guy who is not much of a Stiller fan. His beaten down demeanor and stone-faced expressions are spot on for the Mitty role. Ms. MacLaine, Ms. Hahn, Mr. Oswalt and Mr. Scott all add very nice comedic touches and Sean Penn captures the rugged fearlessness of a world weary photographer who recognizes the depth within Mitty.

If you are a fan of Thurber’s short story then you must know artistic license is taken to turn it in to full length feature. Screenwriter Steven Conrad provides Life magazine as a foundation, and sends Walter to some of the most beautiful places on earth during the journey. He even gives us a “poetry falcon” (my first) and a curious parody of “Benjamin Button” (a bit out of place). Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh delivers these locations to us in stunning fashion. The film is beautiful to look, and thanks to the score from Theodore Shapiro, it’s complimented by well fitting music.

This is one of those crowd-pleasing movies filled with sentimentality and charm. Critics will bash it, but most of us can relate to the underdog lead and his delusions of grandeur.

**NOTE: the opening and closing credits are works of art in their own right … so be seated early and hang around a few extra minutes.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a feel good, slightly quirky movie for the grown-ups over the holidays

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the next Citizen Kane (in other words, many critics are going to bash it despite it being a crowd pleaser).

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGWO2w0H2V8

 


FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012)

March 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Evidently this is a movie for thirty-somethings who need more ammunition to defend their decisions to avoid marriage and parenthood. At least that’s the best case I can come up with … otherwise it’s just a bitter, caustic view of those two topics. It’s pretty obvious from the opening scene where the relationship story is headed, but it’s not an easy road for us viewers.

This movie belongs to Jennifer Westfeldt. She wrote the script, directed the movie and stars as the woman who decides to have a baby with her platonic friend (Adam Scott). These two are part of a group of six close knit friends in Manhattan who start out doing everything together and telling each other everything. One of the couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) announce “We’re pregnant” and promptly move to Brooklyn. The other married couple (Jon Hamm, Krisen Wiig) start out by attempting to break all Guiness records for sex, and end up evolving into something a bit less exciting.

 The two platonic friends decide to “beat the system” by sharing parenting responsibilities while pursuing separate dating lives until they find “the right person”. Westfeldt has a Lisa Kudrow quality about her that doesn’t play well with me. She was the star and writer of Kissing Jessica Stein, and has been in a relationship with Jon Hamm since 1998.  Here she comes across as insecure and awkward, and not nearly as smart as she would like to believe. Adam Scott (brilliant on “Parks and Recreation“) is quite the ladies man and also views himself as smarter than the masses. Westfeldt finds a “perfect” guy in Edward Burns, and Scott finds happiness with Megan Fox. Of course, you still know where all of this is headed.

 What struck me throughout the film was how every scene and every character was just a bit off. Nothing really worked. Jon Hamm has one really nice scene where he is intoxicated and really stirs the pot at a group dinner. Kristen Wiig has very few lines and spends the movie sulking. Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd have a couple of decent scenes, but mostly the film has little insight to offer and no characters with whom you would like to connect. 

*note: Some critics think more highly of this movie than I, and have even compared it to Woody Allen‘s best work.  As always, the opinions expressed above are my own, and your actual mileage may vary.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to watch a group of friends who don’t get along so well OR you seek further justification for you decision to avoid marriage and/or parenthood

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have already discovered that, contrary to the movie’s poster tag, that maturity dissolves the need to pick two from: Love, Happiness, Kids

Watch the trailer:


OUR IDIOT BROTHER

August 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have seen the trailer, you might have the wrong impression. This is no laugh riot. Sure there is plenty of humor and you will laugh, but it’s not the slapstick goofy movie the trailer leads us to believe. Oddly enough, one could make the case that it’s actually a “message” movie.

Director Jesse Peretz has teamed with his writer sister Evgenia Peretz to dive into the often strained relationships between siblings – especially brother and sister, or in this case, brother and 3 sisters. There are numerous examples of how we often cheat or lie our way through life, or at a minimum, trick ourselves into believing (or not) certain things about ourselves and our loved ones.

 The movie begins just like the trailer. Ned (Paul Rudd) is working an organic vegetable booth and is approached by a UNIFORMED police officer to buy some pot. Ned laughs it off until the officer says “It’s been a really rough week“. See, Ned is an incredibly nice and trusting guy. He always wants to help people and treat them kindly. This scene sets the stage … is Ned really an idiot or are we the idiots for not being as open and trusting as he? Once Ned is released early from jail (good behavior, of course), he naturally returns to the organic farm and his girlfriend of 3 years (Kathryn Hahn). To his surprise, he finds she has moved on to Ned’s apparent replicant Billy (TJ Miller). Even worse, she has no plans to let Ned take his beloved dog, Willie Nelson.

 So Ned heads off to re-connect with his mom (Shirley Knight) and 3 sisters. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a hard-driving career woman trying to break into the magazine writing world. She believes in stopping at nothing to nab a story, or even take advantage of her neighbor (Adam Scott). Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a dedicated Mom and frustrated wife married to Dylan (Steve Coogan), a documentary filmmaker and scoundrel. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is the world’s worst stand-up comedian as well as a quasi-lesbian in love with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones in ridiculous wardrobe and glasses).

 Not going to ruin the individual story lines, but obviously Ned spends time with each of his sisters and manages to wreak havoc for each, and anyone else within ear shot. At least that’s how they see it. All he really does is act nice, be open and tell the truth. The chips then fall where they may. Each of the sisters learn a bit about Ned, but even more about themselves.

 As previously stated, there are plenty of laughs in this one, but also moments of drama and reality that work like a bucket of ice dumped on your head. The above cast is excellent and also includes Hugh Dancy and Bob Stephenson as the police officer from the opening. Mr. Stephenson is underrated and very talented. He can do much with little. For proof stay for the outtakes over the closing credits. His is a gem.

While the sisters are all quite annoying in their own special ways, it is Paul Rudd who makes the film work. He has the eyes, nature and smile to pull off this character as someone who could actually exist. Someone we all wish we could be a little more like.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you see the genius of Paul Rudd OR you are intrigued with the idea of living your life with complete honesty

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a raunchy slapstick Apatow-type OR you prefer to miss the worst ever lesbian wardrobe captured on film

watch the trailer: